Natural rights and moral desert

Why we should avoid unverifiable moral claims

Ariel Pontes
Humanist Voices


We should avoid magical thinking when discussing morality.

This is the eighth of a series of articles defending a compatibilist interpretation of utilitarianism, which can be reconciled with all major moral theories. In the previous article, I explain why utilitarianism is not as demanding as it may seem.

Logical positivism was a philosophical movement that attempted to approach philosophy as rationally as possible. Inspired by the success of the natural sciences, they concluded that philosophical claims that cannot be empirically verified are nothing but meaningless metaphysics. This was called the principle of verification, and although it has been somewhat controversial, it was extremely influential and eventually matured into the principle of falsifiability, a widely accepted idea in contemporary philosophy of science. Falsificationism argues that, in order for a claim to be considered scientific, there must be conditions that would prove it false. If there aren’t, we are talking about faith and speculation, not science.

In the last few articles I have been covering the main objections made against utilitarianism, the moral philosophy that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In this piece I will address two concepts that often seem to conflict with the principle of utility and that, although useful in some contexts, can easily be abused: natural rights and moral desert.

Natural rights

As I explained in “Abortion is harmless”:

The idea that certain people have certain rights even if the state doesn’t recognize them is what is called in philosophy the idea of “natural rights”. According to this view, if a woman has a natural right to choose abortion, when she says “I have the right to choose”, she is not merely making a prescriptive statement equivalent to “I should have the right to choose”. She is making a statement of fact, regardless of the laws governing her country. A person who believes in natural rights would say “I may not have the legal right to have an abortion, but I have the natural right to do it”.

The idea of natural rights is nothing but the old religious notion of “God given rights” masked under a veneer of secular metaphysics. The problem with these secularized versions of religious concepts is that they are meaningless. If you cannot, even in principle, verify whether something exists or not, it is hard to understand what it would even mean for that thing to exist. For example, if I say that there are dragons somewhere in this galaxy, we can at least imagine in principle how we could proceed to test the truth of this statement. We could go planet by planet, looking for dragons, and if we found one we would know that it is true. If you tell me, however, that you have a dragon in your garage who is invisible, untouchable, does not emit heat or anything detectable by any measurement device, I wouldn’t understand what you mean by “dragon” anymore.

Making an argument involves finding two premises that you and your interlocutor share, and based on that inferring a conclusion that your interlocutor will be forced to agree with. You can say, for example, that punching strangers is bad because punching causes pain and causing pain is bad. This presupposes that your interlocutor agrees that punches cause pain and that pain is bad, which is a pretty reasonable thing to presuppose. When you say “abortion should be legal because women have the right to choose”, however, what are the premises and what is the conclusion? All I can see is:

  • Premise 1. Women have the right to choose abortion.
  • Premise 2. When somebody has the right to do something, that thing should be legal.
  • Conclusion. Therefore, abortion should be legal.

But if you’re talking to a pro-lifer, of course they don’t agree with the first premise. It makes no sense, therefore, to insist on this line of reasoning. This is not to say that the idea of rights is useless. But there is a reason why they are useful, and it’s not because they magically exist out there in nature, as an immaterial substance, waiting to be discovered, but because they help us minimize suffering. A world in which our human rights are not protected by law, hard or soft, is not likely to be a world in which suffering is kept to a minimum. Rights are useful tools, but they are only useful insofar as they help us reduce overall suffering.

To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why it ought, I can give him no other reason than general utility.

— John Stuart Mill, 1861. Utilitarianism.

Moral desert

The idea of moral desert is similar. In both ends of the political spectrum, we find violent and punitive ideas being justified on the basis of moral desert. People on the right think criminals deserve to suffer because of their crimes, and so do people on the left in the case of those guilty of rape or hate crimes. In addition, an increasing number of leftists also seem to think people deserve hostility and ostracism when they say something racist, sexist, etc. Their punitive behavior is rarely justified, however, on the basis of consequences.

Of course, this is not to say that people shouldn’t be held accountable. Again, the concept of desert is useful, but only insofar as it helps us minimize suffering. Historically, punishment has served four main functions: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and retribution. Deterrence serves to discourage people from committing a crime, incapacitating criminals by, for example, arresting them, prevents them from harming other victims, and rehabilitation serves to educate and help them reintegrate and become peaceful members of society. These are all things that contribute to the minimization of suffering and the promotion of well-being.

But what’s the point of pure retribution? It has no point. The only point that can be made is that, by hurting an individual who harmed you, you manage to alleviate the suffering they caused to you. But this would only justify revenge if it had no adverse consequences. But revenge almost always has adverse consequences. Aggressive leftists may say they’re not being punitive in the name of retribution, but of deterrence. They’re teaching those bigots a lesson so they won’t say bigoted things again. But now we’re confronted with an empirical question: do people really become less bigoted out of fear of being scolded? I don’t think so. I personally think they’re more likely to double down and seek refuge in communities that are accepting of their bigoted views, further contributing to their radicalization, which is basically the last thing we should want if we call ourselves progressive.


Ideas of natural rights and moral desert are so old and firmly enshrined in our moral and political language that it is hard to imagine ever getting rid of them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, although historically based on the idea of natural rights, is a tremendously important milestone in the history of moral progress, and it should certainly be celebrated. However, it should be detached from the old superstitious idea of natural rights. Indeed, most people in the general public who support human rights today do so without even knowing the term “natural rights”, which is mostly used as philosophical jargon, so this process of detachment is already taking place.

The idea of desert is also important and hard to get rid of. Good students deserve high grades, hard workers deserve raises, and criminals deserve some sort of punishment. But they don’t deserve these in an absolute, final sense. They deserve them in an instrumental sense. Treating people on the basis of desert is useful, but only insofar as it encourages good behaviors and discourages bad ones, where good and bad behaviors are defined in terms of their propensity to produce a more or less positive balance of pleasure over suffering. We should treat people as they deserve not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end: the end of improving the overall quality of the experiences of sentient beings.

Punishment that causes more suffering than it prevents, therefore, is never justified, and neither are exorbitant rewards that cost more than we can afford. Right-wing libertarians say self-made billionaires “deserve” all of their wealth, but that is only meaningfully true if the case can be made that any increase in the taxation of their wealth would discourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking so much that it would cause economies to stagnate and technological development to halt, preventing us from reducing suffering as effectively as we could otherwise. But this is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. I’m quite confident that, even if we had a wealth cap of one billion dollars, people would still be quite motivated to get there. This, however, is an empirical question and I am ready to change my position if data proves me wrong.

[C]laims about what will or won’t promote the greater good, unlike claims about rights, are ultimately accountable to evidence. Whether or not a given policy will increase or decrease happiness is ultimately an empirical question. One can say that national health insurance will improve/destroy American healthcare, but if one is going to say this, and say it with confidence, one had better have some evidence.

— Joshua Greene, 2013. Moral Tribes.