Why not use the free market to promote human rights? The free market – or the market for short – is the name of the institution, protected by government rules, which allows individual or collective agents such as firms to freely exchange goods and services. Agents exchange things in the market for self-interested reasons and they tend to use money as the medium of exchange, but that doesn’t mean we’ll only see greed and accumulation of wealth resulting from the operation of the market. I’ll show that we can, to some extent, count on the market to further the cause of human rights.
But let’s start by complicating things a bit:
- The market can either benefit or harm human rights.
- And human rights can either benefit or harm the operations of the market.
Hence, the relationship between market and rights is difficult, to say the least. Here are a few examples:
Some human rights are a direct benefit to the market. Take for example the right to private property. This is a human right and it’s one that is generally conceived to be essential for the efficient operation of a market (some even argue that this right justifies free markets, but I want to sidestep issues of justification here and focus on conseqquences). You can construct a similar argument in the case of other rights such as the right to free movement, to assembly etc. At other times, however, human rights can hinder the market: privacy is a human right but privacy can cause asymmetrical information which in turn causes market dysfunctions.
Markets can have a similar two-sided effect on human rights. Conventional wisdom says that the market is the institution that delivers the highest possible level of prosperity, compared to other ways of organizing the economy. Higher prosperity may benefit certain specific human rights such as the right not to suffer poverty, the right to work etc. This benefit may occur because additional wealth “trickles down” or because additional wealth means additional redistribution. In general, it’s the case that rights cost money, so increased prosperity should, all else being equal, lead to increased rights protection across the board.
A more indirect way in which the market benefits rights is through it’s focus on individualism: the market – as opposed to a centrally planned economy – allows individuals to choose when and what to trade. Individual freedom is also at the heart of human rights. Some have also argued that the rational self-interest that is typical of people engaging in market transactions counters some dangerous and often violent passions such as xenophobia, nationalism and racism. If people trade with one another, they may become more tolerant of one another, if only because trade requires contact, respect, trust and peace. Tolerance and peace are of course also beneficial to human rights. And, finally, both the market and human rights requires the rule of law. If markets foster the rule of law, then that will benefit rights as well.
However, other aspects of markets can harm human rights. A strict interpretation of property rights – something we often hear from defenders of the market – may make redistribution difficult if not impossible, and some rights depend sometimes on redistribution. Think again of the right not to suffer poverty. More generally, markets can have two types of effects that may harm human rights indirectly:
Markets tend to “colonize” areas of life where an exchange of things for money is perhaps not the best way to proceed. Some goods can only be valued when they are shared rather than exchanged (e.g. art). In other cases, exchanging goods can destroy their value (e.g. political votes), just as pricing goods can destroy their value (e.g. gifts). I can also mention some types of commodification of the body such as prostitution or organ trade. While commodification of the body is not necessarily a rights violation in itself, it does devalue the dignity of human life. People are treated as means rather than ends, and a devaluation of human beings makes human rights violations more likely.
- In some sense, this instrumentalization of the other is inherent in all market transactions, not just those in which bodies or body parts are traded. Market transactions are by definition self-interested and impersonal. We only buy or sell when that makes us better off and we don’t need to get to know our buyers or sellers. We use them simply to satisfy our needs. While self-interest and lack of personal relationships in one area of life do not necessarily harm relationships, communities, caring and common deliberation on the public interest in other areas, they can do so when markets “colonize” those other areas.
And, finally, there’s the risk of exploitation in market transactions, which I have discussed here.
I’m more interested in the effects of the market on human rights than in the effects of human rights on the market. Human rights are the ultimate good, and markets are generally a means (at best, markets are one form of exercise of certain human rights). Since the effects of the market on rights can go either way, the question becomes one of limits. If the market harms human rights, or if it expands into areas where market-transactions can indirectly harm human rights, then we have good reasons to limit the operations of the market. However, when doing so we must take care not to go too far and undo the positive effects of markets.
These limitations don’t always have to be of a legal nature. A good public education system can create a culture that helps to keep markets in their place. Governments can acquire art collections and thus remove them from the market. Or they can promote organ donation in various ways (e.g. reciprocity and presumed consent) so that organ shortages don’t force people into markets (legal or illegal markets). Welfare can help poor people avoid exploitative market transactions. And so on. However, legislation is often unavoidable if we want to protect rights against the market.
More posts in this series are here.
I’m all in favor of telling people about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, but does it have to involve the dehumanization of those “awful men”?
Here’s an older example of well-intentioned dehumanization:
If anyone deserved to be dehumanized it’s Hitler, right? Well, no. I think we have to face the possibility that Hitler was human like the rest of us, no matter how frightening that idea is. If we turn Hitler into an animal or a monster, that may make life easier but not more truthful.
I’ve noticed this a number of times: human rights defenders’ passionate commitment to the cause isn’t matched by a concomitant knowledge of the best means available to promote the cause. In fact, no one has a f***ing clue and there’s a lot of groping in the dark.
For example, human rights activism frequently takes the legal route: vote laws, enact constitutions, sign treaties and let the courts do their work. That’s quite understandable in theory. If you want to force people, the law is often the right way to go. However, we see that the effect of human rights law on the acts of rights violators is usually very limited, if not counterproductive. This should be obvious when you understand that some of the worst rights violators are tyrannical states which have no interest in the rule of law. Enacting laws when there’s no rule of law is transparently futile (with one caveat: law can create its own culture). Even legislation in countries that do respect the rule of law is often ineffective. Case in point: there is now something called the New Jim Crow in the US right.
There’s also a lot of talk about education. If only we could educate people about human rights then the next generations would be better off. It’s a similar problem: education can only be successful in a wider environment that is stable and well willing. The invocation of appeals to honor (Appiah style) and storytelling (Rorty style) have a whiff of desperation about them. And I guess I don’t have to discuss the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council, economic boycotts, sanctions or diplomacy (although it does seem as if sanctions had a small positive effect in Apartheid South Africa).
Given this lack of understanding about the effectiveness of human rights promotion, it’s quite surprising that there is progress at all, and somewhat less surprising that most progress is a surprise. Poverty has sharply declined, but a lot of the decline is despite intentional efforts rather than because of them (development aid doesn’t seem to do the trick according to Easterly). Communism has disappeared, and although there are many who want to take the credit, it’s better to admit that 1989 took all of us by surprise.
So, some of the progress we see is unintentional in the sense that we intend it to happen and yet it happens despite of our intentional actions. That’s good as far as it goes: better to have unintentional progress than no progress at all. But of course it would be even better if our intentional actions were successful and if things happen because of our actions rather than in spite of them, if only because then we would be able to be more intentionally effective in the future.
It would also be better if some of our intentional efforts would stop making things worse: the US wages a war on terror but only seems to make it worse, in at least these two manners: first, the war on terror creates resentment which in turn becomes a breeding ground for future terrorists; and second, it has become increasingly clear that the war on terror leads to rights violations, and not just in the target countries.
And then there’s a type of actions situated between ineffective intentional efforts and counter-effective intentional efforts, namely those actions which are effective but which also carry a heavy cost. Slavery has been abolished in the US, but no one wanted it to be a war that did it. Bombing Serbian civilians in order to protect those in Kosovo is another example. Here we enter the difficult domain of weighing the lives of some against the lives of others.
All of this confirms how clueless we are when it comes to effectively protecting people’s rights. That’s a shame, given the importance of the cause.
Let’s start with another, related question: are human rights an ideology? There is indeed an ideology of human rights, at least as long as we use a value-free meaning of the word “ideology”. (Some argue that human rights are an ideology in the value-laden sense of the word, but that’s not what I want to talk about now). Human rights are an ideology because they form a widely shared system of ideas, and these ideas form a comprehensive vision of the world (see here for a definition of the word “ideology”).
Now, some have argued that the ideology of human rights, when compared to some other ideologies, has been a complete failure. Christianity, nationalism and Marxism for instance (one can perhaps add other ideologies such as Islam) have done much better over the course of history (although the role of Marxism is now finished, it seems). Over the course of decades and even centuries, those ideologies have been exported and implemented throughout the world. They have created mass movements, mass mobilization, political institutions, churches, political parties and rituals. They have inspired art, feverish devotion and legal codes. Moreover, they have proven to be able to adapt to local circumstances.
Human rights have achieved nothing of the kind. True, there are some international human rights courts and certain human rights have made their way into treaties and national constitutions, but those courts, treaties and constitutions are terribly ineffective in most parts of the world. No political party anywhere has human rights as its central goal. There are the occasional mass protests when some rights of some people are violated, but there’s always a distinctively ad hoc feeling about those protests and mobilization of this kind pales when compared to the movements inspired by Christianity, nationalism and (until a few decades ago) Marxism.
It’s true that Christianity, Marxism and nationalism were “successful” in one sense of the word. They were popular ideas, popular enough to have real life effects, but one can argue that they were not successful tools for human betterment, at least not overall. The contrary may be the case (see here, here and here for examples). And, in the end, human betterment is the only success that counts.
Furthermore, the success of ideologies such as Christianity, nationalism or Marxism was based on the fact that they were adopted by rulers. They became in some sense or other “official” ideologies and could therefore be imposed. Again, that’s not really the kind of “success” that counts. Human rights, although they also can, theoretically, be adopted by rulers, have seldom been an official ideology, and this fact may be indicative of their failure. However, the success of human rights should not be judged by the degree of their official adoption. After all, rulers don’t have an incentive to adopt human rights. They have an incentive to destroy them. The success of human rights should be judged on the basis of real improvements in the lives of real individuals. And in this sense of success, human rights have been anything but a failure, especially when compared to other supposedly more successful ideologies. This doesn’t mean that the success of human rights has been profound or conclusive. We’re not there yet.
- Fundamental human rights and remedy for possible breach (1) (unilaglss.wordpress.com)
Malawi plans to use the $15 million (£9.6 million) it gained from selling its presidential jet to feed the more than one million people suffering chronic food shortages, the Treasury has said. Malawi angered Western donors, whose aid typically accounted for about 40 per cent of the budget, when the government of late President Bingu wan Mutharika bought the 14-passenger Dassault Falcon 900EX aircraft in 2009.
President Joyce Banda, who took over after Mutharika died of a heart attack in April 2012, made selling the plane a priority as she sought to repair the damage left by the previous president (source).
So, that’s about $15 per person. Given the fact that half the population of Malawi lives on less than $1 a day, $15 is the equivalent of about two weeks of income and therefore not to be scoffed at. However, because of their poverty, Malawians will most likely spend the money in a day or two, if not less. That’s not what I call “feeding” anyone.
Now, of course I’m against presidential jets and other private perks for dictators in poor countries (or elsewhere for that matter), but how about investing the 15 million in a productive activity? Doesn’t sound as good as giving money to the people, and probably won’t make the news, but in the long run it’s probably much more helpful. This story smells like signaling: “look how correct we are, and how concerned for the poor!” And, yes, I’m aware of the benefits of direct cash transfers, but this is not the way to do it.
More on human rights signaling here.
A social welfare function (henceforth SWF) ranks conceivable or possible worlds – also called “social states” – according to the aggregate levels of welfare they produce. Each social state is given a numerical value by the SWF allowing it to be ranked. This should help policy makers and individuals to achieve the social state with the highest – or maximum – aggregate welfare. Subject of course to whatever constraints there are: technological or resource constraints, human capital or behavioral constraints etc. A “higher” rather than the “highest” welfare may be the only realistic option.
A SWF therefore describes society as a whole, but the whole is an aggregate of individual welfare scores, also called individual “utilities”, “interests” or whatever. Individuals should first order possible social states from their own point of view and their own sense of utility or preference, and then these individual orderings of social states are aggregated in some way by a SWF so as to achieve maximum aggregate welfare.
A SWF typically looks like this:
W(x) = F (U1(x), U2(x), … , Un(x))
W(x) is a real number social utility value for a possible world x
U1(x) is a cardinal or ordinal utility value that is interpersonally comparable and that is yielded by some policy or procedure for individual 1 in world x
F is a function that yields a real number; F can be different things: the sum of all U’s, the average of all U’s, the product (multiplication) of all U’s etc.1
n is the total number of individuals.
SWFs are hotly contested. What should count as individual “welfare” or “utility”? And how do we measure, rank or score it? And if we have an uncontested definition of individual welfare that can be measured and ranked, then how do we compare and aggregate it across individuals? In other words: what is U and what is F?
Let’s start with the first problem. Income or wealth (counted cardinally in $) is often cited as a good proxy for welfare. When people have more money, they can pay for more goods, services or activities which give them some amount of utility in some form and which therefore enhance their welfare. Income or wealth is also measurable and interpersonally comparable. Aggregating it into a SWF should be relatively easy. Of course, F is this case should probably not be the simple sum of all income levels. Some special focus on the income of the least well off and redistribution of income from those better off would, given the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, increase total welfare utility (W) in a society: one extra unit of utility (income in this case) for a starving person is of greater value than an extra unit of utility for a millionaire.2
However, income and wealth aren’t really very good proxies for welfare. Welfare is clearly more than money, even though money can buy welfare. In addition, different people need different levels of income or wealth because they have different consumption requirements (think of a blind person or a paraplegic). So income looks like it’s an interpersonally comparable form of welfare when in fact it’s not: equal income may yield vastly unequal levels of welfare when welfare is understood as something more than mere income. Well-being may then have to take the place of income (well-being could account for the lower welfare of the blind and the paraplegic given equal income levels). But well-being is notoriously difficult to define, let alone measure.3
So we’re back where we came from. Perhaps a more subjective approach to welfare could do the trick. Welfare is then not what is objectively good for individuals – such as income or well-being – but rather what individuals themselves subjectively prefer. This means moving away from what Kenneth Arrow has called the Platonism or paternalism that is often part of welfare economics.4 The social good is not derived from philosophical reflection about the nature of welfare, but is instead the composite of individual preferences, whatever they are. Hence, the welfare that is to be aggregated into a SWF is abstract preference satisfaction.
The use of abstract preference satisfaction as a measure of individual welfare allows us to sidestep the problem of interpersonal comparability of more specific preferences or of other possible definitions of welfare such as income. There is no way to compare satisfaction of a preference for alcohol with satisfaction of a preference for a long life. Of course, even if we try to compare abstract preference satisfaction across individual, we’ll still have problems because
[t]here is no means of testing the magnitude of A’s satisfaction as compared with B’s.5
Hence the need to use ordinal rather than cardinal rankings for individual preference rankings. One takes individuals’ ordinal preference rankings and aggregates those, irrespective of the nature or intensity of the preferences. However, we then may have to pay the price of running afoul of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which suggest that individual ordinal rankings can’t produce a SWF.
Moreover, the interpersonal comparability of abstract preference satisfaction is only apparent. Let’s say you have a world with three individual, each with a set of preferences that they rank. Two of them have a high preference for the consumption of porn and rank that first. The other one has no preference for porn and instead ranks the consumption of art first. When abstracting these preferences, most SWFs would result in a ranking of possible social states where the social state in which porn consumption yields the highest total welfare is the best possible state. That is not intuitively appealing. While many of us would give priority to people’s preferences even if these preferences are not our own and even if we deem them base, most would stop at evil preferences.6
Hence a SWF based on abstract preference satisfaction is not acceptable. Perhaps we should therefore reconsider the Platonism scolded by Arrow7 (but without the paternalism). I propose to do just that and more specifically to use human rights as the Platonic good. I have good reasons for choosing this good, and I’ve defended those elsewhere. You may or may not agree with these reasons, and the reasons will inevitably be controversial. Introducing controversial elements into a SWF may make it useless, and may result in as many SWF as there are people. However, the controversial elements have always been there. The advantage of human rights is that there is widespread agreement on them – at least on the list of rights, not so much on the reasons why we need them.
Another advantage of the use of human rights as a proxy of welfare is interpersonally comparability. Thomas Scanlon, although not talking about human rights, says it better:
Giving up the idea that value judgments can be avoided altogether allows us to make, within moral argument, the kind of interpersonal comparison mentioned earlier. We can still pursue the aim of Neutrality by basing our moral arguments on a conception of the elements that are important in making a life good that is at least widely shared.8
Measurement of human rights is also less of a problem compared to alternative measures of welfare. People’s rights are respected or not. To some extent, this can be objectively ascertained, at least in theory. There are, of course, practical obstacles to human rights measurement, especially in oppressive environments,9 but a reasonable way out of this would be to assume that impossibility of measurement equals absence of respect. Indeed, when rights are not respected, they may be violated in degrees. A SWF based on rights should therefore be able to include measurement of measurable degrees of respect/violation of rights. Again, there is no real obstacle to do this kind of measurement of degrees, at least in the case of most human rights. Free speech for instance is already measured by degrees.10
In order to convince traditional welfare economists of the usefulness of this approach to SWFs, it’s probably best to point to the fact that human rights also encompass a notion of welfare. Traditional welfare needs such as food, shelter, rest, preservation of life, security and a basic standard of living are all codified as human rights.11 Human rights take a sufficientarian approach to these issues, meaning that the focus should be on the welfare needs of those members of society who do not yet have the means to satisfy them. Improving the standard of living of those who already have an above threshold level is not required by human rights.
This sufficientarianism of human rights suggests that the SWF should be Rawlsian, focusing on the welfare of the least well-off individual member of society. That is true for the welfare element of human rights, but not for the more traditional human rights. The members of society whose rights – welfare and other rights – are most precarious should of course receive priority as to their rights protection, but at least in the case of non-welfare rights this is only an intermediate goal. The SWF should allow us to advance the rights of all members up to a level of equal protection.
Sen’s social welfare function is even less useful in this context because it focuses too much on income and income inequality and doesn’t capture the full range of human rights. Completely useless are the Benthamite/classical utilitarian SWF: both the sum and the average are more or less indifferent to the distribution of utility among individuals (with the exception of diminishing marginal utility). Human rights are equal rights, hence their distribution is of crucial importance. Perhaps a Bernoulli-Nash SWF in which F is the product? Maybe, but that will only be the start. A complete SWF based on rights requires a lot more work than I can possibly accomplish here. For example, one element of complexity is geography: normally, SWFs are made for a single country, whereas a rights based SWF should of course encompass the whole of humanity. Human rights are rights of all human beings, and there are substantial cross-border effects on rights. I hope to flesh out this proposal another time.
2 A Rawlsian SWF would then perhaps be an option. A Benthamite or classical utilitarian SWF, even though it would allow redistribution if justified by diminishing marginal utility, does not give special attention to the income of the least well off. A Rawlsian SWF allows redistribution even without diminishing marginal utility.
3 The capabilities approach – which argues that freedom (what people are free to do or be) should be included in welfare assessments – is one interesting formulation of well-being, but it’s inevitably controversial.
6 There are numerous other problems with preference satisfaction as a definition of welfare, e.g. preference manipulation, people having preferences about other people’s preferences (as in Sen’s Liberal Paradox, etc.).
7 See note 4 above. One can argue that welfare economics is always and inherently normative. Disagreement about F is indicative of the ethical choices inherent in SWF thinking. See notes 1 and 2 above. In addition, the focus on individual welfare as the only source of social welfare also marks an ethical choice, namely the choice against collectivism.
8 T.M. Scanlon, The Moral Basis of Interpersonal Comparisons, in Elster & Roemer, Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 44.
9 See Human Rights, the Quantitative Approach, F. Spagnoli.
11 Although there is opposition to the inclusion of these rights in the corpus of human rights, especially in the U.S. See here.
Human rights activism is rarely zero-sum, in the sense that we can only improve the rights protection of some through the imposition of an equal loss on others. More commonly we selectively improve protection for some without reducing protection for others. For example, if a judge protects a journalist’s free speech rights against government censorship, no one else’s rights protection is proportionally reduced. (This is zero-sum in the sense that more free speech means less censorship, but it’s not zero-sum on the level of different rights).
Zero-sum rights activism does occur, but only in the case of conflicting rights. For example, the journalist’s free speech rights may require restrictions on the right to privacy of public figures (or vice versa). However, most violations or restrictions of rights are not the result of conflicts between rights but rather the result of the non-rights motivated actions of governments or private agents.
We can rephrase this in economic terms. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made (source).
This is common in human rights activism. We regularly intervene very selectively to improve the rights of some while leaving others unaffected. This is because there’s always a lack of resources and a lack of power to intervene non-selectively.
However, even if Pareto improvements can be a way forward for rights protection, they are not the ultimate goal of human rights activism. This ultimate goal is equal rights, and that’s not something you can reach with Pareto improvements. Inherent in Pareto is that you don’t leave anyone worse off, but equal rights may require that some people give up something: an equal right to private property may imply redistribution for example.
Another reason why Pareto improvements aren’t really compatible with human rights is the lack of urgency, priority or fairness in Pareto terms. Pareto improvements can make those who are already better off even better off. If you make the richest person in society better off or improve the rights protection of the best protected person in society, this can be a Pareto improvement, but that’s hardly the best way forward for human rights. Human rights would require making first the worst placed person better off, even if this means making the best placed person a bit worse off (which, however, is often not even necessary).
Pareto efficient is therefore not the best way to achieve a society with full respect for human rights, although a society that is not Pareto efficient – in the sense that some Pareto improvements with respect to rights protection are still possible and some people may be made better off without anyone else being made worse off – obviously does not fully respect human rights.
If we first need to make the worst off better off, then a better principle for human rights may be a variation of Rawls’ difference principle:
enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is already better is only justifiable if it also leads to enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is relatively worse.
For example, one could argue that a very bright person has a right to more education if it turns out that her enhanced education ultimately benefits others who are less educated (perhaps because this person will become a rights activist or because she will transmit her knowledge). Or one can argue that a higher standard of living for someone already well off will increase economic productivity which in turn benefits the poorer members of society. However, this difference principle will not, by definition, make everyone equally well off or guarantee everyone’s equal rights. But perhaps it will do a better job than Pareto efficiency.
This ad for the King Khalid Foundation says that female abuse is “a phenomenon found in the dark”, cunningly – or involuntarily – mocking Saudi dress code rules. The veil does indeed cover more than the female body.
Human rights are not like music or love, things people care about for their own sake or for the pleasure or happiness they provide. If people care about human rights they do so because they view those rights as means to achieve some other goals or purpose. I personally see the following reasons why people care about human rights.
Human rights function as signaling tools (see also here). People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but perhaps only want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that. They may of course improve respect for human rights along the way, sometimes unwittingly (for example because their talk contributes to a culture of human rights), but human rights are valuable to them primarily because they allow them to communicate certain things about themselves. For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. This kind of reason to care about human rights is not by definition useless for the promotion of human rights – it can advance the cause of human rights – but it’s obviously not the best possible reason.
Human rights promote people’s self-interest. That’s obviously true for their own rights, but also for the rights of others. I’ve written here about the ways in which people may view the promotion of the rights of others as a means to protect their own self-interest. This reason to care about human rights is more beneficial to the cause of human rights than the signaling reason, but it’s still not the best possible reason. People’s self-interest does not advance all human rights of all other people.
People may believe that human rights promote some of their cherished values or ideals, such as freedom or equality, for themselves and for humanity in general. Like the previous two reasons for caring about human rights, this reason will only advance the cause of human rights contingently: if freedom is what you care about, you will only promote human rights to the extent that they enhance freedom, and only those rights that enhance freedom.
It’s not true that freedom is served by all human rights all of the time, at least not if you adopt a restrictive definition of freedom. For example, those human rights that guarantee a basic standard of living are not clearly meant to enhance the freedom of poor people – within the bounds of a certain definition of freedom - and they may even limit the freedom of those who have to contribute the means necessary to guarantee a basic standard of living for others. Conversely, if you’re an egalitarian and equality rather than freedom is what you care about, then you may not feel especially attached to the right to property for example.
People may cherish rights because they believe human beings are uniquely valuable creatures who should be treated in a certain way. For example, you may believe that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Or that they deserve to have their autonomy protected. Or that people have been created by God in His image and that this requires a certain treatment. Human rights are then viewed as means to achieve this treatment. Compared to the previous reasons to care about human rights, this reason is potentially more inclusive and wide-ranging and less contingent on facts about personal motivation. However, it depends on a substantive and inherently controversial philosophy about human nature, dignity or religion.
Conversely, people may cherish human rights, not because of their views about the inherent worth of human beings, but because of the evil inherent in humanity. Human rights are necessary not because they protect the good in people but because they protect people from the evil in others.
- Human Rights and Utopia (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
First, there has indeed been a surge in human rights talk over the past decades and even centuries (see here for some evidence). This is particularly obvious for the period since the end of WWII. Human rights have become the lingua franca among the oppressed, the persecuted and the bleeding hearts worldwide, effectively replacing language based on benevolence, honor etc. (No insult intended, I’m a bleeding heart myself). There’s something about the notion of a human right that captures the strength of demands for freedom and equality like nothing else. It makes a claim sound very strong and difficult to ignore.
Other reasons for the popularity of human rights – or better the fascination with human rights – are their clarity and simplicity, their obvious universality and the fact that they cover most if not all areas of human suffering, depravity and failing, including persecution, violence, lack of freedom, discrimination, poverty, work and the family.
A further, and as yet unexplored reason is the so-called intentionality bias. The intentionality bias is a psychological bias where actions are viewed as intentional even when they’re not.
Three studies tested the idea that our analyses of human behavior are guided by an ‘‘intentionality bias,” an implicit bias where all actions are judged to be intentional by default. In Study 1 participants read a series of sentences describing actions that can be done either on purpose or by accident (e.g., ‘‘He set the house on fire”) and had to decide which interpretation best characterized the action. To tap people’s initial interpretation, half the participants made their judgments under speeded conditions; this group judged significantly more sentences to be intentional. Study 2 found that when asked for spontaneous descriptions of the ambiguous actions used in Study 1 (and thus not explicitly reminded of the accidental interpretation), participants provided significantly more intentional interpretations, even with prototypically accidental actions (e.g., ‘‘She broke the vase”). Study 3 examined whether more processing is involved in deciding that something is unintentional (and thus overriding an initial intentional interpretation) than in deciding that something is unpleasant (where there is presumably no initial ‘‘pleasant” interpretation). Participants were asked to judge a series of 12 sentences on one of two dimensions: intentional/unintentional (experimental group) or pleasant/unpleasant (control group). People in the experimental group remembered more unintentional sentences than people in the control group. Findings across the three studies suggest that adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior. This research has important implications both in terms of theory (e.g., dual-process model for intentional reasoning), and practice (e.g., treating aggression, legal judgments). (source)
If there is indeed a tendency to view actions as intentional, then there will also be a tendency to frame problems in terms of human rights. For example, if the intentional actions of an oppressive majority assisted by prejudiced legislators and law enforcers are believed to be the main cause of discrimination of a racial minority, then holding those intentional actors legally and judicially responsible for rights violations makes sense and may be effective. When, on the other hand, a lot of this discrimination is in fact the result of unconscious bias, or when it is statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination, then judicial action based on human rights is much less effective.
And it’s my opinion that a lot of human rights violations are unintentional, unconscious and statistical. That doesn’t mean we should stop framing the underlying problems in human rights terms, but it does mean that our efforts to do something about them should be non-legal and non-judicial. Story telling, making people aware of their unconscious biases against certain groups of people, incentivizing people and other strategies can then be more successful in stopping rights violations.
The intentionality bias can be understood as an example of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. A simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).
If you’re a heartless cynic, you’ll reply “no one” or “that they help themselves” when asked who should help the poor. If not, you’ll probably offer one of three answers:
- Those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. The main champion of this line of thought is Thomas Pogge who we’ve mentioned before on this blog.
- Those who can end poverty are responsible for ending it. Who caused poverty and how is really not important. Here it’s Peter Singer who is the main proponent. (We also mentioned him before).
- Those who are in a special relationship with poor people are responsible for helping them. The best known representative of this view is David Miller.
The problem is that all three answers sound appealing and yet they are mutually incompatible in some respects. At the same time they seem incomplete without each other. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each answer before dealing with the relationships between them.
Answer 1 focuses on causation: those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. And Pogge has argued very successfully that all poverty as it currently exists in the world is to a large degree if not entirely caused by the actions of people and institutions:
The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (source)
Pogge also claims, convincingly, that focusing on the causes of poverty delivers a stronger account of duty. The negative duty to right a wrong for which you are responsible is stronger than the positive duty to help irrespective of whether you’re responsible for the predicament of those you have to help. It does seem to be a widespread moral intuition that the negative duty not to harm, to prevent harm and to rectify harm once you’ve done it is at least more urgent and perhaps also more important than the positive duty to do good. The latter duty is central in answer 2. The idea that we should help because we caused harm seems to carry more weight than the idea that we should help simply because we can.
And yet, there’s a competing intuition that we should help because others have needs, whether or not we are responsible for those needs. So answer 1 doesn’t seem obviously superior to answer 2. In defense of answer 2, Singer gave the example of the drowning child in a famous 1972 paper. Nobody would condone your failure to help a drowning child because you weren’t the one who threw her in the pond. The simple fact that you pass by and that you can help at a minimal cost to yourself is sufficient to ground a duty to help. Poverty, according to Singer, is the same, even if it is poverty far away: the minority of wealthy people in the word can end poverty at a small cost to themselves. We should help people if we can and it doesn’t matter why people need help or who caused the problem in the first place.
If you wish, you can listen to his argument here:
He obviously explains it better than I can.
So we have two strong and seemingly incompatible intuitions here. The advantage of answer 1 is that it appeals to our understanding that negative duties are more urgent. Hence, focusing on causation and personal responsibility can, in theory, accelerate the struggle against poverty. We are more likely to act if we are convinced that we did something wrong.
The advantage of answer 2, on the other hand, is that it renders discussions about the facts of responsibility moot. Indeed, Pogge’s case about the West’s responsibility for poverty in the world is strong but not watertight. One can argue that people are partly responsible for their own poverty, or that local governments and natural conditions are also to blame. Hence, paradoxically, answer 1 can delay effective action because responsibilities first need to be attributed, and that is inherently controversial. Answer 2 then suddenly seems the more effective approach. Furthermore, answer 2 is able to deal with poverty that has no human causes: answer 1 seems unable to force action against poverty caused by natural forces.
And then there’s answer 3 making things even more complex. Answer 1 and 2 also accept that some people have greater duties than others – those who are responsible and those who can help respectively – but answer 3 takes this notion a step further. Those who are in a special relationship to the poor have greater duties to help. Part of the reason for this claim is that a relationship often yields a larger remedial capacity. Parents are better able than strangers to help their children because they have a special relationship with their children: they know them, care more for them, are closer and understand them better. The same can be said for national, linguistic or ethnic communities, according to David Miller. He speaks about “solidaristic communities” where people identify themselves as fellow members sharing a culture or beliefs with other members. This makes distributions easier and more effective.
It’s now the turn of answer 3 to claim to be the more effective one. And indeed, distance does play a role, not only in the effectiveness of actions but also in the willingness to help. Even Singer accepts the latter fact. We may want to change the facts but that takes time. In the meantime, it may be better to count on solidarity within groups than on the duties defended by answers 1 and 2.
It seems to be a widespread intuition that we can give extra weight to the interests of those close to us. This does not imply that we are allowed to neglect the world’s poor, but it does mean that our efforts to help them should not be at the expense of those close to us, including ourselves. If we have a duty to give, then this duty is limited by what we need for ourselves and for those close to us.
So, this concludes the description of different answers to the question in the title of the blog post. The relationship between these answers is a difficult one. They seem incompatible: either we look for those responsible for harm and force them to remedy; or we look for those who can offer a remedy and force them to act; or we look inside solidaristic communities. The duty bearers will sometimes be the same according to all three answers, and then there’s no problem if one, two or three justifications of their duties are successful in forcing them to act. But it can happen that the duty bearers are different people in the three different answers, and then there’s a problem. And we shouldn’t underestimate the probability of this. I personally tend to favor answer 2, but I don’t really have a good argument for this.
People of color, women, slaves, Jews, children and other human beings have been regarded, at some point in history, as legal nonpersons. Nowadays they are equal to all other human beings, at least according to the law. It’s not uncommon to hear the argument that certain species of animals, such as primates or dolphins, should also have rights similar to those of humans (at least some of the rights of humans).
Is it not time to do the same for machines? Why should the expanding circle of moral concern stop at living creatures? And what is life anyway? Are not intelligence, self-awareness (or “consciousness” whatever that means) and some form of agency more important in the attribution of rights? If so, then some machines at least should have rights, since they are intelligent, self-aware and capable of agency. And then we should stop treating machines are mere tools used for human ends, just as we – or at least some of us – have now stopped treating slaves, women and animals as mere tools. Otherwise we run the risk of presenting ourselves to future generations much like our bigoted, racist, speciesist, classist and sexist forefathers have presented themselves to us.
However, can we really make the case that the most sophisticated machines that we currently have are “creatures” with artificial intelligence able to make autonomous and self-aware choices? (Notice the use of the word “that” instead of “who”). Is it not more correct to say that, no matter how sophisticated they are, they simply execute instructions given to them by human engineers or programmers and choose whatever their designers have told them to choose? That they are mere extensions of our arms and brains like all machines before them, only more complex?
There are now machines that speak, or seem to speak. Should they have the right to free speech? A Google search result may be deemed protected speech, but not because machines – in this case a computer program that searches the internet – have the right to free speech but because the search result can be considered a form of human speech, in this case speech by a computer programmer. Google is a mouthpiece.
If we refuse the notion of machine rights because machines are not self-aware, autonomous and intelligent agents, then we immediately run into a serious problem. Certain human beings who have lost a significant part of their brainpower – or all of it – and who are no longer self-aware or capable of agency – or who never had those features – are still accorded rights. We don’t systematically euthanize the severely mentally handicapped or patients in a coma.
Maybe then this whole line of thinking is fruitless. Attributes such as intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness and agency shouldn’t be used to accord or deny rights because doing so leads to unacceptable conclusions. And even in the absence of such conclusion would we face a problem. We can’t clearly define those attributes, and even if we could then it would still be practically impossible to decide “who” or “what” has or doesn’t have them. It’s difficult enough with a human being in a coma, let alone with animals or machines. Even if someone or something looks like a thinking, conscious actor, that may be an optical illusion: perhaps it was programmed to look that way. A Turing test may help, but it may not be foolproof, or at least not able to convince us that it is foolproof.
The reason is the inaccessible of the mind. In the words of Daniel Dennett, there is no way to be sure that something that seems to have an inner life does in fact have one. We normally assume that our fellow human beings have an inner life like our own, but that is just an assumption necessary to make everyday life bearable. And it’s even more of an assumption in the case of animals or machines. At least in the case of fellow human beings we can convince ourselves of the proposition that because they look like us on the exterior they must also look like us on the interior.
Hence, we shouldn’t decide whether someone or something has rights on the basis of the presence of attributes such as consciousness and agency. In my own thinking about rights I’ve always avoided this line of thinking. Rights for me are things that we need to realize certain values. They are tools – legal and policy tools – rather than attributes of moral creatures. Hence, we should ask whether animals or machines requires rights for the realization of states that are important to them. Animals value a life without pain and without restrictions to their freedom of movement. Rights that help them to achieve these values would therefore be imaginable. However, it seems more difficult to make the same case for machines. It’s not clear that machines value anything, at least not in the same way that it is clear that human beings and animals value some things.
“Clear” should be understood not in the sense of “factual” or “true”. Like in the case of consciousness, intelligence or agency, the presence of the ability to value something can’t be easily determined: like any other state of mind it can’t be seen, verified or experienced by anyone else. For instance, if an animal seems to value the absence of pain, we may in fact be dealing with a machine that is programmed to impersonate an animal that doesn’t like pain. We can’t know for certain, not even with regard to our fellow human beings. But again, the general similarity between humans and between humans and some types of animals gives us reason to believe that other humans or animals value some of the same things we value. There is no such general similarity between human and machines.
One could argue that there are moral limits on the things we can do to machines – not torture robots or robotic toys for instance – not because those machines have rights but because what our actions do to ourselves. But that’s no reason to conclude that machines have rights. Our own rights are at stake here.
If you’re a political leader, a church leader or anyone else with the ability and willingness to change some people’s behavior and promote respect for human rights – to some extent that includes all of us – what should be your policy priorities? On which human rights violations should you focus? Ideally, you would like to be told something more specific than “reduce suffering and violence and enhance liberty and equality”. So here’s my attempt at something specific.
I’ll list a few domains that require urgent action. Not all of these domains are equally amenable to action, because there may be strong resistance in some quarters. Nevertheless, I consider all these domains to be equally important. I’ll list them first (and include links to older posts arguing why action is important) and afterwards distinguish between those domains where immediate progress is realistic and where it’s not. Of course, it’s not because progress isn’t realistic that we should remain passive.
- Promote free trade. Standard arguments for protectionism sound a lot like the Count complaining that there are beggars at the door. Protectionism may even harm citizens of the protecting country. It certainly harms producers in poorer countries. More here.
- Abolish capital punishment and reduce incarceration rates. Capital punishment doesn’t deliver on its promises, and even if it did it wouldn’t be acceptable. “Tough on crime” policies go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims.
- One way to reduce incarceration rates is to end the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs will also reduce racial discrimination because it leads to strong imbalances in incarceration rates by race, impoverishing and even destroying many black families.
- Abolish existing laws and practices that lead to discrimination of all types. Some laws, however, may be necessary to combat discrimination.
- Guarantee social safety nets through a fair and efficient system of benefits and progressive taxation - perhaps including a basic income guarantee - but also encourage private charity. Design the taxation system in such a way that it reduces income inequality.
- Help the poor by way of Conditional Cash Transfers.
- Rethink development aid. More here and here.
- Combat malnourishment and hunger and improve the water supply. More here and here.
- Reduce immigration restrictions. The supposed negative consequences of increased immigration are largely fictitious, and the benefits for migrants are huge. Also relax asylum rules for refugees.
- Improve education and healthcare.
- Enhance the scope of humanitarian intervention in order to avoid Rwanda style atrocities.
- Promote democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and the separation of church and state, and improve those institutions where they already exist. Human rights are typically safer in democracies and obviously require the rule of law.
- Declare victory in the war on terror, but continue the capture terrorist and subject them to fair criminal trials. Abandon torture, targeted killings if alternatives are available, and extrajudicial incarceration, and limit invasions of privacy to those strictly necessary to capture terrorists.
- Abolish freedom-restricting laws such as those prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia. Relax abortion laws where necessary.
- Guarantee the freedom of the internet.
Now, which of these actions are realistic in the short term, and which are not? The latter part of the list, namely actions 9 to 15, seems to be the most difficult. Substantial progress is already under way for 1, 2, 4 (take the case of same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT), 6, 7 and 8. Also, 3 may be heading in the right direction. 5 depends to some extent on the general economic climate.
It’s obviously a long list of often very difficult policies, even when we limit ourselves to those areas where progress is relatively easy. Also, in some countries, progress may be easier in some areas than in others. That’s why this list is still too general and different actors may have to choose a subset.
More on progress in the field of human rights here.
Work is indeed a human right, but it’s not true that free trade is a major cause of violations of this right. When trade barriers are removed, some jobs will indeed be outsourced overseas, notably to countries where the relative labor cost is lower. But the people overseas who benefit from this outsourcing arguably need the jobs more than citizens of wealthy western welfare states. Also, it’s not because some jobs disappear that others aren’t created. Furthermore, lower production costs often translate into lower retail prices for many consumer goods, something which may compensate for job losses or for shifts in labor markets.
The alternative to free trade is protectionism, and protectionism is a major cause of poverty in developing countries. Absence of poverty is also a human right. We have therefore two human rights that need to be balanced against each other. In this case, I think the right not to suffer poverty should take precedence, for the following reason: on the one hand, protectionism aggravates poverty mainly in developing countries and those countries often don’t have robust social security systems; on the other hand, to the extent that free trade and outsourcing do produce job losses they do so mainly in developed countries that offer social security. The harm caused by protectionism is therefore greater than the harm caused by free trade. Also, let’s not forget the numerous positive effects of free trade:
- more specialization
- more use of comparative advantage
- better access to technology and knowledge
- better and cheaper intermediate goods (raw products etc.) and capital goods (machines etc.)
- benefits of scale
- and increased competition.
It’s very difficult if not impossible to cite a similar number of positive effects of protectionism.
Here’s another advert making the same mistake:
More human rights ads.