data, human rights facts

Human Rights Facts (76): Mentions of “Human Rights” in the New York Times

The NYT has come out with a nice tool that let’s you count the number of mentions in its pages of a word or a series of words. Here’s the result for “human rights” (the labels in red are my doing):

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 7.06.10 PM


Jimmy Carter, whatever his flaws – and those are likely to be many – is known for his rights based foreign policy. It’s less well known that the March on Washington – the one of the “I have a dream” speech – was explicitly about human rights. The more recent and unprecedented focus of the NYT on human rights is more of a mystery. Undoubtedly it’s part of a worldwide emergence, but then we’ll have to explain the latter. And that’s hard. I have had a go before – for example here and here – but you told me I wasn’t very impressive. Maybe you can do better.

Similar data taken from Google’s Ngram tool are here. More human rights facts here.

freedom, what is freedom

What is Freedom? (19): Social Freedom


by Claudio Munoz


If you ask people what freedom is, then they tend to go with the “ability to do what you want” definition. And it’s equally likely that they immediately add a qualifier: this ability should not be absolute but instead limited by the same freedom of others and by the things that can harm others.

Sounds very reasonable, until you dig a little deeper. Freedom understood like this only pretends to give our fellow human beings their due. Other people in fact become the border of my freedom and are therefore something negative. I can only protect my freedom or my ability to do as I like by avoiding other people as much as possible, by withdrawing from society and by becoming self-sufficient. Freedom is isolation. As long as there are other people around, my freedom is restricted by others; it’s restricted both by the rule that I should not harm other people’s freedom, and by other people’s lack of respect for the same rule with regard to me (since rules are never fully respected).

The more I avoid other people, the less restricted are my actions, and my freedom increases. If I avoid people, then no one stands in my way, no one interferes with my life, no one obstructs my actions or prevents me from doing something, and no one’s freedom limits my own freedom. It seems I can only do this when I leave the community because then my actions are no longer limited by other people’s actions or by other people’s freedom.

I’m not being original here. Marx already formulated this problem in On the Jewish Question 170 years ago:

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. … [This kind of freedom] is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

Fellow man is merely a limitation or a restriction – the only legitimate restriction of my freedom – and not harming him is the only thing I do for him. This kind of freedom is not incompatible with positive relationships and cooperation, but it doesn’t help either. It’s extremely individualistic even if legitimate interests of others are taken into account. It’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with another understanding of freedom in which freedom requires the company of others and in which other people are the realization instead of the limitation of freedom.

What would such a conception of freedom look like? It would see other people as necessary conditions rather than restrictions, as the beginning rather than the end of freedom. Freedom would not retreat into a space – and inner space or a physical space away from others – in which we can escape the coercion and the rules of the outside world. I think it’s necessary to accept the reality that the world of appearances and of other people is of the utmost importance to freedom. Freedom is more than a withdrawal from the world, from the threatening world of other people who do not allow us to be free and whose freedom limits our actions, either voluntary as a consequence of their own actions, or involuntary as a consequence of our respect for their freedom.

But why is interaction with other people important for freedom? I need the company of other people in a formalized and structured public space protected by rights if I want to take my life in my hands, if I want to examine my opinions and preferences in order to be sure that what I want to do – with respect for other people’s freedom – is really what I want. “Really” means that what I want is something more than unreflective preference. I wish to be able to choose from a wide range of objectives, as many as possible, without discrimination, obstruction and punishment (with the exception of those objectives that impede the objectives of others), but that implies more than freedom from interference. I need to hear others defend certain objectives with the best arguments they can present in an inclusive and accessible place of debate protected by human rights. Without this public place, my ability to do what I want – with respect for the same ability of others – is an empty phrase. If I can do what I want without interference, but what I want is impossible for me to determine in a rational way on the basis of good arguments – or is perhaps even decided for me in some conscious or unconscious way – then I can’t do what I want.

More posts in this series are here.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism, war

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (167): They Look Like Another Shipment of Cannon Fodder

One hundred years ago today saw the start of World War 1, perhaps the first industrial war. Here’s a striking image from Flanders in 1917:

Another Shipment of Cannon Fodder. WW1 in Flanders

British troops from the 112 Railway Operating Company (ROC), in 1917

Another striking image from the same year:

Flares or perhaps mortars used in trench warfare. Photo taken by an official British photographer during WWI, 1917

Flares or perhaps mortars used in trench warfare. Photo taken by an official British photographer during WWI, 1917

More iconic images of human rights violations.

law, philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (56): Protection Against the State, and Something More


In our current, non-anarchist world, human rights depend on the state for their protection. Judicial courts, the police force and political institutions such as the welfare state and democratic governance are requirements for rights realization. Perhaps in some future state of affairs that will no longer be the case, but presently it is. Which means that human rights are more than just protective tools directed against the power of the state. They are part of the state. Or better they should be. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” says the Declaration of Independence of 1776. The state should protect its citizens against its own abuses of power (and of course also against the exercise of illegitimate power by fellow citizens, but that’s a topic for another time).

Many if not most violations of human rights are caused by state actions, even when the state in question is relatively benevolent. Power corrupts, and that is why we need rights to limit power. However, without power, rights are useless. Human rights limit the actions of the state, determine what a state is not allowed to do or should refrain from doing, and define those areas where the state is not allowed to interfere. But human rights also, and positively, determine what the state should do. They demand positive action and interference from the state.

For example: the state should not only avoid torturing its citizens, it should also actively protect and help those citizens who are tortured, most commonly by some part of the state but perhaps also by fellow citizens. This means that abstention and forbearance on the part of the state, no matter how important, are not enough. The state also has a duty to act in order to protect rights. And if human rights require that the state abstains, then the state should be actively engaged in enforcing its own abstention. (Needless to say that this implies a separation of powers).

This active engagement can even go one step further. Human rights sometimes require more than actively enforced abstention. What is true for torture is also true for economic rights: the state should not only avoid creating or maintaining poverty but also try to create a minimum amount of prosperity for all. A right not to suffer poverty is an example of a right that requires the obtention of something (although it can also require abstention as in the case of Mao’s Great Leap Forward). Here we’re dealing with so-called positive rights as opposed to negative rights. (In French they call it ”le droit à l’obtention et à l’exigence” as opposed to “le droit à la résistance et à la défense”).Whether you like it or not, the state is often one of the parties that should assist people in obtaining what they have a right to, at least on the condition that there’s no other, less invasive means of obtention.

But let’s not put too much emphasis on this distinction between abstention and obtention, or between negative and positive rights. Every human right, including those rights that seem to demand only the absence of state action, require state action, for example action in the form of a judgement of a court of justice concerning an illegal state action, and the police measures enforcing this kind of judgement. The state should commit, as well as omit; prevent, provide, protect and engender, as well as forbear; and it’s not at all obvious that particular types of human rights systematically need more of one or the other type of state conduct.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Something merely negative, such as abstention, forbearance or a limited state, can never constitute a state, as Hannah Arendt has rightly stressed in “On Revolution”. There is a reason for having a state.

Human rights, particularly in the early stages of their historical development, were considered as primarily directed against the state. This was also the main cause of their initial success. The theory of anti-state rights was inherent in the idea of human rights as natural rights. Natural rights, as opposed to legal rights, are not given by the state and can be used by citizens as an instrument of defense against the state.

However, none of this should make us forget that there is something inherently positive in the state and that rights can’t be entirely “natural”, whatever that means, at least not if we want them to be real and enforceable. As things are in our day and age, it’s often the state and its legal rights that protect us against violations of our human rights, at least ideally and more commonly when the state is a democracy. It does this, not only by passively abstaining, but also by actively doing something.

More posts in this series are here.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (166): Death in Gaza

A few days ago, civilians rush to help after rockets exploded on a beach in Gaza City. Four boys died. Photo by Tyler Hicks

A few days ago, civilians rushed to help after rockets exploded on a beach in Gaza City. Four boys died. Photo by Tyler Hicks


Here is Israeli artist Amir Schiby commemorating the Israeli killing of four Palestinian children playing on a beach in Gaza:


Just a few days after the event:

@paulmasonnews: Just met these kids swimming where 4 boys killed by Israeli drone several days ago. Drones overhead

@paulmasonnews: Just met these kids swimming where 4 boys killed by Israeli drone several days ago. Drones overhead


More iconic images of human rights violations.

law, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (55): Universal, Not Uniform


Universality doesn’t equal uniformity. If we insist on uniformity, then we will probably not achieve universality. We will convince more people of the desirability of human rights if we take local circumstances into consideration than if we simply copy things coming from the outside. And that’s not just a tactical surrender: we don’t need uniformity.

Regional differences are possible both at the level of the laws that protect human rights, and at the level of the ways in which these laws are applied, and all this without impairing the universality of human rights. We can frame laws in a flexible way and we can apply them in a flexible way.


Laws are necessary (although not sufficient) for the effective protection of human rights. However, it’s obviously impossible and undesirable to have the same laws in all countries, even the same basic laws. We have to translate the general, morality based language of treaties and declarations into specific and operable legal wordings, and those can differ from country to country, as well as from period to period. Effective laws and rights can’t be formulated in a globally uniform way or in a way that does not take the concrete circumstances in which they have to function into consideration. As these circumstances differ from country to country, the laws have to be different as well. Laws have to correspond to specific needs. A certain social or political context can make it necessary to focus attention on one particular right, on one particular group of rights or on one particular aspect of a right.

A “Bill of Rights” is always a “Bill of Wrongs”. Rights begin with the experience of an injustice. According to the nature of the injustices or “wrongs” in a particular society, some rights have to be especially accentuated or elaborated. Sometimes, elements of rights have to be specified in one country but not another because the problem in question is present only in one country. For example, we can imagine that in post-Soviet Russia, for example, there is a need for a right establishing the freedom to criticize the works of Marx and Engels, or a need for a particular emphasis on the right to private property of the means of economic production. In the constitutions of other countries there may be no need for such an emphasis because the things one wants to protect are never threatened.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that circumstances or “cultures” should be given priority over rights. It only means that the need for certain rights or for certain emphases can be different in different cultures or countries. Human rights have to be integrated in concrete legal systems and concrete societies, each with their own history and their own problems, but this contextuality does not imply ethical relativism or “anything goes”.

Insisting on global uniformity also means disregarding the fact that rights evolve. The body of rights as it exists now is not fixed for all times. New rights or new and wider definitions of existing rights can be established when new wrongs are identified, for example as a consequence of technological or scientific developments (think of the internet, which may require a new right to internet access). It can also happen that we need new rights because we have only now become aware of certain wrongs that have existed for ages, but have been neglected. This was the case for women’s rights, although some of those rights – such as universal suffrage – are a different emphasis rather than an innovation.

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested outside Charing Cross station to stop her speaking in Trafalgar Square, 8 March 1914

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested outside Charing Cross station to stop her speaking in Trafalgar Square, 8 March 1914

Similarly, we may one day have to eliminate rights that become superfluous. Maybe food shortages can become a thing of the past, given the right technology and political will. If so, then the right to food will sound as strange as the right to air does today (although the same future may remove the strangeness of the latter).


Not only the legal formulation of rights should allow flexibility; the same is true for the ways in which given formulations are applied by judges. In order to take into account certain specific needs, laws can be applied in a flexible or different way according to the context. Most human rights are not absolute. They can be limited when limits are required in order to protect other rights or the rights of others. Someone’s right to property, for example, can be limited if this is necessary to realize the economic rights of other people. We have a right to property but not at the expense of the rights of people who do not have enough property to survive. Rights can contradict each other or can be used or misused to harm people, and when this happens, priority has to be given to one right or another, or to the rights of one person or another. The protection of one right may require limits on other rights.

This does not contradict the claim that rights are interdependent. In many cases, rights are dependent on other rights. In other cases, rights require limits on other rights.

How do judges decide which right has priority? Normally this is the right that in the given circumstances best protects the different goals and values of rights. Take for example the conflict between the right to freedom of expression of a journalist and the right to privacy of a public figure. What value is served by the publication of the sexual habits of a politician? None, I believe, except, of course, when these habits influence his or her public role. Normally, the right to privacy should prevail in such a case. A publication describing the sexual habits of someone does not contribute to any of the values that rights are supposed to serve, such as prosperity, peace etc. On the other hand, the right to privacy of the politician obviously does contribute.

The flexibility of human rights is expressed in the way in which these rights are limited. A country with a serious problem of violence, crime or terrorism needs a strong police force. Certain rights will then have to give way to the so-called integrity rights (life, physical integrity, security etc.) and will have to give way to a larger extent than in other states. States that face a persistent and widespread problem of racism can be forced to impose more severe limits on the freedom rights of some, in order to protect the equality of others. Maybe Germany does have to be less forgiving towards neo-Nazis and their right to speech and to associate – maybe it even needs a law against them.

It’s true that circumstances can be used as an excuse to violate rights. But that’s not an argument in favor of uniformity.

More posts in this series are here.

human rights images, photography and journalism

Child Labor, A Collection of Images (4)

Indian children working at a construction site near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Indian children working at a construction site near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

child labor on a street in London, c. 1876, photo by John Thomson

child labor on a street in London, c. 1876, photo by John Thomson

Issa, 10, carries a mortar shell in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, Sept. 7, 2013. Issa works with his father in the factory for 10 hours every day except on Fridays. Photo by Hamid Khatib/Reuters

Issa, 10, carries a mortar shell in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, Sept. 7, 2013. Issa works with his father in the factory for 10 hours every day except on Fridays. Photo by Hamid Khatib/Reuters

child labor in the US, beginning of 20th century

child labor in the US, beginning of 20th century; Doffer boys. Macon, Georgia; photo by Lewis Hine

(source unknown)
Zakir, 10, pauses during his work of cutting fish at Karachi's Fish Harbor on Feb. 1, 2012. Zakir earns $2.20 per day. Rising food and fuel prices and a struggling economy have forced many families to send their children to work instead of school. Photo by Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Zakir, 10, pauses during his work of cutting fish at Karachi’s Fish Harbor on Feb. 1, 2012. Zakir earns $2.20 per day. Rising food and fuel prices and a struggling economy have forced many families to send their children to work instead of school. Photo by Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

A 15-year-old Trapper Boy in a West Virginia Coal mine. All he does is to open and shut this door, for $0.75 a day, 1907

A 15-year-old Trapper Boy in a West Virginia Coal mine. All he does is to open and shut this door, for $0.75 a day, 1907

Filipino child laborers work in a charcoal dump in Manila, Philippines, July 9, 2012. The use of child labor in the Philippines was recently highlighted in a report by the International Labor Organization, which estimates over 5 million children in the country aged 5-17, work. Dondi Tawatao Getty Images

Filipino child laborers work in a charcoal dump in Manila, Philippines, July 9, 2012. The use of child labor in the Philippines was recently highlighted in a report by the International Labor Organization, which estimates over 5 million children in the country aged 5-17, work. Dondi Tawatao Getty Images

child labor

Girls deliver ice, September 16, 1918

(source unknown)
child labor

Mandalay, Myanmar/Burma, photo by Steve McCurry


Other collections of images of child labor are here.

philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (54): The Scope and Coverage of Rights, As Exemplified by Free Speech

free speech


It’s important to know what exactly is covered by a certain human right, otherwise we can’t be sure that we have a right to do what we do and we can’t properly protect others against violations of their rights. Maybe we think that a right protects a certain thing that we do but in reality this thing is outside the scope of the right. Or maybe we want to protect other people engaging in an activity but none of their rights covers this activity.

So you see the importance of the question of coverage or scope. Having a right means knowing how far this right goes. Answering this question requires an answer to at least three further questions:

  1. Who’s protected by a right? And whose activities are restricted by it?
  2. What types of actions are protected by a right, and to what extent? Where is the line between protected actions and legitimate restrictions on actions?
  3. Which obligations does a right impose on whom?

Let’s try to answer these questions by way of the example of the right to free speech.

1. Who’s protected by the right to free speech? And whose activities are restricted by it?

1.1. Who’s protected?

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evilBoth speakers and audiences are protected. A cursory look at the language – “a right to free speech” – would lead us to assume that only speakers are protected, but that’s wrong: the right to free speech includes the right of audiences to receive the free speech of others. The interests of both speakers and audiences are protected by the right to free speech. This is evident when one takes a closer look at the exact formulation of this right in legal texts.

One reason for this is a purely logical one: speech without an audience doesn’t make sense. Another, more substantive reason why the right to free speech also protects the interests of audiences has to do with the role this right plays in the search for truth. In a nutshell: audiences are necessary for the refinement of arguments. Read the post I just linked to for the full story.

Other groups that can legitimately claim protection of their speech are

  • foreigners: there’s no good reason to assume that foreigners residing within a country’s jurisdiction should not enjoy the same speech rights as citizens (the same isn’t necessarily the case for all human rights)
  • future generations: current generations shouldn’t act in ways that restrict the freedom of speech of future generations
  • companies, etc.

1.2. Whose activities are restricted?

Laurel and HardyA list of protected actors only tells us a tiny bit about how far a right goes. Defining the agents or institutions whose actions are bound by the right is equally important. Traditionally, it’s assumed that the right to free speech – like all other rights – limits the power of governments. Of course it does, but it also does a lot more. If it would only restrict a government’s power to prohibit and sanction forms of speech, then the scope of the right to free speech would be rather limited because private persons would be at liberty to restrict it as they see fit. Theoretically, although not always legally, the right also restricts private individuals, companies, churches etc. None of those agents or institutions has a right to prohibit people from exercising their right to free speech.

2. What types of actions are protected by the right to free speech, and to what extent? And which are legitimate restrictions on actions?

The scope of a right depends on decisions about who is allowed to claim it and about who is bound by this claim, but it also depends on the types of actions it protects or fails to protect. In our example, we have to define “speech”. On the one hand, it can’t just be the spoken or written word since we express ourselves in ways that don’t involve speaking or writing. Audiences also want to receive information in forms different from ordinary language. For example art, data and speech acts such as flag burning should also be covered by the right to free speech.

On the other hand, not all forms of expression or information gathering should be covered, because then everything would be covered and legislation would be impossible: every act including murder can be conceived as an expressive act, and people can find information anywhere. Not all expressive acts or information gathering can or should be legally protected. Hence, one has to draw a line somewhere.

hitler doin' some hate speeching

Hitler doin’ some hate speeching

The exact location of the line, and hence the exact scope of the right to free speech, varies from case to case and depends on the impact of language and speech acts on other rights and the rights of others. For example, if hate speech violates other people’s rights (such as their freedom of residence or movement), then this form of speech falls outside the scope of freedom of speech. Mere derogatory speech on the other hand may not result in rights violations and then falls within the scope. Speech acts such as cross burning may also, depending on their impact on the rights of others, fall either within or outside the scope (cross burning during a private party is different from burning a cross in the front lawn of a lone black family living in a racist neighborhood).

Another way of putting this is that the scope of one right is determined by the scope of other rights, or that the scope of the rights of some is determined by the scope of the rights of others. Both scopes need to balanced against each other. This balancing is usually the business of judges and there’s no way to fix the outcome by way of strict rules. It all depends on a personal judgment by a judge about the harm done by including an action in the scope of a right compared to the harm done by excluding it. Hence, the scope of a right can never be completely fixed. We can never tell exactly how far a right goes.

The same logic holds for so-called place and space restrictions and fairness restrictions. A right to free speech doesn’t imply a right to free speech in any chosen space or place: not everyone as a right to publish in the New York Times or to speak in Congress; and you can’t insist that you have a right to speak in someone else’s house or private property, unless proper balancing has resulted in a judgment that in a specific case the right to private property should give way. (The latter may be the case when private restaurant and shop owners band together to discriminate black customers and when those customers stage protests). Place and space restrictions can be justified either by the necessity to respect the scope of other rights (property for instance) or by the fact that sufficient alternative speaking channels are available (the NYT isn’t the only newspaper).

Examples of fairness restrictions are the prohibition of the heckler’s veto and the fairness doctrine. In both examples, the right to free speech of some is restricted in order to guarantee the right to free speech of others (proper balancing is again required; methods of balancing are discussed here).

Obviously, the actual as opposed to the theoretical scope of the right to free speech isn’t just determined by legitimate restrictions. In real life, as opposed to ideal theory, governments and (groups of) individuals impose illegitimate restrictions. And other, more creeping restrictions such as chilling effects, psychological biases, self-censorship and political correctness, exist as well.

3. Which obligations are imposed on whom?

A final way of measuring the scope of the right to free speech is by having a look at the nature of the obligations it creates. More wide ranging obligations make for a wider scope, and limited obligations for a limited scope. And here as well we find a common misunderstanding. (A first misunderstanding was that the right only protects speakers; another was that it only limits the power of governments). It’s not true that the right to free speech only imposes a negative duty not to restrict speech. This negative duty is important but it’s also meaningless when it’s not accompanied by more positive duties. For example, a person’s speech may not be restricted by anyone and yet her lack of education, leisure time or other resources make it impossible for her to engage in meaningful speech. Hence, the government and others have certain duties to provide resources: education, internet access etc. And let’s not forget that a negative duty to refrain from speech restrictions requires a positive duty to provide mechanisms such as courts, a police force and other means to undo or prevent speech restrictions.

Similar arguments can be made for most other rights.

PS: here are some useful links that I’ve recovered from a previous post and that are relevant to the question at hand:

A related post on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

activism, human rights video, photography and journalism

Human Rights Video (27): Black Child Fed Like a Dog in South African Charity Ad

Wow, this really takes the shock approach to charity advertising to a whole new level:

The video shows a young black boy being treated like a pet by a wealthy white person. For instance, the boy/dog brings the newspaper to his/its “owner” and gets a treat as a reward. The message is that dogs have a better life than young blacks in South Africa, and that racism is to blame. This may be true. There’s still a lot of poverty there and things are only slowly improving. However, the video comes across as unnecessarily offensive, at least to me. I understand that it’s sometimes necessary to shock people in order to get a message across, but it’s not as if we don’t know that blacks in SA are often poor and hungry or that there’s racism in that particular country. I mean, I challenge you to think about “racist country” and come up with another country first.

After the video itself, there’s someone offering a short justification that sounds very unconvincing. “What if this advert changes a child’s life? What if it changes 3.5 million lives?”  Well, I’ve got news for you: adverts don’t do that. If you want to make a difference, donate directly.

More about this particular video is here. More human rights videos are here.

UPDATE: message received apparently. The video has now been made “private”… This way it’s “impact guaranteed”. A few screenshots that haven’t been censored:

1404838192-South Africa


Here’s an incomplete pirate version:


activism, human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

Doku Umarov showing some moral disapproval

Doku Umarov showing some moral disapproval


Actions are motivated by beliefs, at least to some extent. (I’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s safe to say that many actions are driven mainly by beliefs, beliefs both about the nature of facts and about how we should act – factual and moral beliefs in other words. Unsurprisingly therefore, many actions that result in rights violations are also caused by beliefs. Certain beliefs are harmful to human rights because they result in actions that violate those rights. I’ll focus here not on harmful beliefs that are self-interested – I find those rather boring – but rather on harmful moral beliefs: rights are often violated because of the view that other people should be forced to do what the coercers believe is the “right thing”. (FGM is an example that comes to mind.)

Beliefs about how we should act are often based on beliefs about “facts” (for example the supposedly detrimental facts that result from failure to perform FGM, such as female promiscuity and bad hygiene). “Facts”, in turn, are seen through a thick interpretative layer of beliefs about morality, which is why I use the scare quotes. For example, if you oppose homosexuality for moral reasons (because “it’s wrong”), then you may tend to see homosexuality as “unnatural”, and this view is often proposed as factual. 

One way to undermine harmful moral beliefs is to attack their factual basis. We can point out the real facts (for example, that the Koran does not require FGM, or that women’s sexual morality and health do not require it). Of course, people who are for some reason intimately attached to certain beliefs will “find” other “facts” to support them. In some cases, however, challenging people’s factual beliefs can make them reject their harmful moral beliefs. At least that’s my belief.

We can also attack harmful moral beliefs directly and try to persuade people to change those beliefs irrespective of their factual basis. For example, we can stress inconsistencies or logical fallacies in ethical beliefs. We can say to racist Christians that the teachings of their God include statements about human equality and rules about neighborly love. And the naturalistic fallacy is abundant (“homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural”; “we should not care about distant strangers because evolution has programmed us to take care of our own”, etc.). 



In short, there’s a whole lot we can say in order to undermine harmful moral beliefs and promote support and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, this will only work in some cases. Ask yourself how often you’ve modified your own moral beliefs. I myself can only come up with two examples: my views about criminal punishment and immigration. (To the extent that I’m quite ashamed of some of the older posts on this blog, to which I won’t link). When we do change our moral beliefs, it’s because we’ve become convinced that the facts on which we’ve based our moral beliefs aren’t what we thought they were (immigration isn’t harmful, capital punishment doesn’t deter, gay marriage doesn’t undermine traditional marriage etc.). When we change our moral beliefs, this is why we do it, not because we now see the moral truth of something (the truth of the rule that strangers have as many rights as we have, that criminal shouldn’t be treated as means to scare future criminals, that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine rights etc.).

So, the best means to change harmful moral beliefs is to attack the supposedly factual basis of those beliefs. However, as I’ve said, this won’t work every time or even a lot of the time, because we constantly try to marshal new facts as a basis of our moral beliefs when the old facts become discredited. If necessary we fabricate the facts. That we do this points towards a deeper problem. Maybe what really motivates us are primordial emotional reactions such as disgust, cleverly dressed up and rationalized by way of beliefs and “facts”.

There’s a great scene at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds about how we can’t justify our disgust of rats on the basis of facts that wouldn’t also justify disgust of pretty squirrels:

If indeed we’re not motivated by moral beliefs or facts, then no amount of moral reasoning or factual discussion can help us avoid rights violations resulting from post hoc rationalizations of our disgust. A more emotional kind of persuasion may be more promising. Telling people stories about the suffering of those who are seen as disgusting can conceivably remove their disgust and hence their need for harmful beliefs and biased selection or creation of “facts”. The chances of something like this succeeding have to be balanced against the “primordial” nature of a lot of our emotional reactions. “Primordial” in the sense of “very old” and “resulting from early human evolution”. That’s a steep climb. 

All this has implications for the legalistic approach to human rights promotion. To the extent that rights violations are actions that have a deep foundation in our emotions – and not all rights violations are like that – legislating them away won’t work. Other strategies have to be employed. 

There’s a good podcast about the same topic by the VeryBadWizards guys here. More about persuasion here and here. More posts in this series are here.

ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Good and Evil, by Fint art

Good and Evil, by Fint art


Proponents of human rights are often cast as moral realists, and opponents as moral subjectivists. Let’s start with the latter. Opponents of universal human rights tend to be cultural relativists who believe that moral standards and values derive from – “are relative to” – different cultures. When those standards and values are incompatible with human rights, then human rights should give way. Giving priority to human rights would mean imposing the standards and values developed in and by one particular culture onto another. And that would be cultural imperialism and disrespect for human diversity.

My use of the word “developed” is intentional: it indicates that most relativists are also constructivists who argue that moral values are constructed and transmitted, rather than discovered. Not necessarily consciously constructed – more often unconsciously and without planning or intent. Relativists/constructivists argue that cultures refine throughout the ages what is best for them. It’s probably best to call this meta-ethical view a form of subjectivism in the sense that moral standards and values are

  1. rules of conduct specific to a particular subject – a culture in this case – rather than universal and objective, and
  2. subjective in the cognitive sense, meaning created by human subjects rather than a fact that can be discovered in the world.

I personally conform to the standard representation of a human rights proponent since I have my quarrels with cultural relativism as a form of moral subjectivism. I believe in universal rights that should override certain cultural norms. Human sacrifice for instance is wrong. Culturally sanctioned gender discrimination is wrong. And so on. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to reject moral subjectivism tout court and adopt moral realism. I don’t want to claim that statements such as “human sacrifice is wrong” are true in an objective sense, even though I have strong beliefs about such statements. Most moral realists do make that claim. Let’s have a closer look at moral realism and then try to loosen the link between moral realism and human rights theory.

The_Truth_is_Out_There_by_DoniouMoral realism is a cognitivist and objectivist theory about morality: some ethical propositions are objectively true, independent of subjective opinion, like some propositions about the world are objectively true. And we can know and discover these objective moral truths. The implication is that true ethical propositions are true independently of culture. “Honesty is good” and “slavery is bad” are moral facts according to moral realists. If some – or all – cultures were to reject these facts and adopt contrary moral values, then that wouldn’t change the true nature of those moral facts. Morality is “out there”, but individuals or cultures can decide to ignore it. A moral realist who is also a rights proponent will say that human rights are true and that opponents of rights are simply mistaken about what is objectively right (or lying about what is right).

I don’t have a very strong conviction about the relative merits of different meta-ethical theories (it’s a tough problem), but I do have my suspicions. I tend to believe that moral realism is wrong. Maybe it’s not, in which case it would be perfectly OK to be both a proponent of human rights and a moral realist. Moral realism certainly isn’t incompatible with human rights. I want to argue against the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to be a moral realist in order to believe strongly in human rights. It’s not. And it’s good that it’s not because it may turn out that moral relativism is wrong, as I suspect.

speech2I defend a position which we could call universalist intersubjectivism (and I’m terribly sorry for the ugly term; I’m sure it’s as catchy as everything else I write). Intersubjectivism means that morality is about opinions, but not about subjective opinions, unfounded opinions or opinions that evolve more or less unconsciously and automatically throughout the life of a culture or a nation. Moral opinions can be good or bad. They are good when they are tested in common deliberation and exchange of arguments between rational subjects – hence intersubjectivism. The goal is to come to some form of agreement – hence universalist intersubjectivism. Intersubjectivism is universal rather than relative, and it’s also a weak rather than a strong cognitivism: we can distinguish good from bad opinions because we have the test of the marketplace of ideas, but the good opinions will probably not ascend to the level of truths. Morality is not (only) the product of cultural development, traditions or evolutionary psychology, but also of reasoning and argumentation. Reasoning, however, that will – most likely – fall short of truth claims.

So I don’t believe in the realism of moral realism. There’s only intersubjective agreement about justified opinions, no objective moral truth. Moral claims such as human rights or the foundational values that require human rights for their realization (e.g. “peace is good”) are not objective moral truths or moral facts but justified opinions that have withstood the test of argumentation in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it doesn’t have to be true that individuals should be treated as moral agents with a right to think for themselves. All we need is that this view about individuals is reasonable, justified and able to survive deliberation and argumentation. It need not even be a very common view, since argumentation may not be close to what it can ideally be. The intersubjective agreement that we aim at is limited to what rational actors can decide to agree to in a setting that is favorable to argumentation. In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.

When that is the case, intersubjective agreement on the importance of human rights may be a minority point of view. I believe, however, that we can improve social argumentation and extend intersubjective agreement as long as we make the effort of designing and protecting the marketplace of ideas. And as long as we depart somewhat from the moral realist position. The moral realist who maintains that moral truths are “out there” waiting to be discovered, is unlikely to view argumentation as very important. Those, on the other hand, who claim that morality is about argued opinions that can withstand the test of controversy will be more favorable to fostering institutions for argumentation. Moral realists are also more likely to be dismissive of people with the “wrong” views, and dismissiveness has never convinced anyone.

More on the same topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

(image source)
iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism, war

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (165): Shell Shock

100 years ago today, Gavrilo Princip kills Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo. A few weeks later, WWI started. For some reason, one thing in particular comes to mind when I remember my history lessons: shell shock.

Shell shocked soldier, 1916

Shell shocked soldier, 1916

Shell shock was the reaction of some soldiers in World War I to the trauma of battle and to the intensity of the bombardments. The illness covered a wide variety of symptoms: helplessness appearing variously as panic or flight, an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk, amnesia, hysterical paralysis, contractures, mutism. A dazed thousand-yard stare is also typical.

Shell shock would later be called “war neurosis“. It’s similar to but not the same thing as PTSD. Like in the case of PTSD, mental stress leads to dramatic physical difficulties.

Here are two interesting and short documentaries:

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

An Attempt to Justify the Publication of Images of People Suffering Rights Violations

Photographers holding their iconic images

Photographers holding their iconic images


Most of the time, I write about human rights in highly abstract terms, and I feel that this doesn’t quite do justice to the theme. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is, like most clichés, partially true. Hence my decision to publish photographs of human rights violations. I even have a blog series entirely dedicated to iconic or soon to be iconic images of human rights violations. 

Now and then, this decision has led to complaints from readers. The images that I publish, although invariably showing human rights violations, do not necessarily induce horror or disgust, but some of them do given the nature of the topic. It’s understandably unpleasant when shocking images are hoisted upon readers without warning. I do try to hide the most horrific ones behind a warning, as in this case for example. But in general I just show the images as they are. 

Why do I do this? Certainly not because I like to shock. My only reason for posting images of rights violations is our need to know what it means to have our rights violated. A lot of this meaning is captured in images rather than words. We often only really know what it means to have our rights violated when we know what it looks like to have our rights violated. This isn’t just because of mnemonic reasons – although it’s obviously true that an image will produce better retention, and that better retention will increase long term consciousness. (One can reasonably hope that long term consciousness of an issue promotes activism). Images have a vividness and clarity that is often absent from words – or at least from my words. Readers’ feelings of disgust or horror, although regrettable, are a necessary corollary of the process of learning about human rights. 

Apart from reader sensitivities, there are other arguments against the publication of images of people having their rights violated. For example, people may be harmed by the knowledge that the suffering of their friends or family members is displayed in public. In some cases, they may even learn about this suffering through the publication of photographs, which is of course an even greater form of harm. And what about the dignity and privacy of those suffering? 

Those points are moot in the case of most photographs that I publish. Those are often photographs that have been published before, and I tend not to publish very recent ones. Hence I’m not telling relatives about what happened to their loved ones; and privacy is obviously not a concern to victims and relatives who are long since death. When I do publish photos of recent events, I try to blur the victims’ faces (see this example).

I have to say that I’m not absolutely convinced I’m doing the right thing here. Posts like this one make me doubt. So I’m open to persuasion, but as it stands I’ll keep my policy in place.

economics, equality, freedom, justice, philosophy, poverty, work

Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

free money

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this, or – better still – buy this wonderful book). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.
activism, human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (22): What Hope is There For Persuasion?

An American suffragette with an umbrella stands next to a baby carriage and wears a sign proclaiming "Women! Use your vote", circa 1920

An American suffragette with an umbrella stands next to a baby carriage and wears a sign proclaiming “Women! Use your vote”, circa 1920

The ability to persuade other people is important for human rights in at least two different ways:

  • How do we achieve respect for human rights? Since a lot of human rights violations are caused by ideas and opinions – for example by harmful moral judgments or political ideologies – respect for human rights depends at least in part on our ability to change minds, other people’s as well as our own.
  • Why do we need human rights? Certain human rights in particular, such as the right to free speech, are justified by our need to persuade others. We want to express ourselves and we express ourselves for different reasons: to communicate our identity, to signal what we think about something, but most importantly to persuade others of the goodness of our opinions, compared to their opinions. That’s a universal human need. Ideally, we also believe that expressing our opinions improves those opinions. We prepare our opinions in advance of expressing them, and – knowing that we will be criticized for those opinions by other agents freely expressing themselves – we try our best to prepare our opinions for this criticism. We consider possible counterarguments in advance and how to reply to them. This brings with it the possibility that we refine our opinions or even replace them with better ones, based on our inner reasoning in preparation of our expression. Free speech – our own free speech and that of our critics – helps us improve our opinions. Persuasion – both of others and of ourselves – is therefore an important reason why we need human rights. (This is the theory behind the notion of the marketplace of ideas).

The problem is that people don’t seem to be very good at persuading each other or themselves. The description of communication that I’ve given here is highly idealized. If we can’t dramatically improve our ability to persuade, then we’ll have a hard time fighting for rights because we’ll lose weapons as well as reasons necessary for this fight. There are other non-communicative means to increase the levels of respect for human rights (reciprocity, self-interest, the law etc.), and the need to improve our opinions and to persuade isn’t the only possible justification for human rights (other justification are offered here). But in such an important fight a restricted arsenal or rationale is a net negative. So it’s worth the effort to try and remove some of the things that make it hard to persuade.

So what are we up against? Apart from the obvious and uninteresting fact that some people are immune to persuasion – good luck talking to the Taliban – there are other and perhaps even more damaging causes of a lack of persuasion: confirmation bias, the importance of emotions rather than reasoning or argumentation as a basis of our beliefs, polarization, and a whole set of other psychological biases (e.g. the belief that beautiful people make better sounding arguments).


What to do about all this? We should avoid the obvious conclusion that humans are merely bias machines governed by unconscious reflexes, responses to stimuli, emotions and prejudices formed through ages of human evolution. Or that rational argument based on facts and sound reasoning never plays any role. Many but probably not all our opinions and decisions are biased by prejudice and emotive reactions created by a mind shaped by evolution. There’s certainly no hope of radically removing those parts of our minds that work that way, but we can hope to reduce their effect. If we are conscious of our confirmation bas, for instance, then we can try to counteract it by actively seeking out disconfirming information or by making an effort to read people from the opposing side. Rational persuasion can and does occur, and we can make it occur more often than it does today. For example, here and here are two examples of cognitive scientists pushing back against the current trend in their profession. They show how strong arguments can indeed persuade people and how group reasoning in particular is helpful.

More posts in this series are here.

economics, work

Let’s Get Rid of Wage Labor

cooperation by Francesa Miller

Cooperation, by Francesa Miller

I’m serious: make it illegal. But not before we have a universal basic income. A UBI will encourage self-employed or cooperative ventures freely chosen by those who engage in it. In the absence of a UBI, many of us have a job not because the activities associated with the job allow us to pursue our goals, but because the job comes with a salary and because this salary can buy the necessities of life. We then either pursue our goals during our leisure time, or convince ourselves that the goals of our jobs are somehow also our own goals (the burger-flipper telling himself that “making kids happy is all I want”).

A UBI has to cover the costs of the necessities of life: a decent place to live, sufficient food, clothing, basic healthcare (catastrophic healthcare costs would be paid for by a fund for which people are forced to buy insurance), transportation and some appliances, machines or utilities (a car, a washing machine, a fridge, a cell phone etc.). Because it covers the costs of necessities, a UBI liberates us to pursue the goals we set for our lives, goals which all too often get pushed aside by the urgencies of the daily struggle to survive, to have a decent house and to have some savings for when times get bad.

Would a UBI not be sufficient to allow people to pursue their goals? Why also prohibit wage labor? A UBI indeed loosens us from the system of wage labor – it provides a financial cushion that removes the risks inherent in abandoning a job and pursuing our “true destiny” – but it doesn’t go far enough. It gives us the freedom to turn down unattractive work but the pursuit of life’s goals often requires cooperation. Only the prohibition on wage labor makes cooperative ventures more common. A UBI by itself only pushes us towards more satisfying jobs and leaves some of the drawbacks of wage labor intact:

  • Wage labor means that the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of a minority. It’s this minority that determines the goals of labor, and they hire workers to achieve these goals. The workers themselves have no say in this and end up pursuing other people’s goals. Control is a distant dream for most if not all wage laborers. The owners have few incentives to organize production on a cooperative basis because cooperative labor would mean that they lose their right to unilaterally decide the goals of their organization; it would also mean sharing the proceeds of the organization with the workers.
  • Wage labor is inherently authoritarian rather than cooperative, not only with regard to the ultimate goals but also on the level of the means. People who generally detest authoritarian political structures nevertheless submit every morning of every working day to the authoritarian rules of their employers.

wage labor


A prohibition of wage labor might look like a revolutionary proposal. What are some of the risks we take?

  • Do we have to expropriate the owners of the means of production? After all, it’s no use setting people free to engage in cooperative ventures if they can’t freely use the means of production. However, there’s little dispute about the undesirability of large scale expropriation. So what do we do? To some extent, cooperative ventures will produce their own means of production, and in an economy that is increasingly focused on services and the internet, the category of means of production loses some of its meaning. We can also look at how taxes on means of production would set some of them free for communal use.
  • The biggest risk, I think, is a reduction of economic activity. If that happens, we’re not going to have an economic basis large enough for the required level of taxation necessary to fund the UBI. However, I’m tempted to assume that people will want to be economically active and that the UBI combined with the end of wage income will set loose a lot of initiative and ambition, but all that is hard to predict. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. The “entrepreneurial” spirit in the common man may be lacking, or may have been destroyed by ages of wage dependence. Maybe most people just want to work for an income, no matter which kind of work, as long as they don’t have to take responsibility for their own freedom. Or maybe many of us will use the opportunity to do what we always wanted to do when we can no longer work for a wage and when we have the cushion of a UBI. The additional advantage that we can share the proceeds of cooperative ventures – proceeds which now go to the owners of the means of production – will make it even more exciting to do something.
  • If people can’t work for a wage, many of the “dirty jobs” may not get done anymore. I can list many activities – toilet cleaning, waste disposal, mining etc. – which probably won’t be organized in voluntary cooperative ventures if there’s no longer a possibility to pay people a wage to do them. But then perhaps we’ll be forced to clean up after ourselves. And perhaps automation will help as well. In any case, every rule has exceptions.

Indeed, we may have to settle for policies that discourage rather than prohibit wage labor, one sector at a time. However, if even this is deemed unrealistic or undesirable, then at least let us agree to make work more democratic. If privately owned large corporations continue to exist and dominate the market, and if therefore wage labor persists, then the employees should be given a larger say in how these corporations are run and what their ultimate purposes should be. Corporate democracy, combined with a UBI that allows people to change jobs easily, can make it more likely that people are able to pursue their goals. Which is what all this is about, after all.

More here.

citizenship, data, human rights maps

Human Rights Maps (185): Routes of Irregular Migration to Europe

If you’ve ever wondered where the poor migrants who keep drowning in the Mediterranean Sea come from:

Routes of irregular migration into Europe

(source, source)

And here’s an absolutely horrifying image of a drowned young couple clinging to each other after their boat from Africa carrying up to 400 would-be immigrants from Somalia and Eritrea sank on its way to Italy. This happened in September 2013 after the boat caught fire, just two miles off the island of Lampedusa:

united even in death



This is what is at stake in the discussion about immigration restrictions. But if you wonder how many minds images such as these can change, wonder something else. The borders will remain closed because far greater goods are threatened by these unfortunates: “National Identity“, “The Rule of Law” and our myopic welfare systems. One could perhaps begin to understand the arguments behind immigration restrictions if threats like these were real, but the fact that people are dying because of reasons that are entirely imaginary is more than tragic.

More posts in immigration are here. More human rights maps here.

activism, political graffiti

Political Graffiti (245): You Can’t Eat a Soccer Ball

A graffiti painted by Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito on the entrance of a public schoolhouse in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 23, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Nelson ALMEIDA

A graffiti painted by Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito on the entrance of a public schoolhouse in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 23, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Nelson ALMEIDA


Ironically, Brazil has been reducing it’s poverty and inequality rates rapidly over the last decades. Which doesn’t mean that the World Cup investments were the right thing to do or that they were done right.

More political graffiti.

democracy, measuring democracy, statistics

Measuring Democracy (9): Regime Type in Eastern Europe, Before and After 1989

Two interesting maps from the Monkey Cage, showing the democracy scores according to Polity IV for the countries in Eastern Europe:

democracy soviet block

The first map is for the year 1985, well before the collapse of communism in 1989; the second one is for 2010, after the troubles that followed directly after the collapse.

Apart from Belarus, Russia and the Central Asian republics, all former Eastern Bloc countries were democracies in 2010 according to the Polity IV index – a Polity IV score of “6” or higher denotes a democracy. Russia is a tough case: it currently (2014) has a score of “4” whereas it used to be a “6” a few years ago. That’s a significant deterioration after an initial improvement following the end of the Soviet Union. I imagine that stuff like this may push it even further down in the years to come. Ukraine also seems to be at a crossroads at this very moment, although it’s still listed as a “6“.

I’ve expressed worries about the Polity IV instrument before. Some of those worries are galvanized by the score of a country such as Pakistan, which happens to be included in the maps above and for which you’ll notice a surprising improvement between 1985 and 2010. Here’s the evolution of Pakistan’s Polity IV score:

pakistan polity iv

Now, I have no trouble accepting evolution and even radical breaks in data series over time – things happen in the world – but this just seems utterly improbable. (Other country data are here, by the way. An explanation of the use of different colors in Polity IV graphs is here).

More posts in this series are here.

freedom, what is freedom

What is Freedom? (18): Freedom is a Happiness Pump

Take a look at this correlation:

democracy freedom happiness


Several other studies have shown the same result. How can we explain this relationship between freedom and happiness? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.

The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.

However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.

Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.

On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.

There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.

In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.

More posts in this series are here.

human rights images

Weaponized Animals, A Collection of Images

We’ve seen before that human imagination knows no bounds, especially when it comes to reciprocal cruelty. For instance, there’s a long history of the use of animals as cruelty enhancers, and weaponized animals are one particularly interesting part of it. A few examples, both old and recent, both real and fanciful:

This illustration from a manual written by the 16th-century German artillery master Franz Helm depicts a cat and a dove with burning sacks strapped to them in order to "set fire to a castle or city that you can't get at otherwise."

This illustration from a manual written by the 16th-century German artillery master Franz Helm depicts a cat and a dove with burning sacks strapped to them in order to “set fire to a castle or city that you can’t get at otherwise.” In this case one wonders how effective these animals weapons were supposed to be. It’s difficult to train a cat, let alone a cat carrying a fiery sack.


The infamous anti-tank dog used by the Russians used in 1941–1942 against German tanks in World War II. Although the original dog training routine was to leave the bomb and retreat so that the bomb would be detonated by the timer, this routine failed and was replaced by an impact detonation procedure which killed the dog in the process. Dogs strapped with explosives were unsuccessfully used by Iraqi insurgents in the 2000s.

The infamous anti-tank dog used by the Russians in 1941–1942 against German tanks in World War II. Although the original dog training routine was to leave the bomb and retreat so that the bomb would be detonated by the timer, this routine failed and was replaced by an impact detonation procedure which killed the dog in the process. Iraqi insurgents in the 2000s also tried to use dogs strapped with explosives, unsuccessfully.

anti-tank_dog_mine weird weapons of war3

Detailed explanation of the lethal mechanism.

The US preferred the bat-bomb: a bomb-shaped casing with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places.

The US preferred the bat-bomb: a bomb-shaped casing with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places.

A United States Marine corporal with an elephant-mounted gun in WWI. The gun is John Moses Browning’s M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun aka Potato Digger. Looks like a staged picture rather than a real tool of war.

A United States Marine corporal with an elephant-mounted gun in WWI. The gun is John Moses Browning’s M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun aka Potato Digger. Looks like a staged picture rather than a real tool of war.

Couldn't find anything useful about this image.

Couldn’t find anything useful about this image.

More here.

These are just the most obvious cases. Mankind has been so kind to develop biological warfare, and even entomological warfare, which is basically the use of very small organisms such as insects or germs, not to shoot or bomb but to spread disease, destroy crops etc. You can do it the old-fashioned way like the Hittites of Asia Minor in 1,50­0 B.C., and sent plague victims into enemy lands or catapult disease-ridden corpses over fortress walls. Or you can try to disseminate the germs through bombs and deliberate contagions (for instance by mailing a postal letter). Some say that biological weapons were used in the genocide of Native Americans.

annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (61): The Frontier of Anti-Homelessness Design

Here are a few innovative designs that help society get rid of them smelly homeless people, or at least get them far enough away:


The supermarket TESCO has claimed the ”studs” on a ledge outside the Metro convenience store in Regent Street in central London were installed to deter anti-social behavior like smoking and drinking, which intimidated customers.








UPDATE: re the first image above, Tesco have removed the “anti homeless” spikes in front of their shop in London, following protests:



Different designs are here. More in the annals of heartlessness.

human rights images, photography and journalism

Urban Inequality, A Collection of Images

Urban inequality is both chosen and coerced. There’s voluntary self-segregation among the wealthy motivated by family ties, repulsion of the poor, racism, fear of crime and other kinds of sorting. The organization of work, trade and industry also plays a role. The poor, for their part, are often forced to self-segregate in the cheaper parts of towns because of land and house prices.

Authorities as well play their part: they influence land and house prices through building restrictions, zoning laws, height restrictions, rent control and unequal government investment in infrastructure, education and transportation. These policies not only affect the relative attractiveness of houses, but also lower the supply of houses, thereby increasing their prices. This is obviously to the detriment of the poor who find themselves in less regulated and underinvested districts.

In addition, industrial and labor policy, work permits and trade regulations disproportionately favor the wealthy and again help to concentrate the poor in less desirable parts of town.

Although this isn’t by any means a fixed outcome – there may be gentrification, suburbanization, inflows of new immigrants or changes in government policies – we often see the formation of more or less homogenous and established districts. Sometimes this jumps out of population maps such as these. The separation between districts can be sharp rather than fluid. It may be a natural border such as a river, or even a manmade one. Border walls are not uncommon, since the wealthy need to keep out the riffraff. As a consequence, many urban separations are not only recognizable from population maps but can be seen by the naked eye. A few examples:


Mexico City, suburb called Santa Fe


Mexico City, suburb called Santa Fe

the rich in Sao Paolo have balconies with swimming pools, overlooking the slums

the rich in Sao Paolo have balconies with swimming pools, overlooking the slums

Modern buildings overlook a riverside slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Modern buildings overlook a riverside slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh




So you have a cycle: people make the city more unequal, and then the city makes the people more unequal.

economics, poverty

Poverty and Sadness

I know poor people and I know rich people. There are sad and happy ones in both groups. However, in general and on average, higher levels of self-reported happiness correlate with higher income and wealth. This also corresponds to intuition. Poverty is a burden – both financially and psychologically. Being poor means being anxious about the future, about your children and about your self-worth. This anxiety is a form of unhappiness. Money can buy happiness, not in the sense that having money causes you to be happy, but because having money means that poverty related anxiety is mitigated, if not completely eliminated (although of course your feelings of apprehension, self-doubt and vulnerability may have reasons unrelated to poverty). Money also allows you to “buy away” some of the more specific causes of unhappiness associated with poverty, such as ill health, vulnerability to crime, a bad job etc.

A look at the data confirms all this. For example, it seems to be the case that people living in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries.

We establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries, and find no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in subjective well-being. We show that the estimated relationship is similar to the relationship between subject well-being and income observed within countries. Those enjoying materially better circumstances also enjoy greater subjective well-being and ongoing rises in living standards have delivered higher subjective well-being. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (source)

This study, based on two cross-country happiness surveys (one by Pew and another by Gallup in which people report their own levels of happiness), found that richer countries are happier than poorer ones, and that this is reflected internally in countries (rich people are happier than their poor compatriots).

life satisfaction and real gdp per capita pew

life satisfaction and real gdp per capita gallup

These data are confirmed by another study by Lane Kenworthy, based on the Penn World Tables (for cross country analysis) and the General Social Survey (for U.S. data):

happiness and income cross country

happiness and income


Additional confirmation by Angus Deaton:

gdp and happiness


If you look carefully at some of these graphs, then they seem to contradict the Stevenson/Wolfers quote given above. It looks like there is a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries or individuals have no further or slower increases in subjective well-being: higher income is positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction but the association may be curvilinear in the sense that more income means greater happiness but less so at high levels of income than at low levels. This has been called the Easterlin paradox, but Wolfers and Stevenson argue against it (somewhat technically: a lot hinges on the type of scale used, namely a logarithmic one).

On the other hand, there is this survey showing that countries which report themselves as being the happiest tend to be poor and middle-income countries, while the gloomiest are rich countries:

happiness and gdp

iconic images of human rights violations

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (164): The “June 4th Incident”

The “June 4th Incident“, known to everyone outside of the Chinese government as the Tiananmen Massacre, has it’s 25th anniversary today. Here’s an image taken one day after, on June 5th, 1989:

Tienanmen Square Massacre

A young couple waits beneath Jianguomenwai Bridge on the fringe of Beijing’s diplomatic area, as PLA tanks roll above them. Photo by Liu Heung Shing, 1989

This one is taken on the day itself:


Photo by Durand-Langevin


More here. More iconic images of human rights violations.

political graffiti

Political Graffiti (244): Tiananmen

Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the brutal crushing of a pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

tank man graffiti


Now that China is a production paradise – and soon also a consumption paradise – we have this:

after tienanmen square

by A.SgnL in Cologne, Germany


More on the Tiananmen massacre and on the so-called tank man. More political graffiti.

human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (136): Gang-Raped and Killed While Looking For a Place to Defecate

India Deadly Gang Rape


A few days ago, two Indian girls were gang-raped and murdered while looking for a toilet or somewhere private to defecate in the open.

Those two cousins, just 14 and 16 years old, had left their homes in the Indian village of Katra, in Uttar Pradesh, because they had no toilet at home. They were never to return, found hanging from a [mango] tree after being brutally attacked. (source)

Villagers gathered around the tree and initially blocked the police from removing the bodies. They suspected police involvement. And indeed, after a while five men were arrested, including two police officers accused of dereliction of duty and criminal conspiracy. Other suspects are still on the loose.

The father, a 45-year-old agricultural laborer from a low-ranking caste, said in a telephone interview that the two girls were last seen alive on Tuesday evening in a mango orchard, in the company of a man named Pappu Yadav. (The man’s surname is the same as his caste.)

The father said a relative saw the girls with Mr. Yadav and two of Mr. Yadav’s brothers and that, for reasons he did not explain, the relative tried to intervene between Mr. Yadav and the girls. One of the Yadav brothers pulled out a pistol “and put it to the head of my cousin-brother,” the father said, using a common term in India for a close relative. “He got scared and ran away.”

When he heard what had happened, the father said, he went to the local police station and asked that Mr. Yadav’s house be searched. But the police officers, who are members of the Yadav caste, “took the side of the culprits,” the father said. “They abused and misbehaved with us.” (source)

The girls were members of the Dalit community, India’s lowest caste once known as the “Untouchables”.

2,5 billion people in the world don’t have access to decent toilets. 1 billion of those practice open defecation. Half a billion girls and women are forced to find someplace safe to defecate outdoors, each and every day. Often they have to wander off to distant and dark places, where they are an easy target for sexual predators. And in some cases they pay with their lives. Even if they don’t, the practice endangers public health, polluting natural waterways and spreading diseases, notably diarrhea, a major cause of death in children in the developing world.

More on public defecation in India is here. Here‘s a similar story about women in Africa who are too scared to pee. Other posts in this series are here.

human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (21): Human Rights in China

tien an men tank man spoof


We’re close to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, the right time in other words for a diagnosis of human rights in China. Compared to half a century ago, China is a human rights paradise. Genocide and famine are gone; poverty and totalitarian rule all but. Even the horrific events of 25 years ago pale in historical perspective. However, compared to what can be expected from a reasonably prosperous country ruled by a state with above average capacities, China is a disappointment. It’s undeniable economic progress hasn’t been matched by political or legal progress. Just a few examples:

  • China’s demographic aggression in Tibet and Xinjiang has put the local cultures and populations under severe pressure.
  • China’s demographic politics in general, in particular the one-child-policy, has led to many sex-selective abortions. The result has been called “gendercide“.
  • Censorship of the press and the internet is widespread.
  • The Chinese government insists that there are good economic reasons to reject democratic rights. Not just the right to vote freely for independent candidates, but also rights such as free speech, freedom of organization and freedom of religion. The government views stability – in the sense of the continued rule of the Communist Party – as the precondition for further economic development, whereas it’s obvious from the data that democracy fosters prosperity just as well, if not more.
  • China executes far more people than all other countries combined, for far more types of crimes.

Besides the domestic violations of rights, China is also known for obstructing international action against dictators in other countries.

More posts in this series are here.


A Would-Be Philosopher-King Offers His Optimal Tax Policy


If I had any real power I would tax you all in the following manner:

First, I’d impose a consumption tax such as a VAT on traded goods and services. The consumption tax will have to be progressive, for example by way of a 0% tax on food and other basic necessities and a rate close to 100% for luxuries. A consumption tax encourages savings and investment and does away with the disincentives of income and payroll taxes which it will replace (disincentives to work, earn and hire). It also puts a stop to wasteful conspicuous consumption and status competition, at least at the top end. The sharply decreasing marginal utility at high levels of consumption means that the tax can indeed be strongly progressive, with close to 100% rates at very high levels of consumption. Such a strongly progressive consumption tax will leave incentives in place: a $1 million dollar home motivates just as well as a $200 million home, because people mostly care about how they are doing relative to similar others and all similar others will be subject to the same taxes.

Second: add an inheritance or estate tax because the wealthy, who will save more as a consequence of the consumption tax, will die with larger estates than before. Inheritance is inherently unfair because undeserved. A tax on inheritance not only reduces this unfairness, but does so without distorting incentives. Most other types of taxes have disincentive effects: when an activity such as consumption, investment, employment or pollution is taxed, the activity becomes more expensive. Hence, people will to some extent disengage from the activity (consume less, hire less employees, invest less, pollute less) or find ways to reduce their tax burden (offshore profits or assets, fail to declare income etc.). Disengagement is good in the case of pollution and consumption, but not for investment and employment. An inheritance tax is one that doesn’t have disincentive effects. People will not die less when wealth and assets are taxed after death. This tax is therefore sustainable, in addition to being moral.

Tax_the_RichIt’s a kind of wealth tax. Wealth taxes, including an inheritance tax, promote consumption and are in conflict with the stated aims of a consumption tax (see above). But in the case of inheritance tax that’s a reasonable price to pay. Other wealth taxes - with one exception (see below) - will have to go, precisely for this reason, as well as other reasons: wealth taxes are difficult (they are a percentage of the taxpayer’s calculated net worth – total assets including cash deposits, real estate holdings, investments, trusts and shares in businesses, minus debt – and this net worth is difficult to valuate and easy to offshore); and they raise liquidity problems (the taxpayer may have to sell part of her assets in order to pay the tax, which will increase the supply of assets and drive down their prices, making wealth creation less attractive and possibly undermining the wealth tax). So, although a wealth tax is perhaps a fair tax – wealth is more concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, compared to income – it’s not necessarily a good idea.

Third: add a land value tax. This is a wealth tax, but not really a real estate tax, because the largest part of the value of real estate is the value of the land, not the value of the buildings. It doesn’t cost much more to build a house in Manhattan than to build an identical one in the Midwest. The house in Manhattan is much more expensive because it’s on Manhattan land. A land tax is similar to an inheritance tax: no one built the land, so people will not have less land when it’s taxed. And because no one built it, no one can be said to deserve it. So no incentives arguments against a land tax, and a strong moral argument in favor of it. Just as with inheritance.

Fourth: add some pigovian taxes (taxes on carbon and other externalities such as pollution, congestion etc.).

Fifth: abolish all other taxes, including taxes on investment income or normal income, on corporate profits, on labor/employment etc.

This system yields our tax revenues. A tax system can be justified on different grounds, and I’ve already mentioned a few, namely fairness, incentives (incentives to consume less, to save and invest more, to avoid pollution…) and efficiency (ease of tax collection and tax calculation). But an important justification of a tax system is its general purpose. What do we want to do with the tax revenue? Apart from the obvious goals – public goods such as a police force, a judiciary, a national defense, infrastructure, some regulatory agencies, public education, healthcare etc. – my main concern is welfare, or social security as they say in Europe. And like an increasing number of people I want to propose that we use our tax revenues to fund a universal basic income system which will replace all or most of the existing government support measures such as unemployment benefits, pensions, food stamps etc. I’ve defended the UBI in more detail before so I won’t burden this already longish post any more than necessary.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.

children's rights

Children’s Rights (15): What’s Wrong With Child Marriage?

Tahani - in pink - married her husband Majed when she was 6 and he was 25; poses with her former classmate Ghada, also a child bride. Nearly half of all women in Yemen were married as children

Tahani – in pink – married her husband Majed when she was 6 and he was 25; poses with her former classmate Ghada, also a child bride. Nearly half of all women in Yemen were married as children. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair


Child marriage is common. In many parts of the world, a high percentage of girls get married before adulthood – boys seemed to be spared from this particular type of injustice. But why is it an injustice? Us western intellectual folk tend to assume without much consideration that it is, and that arguments in favor of the practice – often based on culture and cultural relativism – are criminally wrong. Here I want to offer a few reasons for calling it an injustice, reasons that go somewhat beyond a mere reflexive rejection.

But before I do that, some numbers:

  • Although the practice is in decline, the numbers are still very high: in the whole of the developing world, more than 1/3 of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age (2/3 in some countries, such as Niger). 1 in 9 are married before age 15.
  • In absolute numbers, India has most child brides (women aged 20 to 24 who were married before age 18): more than 10 million. That’s 1/6 of the world total.
  • Each year, more than 10 million children are forced into marriage.
  • The practice is indeed highly coercive. Not only on the girls who hardly ever have a say in the matter – these are often arranged marriages – but also on the parents of the girls. One indication of this is the fact that child marriage is more prevalent among the poorer sections of societies: households in the poorest quintiles are 3 to 4 times more likely to marry off their daughters than households in the richest quintiles. The rural rate is double the urban rate. It’s not unlikely that money is an incentive here.
  • The practice not only has economic causes but also cultural ones. Some families sell off their daughters as a way of settling debts; others as a means to assuage disputes and to forge communal relationships. Cultural beliefs about purity and dishonor are important drivers as well. A symptom of the cultural origins is the fact that in 50 countries the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females than for men.

I’ve cited the sources of these numbers – together with more details – here. Now, apart from the coercion involved in the practice, what else is wrong with it?

  • If we don’t want to call it pedophilia, let’s at least accept that the risk of sexual abuse is a lot higher than in your typical adult marriage. Add to that the physical harm resulting from pregnancies. When girls have babies before their bodies are mature enough, they are at risk of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.
  • Child brides, whether mother or not, are typically excluded from education. So countries with a high prevalence of child marriages and child mothers also tend to have low literacy and schooling rates for young women:

correlation between adolescent fertility rates and education

  • Low schooling rates for girls have of course a knock-on effect on gender equality in later life. This then becomes a vicious circle. When girls and women aren’t allowed to become educated and independently prosperous, parents are quick to conclude that the best option for their daughters is an early marriage.

More on child marriage – including some fascinating images – is here. More on children’s rights is here.

democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (73): A Summary Definition


by Dario Castillejos


I’ve now written 72 posts in this series, and so it’s time for a summary. Most of those posts focused on one or the other characteristic of democracy – including characteristics it shouldn’t have – but the big picture is still missing. That’s why I’ll now try to offer my own, undoubtedly controversial definition of democracy.

What is a democracy, or better, what should it be, ideally? The short version: democracy is a form of government – government of a state or of any other group of people – in which all of the main positions of power are filled by way of elections, and in which decisions on important public issues are taken by vote (a vote either among those previously elected, or among the population at large; preferably a mix of both systems).

This core definition comes with a series of prerequisites. Elected holders of power should not be subordinate to other, unelected holders of power, such as the military or religious bodies. In addition, elections, popular votes on issues (e.g. referenda) and votes among groups of elected representatives should be inclusive, competitive, free and fair, and their results should represent the will of the people. Let’s break that down a bit.

  1. “Inclusive” means that all or most adult residents should have a right to vote, and that most of these people actually vote. The word “residents” covers of course citizens, but some non-citizens should probably also get the right to vote. The same is true for ex-felons.
  2. cia manual of trickery and deception“Competitive” means that there is a real choice between candidates and policies. Also, when there is a real choice, the available options to choose from are not set by a minority or by some authority. Everyone has the right to become a candidate and to put an issue up for a vote. (Some restrictions may be acceptable in order to avoid very large numbers of candidates or issues: for example, candidates or ballot initiatives only pass when there’s a large number of signed approvals). Term limits are also a means to improve competitiveness and to counteract any advantage that incumbents may have over challengers (see below). An election can only be competitive when the merits of each candidate can be clearly established. Government transparency and accountability, including free and equal access to government information, are therefore required. For the same reason, we should try to limit the influence of money on politics.
  3. “Free and fair” means that the choice between candidates and policies should not be  artificially driven towards one candidate or policy, for example by incumbents monopolizing the media or the resources of the state, by efforts to discourage or intimidate certain voters, etc. Media neutrality or media balance may have to be enforced. Vote counting should be correct and independently monitored. The ballot must be secret when voter intimidation is a risk.
  4. “Representative of the will of the people” means that the elections and votes should respect the rule that one person has only one vote. (Representation is, however, not unidirectional: the will of the people may be shaped by the representatives. The latter can present points of view which are then internalized and expressed by the people). The requirement of representativity may entail a need to circumscribe the voting population: local decisions should be decided locally. Having too many people who can vote – including people who do not have a stake in the matter up for a vote –  can be just as harmful as having too few. Federalism, devolution etc. are therefore required by democracy. However, federalism may lead to gerrymandering, which should be prohibited because it reduces representativity.

The inclusive, competitive, free, fair and representative nature of elections and votes is a prerequisite for a democracy, but it also has its own prerequisites. We need political freedom and equality – which means the equal freedom to try to influence the outcomes of elections and votes. All individuals should be free to express their will equally and in peace, to discuss it with others, to persuade and be persuaded, to join forces in free organizations, and to have their preferences weighed equally in collective and peaceful elections and votes. Candidates as well should have this freedom and equality.

Political freedom and equality in turn depend on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial enforcement and the regulation of the role of money in politics. Candidates should have physical security, freedom of speech and association, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The same is true for the voting population. If necessary, these rights should be enforced by a judiciary that is independent from the elected legislature and executive (and that is therefore not subject to election itself). Equal influence depends on equal suffrage rights and other rights, on the enforcement of these rights within a judicial system that is protected by the principle of the separation of powers, but also on the regulation of party financing, campaign financing and lobbying.

All these arrangements – rights, separation of powers and the regulation of money – create upper and lower levels of resources and capabilities, and hence create political freedom that is more or less equal (it can never be completely equal for a variety of reasons that can’t be remedied: differences in talent and motivation, social networks etc.).

Why do we need these arrangements? Equal political freedom means equal influence, but some people may lack the rights, resources or capabilities to exercise their influence. People can’t exercise their civil and political rights if they suffer arbitrary arrest, violence or poverty, if they don’t have a minimum of education, lack proper healthcare, or have to spend their time struggling to survive whereas others can spend a fortune to influence politicians. Just as insufficient rights, resources or capabilities undermine the equality of influence that is typical of a democracy, so can large excesses of resources. Hence we need regulations aimed at limiting the political advantage and influence of the wealthy (e.g. limits on the size of individual donations, limits on election expenditure, transparency in party funding etc.).



There are also other, less precise prerequisites. How much confidence do people have in the fairness of elections, in the impartiality of the judicial process, or in each other? How do they perceive corruption? Do they experience the government as a representative institution? And so on. These subjective perceptions of institutional arrangements are just as important as the institutional arrangements themselves.

All the things I’ve listed here are necessary for a full democracy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call something a democracy when some of these things are missing. There wouldn’t be a single democracy if that were the case. But it does mean that democracy is a work in progress and a sometimes elusive ideal. It also means that it’s wrong to say that a country is either a democracy or something else. The concept of democracy is continuous. A country can be more or less democratic and can evolve up or down the scale.

Given this description of an ideal democracy and the acknowledgment of the fact that countries can be more or less democratic (as well as not democratic at all, of course), the question is whether there’s room for the idea that democracy can be many different and equally valuable things. I think there is. Different circumstances require different institutions, and different institutions may realize certain norms equally well. Conversely, the same institutions in different countries and contexts will yield a very unequal quality of democracy. For example, a very small country may not require a federal structure.

The characteristics of an ideal democracy that I have given here should therefore be viewed as applicable to the average country only. However, while it’s unwise to demand that all countries adopt or strive towards an identical political construction, it’s equally unwise to give every country the freedom to define democracy according to its own wishes. There’s a limit to the flexibility of concepts. A democracy should, ideally, have certain characteristics or attributes, and not others. Over to you.

moral dilemmas, philosophy

Moral Dilemma (26): Killer Robots

killer robots


If you haven’t been following the debate: “killer robots” are autonomous machine combatants which are currently being developed by a number of countries. These machines are different from unmanned ground vehicles and drones. The important difference is not that UGVs and drones are already in use but that they are controlled by human operators, much like any conventional weapon before them, albeit from a larger distance. Killer robots, on the other hand, will act autonomously and will be able to choose and fire on targets of their own will, so to speak, without any human intervention. The only element of human control will be their programming. (Some of these killer robots already exist, apparently). It would be wrong to think that they’ll look like The Terminator but they will be somewhat similar in their mode of operation.

I personally don’t know what to think about this. Most in the human rights community are adamantly opposed, so my priors should push me in the same direction. However, I can see certain benefits, which is why I believe that we’re dealing here with a moral dilemma. Let me try to explain by listing some of the arguments against killer robots as well as some of the reasons why these arguments aren’t really as good as they sound.

  1. We shouldn’t give machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield. But is that really what this is about? The machines would still execute a program that has been written by humans, and it’s these humans who, through the act of programming, decide who should be killed or spared. For instance, it should be possible for robots to recognize civilians – or at least to refrain from acting when there’s reasonable doubt about a person’s military standing. However, one might reply that robots can’t be programmed in such a way that they acquire a subtle understanding of all the different and complex circumstances in which they’ll find themselves. They can only apply general rules in a manner that is more or less blind, i.e. that takes into account only a limited set of foreseeable circumstances. They’ll never fully understand the contexts in which they act, and this lack of understanding is bound to cause civilian harm. But then again, can we rely on soldiers in the heat of battle to fully understand the circumstances in which they find themselves? I think not. If anything, a very selective robot should do better.
  2. Robots lack compassion. Maybe removing the emotional element from combat will turn out to be a net benefit. Human fighters can indeed show compassion and spare the lives of the innocent – or even the guilty. But is it not more common for human fighters to be led astray by their emotions? Stress and fatigue may lead to a loss of control. In-group bias and other prejudices may get the upper hand in the thick of a fight. Robots are obviously immune to stress and fatigue, and it should be possible to program them in such a way that they don’t act on the basis of biases. Even the need of self-defense can cause human soldiers to “spray the lot” in order to get out alive. A robot won’t have that instinct.
  3. Killer robots can be given immoral orders by an immoral chain of command. It’s true that robots can be programmed to kill indiscriminately or to kill all brown people. But history is full of human commanders giving exactly the same kind of orders. If robots are programmed in immoral ways, then that’s an easier problem to solve than the prejudices or emotional failures of scores of individual soldiers and commanders. Of course we’ll have to monitor the people who will program the robots. But is this more difficult than monitoring the immoral orders by human leaders? Obviously it’s not. It’s true that monitoring will be easier in democracies, but if dictators want killer robots there’s not a lot we can do to stop them or to convince them to use robots in a ethical manner.
  4. If one side uses killer robots, the other has to as well. No one can risk a disadvantage in the conduct of war. A robotic arms race will be the result. In a sense, this is nothing new. Warring parties have always wanted new weapons and an advantage over the enemy. That’s what war is about, and has always been about. To the extent that an arms race is deplorable, killer robots aren’t more deplorable than any other new weapon. If the new robotic arms race results in all sides only using robots, then that would even be a net benefit because human soldiers will no longer be needed. We often tend to focus on the harm to civilians in the conduct of war, whereas soldiers are also human beings, and in many cases human beings who haven’t chosen to fight.
  5. With killer robots, there’s less risk, less skin in the game. We’re not even seeing what happens. The result will be more war. This is probably the strongest argument, but again not one directed solely against killer robots. Drones have the same effect.

Given these considerations, in addition to many others I haven’t mentioned,

There’s an interesting podcast on the topic here. If you want to add your voice to previous moral dilemmas, you can do so here.

international relations, terror

Terrorism and Human Rights (43): Boarding Pass of 9/11 Hijacker

9/11 hijacker Mohand al-Shehri's boarding pass, retrieved from trash at Boston Logan Airport, photo by C. Griffith

9/11 hijacker Mohand al-Shehri’s boarding pass, retrieved from trash at Boston Logan Airport, photo by C. Griffith

Mohand al-Shehri was one of five hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the plane that flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He was a 22 year old Saudi on a student visa in the US. He arrived in the US in May 2001.

Approximately thirty minutes into the flight, the hijackers forcibly breached the cockpit and overpowered the pilot and first officer, allowing lead hijacker and trained pilot Marwan al-Shehhi to take over the controls.

More posts in this series are here.

economics, equality, income inequality, poverty, work

Income Inequality (31): The Strange Case of the Rising Middle and the Hollowing Out of the Center

There’s an interesting contrast between what’s happening to income inequality at the global level on the one hand and the inequality trends in most countries on the other hand. Apart from many Latin American countries and a few elsewhere in the world, income inequality has been increasing, including in some of the wealthiest countries – as you can see in this graph for example:

evolution of gini


Income inequality for the total population of the globe, however, has been trending downward, albeit ever so slightly:

global inequality and country inequality


The first phenomenon – increasing inequality in many countries – has a series of different causes: taxation, globalization, unionization, wage setting, technology etc., with a different mix of causes and importance of causes for different countries. One cause has given its name to the phenomenon itself, even though it’s probably not its main cause: the hollowing out of the labor market in certain developed countries. Mid-level jobs are disproportionately hit by automation. And if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Hence inequality itself has become known as the “hollowing out”.

Here are two graphs showing how US employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs, resulting in a distribution of wages that is similarly polarized and more unequal than it used to be:

hollowing out




And the recession of 2008-2010 hasn’t helped:



Something similar happened in many other countries. As to the second phenomenon – decreasing global inequality – this is what it looks like:

world income distribution


There’s a clear shift to the right, towards higher average incomes, resulting in a rise of the middle – quite the contrary of the hollowing out in many individual countries. Someone came up with a catchy name for previous and current world income distributions: from a camel to a dromedary shaped distribution of world income. And if you squint you can see the respective animals in this animation:

world income distribution

This rise of the middle has led to the observed decrease in global inequality. The underlying reason of the rise of the middle is poverty reduction in large developing countries such as China and India. Around 20% of the world’s population is now poor in the sense of earning less than $1 a day (red lines in the graph above), compared to 75% in 1820. Poverty reduction often went hand in hand with increasing national inequality (in particular in China and India), but the effect on global inequality has been positive.

Additional reading: a blogpost by Bryan Caplan, and a paper by Branko Milanovic.

activism, economics, human rights ads, work

Human Rights Ads (99): Made With Child Labor


This is about child labor on tobacco farms in the United States. Children are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. Read the whole story here.

More on child labor (specifically on tobacco farms), and on how outlawing it may not always be the best option. Some numbers. And more human rights ads.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (161): War Crimes in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Civil War began in July 1983. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) fought an insurgency against the government to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and the east of the island. After a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end. An estimated 100,000 people were killed. Both sides, but especially the Sri Lankan government during the final phase of and just after the war, committed horrible crimes.


Marked human skulls are seen at a construction site in the former war zone in Mannar, about 327 km (203 miles) from the capital Colombo, January 16, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/DINUKA LIYANAWATTE

This appears to be the brutalized corpse of a Tamil fighter:


More on Sri LankaMore iconic photos.

citizenship, international relations, poverty

Migration and Human Rights (51): “Tsunami of the Poor”?


scene from World War Z

Arguments against open borders or relaxed immigration restrictions are often economic in nature, at least on the surface. One such argument points to differences in prosperity between countries. Opening borders would cause a “Tsunami” of poor people. Prosperous countries would be overrun by masses of citizens from the developing world who, understandably, seek a better life. A better life is not what they’ll get, however, since they’ll end up in countries that are destroyed economically by the fateful decision to open the borders.

Now, take one of the largest free movement zones in the world, the EU. Wealth differences are quite high between countries of the EU, especially since the recession and the Euro crisis. And what do we see? Very low levels of migration:

[F]reedom of movement with[in] the EU remains a remarkable achievement. Half a billion people now have the right to work and reside anywhere within the union. This has not resulted in catastrophe. Indeed, it has not even resulted in mass migration. Only 2.5% of the EU population lives elsewhere within the EU. And when relatively large numbers have migrated, as occurred after the last major enlargement in 2004, the trend has been temporary and followed by return migration. Kieran Oberman (source)

Emigration costs money, and moving from the developing world to the West is especially expensive (if not lethal). So it’s not the poorest of the poor who move. Here‘s a paper by Michael Clemens showing that emigration is more common in relatively well off developing countries:



More posts in this series here.