Liberty Matters

Is Social Utility Enough to Justify Natural Rights?“ A Response to George Smith

I am grateful to George for his answers to my questions. One of my inquiries had to do with the contrast, drawn in George’s book, between classical liberals who believed in inalienable rights that are not to be violated, and other classical liberals who believed only in a presumption of liberty. In the latter group’s view, interference with liberty was usually a bad idea, but they were prepared to allow it if such interference could be shown to promote the general welfare.
That group obviously appeals to what best promotes happiness. My question was: to what extent does the former group do so as well. If one says, “Society ought to be organized so that each person is granted a protected sphere of liberties that is not to be interfered with, because doing this will be best for everyone, or nearly everyone,” isn’t this proposal also an appeal to social utility?
In response George says, “[A]s I pointed out at various places in my book, this traditional approach to natural rights invoked social utility (or the public good, or the greatest happiness, etc.) as the purpose of legislation, not as its standard. Only by using natural rights as the standard of legislation can public utility (which cannot be calculated directly) be achieved.”
George’s answer was precisely the starting point for my question. If one says that the way to advance social utility is to respect individual rights, is this not still an appeal to utility? Certainly, in this approach utility is not the standard for deciding what to do in particular cases; but it explains why the standard of rights is adopted.
To say that social utility is best promoted by respecting a sphere of rights for each person is not sufficient, it seems to me, to justify the claim that each person has certain moral, or natural, rights. That claim ascribes rights to persons owing to morally relevant properties they have: the claim is that because people are such-and-such, they ought morally to be treated in particular ways. The claim that things will go better for people if they are treated in these ways is a different one, though one may make both claims, as some classical liberals in fact did.That is, one can hold that people ought morally to be treated in certain ways, and that doing this will promote social utility. To hold, though, that rights should be the standard of legislation does not suffice to make these rights natural, or moral. (The difference between “natural” and “moral” would be another question well worth pursuing.)