Is here. Some of my favorites:
Morality can be divided into three parts:
- the good thing to do
- the proper thing to do
- and the right thing to do.
1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t.
2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it.
3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it because someone else has a right to it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.
So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.
However, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights. You have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises.
So, morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights.
You’ve probably seen this one already, but it’s just too good to ignore. Maybe it’s even too good to be true. I mean, can anyone really believe people would fall for this?
If it’s a spoof, I’d be interested to know if there have been serious attempts to do this kind of thing and actually manipulate people.
Go here for other posts in this series.
Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.
Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.
But our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.
Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.
Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.
The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.
More posts in this series are here.
An engineer, a chemist and a statistician are working in a lab when a fire beaks out in a wastebasket. The engineer says: “We need some water to put out the fire!”, while the chemist says: “We don’t need water, we just need to cover the waste basket and prevent oxygen from getting to the fire, and it will go out.”
A heated argument between the engineer and chemist ensues over the better method of putting out the fire. Meanwhile, the statistician, having listened intently to the other two, begins running around the lab setting more fires. On realizing this, the engineer and chemist say to the statistician, “Wait! what are you doing!! You will burn the whole building down!!!”.
The statistician replies, “Look guys, if you really want to know which method works better, you are going to need a larger sample size.”
Like young children have to learn what dreams are so as not to be afraid of them, we will have to unlearn what the nation is so as not to be infatuated by it. Pride in a nation is not what the nation is. Be proud of yourself and your children because being proud of something without the ability to take credit for it is plagiarism. Nationalists are serial plagiarists. They appropriate the good of their nation (while the bad in their nation often appropriates them).
Nationalists defend this plagiarism by way of the notion of national identity. They assume that certain cherished traditions of the group and certain accomplishments of members of it derive at least in part from a national identity shared by all. This common identity is believed to cause the good in the nation, and because it is shared by all members it allows all to claim a share in the good. That is what national pride is. You claim to be proud of being Flemish because of all those great Flemish painters. But unless you remove in some way the difference between you as a person and the Flemish painters as persons – and you attempt to remove that difference by positing a common identity, a national identity – your pride would be nothing more than appropriation of someone else’s greatness.
The notion of national identity is what lies behind a lot of animosity towards foreigners. Arguments against immigration for example are fundamentally about identity, even when they appear to be about more mundane matters. Talk about protecting jobs and social security are not what they seem to be. We are a nation separate from others, and we should protect our identity. That means resisting foreign influence in all matters. We are masters of our realm, and we don’t want people coming here because if they do they will start to influence our being, our identity. That’s what separates tourists from immigrants. The former are harmless, but the latter, because they work here or enjoy our social benefits, will want to stay. And if they stay, they will change us. Talk about labor shortage or unaffordability of social security is just a front for identity politics. This is obvious from the fact that data on the economic effects of immigration has never supported the economic arguments against immigration, and yet these arguments continue to be expressed. Something deeper must be at stake.
We should instead view a nation as a cooperative arrangement for mutual benefit, both internally and against legitimate foreign threats. It has a number of traditions that are valuable because, and only because they improve the mutual cooperation. Forget about national identity. It’s not even clear that there is a thing called individual identity. You want to be proud of something? Do something noteworthy. You want to belong? A mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement is a nice thing to belong to. And if you have to, be proud of that arrangement to the extent that you contribute.
So, by all means, make your borders. A cooperative needs a delineation. You need to identify the cooperators and give them a cooperative say on the matters of the whole (a democracy works best in small, separate groups). But don’t exclude people for imaginary reasons or in the absence of real threats to the cooperative. There’s no national identity that immigrants can come to destroy. Do they disrupt your mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement? Are they criminals for example? Go ahead and exclude them (incarceration may, however, be a sufficient form of exclusion). And keep your eyes open to the many ways in which immigrants enhance the mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement. For example, they create jobs, they allow natives to move up the job ladder, they pay tax money (often more than they take), they have interesting food etc.
Don’t remove your borders, because you may face real threats. But open them, because opening them will in all likelihood benefit your cooperative. And even if there’s no effect, you must do it to respect the rights of the newcomers. Rights can only be limited when that is necessary for the rights of others. And it’s normally very hard to argue that limiting the rights of immigrants is necessary in order to protect the rights of natives. Hence you often see a heavy thumb on the scales: the rights of both parties are not given equal weight when the rights of immigrants are on one side of the equation.
How should this balancing work in general? When the rights of two parties are in conflict with each other, respecting the rights of one party usually means limiting the rights of the other party. Think of the journalist claiming his speech rights in order to violate the right to privacy of a politician. Someone – often a judge but we can all make the call - has to decide which party’s rights should give way. The normal criterion is the damage done to the rights of either party. In my example, unless the private fact that the journalist wants to publish is very important for the work of the politician, the latter’s right to privacy should prevail over the speech rights of the journalist who undoubtedly has many more important stories he can cover without harming the rights of others.
The same is true with immigrants versus natives. Both have rights, and immigration can perhaps, in some circumstances, cause violations of the rights of natives. However, it normally doesn’t. Which means that the right to movement of the immigrants should prevail. It’s only when the natives have a very strong case showing massive rights violations on their part caused by immigration that immigration can be stopped or limited. Don’t forget that on the immigrant side of the equation there’s not only the right to free movement but also rights such freedom of association, the right not to suffer poverty etc. You need a lot to outweigh those rights, and a lot is typically not available. In most cases there’s not even a bit.
First a quick reminder of the purpose of these posts. I’m trying to collect data on people’s views on moral dilemmas. This is the 25th dilemma I post. You would do m a great favor if you could answer the questions below, after having read about the dilemma. I promise that one day, I’ll publish a big analysis of all the data I have collected.
[Spoilers ahead.] Gone Baby Gone is a movie about two private investigators hunting for an abducted four-year-old girl from Boston. The two investigators get on the case after witnessing a televised plea by a woman named Helene McCready for the return of her missing daughter Amanda, who was abducted with her favorite doll “Mirabelle”.
It turns out that a police officer had conspired to stage a fake kidnapping in order to save Amanda from her mother’s neglectful parenting. The investigators do indeed find Amanda living happily with the officer and his wife. One of the investigators threatens to call the authorities, but the police officer attempts to convince him that Amanda is better off living with them than with her mother. The officer is later arrested, and Amanda is returned to her mother amidst heavy publicity.
The investigator responsible for the arrest later visits Amanda as Helene is about to leave on a date with someone she met during the publicity over her daughter’s disappearance. Helene has no babysitter for Amanda. The investigator volunteers to watch Amanda, who is holding her old doll and watching television. Patrick asks Amanda about Mirabelle, only to hear Amanda inform him that her doll’s name is “Annabelle” — implying that Helene did not even know the name of her daughter’s favorite toy.
If you want to add your voice to previous moral dilemmas, you can do so here. I would be eternally in your debt.