Are Human Rights nothing more than nonsense upon stilts? (Part 1)

Rita Cherchian

Philosophy and Legal Enthusiast

A Tad Introduction…

In the Spring of 1884, four men set off to sea in the South Atlantic, onboard a ship called the Mignonette: Thomas Dudley was the captain, Edwin Stephens the first mate, and a sailor, Edwin Brooks. The fourth crew member was the cabin boy, Richard Parker, and orphan of age 17, embarking upon his first long voyage at sea in hopes it would make a man of him, brimming with youthful ambition – Sadly this was not the case.

On the 3rd July, strong winds and high seas overpowered the boat, capsizing it. The four were left stranded 1500 miles from the coast of Africa on a wooden lifeboat, watching the horizon for any passing ships eagerly awaiting the prospect of rescue – none came for eight days.

By now, Parker, the Cabin boy, having drunk sea water contrary to the advice of his shipmates, was lying ill in one corner of the dinghy, presumably dying. A day later, Dudley offered a prayer, told the boy his time had come, subsequently stabbing him in the jugular vein with a penknife.

For four days, the three men fed on Parker’s body. Then aid arrived. Upon return to England, the three were arrested and tried. Suppose you were the judge: was killing the cabin boy morally permissible?1 On the one hand, given such dire circumstances, it was absolutely necessary to kill one person to save three, given that, if otherwise, all four would likely have died. Parker’s death, unlike Dudley and Stephens, would procure the least pain: there’d be no grieving family, left financially vulnerable due to the loss of their primary breadwinner, after all he was an orphan.

Moreover, the boy’s death was imminent, making him the only viable, logical candidate to act as the victim in what would become a gruesome tale of cannibalism and murder. On the other hand, can the killing of an innocent human being, without their consent, ever be justified by any moral standard? Such thought experiments have provoked much debate amongst Philosophers, namely Jeremy Bentham (dubbed the father of modern utilitarianism), taking the moral stance of the former, going so far as to call the latter, based on the theory of natural rights, “nonsense upon stilts”…

A Background into Bentham…

To provide an answer to the question in title, some background information on Bentham’s ideas and inspiration must be established, so the context behind the statement can be understood.

The following body of writing will start with a brief explanation of utilitarianism, natural rights (with regard to John Locke), and a discussion involving philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Bentham’s prime inspiration. This fundamental groundwork will provide a foundation upon which an answer can be built – the main focus being ‘why Bentham called such ideas nonsense’ and a critical analysis of his views. Nonetheless, this icon of philosophical thought and his propositions revolutionised modern thinking, thus this essay will expand on his theories and those which challenge them. 

So what is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is Bentham’s primary moral theory which states that actions are morally permissible, if, and only if, they produce a greater net happiness than any other available action: in Bentham’s words “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

The utilitarian philosophy makes this fact the basis of moral and political life. This idea is simply stated and intuitively appealing. This notion of maximising utility also applies to legislators: in deciding what laws to enact, a government’s obligation is to maximise the net happiness of the community as a whole.

If a utilitarian were a member of the jury during the case of the Mignonette, they would not object to Dudley, Stephen and Brooks’ cannibalistic resolution: clearly, killing one cabin boy would save three times more lives, procuring three times more happiness. The net gain in happiness was far greater than the net increase of pain, therefore, the boy’s murder was the just thing to do given the situation, or any similar, paradigmatic scenarios.

And as for Natural Rights?

An advocate for natural rights would be inclined to strongly disagree. Before explaining why this is the case, a clear distinction must be made between Natural law and legal rights. Natural laws are not dependant on the laws or customs of any government, and are universal, whereas Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system: they can be modified, repealed and restrained by human laws.

Natural law exists independently from human understanding, referring to a higher, divine, God given system of law. John Locke, a pioneer in natural law, commonly referred to as the ‘father of liberalism,’ grounded his theory in these principles:

There are 3 natural rights: life, liberty and estate (or property). The right to life, obviously, states everyone is entitled to live. The right to liberty states everyone is entitled to do whatever they want as long as it does not conflict with the first right. And finally, the right to estate is that everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two rights. 2

As evident, the “right to life,” the first of these fundamental governing principles, utterly contradicts the philosophy behind the three crew members’ brutality, reflecting contemporary public reaction to the case: they were charged with murder and imprisoned, following a popular outcry. Locke also believed that, “Government power is the natural power of each man collectively given up into the hands of a designated body, forming a ‘compact’ or agreement.”

And in Layman’s terms?

Distilled into Layman’s terms, essentially, he’s saying that a government forms when a large group of people give a smaller group of people, whom they elect, access to their rights.

The citizens enter a contract with this government. They give them some of their rights in exchange for protection. The government exists because people allow it to on this basis. But what happens when the government does not have its citizens best interests in mind? Locke believed that “the community has a moral obligation to revolt against or otherwise replace any government that forgets that it exists only for the people’s benefit.”

This was the original reason the founding fathers implemented the controversial second Amendment, the right to bear arms, in the American constitution – by distributing military power amongst the citizens, they’d have the means to resist a tyrannical central government.3

Thus far, it has been established what Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism stated and what natural rights are – so, why did he call them nonsense? To provide an answer, one ought to consider the views of a philosopher called Thomas Hobbes, whose thoughts inspired, to some degree, Bentham.

For many centuries, natural law was generally accepted as a higher form of law defining universal truths equally applicable to every individual, a way to morally order society based on a rational understanding of basic human nature. It provided a benchmark from which citizens could determine whether the written laws of their own nation or any other nation were right or wrong, just or unjust, humane or inhumane.

Nowadays however, natural law is not mentioned explicitly or alluded to very often due to a common convention that it’s a dangerous idea, because it undermines existing laws, or may be contrary to “multiculturalism,” requiring a non-judgemental acceptance of  other cultures, something which differs from culture to culture, nation to nation.

This negative take of natural law was pioneered by Thomas Hobbes, whose works often highlight civil wars and conflict caused by appealing to a higher, natural, God given form of law, above the will of the sovereign, sovereignty being an attribute by which a person or institution exercises ultimate authority over every other person or institution in its domain. According to classical view, man is a rational, social animal who has a natural inclination to happiness which he can attain through virtue and the perfection of mind and character. Classical law, therefore, is directed to the natural end of human beings, or to a good life of virtue in a just political community. Hobbes rejects this view, calling it a “false and dangerous illusion.” He instead believed that human nature was not about an end directed motion towards the perfectionist principle of virtue, but rather about restless struggle for power and self-elevation and preservation, with no end, happiness or perfection. His model shows that human beings are selfish, competitive and anti-social, and they are rational only insofar as reason serves their selfish passions.4 This transition is commonly referred to as the Hobbesian revolution from classical natural law to modern natural rights. Hobbes was one of the first to critique natural law and much of Bentham’s criticism of this same concept has been derived from Hobbes’ initial idea.

And as for Nonsense on Stilts? 

So, why did he think natural rights were “nonsense upon stilts”? In the late 18th century, many eminent philosophers in the West changed their perspectives on liberal causes, with some even denouncing natural rights, as Bentham did in his text ‘Anarchical Fallacies’ (p.1816 in French); having witnessed the chaos and destruction of the French Revolution – they did not want similar anarchy to develop in their own countries.

Bentham said that the idea of natural rights is nonsensical – he argued that rights are created by the law, which in turn are simply created by the sovereign, thus rights can only exist with stable government – this is in direct contrast to the ideas behind the revolution, that fulfilment of one’s personal autonomy cannot occur under non – democratic rule, rather attempting to establish ‘liberte’ by these general, natural rights…

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