Tuesday, May 3, 2011

“Absolutely, you have rights—just not absolute rights”

Absolut vodka
     In order to win the election the candidate must make a deal with a dishonest ward boss, involving the granting of contracts for school construction over the next four years. Should he make the deal? … He is extremely reluctant even to consider the deal, puts off his aides when they remind him of it, refuses to calculate its possible effects upon the campaign….
     Because he has scruples of this sort, we know him to be a good man. But we view the campaign in a certain light, estimate its importance in a certain way, and hope that he will overcome his scruples and make the deal. It is important to stress that we don't want just anyone to make the deal; we want him to make it, precisely because he has scruples about it. We know he is doing right when he makes the deal because he knows he is doing wrong. I don't mean merely that he will feel badly or even very badly after he makes the deal. If he is the good man I am imagining him to be, he will feel guilty, that is, he will believe himself to be guilty. That is what it means to have dirty hands.
—From “Political Action: the Problem of Dirty Hands,” Michael Walzer (1973)

     Suppose you are conversing with friends, including Smith and Jones, and you find yourselves discussing moral philosophy. In particular, you are discussing the notion of rights. At one point, Smith says, “Just because you have a right to your property—which entails a right that others not take your property—it doesn’t follow that I may never take your property!”
     Jones is perplexed. “What do you mean?” he asks.
     Well, says Smith, we can all agree that people have rights, and among these rights is a right to one’s property. I’m an absolutist about this. I believe that everyone everywhere has rights, including this right.”
     “OK,” says Jones. “I’m with you so far.”
     Smith continues: And if we say that people have a right to their property, we mean something like this: normally, nobody may take their property unless they give them permission to take it.”
     “What do you mean by ‘normally,’?” asks Jones.
     When we say that X has a right to his property, we mean, roughly, that everyone should refrain from taking it. But that isn’t quite correct, because rights and other moral considerations can come into conflict. What if there’s a terrible accident and I need to get someone to a hospital? But the only way I can do that is if I just take X’s car—she happened to leave her keys in it. It seems to me that, under the circumstances, I’m in a kind of dilemma, for if I honor X’s right to her property, I will allow this person to die. And surely we can all agree that the importance of preventing the person’s death (she’s a delightful person, I assure you) overrides X’s right to my not taking her car! So, even though I’m in a dilemma in which something’s got to give, it’s pretty clear what ought to “give” here.
     “So you’re saying that, under the circumstances, X’s right evaporates into nothing?,” says Jones.
     No, says Smith. X, like everyone else, really does have the right not to have her property “borrowed” or molested, and so on. But, there’s a conflict, and something’s got to give. The best thing to do, all things considered, is to violate X’s right in order to save a life. Naturally, we owe it to X to explain ourselves as soon as possible. We really feel bad about having to take her car. But, under the circumstances, that’s what had to be done. It would be different if, say, the only way to save the accident victim is by hurting X in some way. It wouldn’t be right to help the victim by hurting X. But we didn’t do that. We only “borrowed” X’s car.
     “So X’s right becomes nothing,” says Jones.
     Not at all! The fact that we owe her an explanation and even an apology shows that her right does not become “nothing.” It still is what it is, it’s just that life can get complicated, and it became necessary to use her car, to violate her right to her property in a limited way. We didn’t want to do that, but there was no alternative. And we aren’t willing to do just anything, relative to X’s rights, to save the accident victim. But we are willing—regretfully—to violate her right to not have her car used without permission—for the sake of saving an innocent life.
     “So you’re saying that her right to her property is not absolute!,” offers Jones.
Accident victim (all better now)
     Well, in one sense, yes; in another sense, no. That we have an obligation to her to treat her with respect is, I think, absolute. And, in this case, we’re honoring that, for we resist taking her car, we don’t want to take it. But we feel that we must take it, regrettably, to save a life. And the proof that her right did not become nothing is the fact that we feel the need to contact her as soon as possible and explain and even apologize for what we did. (We might even offer to compensate her in some way.) That’s the proof that her right, though violated, did not “disappear.” It’s still there. We still recognize it. And so X absolutely has a right to her property, her car. But that doesn’t mean that her right is “absolute.” We’re not saying that her right is absolute in the sense that it must always be honored or accorded, no matter what! No. We’re not saying that she has an “absolute” right in that sense. We are saying that, absolutely, she has a right to her property. That is, we should proceed with the idea that her ownership of her property must always be respected, if not accorded, even when it is taken from her, temporarily.

The case of torture

     I feel very strongly that torture is barbaric and unacceptable. I think it is inhumane and appalling. I always feel this way—i.e., there are no circumstances in which I do not find torture inhumane and appalling. I am, in that way, an anti-torture absolutist.
     And yet, in another sense, I am not an "absolutist" about torture. For circumstances are conceivable in which, though one does have that value/perspective, one reasonably judges that the morally best thing to do is to torture someone. If, for instance, terrorists have hidden a nuclear weapon in the city and we have compelling reasons to suppose that it will be detonated in a few hours, and if we have captured one of the terrorists, who refuses to divulge the location of the weapon—it is conceivable that the only prospect of getting the crucial information is in torturing the terrorist. (That this circumstance ever occurs is somewhat controversial, I suppose. This example is Walzer's, essentially.) If we were to do that, we would do it with profound regret. We would be appalled by our conduct. We may find it difficult to live with ourselves having done it. All of this is the "presence" of our rejection of torture; it is our "anti-torture" conviction. And yet (perhaps) we have done the morally right thing, the best that we can do, under these special circumstances, by torturing the terrorist.
     I might choose to describe my stance in this way: I am an absolutist about rejecting torture in the sense that I believe that one always has extremely powerful reasons to seek to avoid using torture—i.e., to "reject" torture. Nevertheless, it is at least conceivable that this horrendous circumstance could come about: despite these very powerful reasons not to torture the terrorist, reasons to torture him also exist, and these reasons outweigh the reasons against torture.
     I am an absolutist "against torture" in the sense that I believe that there is always a very powerful reason not to torture; but because I recognize the possibility of extreme moral dilemmas—who could deny it?—I am unwilling to say that one must never torture. So, in that sense, I am not an absolutist. There is always a reason not to torture; and yet sometimes one must torture—just as, there is always a reason not to kill the innocent, and yet, sometimes, one must kill the innocent (e.g., to defend one's family or home from an innocent threat).
     I’m rejecting "no exceptions" absolutism while embracing "always a reason" absolutism. And my thesis is that this is not an inconsistent position. It is a coherent position.