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Utilitarianism and Human Rights*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Allan Gibbard
Philosophy, University of Michigan



We look to rights for protection. The hope of advocates of “human rights” has been that certain protections might be accorded to allof humanity. Even in a world only a minority of whose inhabitants live under liberal democratic regimes, the hope is, certain standards accepted in the liberal democracies will gain universal recognition and respect. These include liberty of persons as opposed to enslavement, freedom from cruelty, freedom from arbitrary execution, from arbitrary imprisonment, and from arbitrary deprivation of property or livelihood, freedom of religion, and freedom of inquiry and expression.

Philosophers, of course, concern themselves with the theory of rights, and that is partly because of the ways questions of rights bear on fundamental normative theory. By far the most highly developed general normative theory has been utilitarianism. Now many opponents of utilitarianism argue that considerations of rights discredit utilitarianism, that utilitarianism yields conclusions about rights that we would normally regard as faulty, and that moreover, the reasons for regarding those conclusions as faulty turn out, upon examination, to be stronger than the reasons forregarding utilitarianism as valid. A valid theory cannot have faulty conclusions, and so thinkingabout rights shows utilitarianism not to be a valid normative theory.

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian movement in nineteenth century England, accepted the incompatibility of utilitarianism and “the rights of man, ” and rejected talkof the latter as “anarchical fallacies”. His great successor John Stuart Mill, however, argued that a perceptive and far–sighted utilitarianism supports strong rights both of democratic participation and of individual freedom of action.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1984

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* Work on this paper was supported by a Fellowship for Independent Study of the National Endowment for the Humanities.