Rights Absolutism and the Justice System

Rights absolutism is the view that rights violations are never morally permissible. There is no circumstance in which an agent can be morally justified in violating another agent’s rights. Rights absolutism contrasts with any view that allows for rights that can be overridden by other considerations. For example, we might have prima facie rights that can be outweighed by extreme consequences. On such a view it is permissible to steal my neighbor’s car to get my dying friend to a hospital to save her life if an ambulance cannot reach us in time. In doing so, I have violated my neighbor’s property rights over his car, but my action was permissible because my friend’s life is more important than my neighbor’s property rights over his car.

Rights absolutists cannot allow for such car theft to ever be morally permissible. So, there are no circumstances in which it is morally permissible to violate the rights of another agent. There is a problem with this view, though. If we grant rights absolutism, how do we justify the justice system? We are flawed, finite creatures who are not particularly good at figuring out the truth. That fact is reflected by our justice system. The innocence project has freed many innocent people. These people had their rights violated by our justice system. They were wrongfully imprisoned. However, this is an inevitability given our epistemic capabilities and the nature of institutionalized justice-seeking. So, a justice system run by us is going to inevitably violate some people’s rights. There is no way around it.

But it seems like we need a justice system. We cannot do without institutionalized justice-seeking. How does the rights absolutist reconcile this with the fact that any justice system we come up with will violate some people’s rights? The obvious way out is to argue that the benefits of our justice system outweigh the costs of the inevitable rights violations. But to claim that is to abandon rights absolutism. It seems like the absolutist must either explain how we could have a justice system in which nobody’s rights are violated, or argue that we do not need institutionalized justice-seeking. I’m unsure about the plausibility of either move.