Here’s the inspiration:
The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:
- the criminal should receive punishment that is proportional to the crime;
- in war and law enforcement, the army or the police should not use disproportionate amounts of force;
- people’s economic rewards should be proportional to what they deserve and to the amounts of personal effort, skill or whatever you believe is a basis of desert;
- the people’s representatives in democratic institutions should represent equal proportions of the population;
- people should pay taxes in proportion to their income;
But why should “things” be proportional? Perhaps it’s some kind of esthetic ideal: a beautiful body is a proportional one; a tasty dish is one with the right proportions of ingredients. So maybe justice is merely about beauty and taste. The world is just if things are not out of proportion, because if they were that would insult our esthetic taste. The word “fair” in “fairness” – often a synonym for justice – also means beautiful.
But I find that hard to believe. People want justice for other reasons than a desire for beauty, and demands of proportionality are about something more than esthetics. But whatever the reasons, proportionality has it’s place in theories of justice, and it would be illusory to try and get rid of it. The notion seems deeply engrained in moral intuitions.
However, while we should in general accept that proportionality plays a role in justice, we should also criticize some uses of proportionality. It’s hard to deny that more serious crimes should be met with more serious punishments, but it’s equally hard to deny that there should be an upper limit to this (you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times) and that criminal punishment should also serve other goals than people’s desire to have things in proportion. Punishment is used in order to protect the public against the criminal, and if a non-proportional punishment serves this goal then maybe we shouldn’t insist on proportionality for proportionality’s sake.
It’s also possible to criticize the use of proportionality in discussions about economic rewards, redistribution, poverty relief etc. If you want to argue that people who are more deserving have a claim to more compensation – and that undeserving people should receive less or nothing – then you need a good account of desert. However, such an account is elusive if not outright impossible. Effort and skill may not be signs of desert but rather the product of undeserved genetic inheritance. Difficult to know, and very intrusive if you want to find out. Proportional distribution as a method of realizing an idea of justice based on desert depends on desert being a good basis of justice. If it isn’t, proportionality may lead to injustice rather than justice because it may leave the poor to starve.
There’s a third case in which proportionality can undermine justice instead of promoting it. Governments may want to limit certain rights because they believe that this is necessary for a public good such as protection against terrorism, in which case they often make claims about proportionality. The possible consequences of terrorism are supposedly so severe that limitations of people’s right to privacy or right not to be tortured are proportional responses, even if these limitations are far-reaching. You can’t lift a heavy rock with an elastic band. The tool should be proportional to the end you want to achieve, and a world without terrorism requires some heavy tools. But again, proportionality as a method to achieve justice – a just world is a world without terrorists killing innocent people – may achieve the opposite. The harm caused by limitations of rights is often greater than the harm of terrorism (some numbers here about the relative harm imposed by terrorism).
A final example of the way in which proportionality can lead us astray when thinking about justice. Many of us tend to believe that we owe more to those close to us and that justice is in the first instance something between members of the nation state. And it is indeed common to see concerns about human rights violations diminish in proportion to the distance between those who are concerned and those whose rights are violated. However, if ideas about closeness are overemphasized in thinking about justice – and they often are since patriotism, nationalism, racism and other forms of in-group bias are quite common – then proportionality will again cause injustice rather than justice.
The point of all this is not to criticize proportionality as such but the manner in which it is used. Proportionality is one method to achieve justice, and can, given some prerequisites, help us to achieve justice. You can’t fight terrorism with good will alone. You shouldn’t impose life sentences for traffic violations. And you shouldn’t give everyone equal economic rewards. But let’s not overemphasize one very peculiar method to achieve justice, a method moreover that is often based on shaky assumptions such as desert, the moral relevance of closeness or the effectiveness and necessity of certain policies.
More posts in this series are here.
The Homeland, by Adunis (translation by M.M. Badawi)
To the faces that harden behind a mask of gloom
I bow, and to streets where I left behind my tears;
To a father who died, green as a cloud
With a sail on his face, I bow,
And to a child that is sold
In order to pray and clean shoes
(In our land we all pray and clean shoes);
To a stone I inscribed with my hunger,
Saying it was lightning and rain, drops rolling under my eyelids,
And to a house whose dust I carried with me in my loss
I bow—all these are my homeland, not Damascus.
During and even immediately after the Civil War, very few American artists undertook direct representations of the catastrophic conflict or of the experience of the enslaved African Americans whose plight it decided. One of the most remarkable exceptions is this painting by the leading mid-century figure painter Eastman Johnson, who claimed to have based the subject on an actual event he had witnessed near the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield on March 2, 1862, just days before the Confederate stronghold was ceded to Union forces. In this powerfully simplified composition, a family of fugitive slaves charges for the safety of Union lines in the dull light of dawn. The absence of white figures in this liberation subject makes it virtually unique in American art of the period—these African Americans are the independent agents of their own freedom. (source)
More political art.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange sun rays
And dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through
The sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
More human rights poems here.
Suicide in the Trenches, by Siegfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy…..
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
More human rights poems here.
I don’t know what this is supposed to represent, but it’s probably some form of commentary on Africa’s “exploding” problems:
Here’s another version:
If it’s a denunciation of Africa’s problems, then I have to say it’s a bad case of overacting. As if everywhere in Africa life is horribly miserable, brutal and short. In fact, things are looking up.
This one, by the same artist, is even more offensive:
The Baghdad Zoo, by Brian Turner
An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man
on a streetcorner, dragging him down an alley
as shocked onlookers cried for it to stop.
There were tanks rolling their heavy tracks
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil.
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse.
Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes
looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks
too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century.
Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals
flew over, frightened by the rotorwash
of blackhawk helicopters touching down.
One baboon even escaped from the city limits.
It was found wandering in the desert, confused
by the wind and the sand of the barchan dunes.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad zoo was completely destroyed.
For their own safety, zoo workers suspended feeding the animals in early April 2003, when Fedayeen Saddam troops took up defensive positions around the zoo as U.S. forces began the battle of Baghdad. Out of the original 650 to 700 animals in the Baghdad Zoo only 35 had survived to the eighth day of the invasion, and these tended to be some of the larger animals.
During the absence of zoo staff and officials, the zoo suffered from severe looting. Cages were torn open by thieves who released or took hundreds of animals and birds. Zoo staff claimed most of the birds and game animals were taken for food as pre-war food shortages in Baghdad were exacerbated by the invasion.
Many animals were found roaming the zoo grounds. The remaining animals were found in critical condition, dying of thirst and starving in their cages, including Mandor, a 20-year-old Siberian tiger that was the personal property of Uday Hussein, and Saida, a blind brown bear.
Several lions escaped from the abandoned zoo and were rounded up by American soldiers in armored fighting vehicles. Four that would not return to their cages were shot by the soldiers. (source)
Michael Young’s 1958 satire “The Rise of the Meritocracy” is about the diminishing importance of hereditary aristocracy in Britain and what it does to the lower classes. Poor Brits now feel that they somehow deserve their poverty, and the rest of society wholeheartedly agrees. In the words of a fictional historian:
Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are, on the one hand, no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class … As for the lower classes, their situation is different too. Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance. They are tested again and again … if they have been labelled “dunce” repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering, reflection. Are they not bound to recognise that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior. For the first time in human history the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard. (source)
The Ship of Fools (painted c. 1490–1500) is intended to exemplify the human condition. Representatives of the whole of mankind are voyaging through the seas of time. Every one of them is a fool: eating and drinking too much, flirting and cheating, playing silly games, and we don’t look at the poor who fell out of the ship and are now begging for some crumbs. The ship drifts aimlessly and we never reach the harbour. (By the way, the scene where four fools try to eat a hanging pancake without using their hands is based on a folk custom).
According to Foucault, the painting also represents the view that “madmen” should be deported overseas. Madness was often equated with poverty, the incapacity to work and the inability to integrate in the group. In England, it was feared that the country could be overrun by the poor, and it was proposed that they be banished and deported to the colonies.
More political artists here.
(source – The painting refers to the English Reformation, formally sanctioned by the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereby Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and was established as head of the Church of England. The painting was in the collection of Henry VIII who owned at least two other anti-papal pictures. The composition comprises a pope sprawling on the ground, flanked by two female figures representing avarice and hypocrisy, all of whom are being stoned by the four evangelists. On the ground in front of these figures are a cardinal’s hat and a document with four seals (probably a Papal Bull). The city in the distance on the left may be Jerusalem. Above the city is a burning candle, which contrasts with another in the immediate foreground that has been extinguished by a cooking pan. These candles have been interpreted as symbolizing respectively the true light of the Gospels and the false doctrine of Rome)
Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However, it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.
Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.
How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.
Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).
I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?
All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism – as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.
What Work Is, by Philip Levine
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
“A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”, written by the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in 1542, is one of the first attempts by a Spanish writer of the colonial era to depict the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in colonial times. The description was sent to then Prince Philip II of Spain. It’s remarkable in the sense that it was written during the early stages of the Spanish conquest.
The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty … like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv’d, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard. …
Those that arriv’d at these Islands from the remotest parts of Spain, and who pride themselves in the Name of Christians, steer’d Two courses principally, in order to the Extirpation, and Exterminating of this People from the face of the Earth. The first whereof was raising an unjust, sanguinolent, cruel War. The other, by putting them to death, who hitherto, thirsted after their Liberty, or design’d (which the most Potent, Strenuous and Magnanimous Spirits intended) to recover their pristin Freedom, and shake off the Shackles of so injurious a Captivity. …
Finally, in one word, their Ambition and Avarice, than which the heart of Man never entertained greater, and the vast Wealth of those Regions; the Humility and Patience of the Inhabitants (which made their approach to these Lands more facil and easie) did much promote the business: Whom they so despicably contemned, that they treated them (I speak of things which I was an Eye Witness of, without the least fallacy) not as Beasts, which I cordially wished they would, but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth; and so sollicitous they were of their Life and Soul, that the above-mentioned number of People died without understanding the true Faith or Sacraments. And this also is as really true as the praecendent Narration (which the very Tyrants and cruel Murderers cannot deny without the stigma of a lye) that the Spaniards never received any injury from the Indians, but that they rather reverenced them as Persons descended from Heaven, until that they were compelled to take up Arms, provoked thereunto by repeated Injuries, violent Torments, and injust Butcheries. …
[T]he Spaniards …, mounted on generous Steeds, well weapon’d with Lances and Swords, begin to exercise their bloody Butcheries and Strategems, and overrunning their Cities and Towns, spar’d no Age, or Sex, nay not so much as Women with Child, but ripping up their Bellies, tore them alive in pieces. They laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man, with the greatest dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his Sword in the Bowels of a Man with the quickest dispatch and expedition. They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rocks; others they cast into Rivers scoffing and jeering them.
More human rights stories here.
A recent US Supreme Court ruling invalidated a California law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to children on the grounds that the law violated freedom of speech. The controversy is an old one, and goes roughly as follows. Proponents of laws banning violent media – especially the sale of violent media to children – point to different studies arguing that violence in media promotes violence in real life and that children in particular are at risk of becoming violent adults. Since people have a right to be protected against violence and children have a right not to suffer the psychological harm that purportedly comes from the consumption of violent games, we have here a case of rights conflicting with each other: on the one hand the free speech rights of the makers and sellers of games, and on the other hand the security rights of the potential victims of violent behavior provoked by the consumption of violent games, as well as the mental health rights of the consumers of those games. Hence, one of those rights should give way to the other rights.
Proponents of restrictions of free speech in this case argue that a prohibition of the sale of violent games to children is the best option since the speech value of a violent video game is small, and since producers of such games still have the freedom of “artistic expression” because they can still sell to adults. The cost of limiting free speech in this case is small compared to the gains in terms of physical security and psychological health. And there are precedents such as movie ratings.
The opponents of limitations on free speech can also point to studies showing the absence of an effect on real life violence or even the opposite effect – the so-called “pressure valve theory“. They can also use the slippery slope argument and claim that the sale of many classical works of fiction should then also be prohibited on the same grounds, since they also contain scenes of violence.
The US Supreme court sided with the opponents, unsurprisingly given the near absolutism of free speech protection in the US (only a couple of exceptions to free speech are recognized in US jurisprudence, and expression of violence isn’t one of them).
While I personally find US free speech jurisprudence difficult to accept and generally hypocritical – why can obscene material be censored but not violent material? – I think in this case the SCOTUS decision is probably right. The psychological evidence does not, as far as I can tell, clearly show an effect of media violence on real life violence, and even if there is a small effect, a general prohibition on violence in media probably goes too far, as does a general prohibition on the sale of media containing violence. Even a prohibition on the sale of such material to children is probably too much, even given the fact that children are more impressionable. Violence has many causes, and the “pressure valve” theory has some intuitive appeal (also in the case of pornography by the way). A rating system, allowing parents to do their job, is probably better.
For some reason, my older posts on rioting are now immensely popular. So here’s an overview:
I’m not in the mood for serious analyses, but I do want to warn against simplistic explanations involving the words “poverty” and “multicultural”. (See also here). Those types of punditry are usually way off the mark.
Possibly a true story, reported by George Orwell when serving in the British Imperial Police in the 1920s, describing the execution of a criminal in Britain administered Burma (an Indian province until 1937, when it became a separate, self-governing colony; Burma attained independence in 1948):
It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. … One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening. …
Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened–a dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.
“Who let that bloody brute in here?” said the superintendent angrily. “Catch it, someone!”
A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering. …
It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. … And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less. …
And then, when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. The dog answered the sound with a whine. The hangman, still standing on the gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down over the prisoner’s face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still persisted, over and over again: “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and on, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” never faltering for an instant. … We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries – each cry another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!