Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Discussion of Gewirth


We looked for possible weak spots in Gewirth’s argument.

We mostly considered whether each point follows from the next. At the end, I expressed a reservation about the project of basing morality on reason.

Our discussion

Before getting started, I should say that I kept most of my notes on the handout from last class. It has the numbered argument that I will be referring to.

Gewirth begins with intentional, purposeful action. He maintains that anyone who acts for a reason is committed to accepting other people’s human rights. The argument is expressed from the point of view of the person engaging in the action. This person is known as the agent.

Since the agent is acting for a reason, he or she has a purpose or end in mind. Gewirth thinks it follows that the agent thinks that achieving this purpose or end is good. Kenny and Jacob both asked whether that was obviously so. In the existentialist tradition, there are authors who muse about whether freedom involves the ability to do act for no reason at all or for a reason that you think is bad. It certainly seems possible.

Ariel noted that all Gewirth needs to show is that the agent thinks the action is good in some way. He doesn’t need to show that the action is good overall. Maybe Gewirth could use her observation to answer Kenny and Jacob: even the existentialist agent thinks its good to make a demonstration of human freedom by acting in an irrational way.

Hutch and Zoë both questioned Gewirth’s next move, from the assumption that achieving one’s aims is good to the assumption that freedom is necessary. Gewirth thinks it works because the way you achieve your ends is by being free to act. But Zoë and Hutch both had cases in mind where achieving what you want requires limits on your freedom. Hutch, for instance, suggested that voting might be good and that your freedom to refuse to vote would be bad. I think Zoë was thinking about collective goods problems, like pollution, but I didn’t write that down so I might be wrong.

The thrust of the first nine steps of Gewirth’s argument is to establish the existence of something that he calls “prudential rights.” Iglal asked, rather sensibly, what a “prudential right” is. It’s not easy to say! To say that you have a prudential right is to say that there is something you must have from others, but it is not the same thing as saying that others have any duties to provide it to you. It’s just a statement of your own needs. I think you could legitimately ask why this should count as a right.

Here I made one of my points. I said that I did not see the contradiction between points four and nine.

  1. I must have freedom and well-being.
  1. And I may not (i.e. it is permissible that I not) have freedom and well-being. (Another consequence of 7)

The idea is that the denial that I have prudential rights would lead to a contradiction: it would lead to 9 and 9 contradicts 4. Since 4 was independently established by 1-3, we should retain 4 and reject the denial that I have prudential rights or, to put it the other way around, we should accept that I have prudential rights. Whew.

Anyway, the whole thing works only if those two numbered point (4 and 9) contradict one another. I don’t think they do. I can think I must have something and also that it is permissible that someone else not give it to me. Here’s an example.

  1. I must have a heart transplant to live.
  2. I may not (i.e. it is permissible that I not) be given a heart by an eligible donor.

There’s no contradiction there. The first point (4 or a) is a factual statement about what I need. The second statement (9 or b) is a moral point about what others must do for me. So they seem compatible to me.

The second half of Gewirth’s argument (points 10-14) seeks to move from prudential rights to genuinely moral rights. I questioned point 12: if I do not have rights because I am a human being, then it would be possible that I would not have rights. I think Zoë put the point well when she said that the idea is that if you think you have rights because you belong to, say, a racial group, then you’re supposed to ask “what if I weren’t part of this group” and realize that you would still think that you deserve rights. That said, I’m not totally convinced that Gewirth has made his point. As a matter of logic, I think I could assert that I have rights because I’m right handed, say. I would have to concede that I would not have rights if I were left handed instead. But, I would say, it’s my good fortune that this isn’t so. In any event, I don’t see the contradiction there. I should say that I think that’s a silly reason to think that you have rights. But the argument is attempting to prove that you have to believe in rights without making any assumptions other than the ones you see on the page. So it doesn’t get to say “that’s silly” or “that’s not what rights are based on.” I don’t make the rules.

Chris asked how different people’s prudential desires are supposed to be reconciled with one another even if the second part of the argument works. What if we have a bunch of people all making competing assertions about what they need? How do we recognize all of those rights? I think that’s a very good question. I think Emma was right to say that he would have to rank rights in some way. But it’s not obvious from the argument how that’s supposed to work.

As a final point, I said that I had doubts about any rationalistic account of ethics. Here’s my case in a nutshell. Suppose Gewirth were completely right. Then it would follow that anyone who behaved immorally would be making a mistake, much like a mistake of reasoning of logic. But when I think of doing something morally wrong, I think of behavior that I should feel guilty about. When I think of doing a logic problem wrong, I don’t have the same sort of reaction. It’s just an error, not a wrong. This inclines me to think that the project is mistaken and that it’s not identifying the right kind of “wrong” (if you will).

Key Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. What prudential rights are.
  2. Why Gewirth thinks that agents are committed to believing in prudential rights.
  3. How Gewirth gets from prudential rights to moral rights.
  4. What you want an argument to show about morality. Is it “why you have to be moral”? Or is it something less, like “what consistency among your ethical beliefs would involve”?