In his well-regarded essay “The Moral Argument” Mark Linville offers two variants of the moral argument. The second is called “an argument from personal dignity,” and it’s this argument that I wish to lay out here in broad outline in order to give a wider range of readers exposure to it. I will do so in three parts; this is the first.
Just as people can be devoted to certain moral ends for a variety of different reasons, different people can offer different rationales for the wrongness of an action, or even an account for why such a thing isn’t wrong at all, even something so bad as torturing children. Take Mary Anne Warren, for example. She argues that all and only persons have rights, and since fetuses aren’t persons, they have no rights. So abortion only involves rights of the mother. What, then, of infants? They too don’t display the faculties or capacities Warren thinks are constitutive of personhood, so now we have an argument for infanticide too. She acknowledges this, but doesn’t infer infanticide is morally okay, since the practice could impoverish the lives of others who would benefit from the infants. But nonetheless, she thinks, we have no direct duties toward the infants themselves. If infants do not have rights at all, then not only do they not have a right not to be killed, but neither do they have a right not to be tortured. It may not be allowed on occasion owing to the effects on actual persons, but there’s no direct duty owed the infant. They are afforded no moral standing, in and of themselves.
But surely this is unsatisfactory. If bayonetting babies for fun is morally wrong, the wrongness must be explained chiefly in terms of what is done to the baby. Similarly, Mary Midgley’s objection to G. R. Grice’s contract theory critiqued Grice’s implication that animals, young children, and the mentally impaired have no natural right due to their nonparticipation in the contract out of which rights arise.
A moral theory needs to do justice to our deep-seated moral convictions, but it must also offer a satisfactory account of those implications. We should consider carefully judgments about what qualifies as an acceptable explanation. Another lesson to be gathered is that the considered judgments in question appear to call for our according moral standing to individuals. Linville understands S has moral standing to mean S is the appropriate object of direct moral duties. Generally, in the case of harms brought to persons, we have, Linville thinks, an implausible explanation if it is reducible to the form: A’s harming B is wrong solely because A’s harming B affects C.
Take egoism. If the egoist concludes that rape is wrong, then he can only conclude this because he has determined that it wrongs the rapist. Rape is wrong, if wrong at all, because it violates a direct duty owed the victim. Egoism satisfies the criterion that a theory must countenance the moral standing of individuals; the trouble is that the only individual who enjoys such standing is the agent. So we have but to add the clause, in addition to the agent.
Next, take utilitarianism. First, allow me to sum up 8 points against (secular) utilitarianism made by Paul Copan, as it nicely sets the stage for Linville’s analysis: 1) Utilitarians make a correct ethical point, namely, that consequences matter in our ethical analysis, but he also points out that they are not all that matter. 2) How can we measure the well-being of society without considering the well-being of individuals? This shows the failure of utilitarians to accord proper emphasis on intrinsic value. 3) Humans have intrinsic value—in favor of the utilitarian view of humans that’s counterintuitive and false. 4) Because of their essence or nature as God-bearers, humans have dignity and worth. Utilitarians emphasize function over essence or nature. 5) Utilitarians ignore motives and focus only on consequences. 6) Voluntary heroic acts (that aren’t duties) become duties or obligations, on utilitarianism. In other words, there’s no room for supererogation (acts praiseworthy to perform but not blameworthy for not performing). 7) Utilitarianism tends to eliminate the natural importance of family loyalties and deep friendships in favor of a level playing field for all humanity. (See I Timothy 5:8.) 8) Utilitarianism is obviously discriminatory against the helpless.
Now for Linville’s analysis of utilitarianism, especially on the question of moral standing: Utilitarianism certainly looks beyond a concern for the good of the agent. The principle of utility tells us that right actions are those that have good consequences for the community. But how are “good” and “community” to be understood? Classical utilitarians are hedonists, so pleasure is viewed as of intrinsic value, the only thing (along with freedom from pain) desirable as an end (in itself). Other, nonhedonistic theories of value could be plugged in here—like human flourishing or the meeting of interests.
What is meant by “community”? Usually “humanity.” But Peter Singer has suggested all and only sentient creatures. So utilitarians can differ regarding the scope of the moral community. Linville then points out a natural mistake: assuming the utilitarians identify the scope of the moral community with those who have moral standing. For utilitarians do not accord moral standing to individual members of the moral community.
Jeremy Bentham, a famous proponent of utilitarianism, famously said that the notion of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.” His subject was the Declaration of Rights published by the French National Assembly in 1791, which affirmed “natural and imprescriptible rights.” In particular, Bentham challenges the notion of natural and imprescriptible rights, thought to exist “anterior” to the establishment of government. There are no such things as natural rights. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense on stilts.”
Bentham’s argument is with the notion of rights that are inherent and imprescriptible. Parsimony requires the rejection of both features. Whatever rights that exist do so because of circumstances of society—what is advantageous to society, that is, owing to the notion of utility.
Now, there may be moral grounds for granting civil rights. But whether rights are extended or abrogated will be determined by the circumstances of utility, and this is always with a view to the advantage of society. There can’t be “imprescriptible” rights precisely because a concern for social utility may call for their abrogation.
John Stuart Mill doesn’t really disagree with Bentham. Chapter five of Utilitarianism is Mill’s attempt to show that utility and justice embrace, despite the criticisms of the theory’s detractors. Mill identifies duties of justice with those “perfect duties” discussed by philosophers. These (unlike “imperfect duties”) involve the rights of individuals. So notions of justice and individual rights are inextricably bound. But why ought society protect such rights? Mill says he can give no other reason than general utility. Mill, like Bentham, maintains that the sole basis for according rights to individuals is the effect that doing so has upon the advantage to society.
Are Mill’s rights “imprescriptible”? By the end of the second chapter of this book of Mill’s, it’s clear that Mill is advancing a variety of rule utilitarianism. For example, he argues against lying even when it’s expedient because truth-telling more than anything honors that on which large-scale societal happiness most depends. For Mill, moral rules designed to safeguard our fundamental security or well-being derive their supreme importance and impose paramount obligations due to the weight of the goods that they protect as weighed on the scale of social utility. Inidividual “rights” are thus claims that people have to those goods, and, as we have seen, the claims themselves are sustained by that same concern for utility. So the notion of inherent or natural rights is just as fantastic by Mill’s reckoning as by Bentham’s.
A Kantian respect-for-persons ethic could prove to be a useful fiction on a utilitarian reckoning. But if Mill is to be believed, it is a fiction, useful or not, and it must be so precisely because of that utilitarian reckoning. Mill’s trying to answer the “problem of justice” objection. The worry is that there appears to be no necessary connection between an action’s maximizing utility and its being fair or just. It appears the consistent utilitarian would be in a position of justifying, say, slavery, rape, or torture of innocents.
Now, Linville is willing to grant that, perhaps, the Principle of Utility, rightly understood, has none of these “iniquitous consequences.” Nevertheless, Linville maintains that any and all versions of utilitarianism worthy of the name must fail to account for that portion of commonsense morality that we individuals have moral standing. Consider rape. Even if, on Mill’s view, it involves the violation of the victim’s rights and the individual is wronged or done an injustice, this is not sufficient for allowing that his view accords moral standing to individuals within the moral community. Why? The explanation for the wrongness of rape appeals to the “generally injurious” consequences for the community rather than the simple fact that the person who is the victim simply ought not to be treated in that manner. Mill, no more than Bentham, offers an account that permits the existence of inherent rights. If there’s a right not to be raped, it’s derivative and contingent on the circumstances of social utility.
While Mill employs language suggestive of direct duties to the holders of rights, we must not lose sight of the logic of the utilitarian analysis. To the question of why society ought to defend the rights of individuals, Mill’s answer was “social utility.” But this invites a further question: why should we concern ourselves over social utility? It is because of something beyond itself, or not? If not, the present argument succeeds: the utilitarian doesn’t act ultimately out of a regard for the moral standing of individuals. But if so, then utilitarian has something beyond utility in mind (something potentially quite laudable, like natural rights).
The John Adams whose name is affixed to a document asserting inalienable human rights might well be thought to have been motivated by a direct concern for innocent soldiers, Quakers, and witches, as their natural and imprescriptible rights were at stake. Contra utilitarianism. Bernard Williams notes that consequentialism attaches value ultimately to states of affairs. The point coincides with the “receptable problem” that Tom Regan has urged against utilitarianism. According to Regan, it’s not individuals that are valued by the utilitarian, but their mental states. Whether it’s pleasure, satisfaction of interests of individuals, where do persons fit into such a scheme? According to Regan, on utilitarianism persons are important because they are the vessels that are laden with this treasure.
The principal concern of utilitarianism is to maintain the greatest possible net pleasure or satisfaction. And this net pleasure is not for the sake of any individual persons. Rather, the reverse is true; any regard for the individual is ultimately out of a concern for increasing net utility. Utilitarianism fails to accord moral standing to individuals.
Photo: “Christ Healing the Blind Man” by Eustache Le Sueur. Public Domain.