Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Gewirth on Absolute Rights


Are any rights absolute? That is, are there any rights that people should respect even if doing so leads to catastrophic results? Gewirth says there is at least one: “all innocent persons have an absolute right not to be made the intended victims of a homicidal project” (Gewirth 1981, 16).

Specifically, he argues that a specific instance of this general right, a mother’s right not to be tortured to death by her own son, has absolute weight. To test this, he asks us to imagine that a terrorist group credibly threatens to blow up a city if one particular person named Abrams does not torture his own mother to death. Despite the fact that thousands of innocent people will die grisly deaths if the terrorists follow through on their threat, Gewirth maintains that Abrams has a duty not to violate his mother’s absolute right.

Gewirth’s Argument

We are going to focus on the second part of the article, pages 7-15. In this part, Gewirth discusses the specific case of Abrams, his mother, and the terrorists. The third part of the article maintains that the results of the second part can be generalized to include all people and not just mothers and sons. The first part of the article is mostly setup and ground clearing that is inessential for our purposes.

There is one bit of setup that is important. One person’s right, according to Gewirth, logically implies another person’s duty. To put it another way, if I say “you have a right not to be killed” what I mean is that “other people have a duty not to kill you; it would be wrong if they did.” This is not the only thing that the word “right” means in either legal or moral contexts, but it is what Gewirth means.1

Gewirth gives four arguments for thinking that Abrams ought not to torture his mother to death even if that means the city will be destroyed. He rejects three and accepts the fourth.

The rejected arguments are:

  1. Direct vs. oblique intentions. You are only responsible for the consequences that you intend to bring about either as your aim (also known as your “end”) or a means to achieving your end. You are not responsible for consequences that are a side-effect of what you intend to do. The destruction of the city would only be a side-effect of what Abrams did whereas killing his mother would be something that he intended to do. So Abrams would be responsible for killing his mother but not for the deaths in the city. That means he would violate his mother’s right if he tortured her but he would not violate the rights of the people in the city if he failed to torture his mother and they were blown up as a consequence (Gewirth 1981, 11).

  2. Killing vs. letting die. Killing someone is far worse than letting someone die. Abrams would be killing his mother but only letting the people in the city die (Gewirth 1981, 11–12).

  3. Respecting persons vs. bringing about good consequences. Abrams would fail to respect his mother if he tortured her to death but he would not fail to respect the people in the city if he did not do so and they died as a result (Gewirth 1981, 12).

The argument that Gewirth accepts relies on what he calls the principle of the intervening action. The idea is that the city will be blown up only if the terrorists take steps to blow it up; nothing that Abrams does will be sufficient to cause the city to blow up. Consequently, the terrorists are responsible for the city blowing up and not Abrams.

The required supplement is provided by the principle of the intervening action. According to this principle, when there is a causal connection between some person A’s performing some action (or inaction) X and some other person C’s incurring a certain harm Z, A’s moral responsibility for Z is removed if, between X and Z, there intervenes some other action Y of some person B who knows the relevant circumstances of his action and who intends to produce Z or who produces Z through recklessness. The reason for this removal is that B’s intervening action Y is the more direct or proximate cause of Z and, unlike A’s action (or inaction), Y is the sufficient condition of Z as it actually occurs. (Gewirth 1981, 12)

It’s alphabet soup, but you get the idea. Here is the bottom line, according to Gewirth.

It follows from the principle of the intervening action that it is not the son but rather the terrorists who are morally as well as causally responsible for the many deaths that do or may ensue on his refusal to torture his mother to death. The important point is not that he lets these persons die rather than kills them, or that he does not harm them but only fails to help them, or that he intends their deaths only obliquely but not directly. The point is rather that it is only through the intervening lethal actions of the terrorists that his refusal eventuates in the many deaths. Since the moral responsibility is not the son’s, it does not affect his moral duty not to torture his mother to death, so that her correlative right remains absolute. (Gewirth 1981, 13)

In our discussion, we can talk about the rejected arguments: what do they mean and why does he find them inadequate?

We will want to spend most of our time on the principle of the intervening action, since that is what he rests his conclusion on.

Does he really mean it?

At the end of the second section, Gewirth distinguishes what he calls “concrete absolutism” from “abstract absolutism” (Gewirth 1981, 14). The abstract absolutist says that Abrams should ignore the consequences. Once an absolute right is at stake, the only thing that matters, according to the abstract absolutist, is to avoid violating that right. On this way of looking at it, Abrams should refuse to torture his mother and not consider the consequences of refusing.

Concrete absolutists are different. A concrete absolutist would take into consideration a few consequentialist arguments such as “you can’t know that the terrorists will keep their word and not blow up the city even if you torture your mother,” “you can’t know that the terrorists will follow through on their threat to blow up the city even if you don’t torture your mother,” “you have to take into account the terrorist groups that will try to do something similar in the future if you give in to this one’s demands,” and “there is likely to be an alternative deal that they would accept that would spare both the city and Abrams’s mother” (Gewirth 1981, 14–15).

What would a concrete absolutist tell Abrams to do? Try to avoid both torturing his mother and getting the city blown up, if possible. If it is not possible to do both, I think a concrete absolutist would say that Abrams should not torture his mother.

What is in the first part?

I don’t think you need to read the first part to understand the argument. But there are some concepts that are referred to in the part we will read and some material that stands on its own. Here is a quick guide.

Gewirth has some useful vocabulary for talking about rights in the second full paragraph on page 2 and the first full paragraph on page 3.

At several points in the second section Gewirth touches on the question of when one right takes priority over another. It doesn’t matter much for our purposes, since we are comparing different people’s right to life. But, for what it is worth, he is referring to something he calls the Principle of Generic Consistency (Gewirth 1981, 2–3). The idea is that the most fundamental rights are those that are necessary for action, freedom, and well-being and that rights that do more to protect action, freedom, and well-being are more important than those that do less. This is what he means by “the supreme principle of morality” (top of p. 8) and the “criterion of degrees of necessity for action” (top of p. 14). We will meet this idea again, when we read the other article by Gewirth that is on the syllabus.

Finally, Gewirth sometimes uses the phrase “rule absolutism” in the second section. This is explained on pages 4-5. Roughly, the idea is that there are exceptions built into absolute rights. For instance, I have the right not to be killed unless killing me is the only way to stop me from taking someone else’s life. Gewirth tries to explain how a set of exceptions can be defined that exclude ones that would make the article pointless. For instance, suppose Abrams’s mother’s right were phrased like this: “the right not to be tortured to death by her own son unless doing so is necessary to prevent a catastrophe such as the demolition of a city.” There would be no question about whether that right should be respected even at the cost of catastrophic results because an exception for catastrophe is built in. Since Gewirth wants to discuss cases where absolute rights can come into conflict with preventing catastrophes, he rules out exceptions for catastrophes like that one. I have to confess that I do not understand exactly what the abstract rule is that enables us to distinguish between the acceptable exceptions and those that are not. But as long as he is not cheating by trying to define the problem out of existence, I am fine with it.

Key Points

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

  1. The case of Abrams, his mother, and the terrorists.
  2. The principle of the intervening action.

Irrational decisions and war

I mentioned as a digression that I had read something about how the leaders of the US did not subject some of their basic assumptions to anything resembling critical analysis when they decided to go to war in Vietnam and Iraq.

What I read was Dan Gardner’s “All Too Human: The powerful are subject to the same flaws and follies as the rest of us.” It speculates that the decision to invade Ukraine may well have been as badly reasoned as those decisions were.

Tanner Greer’s “Pausing at the Precipice” covers similar ground. It has extended quotes from Michael Mazarr’s book on the Iraq war that are relevant to this class. Mazarr contrasts consequentialist reasoning with other sorts of moral thinking in interesting and unsettling ways.

Plus, I’m pretty sure that I knew Mazarr in high school. Only incidentally, but it still tickles me a bit.


Gewirth, Alan. 1981. “Are There Any Absolute Rights?” The Philosophical Quarterly 31 (122): 1–16.

  1. One tricky thing to bear in mind about this is that one way to dispute someone’s assertion that a right exists is to show that the correlative duty does not exit. If you say “I have a right to all the pencils in the world,” I can deny your claim if I can successfully show that there is someone who does not have a duty to give you their pencil.↩︎