The Ethics of Emergency

Gifford Lectures

in The Lesser Evil

Published by Edinburgh University Press

Published in print April 2004 | ISBN: 9780748618729
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780748671892 | DOI:
The Ethics of Emergency

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Terrorist states of emergency raise fundamental questions about the nature of the rule of law. If laws can be abridged and liberties suspended in an emergency, what remains of their legitimacy in times of peace? If laws are rules, and emergencies make exceptions to these rules, how can their authority survive once exceptions are made? This chapter considers the impact of emergency suspensions of civil liberties on the idea of the rule of law, and asks a related question: what remains of the status of human rights if they can be abridged in times of public danger? It takes the position that exceptions do not destroy the rule but save it, provided that they are temporary, publicly justified, and deployed only as a last resort. The larger question is what role human rights should play in deciding public policy during terrorist emergencies. Most human rights conventions allow for the derogation or suspension of some rights in times of emergency. Suspending rights is a lesser evil solution, but it compromises the status of human rights as a set of unchanging benchmarks.

Keywords: rule of law; civil liberties; emergency suspensions; human rights; public danger

Chapter.  10338 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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