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

Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

free money

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

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

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

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

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

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

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

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

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

evolution of gini


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

global inequality and country inequality


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

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

hollowing out




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



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

world income distribution


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

world income distribution

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

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

discrimination, equality

Discrimination (17): Human Rights and Intersectionality



Intersectionality is an interesting concept because it’s related to the interdependence of human rights. (Sorry for the alliteration). Kimberlé Crenshaw was the first to propose the term for the purpose of describing interacting forms of discrimination. Some examples. A black woman may have relatively worse life outcomes compared to a white woman who is similar to her in most respects, even though both suffer gender discrimination. The combination of racism and sexism makes it much harder for the black woman to find a job. She will have to overcome anti-female prejudice as well as racism on the job market. An immigrant woman may have a hard time escaping sexual violence because her irregular status makes it difficult for her to go to the police. And so on.

Victims of discrimination and oppression are sometimes very different from each other, depending on the various types of discrimination that combine in order to make their lives difficult. A white upper-class able-bodied female citizen may be discriminated in some ways, but her fate is unlike the one suffered by a poor black illegal immigrant mother. Intersectionality makes for more intense discrimination.



And there’s an additional claim: people’s outcomes are made worse because of the ways in which different forms of discrimination combine (the sum being larger than the addition of the parts). Two or three types of discrimination can be mutually reinforcing. They do not act independently of one another but instead shape one another. Racial stereotypes for example need to be broken down by gender in order to see how different gender representations combine with racial stereotypes in order form an overall discriminatory ideology.

Take for example the Jezebel character. A Jezebel is a loose, sex-craved woman who is often depicted as stereotypically black, i.e. with big lips and funny hair. It’s racist prejudice about sexual morals of black people combined with a gender stereotype. (The idea that it’s men who want more sex is a relatively recent one; and “the sex-mad negro” representation is still around). It’s also no surprise that Reagan’s “welfare queen” was black. Being both poor and a “lazy and untrustworthy black person”, the welfare queen encapsulated a toxic mix used to criticize poor blacks until this day.

The concept of intersectionality “grew up” in the context of feminism. Feminists at some point in the 60s or 70s realized that although the focus on gender as a cause of discrimination is necessary, gender isn’t the sole factor determining the fate of women. A white middle class woman suffers a different form of oppression compared to a poor black women or a disabled woman. Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) became the effort to understand how gender, race and class combine to limit women’s life prospects. Since then, the word has transcended the realm of feminist theory and is now applied to all people who suffer a combination of different forms of oppression. 

All this has practical implications. For example, if you want to take a stand on more female CEO’s or quota for women in parliament you may inadvertently leave existing class structures intact, even if you include race in your quota demands (black women can have class privilege too). On the other hand, if you focus only on racism you may be blind to the specific suffering of black women. Intersectionality is therefore kind of a call for solidarity across victimized groups. 

Time to get back to human rights, I hear you say. The notion of interdependency in rights theory can be likened to intersectionality. If both your right to a decent standard of living and your political rights are violated, then these violations affect each other. For a poor person it’s much harder to reclaim her political rights because her struggle to survive takes precedence over other concerns. However, without her political rights, it’s much more difficult to escape poverty. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. I think it’s fair to say that this interdependence of rights is similar to the notion of intersectionality.

More posts in this series are here.

causes of income inequality, economics, equality

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (32): How Inheritance Not Only Perpetuates But Also Aggravates Inequality

Inherited wealth – the value of all assets (real estate + financial assets – financial liabilities) transmitted at death or through inter-vivos gifts – has become more important over time. Thomas Piketty estimates that

the annual inheritance flow was about 20%-25% of national income around 1900-1910. It then gradually fell to less than 10% in the 1920s-1930s, and to less than 5% in the 1950s. It has been rising regularly since then, with an acceleration of the trend during the past 20 years, and according to the latest data point (2008), it is now close to 15%. (source, source)

The drop between the 1920s and 1950s was caused by the Great Depression and WWII, two events that destroyed a lot of wealth.

Inheritance has always been an important cause of the persistence of wealth inequality. I guess that goes without saying. Capital is unevenly distributed in most populations, and will remain so to the extent that it can stay in the same families. It’s more interesting to look at the mechanisms through which inheritance could, under some circumstances, aggravate inequality. What are those circumstances? Here are some:

  1. Birth rates. People in developed countries have fewer children than they used to, and the children they have survive into adulthood at higher rates. As a result, those children inherit a larger part of their parents wealth. If numerous siblings no longer have to split their inheritance among themselves, the effect of inheritance on wealth inequality becomes stronger. Piketty as well has made this point in a recent talk.
  2. Higher house prices. Housing has become more expensive. This incites people to save more so as to allow their children to buy a house, which has a ripple effect across generations: the biggest savers are those who enjoyed an inheritance because if you’ve inherited a house or the money to buy one it’s easier to save than when you have to rent or pay a mortgage. And if you can save, your children will inherit. And so on.
  3. Inheritance taxes have been reduced in most countries.
  4. Slow economic growth in most developed countries means that the wealth produced in those countries is smaller compared to the wealth inherited.

Not all of these circumstances can be brought under human control. Perhaps an inheritance tax – the dreaded “death tax” – is a realistic option. I mean, if even Nozick could get behind that, you would need to be an outright fundamentalist about property rights  in order to oppose it.

For increases in the inheritance tax to happen, however, we will need to start thinking differently. When David Cameron, for instance, promised to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m he did so because he believes that people who work hard, save money, and bequeath it to their offspring are somehow doing the noble thing. But while it may be noble to work hard and save, it’s far from noble to live off of an inheritance and its often huge returns. Hard work for one results in an unproductive lifestyle for its beneficiaries. If you want to promote work and productivity, by all means impose a death tax. And if you want the best for your children, it may be tempting to give them cash or other assets, but beware that this will be self-defeating beyond a certain amount.

More posts in this series are here.

economics, equality, income inequality

Income Inequality (30): A Primer on Inequality and Economic Growth

Countries that are more equal in income terms are also richer:

income inequality and gdp


But how about the relationship between inequality and economic growth? The classic causal story, based on work by Simon Kuznets,

Kuznets curve

Kuznets curve

maintains that there’s an inverted U-shaped relationship over long periods of economic development. As emerging economies grow they initially become less equal as the few with high financial endowments profit off of their ownership of key productive resources, like land. Then, as industrialization evolves, much more of the population has the chance to participate in higher value-added work which reduces inequality. (source)

In this argument, growth determines inequality: first growth drives inequality up, and then it gradually reduces it.

However, this Kuznetsian view has come under fire recently. Thomas Piketty for instance, in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century“, has criticized Kuznets’ view that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own given increasing growth. According to Piketty, increasing wealth concentration is a likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Kuznets findings were based on a historical anomaly. And indeed, the lines in this graph do not turn downwards to form an inverted U-shape:



Which is why it’s perhaps better to look at the causation in another way: maybe inequality or equality determine growth rather than vice versa. For example, there’s this study arguing that high income inequality is likely to inhibit growth, especially in developing countries:

gdp per capita growth and gini developing countries

gdp per capita growth and gini rich countries


Inequality inhibits growth, especially in developing countries, because

high income inequality can discourage the evolution of the economic and political institutions associated with accountable government (which in turn enable a market environment conducive to investment and growth); and … high income inequality can undermine the civic and social life that sustains effective collective decision-making, especially in multi-ethnic settings. (source)

This study comes to a similar conclusion. It argues that, in general, more inequality endangers the sustainability of growth. Long consistent spells of economic growth are correlated with low levels of income inequality:

income inequality and gdp growth


A growth spell in this graph is a period of at least five years that begins with an unusual increase in the growth rate and ends with an unusual drop in growth.

It may seem counterintuitive that inequality is strongly associated with less sustained growth. After all, some inequality is essential to the effective functioning of a market economy and the incentives needed for investment and growth … But too much inequality might be destructive to growth. Beyond the risk that inequality may amplify the potential for financial crisis, it may also bring political instability, which can discourage investment. Inequality may make it harder for governments to make difficult but necessary choices in the face of shocks, such as raising taxes or cutting public spending to avoid a debt crisis. Or inequality may reflect poor people’s lack of access to financial services, which gives them fewer opportunities to invest in education and entrepreneurial activity. … [S]ocieties with more equal income distributions have more durable growth. … [A] 10 percentile decrease in inequality (represented by a change in the Gini coefficient from 40 to 37) increases the expected length of a growth spell by 50 percent. (source)

Some additional support for this view: redistributive policies – which are anti-inequality policies – don’t actually harm growth:


(source, source)

Redistribution doesn’t help either, according to this graph, but maybe it counteracts the negative effect of inequality on growth given that it counteracts inequality. In that sense, it does help.

More posts on income inequality are here.

art, equality, ethics of human rights, justice

The Ethics of Human Rights (88): Justice and Proportionality



The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:

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.

human rights images, lgbt rights, photography and journalism

Homophobia, A Collection of Images (2)

This may seem like a good time to publish some illustrated commentary about homophobia. It used to be the case that in most countries of the world, homophobia meant outright legal prohibition of homosexuality. And that’s still the case today in some countries. The often grotesque punishments make it even worse. Uganda is now in the spotlight for it’s recent anti-homosexuality legislation. The risk of vigilante violence against Ugandan gays is not unreal when you have newspaper headlines like this:

The Red Pepper tabloid is one of Uganda's biggest selling newspapers

the faces were not pixelated in the original

This is the Red Pepper tabloid, one of Uganda’s biggest selling newspapers:

A Ugandan tabloid has named the country’s “200 top homosexuals”, a day after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill toughening penalties for gay people.

Red Pepper’s list appeared under the headline: “Exposed”, raising concerns of a witch-hunt against gay people. … Homosexual acts were already illegal in Uganda, but the new law bans the promotion of homosexuality and covers lesbians for the first time. (source)

Another Ugandan newspaper also openly called for the persecution of homosexuals a few years ago:


One of those listed in the now defunct Rolling Stone, David Kato, was subsequently murdered.

Homophobia is also on the rise on Russia lately. Putin has masterminded a series of laws discriminating against homosexuals, which have resulted in this amusing protest:

putin gay

A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin sporting makeup is carried during the Vancouver Pride Parade in Vancouver, on Sunday August 4, 2013. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he’s concerned about what Russia’s new anti-gay law will mean for Canadian athletes and spectators at the Winter Games in Sochi. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Of course, there’s homophobia even in countries that don’t make homosexuality or the promotion of homosexuality a crime. And it doesn’t have to be less painful. For example, there’s been the infamous Matthew Shepard murder in the US, somewhat of a cause célèbre of homophobic hate crime:

matthew shepard

However, some doubts have been raised as to the nature of the crime. Perhaps it wasn’t a hate crime after all. Whether or not it was, there have been numerous other cases that most definitely were. Here’s an example:

A Charlotte couple says they were attacked and beaten on the street, left bloody and bruised. And they say – it’s all because they’re gay. Mark Little and his partner, Dustin Martin, visited Asheville a few weekends ago. The couple say they were walking down the street when people in a passing car began harassing them. Little told WBTV, when they asked the people to stop, a passenger jumped from the car and attacked them. Little says he and his partner are concerned police aren’t taking the crime seriously. Asheville Police are still searching for suspects. If they are caught, they could be charged with simple assault. North Carolina’s hate crimes law does not cover sexual orientation.

A Charlotte couple says they were attacked and beaten on the street, left bloody and bruised. And they say – it’s all because they’re gay. Mark Little and his partner, Dustin Martin, visited Asheville a few weekends ago. The couple say they were walking down the street when people in a passing car began harassing them.
Little told WBTV, when they asked the people to stop, a passenger jumped from the car and attacked them. Little says he and his partner are concerned police aren’t taking the crime seriously. Asheville Police are still searching for suspects. If they are caught, they could be charged with simple assault.
North Carolina’s hate crimes law does not cover sexual orientation.

More on homophobia here and here.

causes of income inequality, economics, equality, work

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market:

hollowing out


This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.

discrimination, equality, health, moral dilemmas

Moral Dilemma (24): Gender, Longevity and Healthcare

old couple


Given equal healthcare, women on average tend to live longer than men. You can see this as an injustice. Living a long and healthy life is clearly something that is generally considered to be good. Men have not chosen to be born as men. And neither have women. So why should men be burdened with such an unearned disadvantage? Compare this to a disability: people born with disability rightly have a claim to compensation or remediation. Hence, wouldn’t it be right to give men more medical attention than women to counteract – as far as possible – the natural masculine handicap? Or would giving women less medical attention than men be a case of discrimination?

Thanks for voting. By the way, I have some other dilemmas here for which I also would appreciate your vote. I repeat my promise that one day I’ll publish an analysis of the results of the votes for all those dilemmas. Just waiting for a bit more response.

More moral dilemmas are here.

causes of income inequality, economics, equality

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (30): Assortative Mating



Intuitively, it seems obvious that assortative mating leads to higher wealth and income inequality. If rich people marry each other and poor people marry each other, then family incomes will be more unequal than when people routinely marry across class divides. Hence, recent increases in inequality may be due to higher rates of assortative mating, at least in the US:

Data from the United States Census Bureau suggests there has been a rise in assortative mating. Additionally, assortative mating affects household income inequality. In particular, if matching in 2005 between husbands and wives had been random, instead of the pattern observed in the data, then the Gini coefficient would have fallen from the observed 0.43 to 0.34, so that income inequality would be smaller. (source, source)

Now, obviously we should prefer a world in which wealthy men have the opportunity to marry high earning and educated women, because such a world is one in which women have more equal opportunities. It’s also a good thing that wealthy women continue working after marriage. In addition, we shouldn’t try to manage people’s marriages, no matter how strong we feel about income inequality. I guess that goes without saying. However, what we could do is modify the tax system so that wealthy individuals do not receive additional benefits when they marry. Or we could tax them more.

Before we do anything we should be realistic about the causal effects that we try to neutralize. There are many causes of inequality, and I think – but can’t prove – that assortative mating isn’t as important as is claimed in the quote above (the authors of the cited study compare the real world to a world in which mating is random, and such a world is inconceivable). A big part of rising inequality is due to the top 1% of the income scale. The people in that bracket probably also look for partners similar to themselves, but assortative mating can’t explain the enormous income gains that they have seen over the last decades:



More posts in this series are here.

equality, gender discrimination, human rights images, photography and journalism

Female Emancipation, A Collection of Images

“Female emancipation” has become a somewhat old-fashioned term. Like “women’s lib”. “Gender equality” and “women’s rights” are probably better. However, for history’s sake, here’s a short illustrated guide to the early days of what used to be called female emancipation.

The bicycle has become somewhat of an icon in the history of gender equality. A century ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.


Emancipation wasn’t just about the right to vote. The right to work and to choose an occupation was equally important. Here’s a clipping from the Caledonian Mercury, February 5th, 1814:

Caledonian Mercury 5 Feb 1814

This is “Wendy the Welder” at a boat-and-sub-building yard, adjusting her goggles before resuming work in Groton, CT, 1943:

'Wendy the Welder' at a boat-and-sub-building yard adjusts her goggles before resuming work. Groton, CT, 1943


Communist regimes – the “workers’ paradise” – always made a big deal of gender equality, at least in their propaganda messages:



Female parachuters appear often on Chinese communist posters, to show the emancipation of women and the role of the People's Liberation Army in their liberation

Female parachuters appear often on Chinese communist posters, to show the emancipation of women and the role of the People’s Liberation Army in their liberation

Obviously, emancipation had a private meaning as well. Traditional gender roles within the family had to be challenged:

if you want breakfast in bed

One rather strange manifestation of female anticipation was called the “Torches of Freedom”. The point was to encourage women to smoke. Cigarettes were described as symbols of emancipation and equality with men. The term was first used by psychoanalyst A. A. Brill when describing the “natural” desire for women to smoke and was used by Edward Bernays to encourage women to smoke in public despite social taboos. Bernays hired women to march while smoking their “torches of freedom” in the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929 which was a significant moment for fighting social barriers for women smokers (source).

torches of freedom

Needless to say, the movement for women’s rights hasn’t completely fulfilled its mission. Here’s a contemporary example:

Dana Bakdounes,

Dana Bakdounes, holding a sign that read, “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body.” Bakdounes also held open her passport, showing a photo of her wearing a veil.

Dana Bakdounes posted this image in 2012 on a Facebook page called Uprising of Women in the Arab World.

Facebook suspended the account of several people behind the Uprising of Women in the Arab World page Wednesday over an issue stemming from a photo of an unveiled woman.

More than 61,000 people like the page, which shares hundreds of images of women (who were variably veiled, unveiled, or wearing a niqab) and men who support women’s rights in the Middle East. The photos typically depict those people holding up signs explaining why they support the “human rights, freedom, and independence of women in the Arab world.”

Facebook deleted the photo, apparently over complaints that it was “insulting,” and suspended an admin for 24 hours. Other reports suggested the image was reported for nudity and one of the admins, Farah Barqawi, told German site that it was pulled due to “mysogenists and extremists.” (source)

causes of income inequality, economics, equality, trade, work

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (29): The Declining Share of National Income Going to Labor



Rest assured: this post is going to be more nuanced than the image above. As usual, what I want to do here is look at a possible cause of increasing income inequality, namely the relative shares of labor and capital income. Your labor income is your wage, your pension, your bonus, your company health insurance etc. Most people have a labor income. You only have capital income if you receive dividend payments, capital gains, interest payments on savings etc.

During the last decades, the share of labor compensation in total national income has declined, and this has been a global phenomenon, occurring in most countries:

labor share in national income

labor share in national income


Can we blame this decline for the increase in income inequality during the same period? Only in part, I think, because there has also been a divergence within labor in the sense that some people, mostly high earners, have seen their labor income rise much faster than others. Income inequality is indeed, to some extent, wage inequality. The growth of the finance sector, where people are well-paid, is part of the explanation for the increasing wage inequality, at least in some countries. Tax policy, declining bargaining power among the low earners and wage competition from poorer countries – again affecting mainly low-end workers – may be other explanations for rising wage inequality, also depending on the country (unionization rates, for example, haven’t evolved in the same manner everywhere).

But I guess it’s true that not all of income inequality is wage inequality and that incomes from capital, such as profits, dividends, stock options etc. also explain something. Capital income is, compared to labor income, unevenly distributed across a population, and concentrated among the wealthy:

capital income and wage income


If capital income is more concentrated among the wealthy then a rise in capital income leads to a rise in income inequality. Part of this is just arithmetical: the flip-side of a lower share of national income coming from labor is a higher share of income coming from capital. Capital income needn’t be higher in absolute terms in order to get a larger share. If there’s widespread wage stagnation – perhaps due to international wage competition, trade and outsourcing – then capital income may rise relatively, if not absolutely. However, in some countries we also see an absolute rise of capital income. Here’s the US:



sources of income


More on capital gains here. More posts in this series are here.

causes of income inequality, economics, equality

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (28): Political Capture and Deregulation

red tape


Does income inequality result from “political capture” by the rich? Political capture is the process by which wealth buys policies that are favorable to the wealthy, who in turn become more wealthy. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, the monopolization of discourse etc. the wealthy may be able to convince politicians to approve policies such as deregulation, non-progressive tax rates, tax loopholes, weakened social safety nets, IP etc. Policies aimed at undermining the regulation of the role of money in politics also fit the list, in a meta sort of way. “One dollar one vote” rather than “one person one vote” would obviously be a perversion of democracy, but I’ll now focus on the purely economic effects of political capture, and more specifically on how wealth-backed deregulation affects the distribution of income.

In theory, political capture doesn’t necessarily aggravate income inequality because the economy isn’t always zero sum: policies favorable to the rich, and pushed by the rich, can also have benefits for the rest. Some types of deregulation may be an example. The word “deregulation” summons images of large companies being allowed to pollute, to pay their workers below subsistence wages etc. However, deregulation can also mean getting rid of occupational licensing which often serves no other purpose than to protect incumbents and frustrate enterprising low-income individuals. Deregulation more generally – again in theory – may lead to increased competition and therefore lower prices, something that also benefits the poor.

However, in practice we see that the wave of deregulation during the last decades, especially in the financial and banking sector, has coincided with increasing income inequality, at least in the US:

financial deregulation and income inequality


This graph also makes the link:

bank regulation and inequality

(source, click image to enlarge)

It’s not just the total level of inequality that is correlated with deregulation; more specifically, wages in the finance sector show the same trend:



Of course, correlation is not causation as people like to say on the internet. Deregulation may not have been the product of political capture, or not entirely, and may not have been an important cause of rising inequality. But the correlations shown in the graphs above do put the burden of proof on those who deny causation.

But also if you accept the possibility of causation, you’ll need a convincing story. It’s true, I think, that deregulation has increased the number of activities that financial companies can engage in, and has therefore led to a rising demand for higher skilled workers and to more performance related compensation. Financial professionals made up almost twice as much of the top 1 percent of the US income distribution in 2005 as they did in 1979. However, deregulation is only part of the explanation of the disproportionate rise in compensation in the finance sector. Stock options and tax policy are also to blame. Of course, tax policy can also result from political capture, but that just goes to show that any explanation of inequality needs to look at a variety of factors. Inequality isn’t just the product of deregulation.

Another post on the same topic is here. More posts in this series are here.

economics, equality, income inequality, poverty

Income Inequality (29): The “Get Off the Couch” Solution



When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.

This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.

The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.

However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures:

enrichment expenditures on children


And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve:

correlation between income inequality and social mobility


Here’s another version showing other countries:

income inequality and social mobility


If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.

More posts on income inequality are here.

equality, ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity

1972- Kabul, Afghanistan

1972, Kabul, Afghanistan

Like social mobility, equality of opportunity is one of those vague political ideals favored by those who want to offer a “vision of the future” but don’t really know what they’re talking about. I agree that it sounds nice, and no one would want to be against it. But the concept of equality of opportunity is highly problematic, at least for those willing to think it through to its logical conclusions. What you get is an initially modest sounding goal – modest compared to, let’s say, equality of outcomes – which then rapidly snowballs into something huge and, in the end, something highly undesirable. Here’s how this snowballing can occur in 7 steps (I personally gave up at around the third step):

  1. Equality of opportunity, in a basic sense, just means that careers, jobs and positions are open to all applicants and that applicants are judged only on their merit and qualifications. Their social class, family connections, friendships etc. don’t matter. Equality of opportunity (henceforth EO) is therefore a condition for meritocracy.
  2. But then people should also have an equal opportunity to acquire merit and to become qualified. In other words, they should have EO in education as well. Slots in school – or perhaps even slots in the best schools – should be open to all applicants, or at least to all those who are willing and able to study. And not just formally “open”, but accessible: poor students or people belonging to historically disadvantaged groups should get scholarships, grants, subsidies, preferential admission etc.
  3. the t-shirt of povertyHowever, all this is useless if people don’t have an equal opportunity to become willing and able to study. Children, especially poor children, should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment that fosters an ethic favoring work and study. That may imply abolishing poverty and other circumstances that sometimes inhibit a good ethic, since we want all people to have an equal opportunity to raise children. We don’t want EO by way of forced sterilization of the poors or the redistribution of their children.
  4. It’s not just deprivation that undermines EO. What about those born with disabilities or without native talents? Does not EO require that we also remedy or offset these kinds of disadvantages? After all, even if the severely disabled or the talentless have (acquired) the right ethic, have managed to get into a good school, have studied hard, and aren’t discriminated against by prejudiced employers, it often doesn’t make economic sense to hire them. So, EO may require that they are either compensated in some way, or that people like that aren’t born in the first place. Genetic engineering, designer babies and so on may then enhance EO.
  5. What about ugly people? There’s clearly a bias against them. They are often treated as if they have no talents, or as if they are disabled. And extreme ugliness can just as well be seen as a disability in the world we live in. Again, genetic engineering may help. Or maybe legislation against discrimination in employment should include rules against lookism. And if such legislation isn’t effective, then compensation should be an option. Or perhaps even subsidized plastic surgery. How else could one guarantee EO for the ugly among us?
  6. EO can also be undermined by persistent differences in early socialization. For example, if girls are successfully socialized into domestic roles, then no amount of schooling, anti-discrimination legislation or employer benevolence will give girls and women EO.
  7. Imagine now that we have solved all those problems and successfully broadened EO to include groups that don’t have it automatically. People will be qualified and meritorious, but in different fields because they have different preferences and different talents. This leads to a final problem for EO: EO is only a fact if we have solved the previous 6 problems and if all human capacities are encouraged and rewarded. Imagine someone has a talent only for classical music, but all consumers have an aversion for classical music. She obviously doesn’t have EO. It doesn’t matter that she is free to apply to all positions, that employers do not have a bias against her, that she received a subsidized education in music, that she has the right ethic and that she hasn’t been socialized into an unchosen role. If people aren’t interested she won’t be able to be a classical musician, except as a hobby for which she may or may not have time. So maybe she should be compensated. In general, EO depends on customers of the goods and services produced and marketed by people free and able to act on the opportunities that they have. Customers may be reluctant to buy goods or services that they don’t care about or that are produced by blacks, poors, gays etc. EO may then require anti-discrimination laws imposed on customers.

I guess I’ve lost most of you a few steps back. And rightly so. EO does have a tendency to become a reductio ad absurdum. This doesn’t mean that disability, lookism, socialization, the lottery of birth, customer prejudice etc. aren’t important problems. On the contrary. The thing is that these problems should perhaps not be framed in terms of EO. And legislation, compensation, subsidies and so on are perhaps not the best solutions.

However, EO should remain a worthy ideal – if we give it up we’ll only have nepotism and discrimination as an alternative – but we’ll have to find a way to limit its scope and stop the risk of snowballing. I’ve already offered a possible limit in earlier posts. You won’t be surprised to hear that human rights should be the outer limits of EO.

More on EO here and here.

discrimination, human rights images, photography and journalism, racism

Segregation in the U.S., A Collection of Images

I’ll never be able to understand how this scene could have been horrifying to anyone:

The first day of desegregation, on Sept. 8, 1954, at Fort Myer Elementary School in Fort Myer, Va. I'll never be able to understand how this scene could be horrifying to anyone.

The first day of desegregation, on Sept. 8, 1954, at Fort Myer Elementary School in Fort Myer, Va.

And this image shows the absurdness of segregation:


Is this de facto segregation? I couldn’t find anything about the context of the photo:

Students sit during a study session at a Mississippi junior high school Jan. 8, 1970.

Students sit during a study session at a Mississippi junior high school Jan. 8, 1970.

And this is just one of the sexiest images ever:

A young black woman, soaked by a fireman’s hose as an anti-segregation march is broken up by police, in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 8, 1963. In the background is a police riot wagon.

A young black woman, soaked by a fireman’s hose as an anti-segregation march is broken up by police, in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 8, 1963. In the background is a police riot wagon.


If you look carefully at the top left of this image, you’ll see a fellow who doesn’t know his place:

Segregated seating at the Orange Bowl, Miami, 1955

Segregated seating at the Orange Bowl, Miami, 1955

More images on segregation are here. More on segregation in general is here.

equality, racism

Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

A young demonstrator carries a placard that reads "No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger" at the Harlem Peace March to End Racial Oppression on April 27, 1967. The statement was taken from boxer Muhammad Ali's original statement about his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, "Ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger." Photo by Builder Levy

A young demonstrator carries a placard that reads “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” at the Harlem Peace March to End Racial Oppression on April 27, 1967. The statement was taken from boxer Muhammad Ali’s original statement about his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Photo by Builder Levy

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

The evolution of words is confirmed by Google Ngrams and the NYT database:

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 6.26.56 PM

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 6.36.48 PM

“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

There is more on the harmful use of language in general here and here. Something more specific about the terminology of race is here and here. And let’s also not forget that human races actually don’t even exist.

More posts in this series are here.

causes of income inequality, equality

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (27): Top Marginal Tax Rates

top marginal tax rates and income inequality


The correlation between reductions in top marginal tax rates and and higher income inequality is clear, and I guess one can tell a convincing story about causation as well. One remark, though: the share of income going to the top 1% earners is just one possible measure of income inequality, and probably not the one we should prefer.

More posts in this series are here.

economics, equality, human rights promotion, justice, philosophy, statistics

Human Rights Promotion (13): Human Rights, Pareto Improvements, and a Difference Principle

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).

Vilfredo Pareto

Vilfredo Pareto

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.

john rawls

John Rawls

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.

More about human rights and zero-sum games here. More about the original difference principle here.

aid, equality, ethics of human rights, international relations, justice, philosophy, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (78): Our Duties to People in Other Countries

grover near and far

Grover, near and far

If we leave aside the minority view that we don’t have any moral duties to other people, as well as the somewhat more common view that we only have duties to a very limited group of people (our tribe, family or nation for example), then we end up accepting that we owe something to the rest of humanity. But what exactly? I don’t want to discuss whether we owe human beings in general the same as what we owe the people we know or the people we are associated with. What I’m interested in here is simply the nature of our obligations to “distant” people, and the basis or reasons of those obligations. Whether they’re stronger, weaker or just as strong as the obligations to “those nearer and dearer” is not the topic of this post (I have an older post about that).

1. What should we do? What are our obligations?

I think there are basically three types of obligations to distant others:

  • we have a duty to protect their human rights; this implies both abstaining from violating their rights and assisting them in the protection of their rights when those are violated (this is a legal duty)
  • we have a duty to create a more just global order (a duty of justice)
  • and we have a duty to act benevolently (a duty of beneficence).

1.1. Protect rights

This duty is in fact a set of different sub-duties:

  • A negative duty to stop violating rights ourselves. For example, if we apply a strict policy of closed borders, we violate certain rights of people in other countries (their freedom of movement, their right not to suffer poverty etc.). Our duties demand that we stop this policy.
  • A negative duty to stop assisting others who violate human rights. For example, the oppressive government of another country violates the rights of its citizens by means of weapons supplied by us (or by firms established in our country and exporting with our approval). Our duties demand that we stop assisting this government in this way.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to stop human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when the Rwandan genocide was in progress.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to prevent human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when it became clear that a genocide was about to occur in Rwanda.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to create the preconditions for human rights. For example, when the institutions in other countries are dysfunctional or absent (in the case of failed or weak states) we have a duty to assist these countries’ efforts in institution building, so that they end up with institutions capable of protecting the rights of their citizens.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to assist people’s efforts to overcome their poverty. Since poverty is a human rights violation, this is not really a separate duty: we shouldn’t create or aggravate poverty in other countries, we shouldn’t assist when others (e.g. foreign governments) create or aggravate poverty, and we have a duty to end and prevent poverty, and to create the institutions that make it possible to end and prevent poverty. However, I mention it separately because some of the specific means of intervention are peculiar to poverty, and don’t apply to other human rights (take for example development aid).

Our duties to intervene can cover

  • either only gross violations of some human rights (crimes against humanity, emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters or other humanitarian crises) – also called r2p
  • or violations of human rights in general.

Gross violations may warrant specific types of intervention that are not allowed for violations in general, for example military intervention. More mundane violations require other types of intervention, such as aid, conditional aid, diplomatic intervention, economic boycotts, universal jurisdiction etc. Intervention can also be either multilateral through the UN, or unilateral. Preferably it’s a legal form of intervention, but if necessary it can also be illegal – morality trumps law.

Uncles from the People's Liberation Army! Quickly go and liberate our little distressed friends in Taiwan, 1955

Uncles from the People’s Liberation Army! Quickly go and liberate our little distressed friends in Taiwan, 1955

1.2. Create a just global order

Perhaps we should do more than just rid the world of human rights violations and extreme poverty. The world is a very unequal place, and will continue to be so even when all human rights are protected and poverty has been eliminated (given a certain definition of poverty). So maybe we also have a duty to create a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, resources and/or opportunities across countries.

However, this duty is much more controversial than the previous one (1.1). Contrary to human rights violations, there is also no legal standard prohibiting an unjust and grossly unequal global order. Hence, given the uncertainty about this second type of duty, it’s safe to argue that we should take it to be a negative duty at most. In other words, we should not make the world more unequal and more unjust than it already is, and we should try to remove or improve institutions that make the world order unequal and unjust. More specifically, we have to

  • remove unfair trade agreements or trade restrictions
  • remove the current system of national border restrictions and allow freedom of movement
  • pay reparations or otherwise correct the lingering effects of a violent and exploitative history
  • improve economic regimes that make it impossible to have equal and fair access to natural resources
  • improve international institutions, shaped by the wealthy countries to their advantage
  • etc.

Obviously, many of these actions also remove human rights violations and are therefore covered by the first type of duty. However, even when they don’t they may be required by morality.

1.3. Act benevolently

peter singer

Peter Singer

The classic description of this duty is Peter Singer’s. He gives the example of a child drowning in a pool. We all believe that there’s a strong duty to save this child, even if there’s a certain cost to ourselves – e.g. it’ll ruin our expensive suit. The equivalent of the drowning child happens all the time in distant places, and there are systems in place that allow us to save people all over the world, at a cost that isn’t much higher than the price of a suit. In many cases, all we have to do is donate some money.

This duty to act benevolently can be interpreted more widely. It can involve more than the requirement to save people from disaster. Singer claims that it implies a radically egalitarian obligation: we ought to help others until the next increment of aid would do more good spent on ourselves than transferred to others. Practically, this means helping others until we are ourselves barely better off than the rest. This is extremely demanding, and very controversial, but the narrow interpretation of the duty of benevolence is widely shared.

Again, these three different duties are not always clearly different. There are overlaps. The duty to act benevolently is partly justified by the rights of the beneficiaries: a drowning child and a starving Ethiopian have a right to life. Creating a more just global order will improve respect for people’s rights, and improving respect for people’s rights will make the global order more just. Still, there are differences between these duties and it’s interesting for human rights activists to consider the possibility that people can appeal to moral obligations that go beyond respect for their human rights.

2. Why should we do what we should do? What is the basis of our obligations?

So, now that we stated what we should do, how can we explain why we should do those things? There may be different reasons why we have obligations to help other and distant people:

  • We may be responsible ourselves for their predicament (or at least partially): we may have violated their rights, helped others to violate their rights, or established and maintained an unjust international order (for example because we have been colonizers or because the international trade system that we have imposed is biased in our favor).
  • People have rights, and these rights by themselves create a duty for everyone else to respect and to promote respect for those rights. The duty to protect other people’s rights is not a duty only for those who are responsible for violating these rights. And neither is it a duty limited to those who have a special relationship with victims of rights violations or to those whose social duty it is to promote respect for rights (e.g. judges or police officers). We all have this duty, and we have it simply because others have rights. Hence, we pay taxes that fund the legal institutions that protect citizens against others who violate their rights, that fund schools and hospitals etc. There’s no reason to think that this does not apply globally as well.
  • We may have an obligation to help other and distant people not because their rights create a moral duty to assist, but because other moral values such as justice and/or benevolence or beneficence create such such a duty. If it is in our power to do something about suffering, injustice and inequality without too much of a sacrifice of our own interests and without violating some deontological demands (e.g. do not kill), then justice and/or benevolence may require that we do it.
  • Duties to help others can also be based on enlightened self-interest: national governments have a duty to protect the rights, security and prosperity of their own citizens, and in some cases this means protecting the rights, security and prosperity of people in other nations. The poor and oppressed may become refugees; civil wars may spread to other countries or may foster international terrorism; unstable economies may harm the global economic system and the environment etc. Conversely, free and prosperous nations benefit the rest of the world because of the gains of trade, cooperation in science and culture etc.
(image source)
discrimination, economics, equality

Discrimination (16): When Is It OK to Discriminate?

hippies use side door


Discrimination is generally blameworthy and therefore often illegal as well. However, there are situations in which it’s acceptable to discriminate and unacceptable to legislate against discrimination. I’m not referring to rules that apply unequally to different people in order to produce a more equal outcome, such as rules regarding affirmative action (which are sometimes claimed to be a form of positive discrimination); nor am I referring to rules regarding different height requirements for male and female candidate police officers. These are two examples of rules that discriminate in order to make outcomes more equal, and they can therefore, paradoxically, be seen as anti-discriminatory. Conversely, rules that apply equally to all can have a “disparate impact“: e.g. one uniform and “neutral” height requirement for police officers would mean that fewer women will be allowed in the police force and would therefore have a discriminatory impact on women. Even if such rules are not intended to discriminate against women, they obviously do. (I’ll come back to intent in discrimination at the end of this post).

So, I’m thinking about rules like those, or rules that not only have unequal outcomes but also apply unequally (take the rules against gay marriage for instance). Can some such rules, which clearly discriminate some groups of people (given a certain understanding of discrimination), ever be justified?

I think they can. Discrimination can be unobjectionable if the benefits outweigh the harm done by discrimination. “Benefits” meaning not the benefits from the discriminator’s point of view, since those always, by definition, outweigh the harms for others – that’s the point of discrimination. We have to look at the benefits generally speaking, from a neutral point of view. For example, the safety of airline passengers and hence their rights to life and physical security outweigh the discrimination imposed on people who are not allowed to be pilots because of their bad eyesight. Another example: the importance of a good education for our children outweighs the discrimination imposed on people who want to be teachers but don’t have the qualifications. Discrimination of people with a physical disability or intellectual deficiencies is acceptable and even beneficial in these cases, not because those who can become pilots and teachers benefit from the exclusion of rivals, but because society as a whole benefits, and because this benefit outweighs the harm done to those excluded.

glassesThe downside of the consequentialist balancing inherent in these examples is that it is seldom clear what the exact harms and benefits of discrimination are. After all, every historical instance of discrimination was once defended on the basis of its beneficial consequences: equal voting rights for women was supposed to lead to irrational politics; legalization of homosexuality would lead to immorality; miscegenation would lead to the downfall of the white race etc. However, these examples don’t prove that there can’t be any forms of discrimination that can have some real and overridingbenefits, and in fact we daily assume that they have: we give good teachers a job as a teacher, we give talented people higher wages etc. because we believe that society as a whole benefits from this.

Maybe we shouldn’t talk about discrimination in cases of acceptable and beneficial discrimination. I argued here that we should probably limit the concept to those cases in which the equal rights of those who are discriminated are violated and, more specifically, are violated for no other reason than their membership of a socially salient group. The would-be pilots and teachers in the examples above don’t have an equal right to be pilots or teachers or to any other specific job. There is no such right. There is a general right to work, but that right isn’t violated since people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers have ample opportunities to find a job elsewhere (under normal economic conditions).

Also the second condition for discrimination is absent in these examples: the people in question are certainly not part of socially salient groups (which is another way of saying that people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers are not regularly put at a disadvantage in society). Hence they are not discriminated when they are excluded from certain jobs on the basis of qualifications.

If, however, the would-be pilots and teachers were black – and therefore part of a socially salient group – and if they were excluded for no other reason than their skin color, and if this exclusion would violate their right to work (or any other right), then there would be discrimination. Their exclusion would violate their right to work when they regularly face this kind of exclusion, not when that sort of things happens only exceptionally and when they therefore have ample opportunities elsewhere.

employment discriminationThis last point about alternative opportunities is crucial. Single instances of discrimination usually don’t violate people’s rights and therefore aren’t really discrimination according to the definition given here. Discrimination requires violations of people’s rights and violations based on people’s membership in socially salient groups. And violations of rights imply the absence of alternative opportunities  (I once gave the example of one lonely restaurant owner refusing to serve blacks, or the isolated landlord refusing to rent a house to Italian immigrants).

In this older post I argued that forcing some people to stop discriminating would violate their rights, such as their right to free association, to property, to religion etc. and that it can only be acceptable to force them to stop if the discrimination they inflict is so widespread and historically deep that it limits the rights and options of the targets of discrimination.

Nevertheless, this rule still leaves us with a few hard cases. The rights of discriminators may still receive priority even when the discrimination does severely limit the options and rights of target groups. Suppose there’s a general disapproval to marry “outside of one’s race” among the majority white population in a society. Most of us would not want legislation against this kind of discrimination because that would drastically limit the right to marry of the discriminators. Discrimination here severely impacts the choices and opportunities of non-whites, and yet seems acceptable. The whites in question may be immoral and repugnant, but this doesn’t render their rights null and void and doesn’t justify legislation prohibiting an exclusive preference for white husbands and wives. The reason, I think, is that it’s very difficult to do something about the actions of the whites. You can force people to hire blacks, serve them in your restaurant, admit them in your school etc. But you can’t force people to marry someone. So, the system I set up here to separate cases of discrimination from other cases isn’t perfect. It won’t solve some hard cases, but maybe those can never be solved.

A final word about intent. There’s no mention of intent in the definition of discrimination given here. That means that rules with a disparate impact can be cases of wrongful discrimination even if there is no intent to discriminate. Take again the case of height requirements for police officers: a single height requirement for both genders is not necessarily discriminatory, but when it is part of a wider social pattern of gender inequality, then it may violate women’s equal rights because the total set of gender biased rules makes it difficult for women to have ample employment opportunities elsewhere. Women are then a socially salient group. Intent is irrelevant here. Even if the height requirement is motivated by efficiency reasons, it contributes to discrimination and rights violations. The goal of anti-discrimination is equal protection of rights, whatever the causes of rights violations.

Now, imagine the height requirement isn’t part of a wider pattern of gender inequality. In that case, women have ample opportunities elsewhere and their equal right to work is therefore not violated. Hence there is no discrimination.

causes of income inequality, economics, work

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (26): The Length of Your First Name



On average, the shorter your first name, the more you will earn. In fact, the data show each extra letter “costs” you about $3,600 in annual salary. (source)

Online job matching site TheLadders has six million members … and a lot of salary data. For Mothers’ Day, the company decided to sort and analyze its information to see whether what our parents call us impacts our earning potential. (source)

More, and I think more serious posts in this series are here.

equality, gender discrimination

Gender Discrimination (34): Public Opinion on Domestic Violence

domestic violence


One can, to some extent, understand – but not condone! – men who approve of domestic violence. After all, they may have good self-interested reasons to engage in it (power is useful). However, the level of female acquiescence is just baffling:

On average, 29 percent of women in countries with data concurred that wife beating was justified for arguing with the husband, 25 percent for refusing to have sex, and 21 percent for burning food. In Guinea, 60 percent of women found it permissible to be beaten for refusing to have sex with their spouses. In Ethiopia, 81 percent of women say that it is justified for a husband to beat his wife for at least one of the reasons listed in the Demographic and Health Surveys; 61 percent reported violence to be appropriate for burning food and 59 percent for arguing with their husbands. (source, source)

More about domestic violence. More posts in this series.

activism, gender discrimination, human rights ads

Human Rights Ads (85): Gender Violence in Saudi Arabia

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.

saudi gender violence advert


More on the Foundation’s No More Abuse page. More human rights ads.

equality, human rights images, photography and journalism

Sexism, A Collection of Images (5)

clean and stay slim

women clean the house, and stay slim at the same time

women make breakfast

women make breakfast

women work in the kitchen

women work in the kitchen

women do the dishes

women do the dishes

women are responsible for educating their children

women are responsible for educating their children

in China, beautiful women serve coffee on international women's day

in China, beautiful women serve coffee on international women’s day

women look old rather quickly

women look old rather quickly

women smell

women smell

some women can project their equipment

some women can project their equipment

More sexist images here, here and here.

equality, law, privacy, religion

Religion and Human Rights (31): Polygamy, Right or Rights Violation?



In the U.S., 9 states – including Utah, the center of Mormonism – make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute polygamous families. Polygamy is only legal in North Africa and most of the Muslim world. Does it make sense to promote the right to same-sex, interracial and interreligious marriage, and at the same time oppose polygamy? (By the way, polygamy usually means polygyny: one husband, multiple wives – the opposite, polyandry, is extremely rare).

Marriage is a recognized human right, but does the word “marriage”, as it is used in human rights language, also cover polygamous marriage? From the texts of human rights treaties and declarations, it’s not even clear that it covers same-sex marriage – although it undoubtedly covers interracial and interreligious marriage. The word “marriage” isn’t clearly defined in the texts. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration merely states the following:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Polygamy or same-sex marriage aren’t specifically mentioned as being forms of marriage that are included in the right to marry, but neither is it the case that sexual orientation or the numbers of partners are stipulated as unwarranted limitations to the right to marry. So the phrasing as it stands neither includes nor excludes polygamy or same-sex marriage as a right. Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t much clearer.

However, the case for same-sex or interracial marriage can be based on other articles, such as the non-discrimination provisions. Article 2 of the International Covenant states:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned but it is accepted that the list given here is a list of examples and not exhaustive. “Without distinction of any kind” is clear enough. Article 3 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

And Article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It’s not clear whether polygamists can invoke the same non-discrimination provisions. Perhaps the right to privacy can help them. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.


Who Will Zuma’s first lady be? Pretoria News headline from April 11, 2009

However, apart from the question whether polygamy can be defended or not on the basis of existing human rights law, there are some good reasons why perhaps there shouldn’t be a right to polygamous marriage, even if it can be established that there is such a right. Wives may be pressured into polygamous marriages or prohibited from exiting them; they may suffer inequality and oppression in their marriage; and young girls may be forced to marry. The same risks exist of course in normal monogamous marriage, but are perhaps more important in polygamous marriage.

Moreover, polygamous marriage poses certain risks that are non-existent in normal marriage: excess boys in polygamous communities are often ostracized and condemned to a life of poverty and homelessness; and there’s a risk that marriage as an institution and as a general right may suffer when polygamy becomes widespread:

Polygamy is bad social policy for exactly the reason gay marriage is good social policy: everyone should have the opportunity to marry. Broad access to marriage is important not only for individual wellbeing but for social stability. And, to oversimplify only a little, when one man gets two wives, some other man gets no wife. There’s no better path to inequality, social unrest, and authoritarian social structures than polygamy. (source)

And yet, if it’s the case that

  • polygamy remains a fringe custom
  • polygamists are generally exercising their free choice and informed consent
  • no children are forced to marry or are sexually abused
  • and excess boys are not ostracized

then why would anyone oppose polygamy? Monogamous marriage isn’t illegal because some wives are beaten or because there are some cases of monogamous child marriage. One could oppose polygamy for religious reasons, but those aren’t sufficient in liberal democracies. Polygamy can only be problematic when it’s a practice that regularly and intrinsically leads to rights violations, as it does when child brides are common, when wives are commonly forced into marriage or when widespread polygamy makes it very difficult for men to find brides and marry.

Another thing to consider is gender equality. Even if polygamy is rare enough not to deny men a reasonable chance of marriage, and even if all polygamous wives are adults who freely consent to their marriage and who have equal standing within their marriages, then it’s still the case that the practice itself can signal gender inequality and hence perpetuate it. The reason is that polygyny, by its very nature, signals that men have more rights than women: a man can take several wives, but not vice versa. A legal right to polygamy would of course also entail a right to polyandry, but it’s unlikely that the risks to gender equality created by polygyny would be offset by many cases of polyandry. The more likely result is that polygyny fosters preexisting misogynistic prejudice because polygyny will always be more common that polyandry.

polygamy cartoon

So, in the end a lot depends on how often polygamy results in rights violations. Is polygamy more like child marriage, which by definition is a rights violation (it involves pedophilia, the denial of education, health problems resulting from pregnancy at an early age etc.)? Or is it more like monogamous or same-sex marriage, which may produce rights violations such as domestic violence, but not intrinsically so? If some practice by definition violates rights, it should obviously be prohibited. If the practice only does so by accident and exceptionally, then it should in general be protected, especially when the practice itself is a human right. I claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, as long as it’s not set up in such a way that it violates rights – as long as in most cases the wives consent (in an informed way), children are left alone, boys aren’t ostracized, and the practice isn’t so widespread that men can’t marry or that women feel they are second class citizens.

In this respect, polygamy is similar to hate speech. In the case of hate speech we are also dealing with a presumptive right, but one that can be abrogated when its exercise becomes too widespread with negative consequences for the rights of others. When a small black minority for instance is overwhelmed by hate speech, to such an extent that black people can’t go outside for fear of constant insult, then their right to freedom of movement should trump the speech rights of the haters.

For a more pessimistic view on polygamy, go here. Below a map showing the prevalence of polygamy/polygyny:

prevalence of polygyny or polygamy

discrimination, equality

Discrimination (15): Is Assortative Mating a Form of Discrimination?

interracial dating


Assortative mating is the selective mating between individuals whose choice of marriage partners is determined by similarity of social environment. (It’s a form of homogamy, the mating of like with like). One example is the preference to mate with individuals of the same race. Take this case:

Is it racist when a white woman declares, when asked out on a date, that she will only date white men? … She, a white women, took her boss, an African American, to court on sexual harassment charges. During the hearings, he commented that she had said to him that she did not date African Americans, and he maintained that that was racist. (source)

Let’s not focus on the African American man’s apparent attempt to deflect harassment charges by playing the race card. That’s not what I want to discuss here – and, anyway, the story cited above doesn’t provide sufficient information to allow us to judge the intentions of either party. Let’s instead take the general case of a person of one race refusing to date and marry a person of another race for no other reason than race.

Is this kind of assortative mating racist? I think it is. It shows a general dislike of people of another race. It’s prejudiced and bigoted and it implies writing off whole groups of people on the sole basis of their skin color. However, is it also discrimination? I guess not. If it were discrimination, we would be allowed to use the power of the law to fight it, and no one wants the law to mess with people’s mating choices as long as both partners are consenting adults. (Polygamy may come to mind as a counterexample, but my view on the legality of polygamy is much more liberal than the conventional view; I’ll explain in another post).

No one has a right to his or her mate of choice, and no one can use the force of law to compel the consent of this mate of choice. Hence, there’s a lot of racism and bigotry that we can’t fight with the force of law and thus have to accept. We can try to change people’s minds over time, educate future generations and so on, but if this doesn’t convince everyone to regard all individuals as potential mates then there’s no more we can do.

I argued here that we can only speak about discrimination when there is a violation of rights. The account above is yet another example.

More posts in this series are here.

equality, racism

Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

fMRI scan of the Amygdala

fMRI scan of the Amygdala


We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies to favor members of the same group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsiders distinctions seem to be innate. This is the consequence of the substantial benefits of group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with it today.

Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious. (source)

So, to some extent, our brains are wired for bias. Even the most liberal among us show some level of implicit bias when tested for it. All we can do is try to be aware of our prejudices as much as possible, and then correct for them.

Some want to extrapolate from these relatively uncontroversial findings and argue that racism as well is innate, even though racism is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to early humans who almost never met members of other races.

Those who argue that racism is a natural tendency can appeal to certain findings to back up their claims. Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats (source).

The problem with this sort of argument is that a biological fact doesn’t have to be innate. In fact, in this case, it has been shown that the detected brain reaction – a biological fact – does not occur in young people:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14. What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.” (source)

In a sense, this is good news, because it means that people can be taught not to be racist, even if we can’t be taught to be completely unprejudiced.

More on race as a social construction is here. More posts in this series are here.

equality, human rights promotion, law, philosophy

Human Rights Promotion (10): Human Rights For Machines?

Riker and Data from Star Trek, The Next Generation

Riker and Data from Star Trek, The Next Generation

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.

equality, racism

Racism (28): Shooter Bias

armed black suspect

(source unknown)

When called to the scene of an on-going crime, police officers often have to make split-second decisions whether to shoot or not. There’s chaos, darkness, running, shouting, shooting perhaps, and no time to determine who’s who and who’s likely to do what. Training can help, but in most cases officers just rely on instincts. In other words, these are the ideal situations for the revelation of personal biases.

Because of the nature of those situations, officers sometimes make mistakes and shoot innocent persons or unarmed suspects. Now, somewhat unsurprisingly there’s research telling us that it’s more likely for white people to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects. This bias is called the shooter bias, and it’s not the monopoly of police officers (as lab tests with ordinary citizens have confirmed). (More here).

It seems that a lot of people have internalized the stereotype about dangerous black men, even those who would not think of themselves as having done so.

More posts in this series are here.

discrimination, equality

Discrimination (14): Lookism

barbie and ken

Lookism means discrimination, stereotyping or prejudice based on how people look, and preferential treatment of the physically attractive, the tall, the non-fat and those with the right skin color. I feel the need to revisit the topic, since a previous post on heightism – one form of lookism – was a complete failure. While trying to make the point that heightism, historically speaking, caused much less harm than other forms of prejudice – such as racial or gender prejudice – I managed to offend a lot of short people, and was scolded for it in comments. In my defense, I wanted to talk about preferential treatment based on a few inches of height difference; I understand perfectly well that there is a stigma attached to very short people. However, it seems that this point didn’t come across and I take full responsibility for that.

So, in order to state things clearly from the start and avoid a similar miscommunication: I agree that lookism is a real and serious form of discrimination imposing real harm on those who suffer from it. How serious compared to other types of discrimination? Let’s just ignore that question for the moment and focus on the topic at hand. “Serious enough” will do.

no more lookismIn general, it helps to understand lookism as a form of beauty bias. Many instances of preferential treatment or discrimination based on the way people look are actually about the perceived beauty or lack of beauty of the targets. That’s true even for heightism, since height is often associated with beauty and lack of it with ugliness. Beautiful people – or, better, people generally considered as beautiful – get a lot of advantages in life. They earn more, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter and even if they aren’t more intelligent or productive. Finding a job, getting a promotion and getting a loan are some of the things that are easier with good looks. And beautiful people are also better at finding mates and getting elected in democratic elections. I could go on.

Some of these advantages result not from direct discrimination by others who prefer beautiful people. Beauty may result in higher self-confidence, and then it’s self-confidence rather than beauty that convinces others to give beautiful people a job or a promotion. But the fact that beauty comes with self-confidence is probably the result of society’s bias towards beauty. There’s also some evidence that taller people have higher average cognitive abilities, which would mean that a wage premium for height is justifiable and not a form of discrimination. Still, an abilities gap doesn’t rule out lookism, since taller children may be treated preferentially by their parents and educators, giving them a head start. This head start then explains their supposedly higher abilities later in life. Even if rewarded according to their abilities, we’re still talking about discrimination.

While some of the undeserved advantages that go to the beautiful are difficult to correct (we wouldn’t want to regulate mating), others are not, given the right form of anti-discrimination legislation. Some form of correction via legislation is necessary especially when preferential treatment results in violations of equal human rights for some. However, legislation can have some serious drawbacks (see here), so we’ll have to be careful.

More posts in this series are here.

(image source)
discrimination, economics, equality, health, justice, law, philosophy

Discrimination (13): Is Disability Just a Case of Bad Luck or Is It Discrimination?

prosthetic limbs


When people think about disability they usually don’t see it as a moral issue. A disabled person supposedly suffers from bad luck, and the problems she encounters while living her life with a disability don’t result from the decisions or actions of her fellow citizens. They are instead caused by ill health or by biological and anatomical inadequacies, things for which no one is to blame. Brute misfortune, that is all.

Of course, a disability can be caused by someone else’s misconduct, for example industrial pollution or paralyssis following an accident caused by someone else. However, let’s focus on blameless disability, the kind that is not anyone’s fault.

There’s a problem with the view that this kind of disability is no more than misfortune. The threshold level of normal human functioning that determines the difference between disability and non-disability isn’t just determined by biological facts, but also by social practices and the artificial social environment. For example, imagine a society that has developed technologically up to a point where people don’t have to use their hands anymore. No more computer keyboards, steering wheels in cars, remote controls etc. Let’s assume that everything that needs to be done can be done by programming and brain power (not a far-fetched assumption). A person who loses her hands in an accident will not be considered “disabled” in such a society. This accident will not push her below the threshold level of normal human functioning. In fact, most likely it won’t even be viewed as an accident, but rather a small nuisance, depending on the level of pain involved. Much like we in our existing societies react to a bee sting. It’s usually not disabling.

Now, when we take the same example of a person losing her hands, but situate her in a country such as the U.S. today, then we would say that she is disabled and that she has fallen below the threshold level of normal human functioning. But the reason we say this isn’t simply a biological or anatomical one, otherwise she would also have to be disabled in the imaginary society described a moment ago. The reason we say that she is disabled depends on the social circumstances and the social system in which she finds herself after losing her hands. Because U.S. society has been designed in such a way that people need to use their hands a lot of the time, we say that someone without hands is disabled. The decision to count someone as disabled has less to do with biology and anatomy than with the social practices and the artificial social environment we live in. The level of functioning a person can achieve depends less on her biological or anatomical abilities than on the artificial social environment in which she finds herself.

Hence, disability isn’t just something that happens to people; it’s something that we as a society have decided should happen to people. There’s nothing about our society that necessarily relegates people without hands to the category of the disabled. On the contrary, we have willingly designed our society in such a way that people without hands are disabled. We could just as well design our society in another way. Technology permitting, of course, but technology is also – up to a point – a choice: we just simply decided to develop technologies and the wider social environment in such a way that they don’t really take into account the needs of people without hands.

The fact that we designed our society in the way we did seems to indicate that we don’t care a lot about the disabled, at least not enough to do something for them. And such an absence of care can be viewed as a type of discrimination. After all, until some decades ago, men didn’t much care about the education of women, even though society was quite able to give women the same kind of education as men. The relative lack of education of women wasn’t a necessary fact of life but a choice. And that choice was a symptom of discrimination.

Of course, the analogy is shaky because gender discrimination was and is often a conscious choice, whereas the disabled are only rarely consciously disadvantaged. However, as I’ve stated before, the fact that discrimination is unconscious doesn’t automatically excuse it.

More on luck. More posts in this series.

education, equality, racism

Racism (27): Black Students Face Harsher Discipline

school scene from The Wire

school scene from The Wire

(source unknown)

At least they do in U.S. schools:

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions … Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. …

Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion. (source, source)

What are the reasons for these differences in discipline rates? I guess it can only be one of two things: either black students are particularly unruly, or many teachers are prejudiced. Racists will obviously adopt the former explanation: in their minds, racial discrepancies in discipline are not evidence of racism but rather evidence of the inferiority of the black race. Let’s assume for a moment that teachers do not treat black pupils unjustly and that those pupils deserve their treatment on account of their behavior: we should probably not assume this, but even if we do this would not necessarily be evidence of racial inferiority. There may still be background discrimination. Why do black kids behave the way they do – if they do indeed behave in ways that deserve harsher discipline? Could it not be because of racism elsewhere in society?

More posts in this series are here.

citizenship, economics, equality, globalization, international relations, justice, law, philosophy

Migration and Human Rights (45): Open Borders, Luck Egalitarianism, and the Common Ownership of the Earth

[This post originally appeared on as a guest post.] 

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that argues in favor of interventions in people’s lives aimed at eliminating as far as possible the impact of luck. If you have the bad luck of being born into a poor family, your prospects in life should not be harmed by this and society should intervene in order to correct for it.

I’m not going to endorse luck egalitarianism because it’s a theory that suffers from some serious defects. However, the basic intuition seems sound to me and can be used to argue against immigration restrictions. Your country of birth is also a matter of luck, good luck or bad luck, depending on the country. It’s either good luck or bad luck because the place where you are born has a profound impact on your life prospects. The mere fact of having been born in Bolivia rather than the U.S. makes it statistically more likely that you will be poor, uneducated and unhealthy. Since no one chooses to be born somewhere, no one can be said to deserve the advantages or disadvantages that come with being born somewhere.

Hence, if Americans for example are just lucky to have been born in the U.S. and didn’t do anything to deserve being born there, what right do they have closing their borders and allowing access only to a chosen few selected according to criteria that they have unilaterally decided and that mainly serve their own interests? None whatsoever. In claiming that right they make it impossible for others to do something about the misfortune of having been born in a poor country. Hence, they double other people’s disadvantage.

As Joseph Carens has put it, immigration restrictions are the modern equivalent of feudal privilege, inherited status, birthrights and class rule. In our current, so-called modern and Enlightened societies, the good luck of being born in a wealthy country supposedly gives you the right to exclude others, just as in the olden days the fact of having been born in the class of nobles or aristocrats gave you the right to condemn others to the class of paupers. The lottery of birth yields unfair advantages in both cases.

One may claim that none of this necessarily argues in favor of open borders. The fortunate of this earth could compensate for their good luck by other means. For example, they could have a duty, not to open their borders, but to transfer money and resources to those who have had the bad luck of being born in the wrong country.

Obviously, assistance is a moral duty, but I fail to see how the fulfillment of this duty could grant you the right to close your borders. Those who argue that assistance is enough often use a domestic analogy. Consider Hugh Hefner, for example. The point is not that he probably wouldn’t have had the wealth he has now if he hadn’t been born in a country (or granted access to a country) where the average citizen is wealthy enough to spend large amounts of money on soft porn. The point is that there are millions of other people in the U.S. who, through no fault of their own, are burdened with bad luck, a lack of talent or a lack of education opportunities making it difficult or impossible for them to collect a Hefnerian amount of wealth, or even just a fraction of it. These people don’t deserve their lack of talent etc., just as poor Zimbabweans don’t deserve to have been born in Zimbabwe. Should Hefner therefore open the doors of Playboy Mansion? Or is it enough that he pays taxes to fund the welfare state? Most would choose the latter option.

What’s the difference between this domestic situation and the international one? If Hefner doesn’t have to welcome thousands of unfortunate U.S. citizens to his Playboy Mansion, why should the whole of the U.S. citizenry have to welcome millions of immigrants onto their territory? Well, because it’s not their territory, at least not in the way Playboy Mansion is Hefner’s property. People don’t have property rights to a part of the surface of the earth like they may have property rights to things. I have a long argument here in favor of the common ownership of the earth, and I invite you to click the link and read it. It’s too long to repeat it here, but suffice it to say that it leads to a strong presumption in favor of open borders without destroying the possibility of having borders and states in the first place.

More on open borders here.

causes of income inequality, economics, globalization, international relations, trade, work

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (25): Globalization, Ctd.

globalization, cartoon by Deng Coy Miel, Singapore

globalization, cartoon by Deng Coy Miel, Singapore


Globalization is the usual suspect when people discuss the causes of contemporary increases in income inequality in many Western nations. As a result of easier transportation, trade and communication, low skilled workers in those nations now face ever tougher competition from cheap workers in developing countries, and this competition drives down wages at the poor end of Western income distributions: workers have to swallow wage reductions under the threat of outsourcing. Increased immigration – another facet of globalization – has the same effect.

At the top end of the income distribution, the reverse is happening: the job of a CEO is now more complicated in our globalized world, and hence his pay is higher. The threat of relocation also has an effect on income inequality through the channel of the welfare state: companies threaten to relocate, not just because of labor costs, but also because of tax rates. Taxes in Western countries tend to be relatively high because social security tends to be relatively generous. The threat of relocation convinces governments to reduce tax rates, but the price to pay is often a less generous welfare state. This as well puts pressure on the income distribution.

All this sounds convincing, but I’m afraid it’s too simple. The effects of globalization on inequality starts to look more complicated when we take consumption into account. Globalization tends to lower the consumption prizes of a lot of goods, and cheaper consumption can counteract downward pressures on wages and social security. If you can buy more and better stuff with your paycheck, your unemployment benefit or your disability check, then perhaos you’re not worse off.

There’s an interesting paper here by Broda and Romalis in which they look at

the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period. The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.

When measuring income inequality, we should correct for the different prices of goods and services consumed by people in different income groups. This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the fact that poor people live on cheap stuff; it simply means that some of the rising income inequality is compensated by cheaper stuff. And we have cheaper stuff because of globalization. Turning globalization into some sort of bogey man is therefore rather too simple. Income inequality has many causes, and it’s not clear that globalization is, everything considered, an important one.

Finally, a word about the supposed wage pressures of increased immigration: they are indeed no more than supposed.

More on income inequality and globalization. More posts in this series.

compatibility of freedom and equality, equality, freedom, freedom and equality, philosophy

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (14): Equal Relationships as Prerequisites for Freedom

One way to solve the traditional conflict between freedom and equality is offered by Elizabeth Anderson. If you want to live a free life, you have to stand in relations of equality with others. Oppressive or exploitative relationships are both unequal and unfree. Historically, unequal relationships such as “natural” hierarchies between social groups (sexes, races, classes etc.) and exploitative economic structures (slavery, early capitalism, colonialism etc.) have often if not always caused a lack of freedom among those on the wrong side of the unequal relationships.

The inequality inherent in those relationships implies the right of the superior to inflict violence on the inferior, to segregate them, to force them to obey, to exclude them from politics and public life, or to conquer and colonize them. These rights claimed by the superior over the inferior result in diminished freedom for the inferior. If you’re subjected to violence, force, segregation, conquest or exclusion then you’re unfree in any sense of the word: you can’t do what you want, your choices and opportunities are restricted, you lack autonomy and the power to govern yourself etc. Conversely, if you are equal then by definition you’re not subjected to those harms and you are free. Hence, if we want to be free we need to be equals.

This argument also sheds some light on the longstanding controversy about the nature of equality. “Equality of what?” is an important battleground in philosophy (see here and here for instance) but the terms of the argument are usually restricted to resources, opportunities, welfare, preference satisfaction, capabilities, rights etc. Equality of social position and equality as the absence of domination or exploitation are often sidelined by less relational forms of equality. Anderson is right to be unhappy with the focus on equality of resources, capabilities or preference satisfaction. People can have equal resources, equal capabilities and equal preference satisfaction and still live under the domination of groups that consider themselves superior.

Perhaps the capabilities approach can handle this problem, assuming that one of the required capabilities is the capability to escape domination. Maybe the same is true for preference based theories assuming that a preference for non-domination counts just as much as or more than other preferences. Still, let’s not forget that preferences can be adaptive, that people can enjoy a wide range of capabilities in very authoritarian systems, that people’s expectations of capabilities are socially framed by the most powerful voices in society, and that non-relational notions of equality in general can cement relationships of superiority and inferiority by giving too much attention to people’s lack of resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction. Anderson has famously argued that non-relational notions of equality make

gender equalitythe basis for citizens’ claims on one another the fact that some are inferior to others in the worth of their lives, talents, and personal qualities. Thus, its principles express contemptuous pity for those the state stamps as sadly inferior and uphold envy as a basis for distributing goods from the lucky to the unfortunate. Such principles stigmatize the unfortunate. (source)

The difference between notions of equality focused on resources, capabilities and preferences on the one hand, and more relational notions on the other can’t be found in their different approach to freedom; both notions of equality are concerned about freedom. Those who argue that equality is primarily a matter of resources, capabilities and preferences do so because they believe – correctly – that people need resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction for their freedom. And those, like Anderson but also Philip Pettit, who argue that equality should be viewed through the lens of relationships, also do so because they believe that freedom depends on equal relationships.

The difference therefore between the two groups is a different assumption about the requirements of freedom. One argues that freedom requires an equal level of resources, welfare or capabilities, while the other argues that it requires equal, non-oppressive, non-exploitative and non-dominating forms of relationships. Both arguments are persuasive, but it’s the former that runs away with most of the attention. The latter is therefore a useful reminder that equal relationships count for freedom. Both arguments, however, give the lie to the contention that there’s a very deep and unsolvable conflict between freedom and equality.

More posts in this series are here.


Racism (26): Racism in Criminal Justice

Twelve Angry Men

Scene from the movie “Twelve Angry Men”, about an all-white, all-male jury exonerating (albeit after some trouble) a defendant who’s probably not white


African Americans get, on average, a raw deal from the criminal justice system in the US. They get arrested more often, in part because of racial profiling; when they end up in court, they face racially biased juries; and when it’s time to sentence them, they receive harsher penalties and join an already overrepresented group in the prison system (African Americans are more likely to spend time in jail and when they do they spend more time in jail). Some more evidence:

Biased juries

Here’s a study showing that the racial composition of juries affects trial outcomes and conviction rates:

This article examines the impact of jury racial composition on trial outcomes using a data set of felony trials in Florida between 2000 and 2010. We use a research design that exploits day-to-day variation in the composition of the jury pool to isolate quasi-random variation in the composition of the seated jury, finding evidence that (i) juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants, and (ii) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member. The impact of jury race is much greater than what a simple correlation of the race of the seated jury and conviction rates would suggest. These findings imply that the application of justice is highly uneven and raise obvious concerns about the fairness of trials in jurisdictions with a small proportion of blacks in the jury pool. (source)

Whether or not someone is convicted has a lot to do with the luck of the draw or with the success of prosecutors or defendants wishing to remove people from juries. This raises obvious concerns about the fairness of criminal justice.

Here are the study’s results in the form of a drawing:

racial bias in jury trials


Biased prosecutors

African Americans receive longer sentences because prosecutors are, on average, more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences:

This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history. Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage …  [C]ompared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences.  These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length. (source)

Biased police

An example of racial profiling: a study of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program has revealed that

out of all ethnicities stopped, white people had the highest chance of having committed a crime, despite being proportionally the least searched. (source)

racial profiling in NY


Racism (25): What Do We Know About Race?

racial types

At least the following 5 things:

  1. There are no human races in the sense of biological or genetic divisions within the human species. About 94% of genetic variation between individuals lies within so-called “racial groups” – or rather “groups which are conventionally labeled as races” on spurious grounds (for example on the basis of vague and ambiguous differences in appearances). This means that two Africans may be as genetically different from one another as an African and a European. Continued interbreeding throughout history and the resulting exchange of genetic material has maintained humanity as a single species. There are no clearly divided species of humanity that are biological distinct. Humans aren’t monkeys. The concept of race has no genetic basis and genetics doesn’t provide support for those dividing humanity into different races.
  2. Even divisions based solely on appearances rather than genetic characteristics are flawed since those appearances show a continuum across individuals rather than a clear division between discrete groups of individuals. There are indeed superficial visual differences between people living in different parts of the world, but those differences are individual gradations on a continuum rather than divisions between groups. If you move towards the equator, skin color darkens because darker skin helps to avoid the cancerogenous effect of the sun entering the atmosphere at a right angle. These superficial differences are not only continuous and gradual rather than discrete; they also have no connection to other, supposed differences such as IQ or morality. Even if IQ and morality are determined by genes – and that’s a big “if” – then there is no reason to believe that the genes that determine these qualities “cooperate” with the genes that determine skin color. Hence no reason to assume a causal link between skin color and intellectual or moral faculties.
  3. So, even if you manage to divide humanity roughly into groups according to broad ranges of skin color – and provide a category called “mixed” for descendants of two individuals belonging to different groups (“Creoles” for example) or for people belonging to borderline groups (Arabs for example) – nothing useful can be concluded from such a division. There is nothing – no gene, no trait, no color, no moral or intellectual characteristic – that distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.
  4. As a result of this, observed inequalities between groups that are wrongfully labeled as racial groups must be the result not of biological inheritance but of differences in education, rights and treatment. Biological or genetic arguments for intellectual or moral differences between races are groundless because the denominator – race – is a fiction.
  5. The word “race” only has meaning in the sense that it is something some people believe in, talk about and act upon. “Race” is something that exists only in the minds of people. In other words, it’s a social construct. However, a social construct can have real life effects given the fact that people treat other people on the basis of their mistaken ideas about “race”. Likewise, race can be meaningful as a form of self-identification, subjective allegiance and group belonging. But also in this sense, the word race refers to nothing in biology or genetics.
amazonian indians

Amazonian Indians

More on race here. More posts in this series here.

discrimination and hate, freedom, horror, privacy, terror, war

The War on Terror is 11 Years Old Today, With No End in Sight

wtc burning 9-11 terrorism

(source unknown)

The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, is 11 years old today, with no end in sight. It has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of people worldwide. Osama is dead, and the war in Iraq is over, and yet people are still stuck in Guantanamo, drone strikes are more numerous than ever before and the internal security forces of Western states are increasingly powerful. It’s a high price for an uncertain gain.

However, before I discuss the consequences for human rights, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be stopped and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics (see this post for example).

I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.

The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning them altogether, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights (see also this post), but the right to security seems to have taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of many other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore.

1. Civil liberties

Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.

  • The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
  • “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
  • Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
  • “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
  • Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).

However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:

  • “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
  • Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.

2. Mentalities

The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.

  • The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy have turned many in the media into uncritical supporters of the war.
  • Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
  • A “culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.

3. Preemptive war

The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war

waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)

The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.

In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).

4. Counter-productive

It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:

The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)

The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom, as wellas Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source). Any even this tiny success seems to be far from certain.

5. Misnomer

There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.

If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of some ordinary citizens.

I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for some Western governments, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up, or let us at least declare victory in the one we’re now fighting for 11 years.

(This post is hoisted from the archives and slightly revised. The original was published on August 6th, 2008 and is unfortunately still relevant today).
culture, equality, freedom, hate, law, philosophy, privacy

Hate (8): Tolerance and Hate Speech

1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob; soon after, many of his followers migrate to Utah

1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob; soon after, many of his followers migrate to Utah

(source, source)

Jeremy Waldron claims that tolerance is more than merely the absence of violent assault on people who have adopted beliefs and practices we don’t like, and more than simply abstaining from persecution and legal sanction. He says that tolerance also implies the absence of hate speech and a legal prohibition of hate speech. Members of minority groups whose beliefs and practices are strongly disapproved of by the rest of society, have a right to go about their lives without the threat of constant hatred, vilification, insult and humiliation. They have a right to visit the shops and restaurants they want to visit, and to generally interact with others without being treated as pariahs.

And, indeed, that sounds quite reasonable. People undoubtedly have and should have such rights. But others have rights as well: hate mongers have a right to free speech, and racist shop keepers and restaurant owners have a right to ban whoever they want from their private property, under certain circumstances.

When the rights of the haters and the rights of despised minorities come into conflict, the different rights have to be balanced. I argued before that the right of private property of racists, or the freedom of association of prejudiced groups wanting to exclude homosexuals for example, should no longer be protected when these racists and bigots have become so numerous and authoritative that the objects of their racism or bigotry no longer have any alternative options and risk having their own rights violated. In the Jim Crow era, for example, it was very difficult for blacks to move around, find decent housing etc. because there were so many transport companies and landowners discriminating against them that their options were seriously diminished. Hence their rights were violated, and violated to such a degree that limitations on the rights of their tormentors were justified.

Similarly, in our current example, hate speech should only be banned and the right to free speech of hate mongers should only be limited when there’s an impact on the rights of their targets. Claiming, as Waldron seems to do, that a tolerant society generally requires such bans and limits will not do. That’s just not enough as a justification. For example, writing blood libel on an obscure blog that nobody reads should probably not be prohibited. On the other hand, burning crosses in the front yards of black people and forcing them to move elsewhere is a violation of their right to freely choose their residence. The same is true if people dare not walk the streets because of the risk of being constantly cursed at. These two cases of expressions of hate speech can and should be banned because they result in rights violations. Other expressions of hate speech should be protected. A general claim that tolerance requires not just constraints on coercion and violent persecution but also a general respect for people’s dignity and a social atmosphere free of hatred, insult and defamation, goes too far. It would be nice if the world was free of hate and if respect for dignity was the normal attitude, but there’s no right to such a world. Nor should there be.

If we were to adopt such a right, we’d run the risk of terminating debate altogether. If tolerance includes a general ban on hate speech it’s likely that it will also imply banning vehement discussion of other people’s supposed errors. You don’t need to engage in hate speech in order to have a vehement and lively discussion and criticism of others, but a lot of such criticism can be readily understood and perceived by its targets as an expression of hate and an insult to dignity. These targets can then use the power of law to shut down the debate, and that’s not something we want. Ideally, specific instances of speech should not be judged as inadmissible instances of hate speech and proper objects of legal sanction simply on the basis of the feelings or perceptions of the targets, but only on the basis of the objective consequences for the rights of the targets. Tolerance that includes a ban on all hate speech is a tolerance that in the end may silence us all.

More on tolerance, hate speech, defamation and insults. More posts in this series are here.

economics, education, equality, health, justice, philosophy, poverty, trade, what is equality, work

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

equality of opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

glass ceiling

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.


There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

More on equality of opportunity. More on the related topics of social mobility and meritocracy (a meritocracy can only exist when there’s equality of opportunity, otherwise people can’t be said to get what they deserve; and a society without or with low social mobility is unlikely to be one that respects equality of opportunity).

equality, gender discrimination, religion

Gender Discrimination (33): Reversing the Veil

ultra-orthodox jew special glasses


Here’s an interesting story about the rule, common in many religions, against the exposure of the female body. Many Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews argue that women should cover their hair with either a veil or a wig and should dress in such a way that their legs, arms, necks etc. are fully covered. Some go even further than this and claim that clothing prescriptions for women are insufficient: women should be segregated on busses, in public spaces, in schools etc. in order to minimize contact between the sexes. It’s assumed that men can only be protected against temptation and that society can only rid itself of the evil of illicit sexual relationships when contact with and exposure of women’s bodies are kept to a minimum.

Apparently, some ultra-orthodox Jews have understood that solving the problem of male temptation by restricting women’s freedoms is unfair. Hence, they are promoting special glasses that blur ultra-orthodox men’s vision, so they don’t have to see immodestly dressed women (source). The glasses are sold for $6. Obviously, they don’t only blur women but everything else as well. Everything up to a few meters is clear so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that gets blurry — including women. Hoods and shields that block peripheral vision are also being offered.

Other orthodox Jews laugh at this and warn their fellow Jews to buy a crash helmet as well.

More on the veil here. More posts in this series are here.

equality, human rights and crime, justice, law, philosophy

Crime and Human Rights (17): A Criminal’s Human Rights, Some Q & A



1. Does the necessity of enforcing the law and ensuring compliance with the law justify extreme forms of punishment?

No. It’s not because you have committed a crime that you lose all your rights. The severity of criminal punishment should remain within certain bounds, and the need to be tough on crime doesn’t give you permission to do whatever it takes to be tough on crime. Most laws will never be respected in all cases anyway. A fetishistic attitude towards law enforcement isn’t helpful or necessary. Reasonably good enforcement is good enough. Convicting or deterring the marginal criminal is not a benefit that outweighs the harm done to the rights of criminals by the systematic imposition of extreme punishment (and extreme punishment has to be systematic if it is to have the required deterrent effect; punishing only one criminal in an extreme way won’t do any good, and some say that even systematic punishment has no deterrent effect).

strong arm of the law2. If extreme punishment is not allowed, is it allowed to punish like with like?

Again, no, and for the same reasons as those given above. Lex talionis is unacceptable. Human rights are not conditional upon respect for the law, and the fact that punishment inevitably leads to some rights restrictions doesn’t imply that criminals lose all their rights.

3. But if criminals, by being criminals, don’t forfeit their human rights, how can one justify punishments such a incarceration or monetary fines which incontestably violate criminals’ human rights?

Those punishments can be justified, not as violations of rights but as limitations of rights. We need to limit the rights of criminals in order to stop them or deter them from violating the rights of others. In this respect, criminals are not treated differently from someone who yells “FIRE” in a crowd.

4. Is it justified to impose more severe punishments for the same type of crime on people who are more difficult to deter?

No again. Like the need to deter or stop crime doesn’t trump the human rights of criminals, it also doesn’t trump the rule regarding equality before the law.

There’s a related post here about the human rights of Adolf Hitler. More posts in this series are here.

(image source)
equality, gender discrimination

Gender Discrimination (32): Gender Stereotyping of Robots

female robot


Our prejudices must be very deeply ingrained if we even stereotype robots. From an interesting new paper:

Previous research on gender effects in robots has largely ignored the role of facial cues. We fill this gap in the literature by experimentally investigating the effects of facial gender cues on stereotypical trait and application ascriptions to robots. As predicted, the short-haired male robot was perceived as more agentic than was the long-haired female robot, whereas the female robot was perceived as more communal than was the male counterpart. Analogously, stereotypically male tasks were perceived more suitable for the male robot, relative to the female robot, and vice versa. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that gender stereotypes, which typically bias social perceptions of humans, are even applied to robots. (source, source)

If we can’t manage to treat inanimate robots without sexism and prejudice, then what hope is there for our fellow human beings of the other gender?

Interestingly, the complaint seems to go both ways. Robots, in the general sense of the word, have been known to exhibit sexism. Siri and Google for example are said to favor “male terms” and solutions when autocorrecting of suggesting phrases. Some examples:

sexist google

siri sexist

Obviously, prejudice in robots and in software, to the extent that it exists, only reflects the prejudice of their makers.

More posts in this series are here.

discrimination, economics, equality, trade

Discrimination (12): Is Price Discrimination Immoral?

Marc Quinn's sculpture of Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square, London

Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square, London


Price discrimination – or price differentiation – is a commercial policy. A seller may want to sell identical goods at different prices to different classes of customers in order to increase market shares, reach otherwise unreachable groups of customers or profit from customers’ willingness to pay.

The question is whether we should treat this type of discrimination like we treat other types. In other words, should we label price discrimination as something that is morally reprehensible, and should we also make it illegal (which are two different things – lying is often reprehensible but only rarely illegal)?

The answer is: it depends. Some forms of price discrimination are morally neutral or even praiseworthy. Offering students or poor people discounts for museum tickets or public transport has some moral benefits. Other forms, however, are clearly reprehensible:

[O]ne field experiment examined discrimination against disabled people in the context of car repairs, finding that disabled customers received higher quotes than the non-disabled customers. To get at the nature of this discrimination, the authors first conducted a survey, which revealed that “mechanics believe the disabled approach 1.85 body shops for price quotes while the non-disabled approach 2.85.”  In a second field experiment, the authors instructed participants to say the phrase, “I’m getting a few price quotes.”  This significantly changed outcomes — disabled participants received much lower offers: “Importantly, the lower offers received by disabled testers after signaling a willingness to search are not statistically different from those received by the abled,” write the authors. (source)

This is an example of so-called third degree price discrimination, which is in fact a form of statistical discrimination because the price is differentiated on the basis of an attribute of a customer segment (in this case disability), and this attribute is taken as a proxy of the customers’ ability or willingness to pay (in this case, the disabled are willing – or believed to be willing – to pay more because they can’t or won’t be troubled with shopping around).

Clearly, not all third degree price discrimination or statistical discrimination is wrong (student or senior discounts are cases of third degree price discrimination), but in this example it is wrong. Offering the disabled higher prices simply because they are disabled and hence less likely to shop around, is clearly immoral, even if it’s not based on animus against the disabled. It aggravates the disadvantage that nature has imposed on the disabled, and it’s a typical case of exploitation.

Exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged, and when this party enters the exchange from a disadvantaged position. A price is unfair when it is below what it would have been in a fair auction. It is beyond doubt that a fair auction would have allowed the disabled, who enter the exchange from a disadvantaged position, to pay less.

More posts in this series are here.

economics, equality, income inequality, philosophy, work

Income Inequality (27): What’s Wrong With It? No Moral Justification

income inequality


The standard “no problem” explanation of income inequality goes as follows: people have different incomes because they have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. Some earn more because they contribute more – to their employers but also to society. They simply deserve, in a moral sense of the word, their higher incomes because of the level and nature of their contributions. Increasing differences in income levels are then simply the reflection of an increasing gap in productivity and human capital between some groups in society.

However, there’s something wrong with this story: it hints at one important element but fails to draw the necessary conclusion from it. Some people contribute more in a quantitative sense of the word, in which case higher returns are probably morally justifiable. If you work more, few would begrudge you your higher income. However, that’s not the type of income inequality that is most common. Usually, people are believed to contribute more in a qualitative sense of the word and get paid more as a result (or vice versa, because they get paid more, they are assumed to have contributed more in a qualitative sense). No one claims that the salary of a CEO should be higher than that of a taxi driver doing two other jobs on the side because the former works more than the latter. He probably doesn’t. The justification people give for a higher salary for the CEO is almost always about quality. (See also here).

income inequalityNow, how does a society decide which types of contributions are of a higher quality and are therefore more deserving of higher remuneration? In part, the “market” decides: skills and contributions that are highly valued by consumers will earn you a higher income. But biases, prejudices and market manipulation are also factors that determine which contributions are valued higher. For example, there’s a widespread bias in favor of people with a university degree even though their objective skills may not always be higher than those of less educated people; advertisement and popular culture instill the perception that beautiful people are more deserving; stars in sport and music are believed to deserve a very high income, higher than that of the “stars” in science for example. And then there’s the perfectly circular reasoning that some contributions are more deserving because they yield higher earnings.

Many of these social decisions about desert are arbitrary, biased, irrational and unjustifiable. And in no case is there an attempt to justify them on moral grounds. Hence, you cannot conclude that more productive contributions are a moral justification for higher income levels if you first fail to justify which types of productive contributions are morally superior and more deserving.

You could counter this by saying that all skills and contributions, no matter in what field, are in and of themselves sufficient to warrant higher pay. But then you admit that all skillful and productive people across different fields should earn similar incomes, and that is plainly not the case. 

G.A. Cohen

G.A. Cohen

So, even if income inequality could be justified on a moral basis – by first deciding in a rational and unbiased way which skills and contributions are morally superior and then paying more to those people who have been identified as having more of those skills and contributions – that is not how it’s done in practice. And I doubt that it can be done, because there will never be agreement on the choice of morally superior skills and contributions.

Of course, the absence and, presumably, impossibility of a desert based argument for income inequality doesn’t mean that there can’t be other, more successful justifications of income inequality. The most common one is based on incentives rather than desert. We want people to do good, worthwhile and valuable things, and generous rewards for the skillful and productive is one way of having these things. Again, there’s the problem of deciding in an unbiased and rational way which things are indeed valuable, but we may assume that the market offers a close approximation: what people want to buy and consume will often be valuable to them. Perhaps not always valuable in the sense of “valuable after rational reflection free of biases”, but that sense may be unrealistic anyway. So let’s accept – grudgingly in my case – that we don’t have to decide what exactly needs to be incentivized and what is worth incentivizing.

However, even if we assume that value and desert equal market success, there’s a problem with the incentive based argument for income inequality. It’s not right to force morality through the payment of incentives. Ideally there should be good will, and people have to do things of value for their own sake, not because they are incentivized to do it (as G.A. Cohen has argued numerous times).

The conclusion is that income inequality as it is now structured in all societies is not justified and probably not justifiable from a moral point of view. And that this is the only point of view from which it should and could be justified. Of course, the lack of a justification is only one thing that’s wrong with income inequality. More on what’s wrong with it is here, here, here and here. There’s also my old paper about it here.

(image source)
discrimination, equality, philosophy

Discrimination (11): Types of Discrimination

cartoon by Angel Boligan of the pope shooting a gay sign

cartoon by Angel Boligan of the pope shooting a gay sign


After this post about the reasons why discrimination is wrong, I thought it might be useful to add something about the differences between some types of discrimination and in the process link to some older and forgotten posts.

The most common type or at least the most commonly referenced type of discrimination is explicit discrimination: “whites only” signs, apartheid, miscegenation laws etc. When this type starts to become more and more unacceptable, hidden discrimination often takes over. Someone who wants to discriminate no longer does so explicitly – because that’s illegal or socially frowned upon – but instead adopts a policy or a law that doesn’t reference the target group, that remains facially neutral and that, when applied, accomplishes the intended discrimination. The most famous examples are the Jim Crow era literacy tests for voters. These tests effectively excluded blacks from the franchise although blacks weren’t explicitly targeted. Decades of educational discrimination made sure that very few blacks passed the tests.


Both these forms of discrimination are intentional, but some cases of discrimination are unintentional. People may not intentionally aim to impose disadvantages on other groups, but the structures of society, as they have been influenced by decades of previous – intentional – discrimination, make it very hard to avoid the imposition of systematic harm on some groups. The enduring effects of slavery in the U.S. are an example. Some would argue that this isn’t discrimination at all, since discrimination is typically defined on the basis of intentions and not purely in terms of consequences or outcomes.

Then there’s unconscious discrimination (see also here). People often have unconscious motives for their actions. And finally there’s statistical discrimination (see also here), which is discrimination that doesn’t arise from prejudice or bias, but occurs when people use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics (for example, employers avoiding to hire African Americans because it’s statistically more likely for an African Americans to be an ex-convict).

More posts in this series are here.