Get access

Consequentialism and Human Rights



The article begins with a review of the structural differences between act consequentialist theories and human rights theories, as illustrated by Amartya Sen's paradox of the Paretian liberal and Robert Nozick's utilitarianism of rights. It discusses attempts to resolve those structural differences by moving to a second-order or indirect consequentialism, illustrated by J.S. Mill and Derek Parfit. It presents consequentialist (though not utilitarian) interpretations of the contractualist theories of Jürgen Habermas and the early John Rawls (Theory of Justice) and of the capability theories of Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It also discusses two roles that well-being or a surrogate for well-being typically plays in theories of human rights: (a) well-being plays a role in the justification of at least some exceptions to human rights principles; and (b) some human rights seem to be best understood as rights to some level of well-being or expected well-being (or of a surrogate for one of them). It reviews two consequentialist challenges to the moral adequacy of non-consequentialist accounts of human rights, one based on a duty to relieve suffering and the other generated by Parfit's Non-Identity Problem, and concludes with a contrast between two ways of looking at the history of the development and implementation of human rights conventions and laws.

Video abstract (click to view)