Utilitarian Theory & Human Rights

Utilitarianism can be defined as a moral theory by which the public welfare of a community is dependent on the “sum welfare of individuals, which is measured in units of pleasure and/or pain”, requiring governments to make decisions based on the “largest sum of pleasure” (Postema, 2006). However Bentham argued that "every individual in the country tells for one, no individual for more than one", meaning that the weight of an individual’s happiness should always remain equivalent to that of another’s happiness regardless of personal status (Postema, 2006).

Using this moral theory as a basis, Bentham asserted that the ultimate goal of government and all of morality was the advancement of public welfare (Postema, 2006). This theory of political morality consisted of four components: communal consequentialism, social welfarism, individual welfarism, and compositionalism. The first component, communal consequentialism, describes morality as being the basis of promoting the public welfare of the community. Social welfarism is understood as the concerns of the community, based on the “good of the community” or it’s well-being as a whole. Individual welfarism argues that all other moral concerns must be based on the “welfare of individuals”.

Lastly, compositionalism ties social welfarism to individual welfarism, so that the welfare of the community is strictly compounded by the welfare of individuals (Postema, 2006). Bentham’s theory of political morality gave way for the theory of universal interest, defined as “a set of interests held in common by all members of the community in the realization of which each member has a distinct and positive share” (Postema, 2006).

Three features are used to define and identify universal interest. First, universal interest rules out the interests of individuals that are not shared by the rest of the community. These individual interests are referred by Bentham as “particular interests”. Second, the common interests of the community are included and understood by all as being common interests. Lastly, each member of the community has a stake in the universal interest.

The theory of universal interest is applied to human rights through the adoption of standards by which governments should be held accountable for the treatment of its citizens (Nickel, 2010) by the global community. In this paper I will identify specific human rights violations and rank the resolutions based on the theory of utilitarianism.

The first human rights violation identified is specific to the issue of racial profiling in law enforcement. The Stop-And-Frisk statute of 1964 in New York states that police officers have the right to stop any person in a public place where the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or about to commit a serious crime. However recent cases have shown that the application of this statute disproportionately targets minorities, as the standard of reasonable suspicion “does not account for differences in an officer’s ability to judge potentially criminally behavior” (Richardson, 2012).

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), New Yorkers were stopped by the New York Police Department (NYPD) 685,724 times in 2011. Among those who were stopped, 53% were black, 34% were Latino, and only 9% were white (New York Civil Liverties Union). Eighty-eight percent of everyone stopped were innocent of any wrong doing.

Richardson argues that the accuracy of an officer’s judgment is affected by his experience, and that those policing in urban environments tend to have a “higher level of implicit racial bias” than those working elsewhere. In addition, this bias can often result in officers being less accurate in their judgment (Richardson, 2012) and therefore the argument that training and experience provides a basis for good judgment in these cases is weak.

The current application of the Stop-And-Frisk statute by the NYPD is a violation of a number of articles defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In particular, Article 7 states that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, however the statistics provided by the NYCLU clearly suggests that blacks and Latinos are routinely stopped by the NYPD more than whites.

Security rights as defined by Article 3 of the UHDR, are those which protect citizens from crimes against their person. Governments are expected to prohibit crimes such as murder, rape, and massacre. One could argue that laws that endorse the death penalty are a violation of security rights, especially given the fact that a fool-proof method of proving guilt exists. In addition, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) restricts the use of the death penalty to lethal crimes or “crimes with extremely grave consequences” and the UN Human Rights Committee states “that the death penalty should be a quite exceptional measure” (Sangiorgio, 2011).

However death sentences as recent as 2010 were imposed or carried out for offenses that did not meet the criteria specified in Article 6 of the ICCPR. In addition to limiting death sentences to offenses of the “most serious crimes”, the ICCPR also states that the death penalty can only be carried out “after a legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial” (Sangiorgio, 2011), however all too often a “fair trial” is subject to many factors including the defendant’s socioeconomic status, race, the totality of the evidence collected against him.These factors can often tilt the scales of justice in a way that makes a guilty verdict inevitable, despite actual innocence.

The last human rights violation I will discuss is the recent attempt by Florida Governor Rick Scott to purge voters from registration rolls, in an effort to prevent voter fraud. In May 2012 Florida Governor Rick Scott ordered the removal of non-citizens from voter registration rolls, based on data collected from the Department of Motor Vehicles on 180,000 people (Adams, 2012).

The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) contends that this is in violation of the National Voter Registration Law, which requires states to complete any “systematic removal” of voters from election lists within 90 days of a federal election, and the State of Florida has missed that deadline. Furthermore, the USDOJ argues that the data used to determine voter eligibility is potentially outdated and therefore has the potential to remove those who are in fact citizens and have the right to vote.

Article 21 of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly, or through freely chosen representative”. The fact that Governor Scott has chosen to ignore laws that restrict the removal of voters from registration rolls so close to a federal election suggests that this is an attempt to prevent those who have the constitutional right to vote as well as the human right to participate in their government.

Resolution of the human rights violations discussed can be ranked in accordance with Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism. In the case of the death penalty, I believe that abolition of the death penalty ranks the highest, as it is in the universal interest of the global community to ensure that the innocent always have the opportunity to prove their innocence. Etzioni (2010) argues that the right to life should rank highest since all other rights are contingent on it.

I would rank the resolutions of the voter registration purge and the application of the stop-and-frisk statute second and third, respectively. Resolution of the voter registration purge would mean that voters in Florida would retain their right to vote, and therefore participate in their government as defined by Article 21 of the UDHR. It is in the universal interest of the community to ensure that those who are eligible to vote are permitted to do so.

I would rank this resolution higher than the resolution of changing New York’s stop-and-frisk statute to protect against discrimination, because the right to participate in government leads to the ability to change law and policy. The universal interest of protecting the right to vote is greater than that which protects from discrimination, because the community then has the power to modify or repeal laws in which it sees as unjust.


  1. RECENT STATUTE. (1964). Harvard Law Review, 78(2), 473-477.
  2. Adams, D. (2012, June 12). The U.S. Justice Department went to court on Tuesday seeking to force Florida election officials to abandon the state's voter registration purge of non-citizens, saying it was being undertaken too close to the November presidential election.
  3. Reuters. Etzioni, A. (2010). Life: The Most Basic Right. Journal of Human Rights, 9, 100-110.
  4. Frieden, T. (2012, June 12). Justice Department lawsuit challenges Florida voter purge. CNN.com. New York Civil Liverties Union. (n.d.). Stop and Frisk Practices. Retrieved July 2012, from http://www.nyclu.org/issues/racial-justice/stop-and-frisk-practices
  5. Nickel, J. (2010). Human Rights. Retrieved June 2012, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights-human
  6. Postema, G. (2006). Interests, universal and particular: Bentham's utilitarian theory of value. Utilitas, 18(9), 109-133.
  7. Richardson, L. (2012). Police Efficiency and the Fourth Amendment. Indiana Law Journal, 87(3), 1143-1182.
  8. Sangiorgio, C. (2011). The death penalty and public information on its use. International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 25(1/2), 33-41.
  9. Stokes, L. D. (2007, August). Legislative and Court Decisions that Promulfated Racial Profiling: A Sociohistorical Perspective. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(3), 263-275.
  10. United Nations. (1948, December 10). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved July 2012, from Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf