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A utilitarian argument for human rights

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I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night.  Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord.  The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland.  Both have an impact in respect of human rights.

Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement.  The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District.  The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.

The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness.  The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances.  There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19.  The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer.  The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life.  The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise.  The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.

Turning to the second news article.  The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right.  The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge.  The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.

The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act.  Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist.  Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature.  Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few?  Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in?  Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment.  We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.


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