In the case of the typical, or ‘standard’, human the ratio of brain volume to body size is vastly greater than in the case of any other known creature. This feature is no doubt intimately connected with our bipedality. The arms are left free to manipulate tools and other objects, an ability further facilitated by the opposable thumb. There is, almost certainly, an equally intimate connection between these features and still further facts; that humans can speak, write, reason, act intentionally. So far, so good; but, according to a view of the world popular with many libertarians, there is yet another characteristically human feature less frequently mentioned in textbooks of zoology. According to that view the human child is born, not just with the usual array of organs - brain, thumb, and so on - but with its own personal set of moral (‘human’, ‘natural’ or ‘fundamental’) rights. The existence of such rights is not so easily verified by routine post-natal medical examination, so it is worth asking how, if at all, it can be established.
In what follows, I shall focus upon just one argument, according to which the existence of moral rights can be inferred from the failings of any strict consequentialism. That argument will be very familiar to many readers - in some cases boringly so, thanks to its widespread influence - and there is already a gigantic literature devoted to its discussion. 1 Nevertheless, I ought to rehearse it here. I shall try to be brief.
Consider the following examples. There is a riot going on and many will die unless it is stopped fast. The sheriff picks an innocent bystander at random and shoots him dead. As a result, the mob is cowed and returns quietly home. Or: street violence is rife. It is impossible to catch the real criminals, so the authorities round up a number of innocent people and ‘punish’ them horribly with great publicity. After that, the violence stops. Or: you lend me £100, and I promise to pay you back next week. But, realising that you have no special need for the money, I give it to a desperately cold and hungry tramp instead. Or: the economy is in recession, and many will suffer, even starve, unless something is done. To this end, a minority of the population is rounded up, put in special camps, and forced to work very hard for nothing. As a result, the economy booms and the crisis is averted.