In a comment made to yesterday's post "Quality vs. Quantity of Life", Steelman wrote:
It seems to me that "life" isn't an ultimate value (speaking everyday English here) so much as it's a basic value. A necessary value.
In the book, Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, Joel Feinberg called this type of value 'welfare value'. Welfare values are particularly important in desire utilitarian theory.
'Welfare values' are those things that are useful for almost anything else a person may desire as an end. They are, in a sense, nearly universal means. They include life (without which it is often quite difficult to fulfill one's desires). They also include health, true belief (or education), liberty, money, property, and help from others.
One of the standard objections against desire utilitarianism is that it is nearly impossible to determine what has value. According to this objection, there are simply too many things to consider to be able to draw a conclusion that something is actually good or bad.
This is a borrowed objection from act utilitarian theory. Act utilitarianism says that we are to perform the act that has the best consequences. Yet, who can determine all of the consequences of an act? A simple act that looks good from the surface – saving a child from a deadly disease – might have dire consequences. This child might grow up to be the next Hitler. So, according to act utilitarianism, the act of saving this child was the wrong thing to do – it was not the act that has the best consequences.
Desire utilitarianism is not concerned with actions except in a derived sense (the right at is the act that a person with good desires would perform). Desire utilitarianism is concerned with good desires – desires that tend to fulfill other desires.
Welfare goods identify a list of objects that are almost universally useful in fulfilling other desires. Desires to protect and preserve welfare values, then, would be desires that would tend to fulfill other desires. Desires to protect life, liberty would qualify.
In a desire utilitarian theory, a 'right to X’ exists where 'people generally have many and strong reason to promote a desire to provide people with X or, at least an aversion to depriving people of X'. 'Welfare goods' provide a good list of things to put in for 'X' in this concept of rights. Thus, we have a 'right' in this case to life, liberty, a minimal standard of living, an education, health care, and the respect of one’s neighbors.
'Rights' in this sense, are not absolute. There are a number of instances in which one right can come into conflict with another, or where a right might run up against the laws of nature. Events could come up where a good person might need to take the life of an innocent person. I have used an example in the past of a child making a purchase from a vending machine that will set off a nuclear weapon in a distant city. The 'right to life' says that the good person would have an aversion to killing the child. However, this aversion may reasonably be outweighed by the good person's desire to prevent the deaths of millions of people in a distant city.
In other circumstances, the good person's aversion to depriving people of liberty might well run up against the need to draft people into military to fight a particularly ruthless enemy, or draft them into service during an emergency. We have reason to promote an aversion to answering mere words with violence (freedom of speech), but we still have reason to condemn the person who would yell "fire" in a crowded theater and to threaten to punish such individuals.
It is also relevant in this case whether socialized medicine or free markets work better in providing people with food, education, and health care. If socialized medicine does not work – if it robs people of health care that they would have had in a free market system, then the 'right' to health care does not translate into a ‘right’ to government-provided health care, or welfare, or education. These consequences depend on the facts of the matter as to which system actually provides people with these welfare goods.
One of the implications of this is that much of the debate that people engage in when it comes to social policy actually makes sense. The debate as to whether markets or government-run systems best provide people with welfare goods is an important debate to have.
Desire utilitarianism disallows either side from claiming that, for example, government systems shall not be used because "They are just wrong." This is because nothing is 'just wrong' in this sense. Something is 'wrong' only in the sense that a person with good desires would not perform the action, and desires are evaluated on their tendency to fulfill other desires. 'Just wrong', in contrast, is an intrinsic-value claim. It is an appeal to an entity that does not exist. No moral argument grounded on a false premise (a premise that “just wrongness” is real and is found in a particular family of actions) is a sound argument.
Yet, it is relevant that a person just 'does not like' depriving others of their freedom of speech (for example). Of course, he needs to go a step further and argue that it is a good thing that people 'does not like' depriving others of their freedom of speech. This, he can do by arguing that an aversion to depriving others of freedom of speech will generally fulfill other desires, since restrictions on freedom of speech are typically abused by people who block the flow of information so that they can thwart the desires of others.