I am enjoying the course on moral philosophy being broadcast by the BBC and led by Michael Sandel.
Yesterday he contrasted the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham with the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant.
Bentham believed in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In many ways many of us would go along with that until it comes to the hard questions.
One example: a trolley bus is careering down a hill out of control. The brakes have failed and five workers on the tracks below are bound to be killed. But there is a siding to the right with only one worker on it. The driver can still steer. Should he steer to the right and kill one to save the five? Most people take this choice, but when the same question is put in a way that involves a direct act of murder most would hold back.
There are 5 patients waiting for a transplant. Two need kidneys, one a liver, one a heart/lung and the fifth a pancreas. There are no donors and they are all going to die. But in the next room a fit young man with the right blood group has come in for a check-up. He is taking an afternoon nap. The surgeon has a bright idea, "I could nip in and take the required organs from him. True I would lose one life, but I would save five."
There would be no support for this action - even from the relatives of the potential recipients.
Kant saw the flaws in utilitarianism and propounded his own ideas. Human dignity trumps mere numbers. He talked about categorical imperatives, principles that are intrinsically valid, good in and of themselves. One of these imperatives is the idea of human rights or human dignity.
But it is easy to put hard cases to the committed Kantian. For example torture would be absolutely forbidden according to Kant. But supposing there is a bomb on a plane which will explode and kill 500 people. The man who put the bomb on the plane has been caught but refuses to tell where it is. Does anybody believe it would be wrong to waterboard the bomber to save the lives of the 500? Kantians do. Politicians avoid the question by calling the idea hypothetical, saying that such situations don't occur in real life. But they do.
A recent German case illustrates the dilemma. A young child was kidnapped. The kidnapper was caught and the ransom retrieved, but he refused to say where the child was. The police chief threatened him with torture and he caved in and gave the location of the child. He admitted that he had killed the child shortly after the kidnapping. He was prosecuted for murder and received a life sentence. But, and here's the rub, the police chief was prosecuted for violating the kidnapper's human rights. You or I might think that the murderer had forfeited his human rights in this case, but under the German Constitution, the rights of all its citizens are sacrosanct.
I believe that after the Third Reich so violated the human rights of 6 million Jews, the German conscience so pricked that they felt it necessary to incorporate this principle of their favorite philosopher in law. So many European countries were complicit in the persecution of Jewry that they raised no objection to this guiding principle throughout Europe and the last Labour government in the UK incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.
In the UK we have managed without a written constitution for thousands of years and the German experience shows the wisdom of that. The sorts of dilemmas that Sandel has highlighted demonstrate the futility of laying down absolute principles. In the 2000+ years since Socrates the greatest minds have disagreed about these questions of moral philosophy - how are we supposed to resolve them? Each case must be judged on its merits. Sometime the law is an ass and a wise judge will recognize that.
One of Kant's categorical imperatives concerns lying which he says is always wrong. So you have a RAF pilot hidden in your hayloft. The Gestapo calls and asks you if you have seen one and Kant would say you have to betray the pilot because it is wrong to lie. I would say that the Gestapo officer has forfeited his right to be told the truth.
The same applies to imprisoned murderers who have been denied the right to vote in general elections. By their actions they have forfeited some of their human rights. Not according to the European Court which holds the UK is in contempt for its policy.