Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
A Fundamental Right

To believe in natural rights is to believe in nonsense, according to Jeremy Bentham. Belief in human rights "is one with belief in witches and unicorns," according to Alasdair MacIntyre. 1 Yet each in his own way is an egalitarian, Bentham as a utilitarian and Maclntyre as a professed "Augustinian Christian." 2 Can they have it both ways? Can they maintain that every person is in some sense morally equal to every other yet deny that people have natural or human rights?

Bentham's egalitarianism is particularly instructive here, for according to his theory rights exist only when the law of the land says they do. "What you have a right to have me made to do (understand a political right) is that which I am liable, according to law . . . to be punished for not doing." 3 If we have rights, Bentham insists, it is only because we have instituted them through legal practices -- practices that derive their own justification from their ability to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Yet Bentham also insists that everyone is to count for one, and no one for more than one, when utility is calculated. But why should this be? Why shouldn't my interests, my pains and pleasures, count for more than anyone else's? Appeal to the principle of utility cannot help us here. Indeed, we cannot even proceed with a calculation of utilities until we know how much weight to attach to each individual's pains, pleasures, or preferences. Nor will an appeal to social or legal conventions help since those conventions must be justified in terms of utility, which we cannot calculate until we know how much weight to attach to each person's pains, pleasures, or preferences. 4

It seems, then, that Bentham must believe that everyone is entitled to be counted as (and no more than) one, and the source of this title can only be something more fundamental than the principle of utility itself. It must be, indeed, a fundamental right to be treated as an equal.

The claim that everyone has rights of some sort simply because he or she is a human being, or a person, entails a belief in equality -- a belief that gives the notion of human rights much of its conceptual force. In this chap-

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