When is Something a Human Rights Violation? E.g. Is Poverty a Human Rights Violation?

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human rights violations / philosophy / poverty
hubble telescope sighting of comet-like asteroid

Hubble telescope sighting of comet-like asteroid


Suppose an asteroid is heading for earth and the calculations indicate that it will hit my hometown, Krasnoyarsk Krai, in Russia. There’s no time for me to flee, and I’m subsequently killed by the impact. Did the asteroid violate my human right to life? Everyone did everything to help me, but there wasn’t anything that could be done. And it was the impact that killed me, not a scramble for safety or whatever. Hence, no one is complicit, and no one can be blamed for failure to assist. No human beings are therefore in the least bit responsible for my death. Responsibility rests wholly with the asteroid.

But there lies the problem: an asteroid in a non-sentient being that can’t be responsible or irresponsible. It can’t “violate” a right since – according to the standard view – violating a right implies not just that there’s someone suffering a harm but also some kind of purposeful and conscious action on the part of a sentient being that

  • is aware of the possible consequences of certain actions
  • is capable of acting otherwise
  • and yet decides to act in a way that causes harm, and a particular form of harm that is also a rights violation.

Indeed, not all causing of harm is a rights violation, but all rights violations are a causing of harm. The asteroid impact would then be a harm that is not a rights violation.

However, I had a right to life, and my life was taken away from me. To me, it doesn’t matter a whole lot in which way exactly I came to my end: I’m as dead as I would be if my neighbor had killed me. My life was valuable to me, and the value it had was the reason why I had a right to life in the first place. It seems strange to claim that my right to life is only violated if my life is taken away in a certain manner. Still, I guess most of us wouldn’t say that being killed my an asteroid implies a violation of the right to life. In order for a right to be violated, there must be both a victim incurring some kind of harm (and not just any kind of harm) and a perpetrator inflicting the harm (a perpetrator who has the characteristics described above). No rights violations without rights violators.

So, the rather silly example of the asteroid boils down to a more general and more interesting question: what exactly does it take to call something a rights violation? When is a harm just a harm, and when is it also a rights violation? That is a more interesting question because it touches on some very relevant problems, more relevant at least than the asteroid problem. For example, many people believe poverty is not a rights violations (which means that the framers of the Universal Declaration were wrong since they included a right not to suffer poverty). They believe it’s not a rights violations because poverty isn’t caused by certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators; it’s just the unfortunate but unintended outcome of economic processes, much like the loss of life following an asteroid impact is an unfortunate and unintended outcome, and nothing more. Poverty eradication may then be a goal or an aspiration, and perhaps even a requirement of morality (e.g. the moral duty to engage in charity), but it is not, according to this view, required by the rights of the poor.

charity cartoon by John Cole

charity cartoon by John Cole


However, we can chip away at the standard view of rights violations as it is described above, in a way that makes poverty more like a human rights violation. For example, the capability of acting otherwise doesn’t really seem to be a necessary condition for a rights violation. The U.S. government was purportedly convinced that it had no alternative but to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to view those events as rights violations. The same is true for the other condition, the awareness of possible consequences: if I drive my car at high speed down a road which I believe is deserted, I also believe that my actions don’t have any possible consequences that can be harmful. And when I kill a girl crossing the street which I believed to be deserted, people will still think I’m culpable. And finally, there are many cases in which it’s impossible to define a purposeful and conscious actor but which we nevertheless label rights violations. Take communism for instance. Most of us would agree that communist rule in Soviet Russia was a massive rights violation. And yet, it’s impossible to single out the set of perpetrators.

Hence, the cut-off point between rights violations and unfortunate harm is actually a rather large gray zone. This zone probably doesn’t include asteroids, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that it does include an economic system of highly complex human interactions that leads to the poverty of some participants.

Moreover, poverty is often the direct result of purposeful and conscious actions on the part of sentient beings that are aware of the possible consequences of their actions and capable of acting otherwise. That’s true for many third world dictators, but also for westerners shielding their markets and restricting immigration. The point of this post however, is that poverty is not only a human rights violations when it’s the direct result of certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators.

There are two related posts here and here.


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  15. Interesting post. It leaves some open questions, though. In the post, poverty is an abstract concept. But who gets to define what poverty is? Most would probably agree that not having food enters the definition and not owning Nike shoes does not. But what about things like internet access?

    Maybe when we get to practical terms (i.e., to action) it is more fruitful to ask whether more concrete concepts like housing, food, and clothing, are human rights. But I also understand why having an umbrella term like poverty is important when it comes to organizing political and social change.

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