Mirko Bagaric: Suicide mission exposes human rights nonsense

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Teams working to cool Fukushima nuclear reactors have sacrificed their right to health and a safe workplace to prevent a crisis. Photo / AP
Teams working to cool Fukushima nuclear reactors have sacrificed their right to health and a safe workplace to prevent a crisis. Photo / AP

An illuminating subtext to the nuclear disaster in Japan is that in times of genuine human crisis our moral decisions are driven solely by the desire to maximise good consequences.

Moments like this expose the fiction and nonsense that is the human rights ideology.

In the end, the only thing that matters is promoting net prosperity, not sheepish adherence to abstract ideals.

This is demonstrated by the fact that not a single person in the world urged Japan to observe the occupational health and safety rights of the suicide workers (the "atomic samurais") who are continuing to work tirelessly to restore power and cool down the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors.

A team of 180 men have been working around the clock in shifts of about 50 in a valiant effort to stabilise the nuclear reactors. The exact levels of radiation they have been exposed to is unclear.

It is certain that the doses are life-threatening. It is just as certain that they will finish the job (body permitting) no matter how high the radiation levels have been or become.

In relation to the mission of the workers, Associate Professor Keiichi Nakagawa from the Department of Radiology at Tokyo Hospital said: "I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war."

But what about the workers' right to life? What about their right to a safe workplace?

The futility of such questions exposes the soft core of human rights idealism. It is unintelligible to attempt to rationalise the crisis in terms of actual and competing human rights claims. The workers will be required to do whatever is necessary to attempt to minimise the threat to the greater population.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan informed them: "You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable."

This is a repeat of the approach in Chernobyl. A former worker informed the media that "we were sent to work at the reactor, to clean up the waste. The general told us ,'I would rather have 2000 people contaminated if it lets 200 million people live'."

This approach is consistent with the lessons of history, especially during war time, where countries without exception are prepared to sacrifice the lives of some to advance the interests of the many.

And it is the morally correct approach. Ultimately, human lives and tangible interests must trump grand, but empty, notions such as "individual rights". Lost lives hurt a lot more than bent ideals.

A moral code which elevates individual rights and worships abstract notions above the common good is bankrupt and has no scope for application beyond the realm of fairy tales, where important rights never clash.

The reality is that sometimes rights do clash. When they do, the least horrible thing to do is that which causes the least amount of harm. Rights are innately individualistic and unrealistic. The reason that human rights "theories" are just that - theories - is that they seek to atomise people. Human rights theories focus on the individuals, but as a species we don't live as individuals.

We form communities - it is part of the way that humans are wired. We can't change that. The "end doesn't justify the means" is the catch-cry that human rights advocates trumpet most loudly in opposition to incursions of fundamental rights that are carried out for the common good.

The truth is that the end does justify the means. Always will. Nothing else matters.

No action is intrinsically bad or good. No principle is absolute. Ostensibly harmful acts which violate individual rights are permissible if they are for the greater good.

The conundrum that civil libertarians need to address is, if net flourishing does not justify the means then what does? Surely they must have some end in mind as well, beyond the repetition of fine words. Until their elusive end is revealed there is no basis for believing that their retorts are anything more than pre-reflective emotional responses.

Human rights talk can't sensibly resolve moral issues in times of crisis. It is equally impotent in relation to providing principled solutions to more banal situations involving competing individual interests and competition for public resources.

Against the backdrop of a groundless theory, the person who wins the debate is the one who screams loudest or has the most money.

The moral and political debate in relation to important societal issues must move on from how we best advance human rights to what end we should be attempting to secure. In this regard, there can be only one answer: to maximise net prosperity, where each agent's interests count equally.

The main aim of any government must be to ensure that even the worst off in any country have an adequate standard of living. History shows that once people are economically empowered and are armed with the basic needs, they are good at getting whatever rights they need.

* Professor Mirko Bagaric, lawyer, is at Deakin University, Melbourne.

- NZ Herald

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