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.
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.
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.
It’s a bit of a strange one, this. I understand what they are trying to say: governments perform executions only because people acquiesce in them (don’t oppose them) or because they actively approve of them (this approval can be intellectual or moral, or it can manifest itself through active participation as viewers in the process of a public execution). If the public were to turn their backs on the whole affair – not because of apathy or acquiescence but because of opposition - then capital punishment would probably disappear, even in non-democratic states.
However, the image used here conveyes the opposite: people turn their backs, and governments are left in peace to carry on. In light of the massive presence of people at the scene, they could easily stop the execution if they had not decided to turn away.
But perhaps I’m reading this the wrong way. Other interpretations are welcome.
We don’t need the Kony2012 campaign to know that well-intentioned human rights activism can sometimes be misguided. Here’s another fine example:
Female genital mutilation is indeed a horrific practise that robs women of their sexual pleasure, and of a lot more as well. But how exactly does it help to rid the world of FGM when you publish images that clearly dehumanize and objectify women? (I guess the woman here is supposed to be made of stone and hence “stone cold”…). Does it not confirm those who inflict FGM on women in their opinion that they’re not doing anything wrong? That women are lesser human beings? The most commonly advanced justification of FGM is precisely the need to temper the “animal sexuality” of women. This kind of activism is almost certainly self-defeating.
Apparently, some Thai youth are strutting around in T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator. Hilarious. Critics blame it on political ignorance. Even Ronald McDonald gets the treatment:
Maybe it’s not ignorance but a slippery slope: after all, if it’s OK to wear t-shirts with portraits of Mao and Che – which apparently it is – then why not Hitler as well?
And then you get this kind of joke:
By which I don’t mean to imply that Che was some kind of Hitler.
More political T-shirts here.