Between Rights and Consequences
Suppose you happen to know that everyone in the world is going to die tomorrow (by some natural catastrophe, say the earth colliding with a large asteroid), unless you prevent it. Further suppose that the only way to prevent it involves stealing a piece of equipment worth a hundred dollars from someone who, in your opinion, rightfully owns it. Your choice is simple: violate libertarian principles by stealing something or let everyone die.I raised it again, implicitly, in my most recent book, Salamander, this one fantasy fiction. Prince Kieron is a major secondary character, brother and heir of the king and the royal official in charge of dealing with magery. One of his subordinates, Fieras, in the process of doing what the Prince wants him to do, uses illegal magery on Ellen, who is both a student and herself a very accomplished mage. She defeats his attempt, in the process providing clear evidence of what he was doing to several of the magisters, professors in the kingdom's only college of magery. She then accuses him to his boss, whose job includes arranging for the punishment of people who break the laws that restrict the use of magic. After agreeing to prosecute Fieras, he says:
What do you do?
"I apologize. ... and I concede the justice of your point. The King is not above the law. Nonetheless, I will not promise never to violate bounds or law myself, nor will I promise to instruct my servants never to do so. Law-breaking is a bad thing, whether by the King's servants or anyone else, but there are worse things, some of which it is my responsibility to deal with. I will promise not to violate bounds or law save in the most extreme circumstances, and to do my best to see that my servants will not, so that incidents such as the two you have described do not occur again. If my people are charged, as Fieras was, I will do my best to see that they get an honest trial. I am sorry, but that is the most I can offer."Later in the book, Prince Kieron tricks Ellen and Coelus, a magister who is in love with her, into his power, and threatens Ellen in order to force Coelus to complete an important piece of magical research—for details you will have to read the book.
The prince is not a villain. He is, on the whole, an admirable individual, doing his best to serve his brother the king and the kingdom his brother rules. He believes, reasonably although perhaps not correctly, that if he cannot get Coelus to do what he wants the likely consequence is that someone else will complete the research and use the result to kill the king and seize the throne. If his view of the situation is correct, he is in the sort of situation described in my first quote, although the disproportion between cost and benefit is not quite so extreme as in that example.
As evidence of my view of him, I let him get the girl; at the end of the book he is engaged to Ellen's friend Mari, the intelligent, beautiful, and high status woman he has been courting. In the sequel, I have been doing my best to avoid killing him, despite the suspicion that doing so would strengthen the plot.
I cannot prove that any particular moral beliefs are correct, and doubt that anyone else can. All I can report is the content of my moral intuitions, what seems right to me, and what I can deduce about what seems right to other people from what they say and do. On that basis, I do not think that either the pure consequentialist or the hard-line rights based view can be correct. Consequences are not all that matters, but they are a good deal of what matters. Rights are not absolute constraints, but neither are they mere rules of thumb to be discarded whenever there is good reason to think that doing so will produce somewhat improved results.