democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (57): A System For Signaling Disapproval of the Weather

weather forecast

I already mentioned the fact that a country’s economic performance determines to a large extent the outcome of democratic elections, irrespective of the causal link between this performance and the policies or behavior of elected officials. I also stated my disappointment: ideally, democracy is more than a system for signaling disapproval of the economy; it should be a process of judging the desirability and effectiveness of the policies (and proposed policies) of politicians (and candidates). This process is meant to improve the quality of policies (through trial and error) and to guarantee that policies correspond to the wishes of the people (wishes which have themselves been improved through deliberation). Just voting out the “damned bastards” because the economy is tanking, even if those “bastards” prevented worse, is not an approximation of the ideal.

However, things seem to be even worse than this. Although economic performance should not be the main criteria for judging politicians – the economy is determined by many different things, and policies only play a limited role – it does make sense to make it part of the evaluation: in some cases, there’s no doubt that politicians can harm or benefit the economy, and all politicians have some influence on it. The same isn’t true for the weather, and yet there’s evidence that voters use elections to signal disapproval of that as well:

We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. (source, source, source)

Obviously, politicians shouldn’t be punished for natural events, but they should for mishandling the aftermath (rescue, rebuilding, future prevention etc.). The latter should be part of democracy as a decent ideal. Politicians should be judged on the way they handle the aftermath of weather events, especially given the fact that some such events become a disaster only because of the political or governmental reaction to it (or absence of a reaction).

However, many natural disasters that used to be considered purely natural events are now believed to be at least partially man-made (for example, global warming may provoke hurricanes). Hence it’s not always irrational to blame politicians for the weather itself, rather than for their handling of the aftermath of weather events. What is irrational is the attempt, contrary to the scientific facts about natural and political causation, to blame politicians for natural events or their aftermaths when those events or aftermaths are not clearly manmade.

G.W. Bush blamed for the Katrina mess

More posts in this series are here.

data, equality, gender discrimination

Gender Discrimination (29): Gender Bias in Wikipedia


As of this writing,

Feodor Vassilyev is apparently notable enough for a Wikipedia article because his wife sets the record for the most children birthed by a single woman [69 in total]. Just to reiterate, it is Mr. Vassilyev and not Mrs. Vassilyev who is deemed notable enough to have a Wikipedia article here. (source)

On the one hand, it’s no surprise that gender bias should find its way into Wikipedia. After all, its a widespread social phenomenon and Wikipedia editors are part of society. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact less than 15% of Wikipedia editors are female. Or maybe we were even more biased in the 18th century – the time when the Vassilyevs set their record – and Wikipedia simply transmits historical bias.

On the other hand, one can reasonably expect better from Wikipedia. It’s a knowledge base, and as such it should try to correct rather than reflect social bias.

freedom, horror, law, limiting free speech

Limiting Free Speech (47): Incitement to Commit Suicide




An interesting story in the press some time ago:

A former nurse from Faribault, Minn., was convicted of two felonies Tuesday when a judge ruled he had used “repeated and relentless” tactics during Internet chats that coaxed two people to kill themselves.

Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville found that William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, “imminently incited” the suicides of Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Ontario. Drybrough, 32, hanged himself in 2005, and Kajouji, 18, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.

In a 42-page ruling that found Melchert-Dinkel guilty of two counts of felony advising and encouraging suicide, Neuville wrote that it was particularly disturbing that Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a young, suicidal, female nurse, tried to persuade the victims to hang themselves while he watched via webcam….

Neuville, in rejecting the free-speech defense, noted that inciting people to commit suicide is considered “Lethal Advocacy,” which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because it goes against the government’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of vulnerable citizens. (source, source)

I guess that’s correct, even though the case doesn’t really fit with any of the commonly accepted exceptions to free speech rights. We’re not dealing here with incitement to murder or a death threat – standard exceptions to free speech, even in the U.S. And neither is it speech that incites illegal activity – another accepted exception. Suicide isn’t murder and isn’t illegal (anymore). Abstract and general advocacy of crime and violence is – or should be – protected speech, but not the advocacy or incitement of specific and imminent crime or violence if this advocacy or incitement helps to produce the crime or violence. If speech intends to produce specific illegal or violent actions, and if, as a result of this speech, these actions are imminent and likely, then we have a good reason to limit freedom of speech. Examples of such speech:

None of these forms of speech should be protected, and laws making them illegal are perfectly OK. On the other hand, claiming that all politicians deserve to die or that people shouldn’t pay their taxes are, in most cases, forms of protected speech because they probably do not incite or help to bring about imminent lawless activity.

The problem is that none of this is applicable here. Suicide isn’t illegal, and neither is it violence as we normally understand the word. So, the commonly accepted exception to free speech rights that I just cited can’t possibly justify the conviction of Melchert-Dinkel. He did of course advocate, incite and cheer on his victims, and his advocacy, incitement and cheering probably helped to produce their suicides. But a suicide is not a crime or an act of violence. At least not as such. One could argue that the encouragement of a suicidal person should be viewed as a form of murder. And if that statement goes too far for you, you may want to consider the fact that causing someone else’s death is in general a crime, whichever way you do it. Moreover, if the victims in this case were suffering from depression or a mental illness, the state has a duty to provide healthcare, and allowing someone else to worsen their depression or illness to the point that they kill themselves is not consistent with this duty.

So, while the encouragement of suicide in general, the teaching the methods of suicide or the claim that non-suicidal people should go and kill themselves (“you don’t deserve to live”, “why don’t you just go and kill yourself”) are all forms of protected speech, the same is not the case for speech that encourages specific suicidal people to kill themselves.

More on the related topic of “assisted” suicide here. More posts about limiting free speech are here.

As a bonus, I can’t not post this image of what some have called the most beautiful suicide (a description that is in no way meant to glorify or encourage suicide):

suicide of Evelyn McHale

suicide of Evelyn McHale, photo by Robert Wiles


On May 1, 1947, Evelyn McHale jumped to her death from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, landing on a car. Here is a close-up of her face:

Evelyn McHale

Read the whole story here.

equality, human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (88): Gendercide Leads to Trafficking and Wife-Sharing

polygyny wife sharing


Gendercide has a number of harmful consequences that aren’t limited to selective abortion and infanticide, but I hadn’t heard of this one yet:

When Munni arrived in this fertile, sugarcane-growing region of north India as a young bride years ago, little did she imagine she would be forced into having sex and bearing children with her husband’s two brothers who had failed to find wives.

“My husband and his parents said I had to share myself with his brothers”, said the woman in her mid-40s, dressed in a yellow sari, sitting in a village community centre in Baghpat district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“They took me whenever they wanted – day or night. When I resisted, they beat me with anything at hand”, said Munni, who had managed to leave her home after three months only on the pretext of visiting a doctor. …

Social workers say decades of aborting female babies in a deeply patriarchal culture has led to a decline in the population of women in some parts of India, like Baghpat, and in turn has resulted in rising incidents of rape, human trafficking and the emergence of “wife-sharing” among brothers. (source)

I used to believe that the shortage of women resulting from gendercide could in the longer term have a silver lining, in the sense that it could improve women’s bargaining positions relative to men and could therefore also improve their wellbeing and the protection of their rights. But it seems I have to change my mind. More on gendercide here. More absurd human rights violations.

causes of income inequality, causes of poverty, economics, equality, poverty

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (21): The Feedback Loop Between Absolute and Relative Poverty

rich man poor man

(source unknown)

I’ve come across an interesting and novel argument (novel to me at least) in favor of measuring and doing something about relative poverty, and against an exclusive focus on absolute poverty. Absolute poverty – in other words, the absence of those resources necessary for the fulfillment of basic needs such as nutrition, shelter etc. – remains of course an important and perhaps even primordial concern, but relative poverty has always been an interesting notion to many of us: if you lack most of the things an average person in your society takes for granted, then you’ll feel deprived and excluded, ashamed like Adam Smith’s day-labourer who can’t appear in public without a linen shirt,

the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

rich man's horse, and poor man's horse

rich man's horse, and poor man's horse

Linen shirts aren’t a basic need and one can be quite comfortable without it, but being without it in a certain society at a certain time in history can signal lack of desert. It can diminish the esteem others feel for you, as well as your self-esteem. As a result, you may be excluded from parts of society, and this exclusion may make it more difficult for you to acquire the resources necessary for your basic resources. Hence, your relative poverty leads you into absolute poverty, and your absolute poverty obviously makes your relative poverty worse. And when considering this vicious circle, we’re evidently not talking solely about linen shirts.

Anthropologists and economists have pointed out that festivals, celebrations and communal feasts are not just entertainment. They have an important social role in maintaining the networks that are crucial to coping with poverty and even escaping it. Household budget surveys have often revealed seemingly high expenditures on celebrations and festivals by very poor people. It is also known that clothing can serve an important social role. (source)

People therefore have very good reasons to claim that their well-being does not only depend on the avoidance of absolute deprivation but also on comparisons with others. Comparisons may even cause absolute deprivation.

More on this issue here and here.

equality, law, philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (27): Do Babies Need Human Rights?

babies' rights dolk graffiti

(source, source, graffiti by Dolk, more Dolk here)

It seems that babies, although they are obviously human beings, don’t have the same rights as adult human beings. Even compared to young children they have less rights. Young children normally have a right to expression. Babies don’t. Because they can’t express themselves (with language) they don’t need a right to expression. Such a right doesn’t even make sense in their case. For the same reason, namely their lack of certain abilities, they also don’t have a right to political participation and self-government (in this respect they are like young children, although there’s a push to lower the voting age or to at least grant children a say on political matters). The same is true for free movement, property and many other rights. Babies’ liberty and equal status are severely limited (they can be force fed, traded etc.).

Of course, you can’t go about and kill or maim babies, so they do have some rights. It’s just that the set of their rights is very small compared to the set that belongs to adult humans. Babies aren’t the only group of human treated in this way. I mentioned young children, but there are also categories of adult human beings whose rights are a subset of the standard set of rights: criminals, immigrants, foreigners etc.

man with camera in his eye

an "enhanced" human being, or, if you want, a man with a camera in his eye

So, it looks like we’re not talking about human rights after all, but rather about different sets of privileges granted to different groups of people according to different sets of criteria. Some groups of human beings have more rights than others, and some may not even have any rights at all (e.g. fetuses, according to some, and to the extent that fetuses count as human beings). And then there’s the opposite case: why not grant certain categories of non-humans also some of the rights which we erroneously call “human” rights? Animals, perhaps, in an effort to avoid speciesism. Or maybe also future enhanced human beings who will no longer be biologically human (or at least not fully biologically human).

Hence, it seems that we should ditch the qualifier “human” from the concept of human rights. Doing so, however, means according too much credibility to the somewhat confused narrative set out thus far (a good example of this confusion is this). The case of babies is different from the cases of criminals and foreigners, which in turn are entirely different from each other. Let’s remember that human rights are tools for the realization of cherished human goals and values (such as peace, prosperity, identity, belonging and knowledge). Categories of persons who don’t – as yet – have those goals or who have decided to abandon them should not be accorded human rights or can, if they want, waive them. Babies obviously belong to this group: they can’t waive their rights, but they clearly don’t need them. Migrants and criminals are different. They usually don’t waive their rights and neither are they in a position in which they objectively don’t need them. The case for limiting their set of rights is therefore a lot harder to make.

(image source)
democracy, economics, education, why do countries become/remain democracies

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (21): Education Again

nazi anti-semitic education cartoon

anti-semitic Nazi education illustration, saying: "The Jewish nose is bent at its tip. It looks like a six"


The claim that education leads to democracy has a lot of intuitive appeal. Educated people are probably more inclined to demand political participation, and those in power who hesitate about granting democratic rights will be less hesitant when they have to grant these rights to educated people. The claim is also supported by the fact that democracy requires some level of education in order to function adequately.

And there is indeed a correlation between levels of democracy and levels of education:

correlation democracy education


Furthermore, it seems that the causation goes mainly from education to democracy. Some evidence for this is here and here – although it’s also true that democracies are better educators. There’s also evidence here that it’s mainly primary education levels that drive democracy. The effect of primary education even outstrips the effect of GDP on democracy.

And there’s even more, albeit quasi-anecdotal evidence for this claim. Let’s have a look at the Arab Spring. Although one can’t possible argue that democracy is now the common form of government in the Middle East, a first step towards democratization has been taken, and it’s likely that the push came from the fact that education levels in those Arab countries that have witnessed recent uprisings have risen sharply in recent decades.

[T]he Arab Spring was partly predictable, as Middle Eastern countries displayed levels of democracy that were lower than those predicted by their level of education and income. … [The f]igure [below] focuses on these countries in particular, showing that their levels of democracy as predicted by our empirical model [based on education levels] lie above their pre-2011 actual levels. In other words, the Arab Spring could be expected based on a dynamic statistical model of the factors that drive democracy (interestingly, the same observation holds for Iraq and Cuba). (source)

democracy and expected democracy based on education levels

democracy and expected democracy based on education levels


More posts in this series are here.

economics, freedom, justice, law, philosophy, poverty, what is freedom

What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?


Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

little princeIf you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

equality, measuring human rights, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (23): When “Worse” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Worse”, Ctd.

Benny Hill

Benny Hill


Just because nobody complains does not mean all parachutes are perfect. Benny Hill

A nice illustration of this piece of wisdom:

Using state-level variation in the timing of political reforms, we find that an increase in female representation in local government induces a large and significant rise in documented crimes against women in India. Our evidence suggests that this increase is good news, driven primarily by greater reporting rather than greater incidence of such crimes. (source)

The cited “increase in female representation in local government” resulted from a constitutional amendment requiring Indian states to have women in one-third of local government council positions.

Since then, documented crimes against women have risen by 44 percent, rapes per capita by 23 percent, and kidnapping of women by 13 percent. (source)

crimes against women in India

This uptick is probably not retaliatory – male “revenge” for female empowerment – but rather the result of the fact that more women in office has led to more crime reporting. Worse is therefore not worse. A timely reminder of the difficulties measuring human rights violations. Measurements often depend on reporting, and reporting can be influenced, for good and for bad. Also, a good lesson about the danger of taking figures at face value.

Similar cases are here and here. More posts in this series are here.

causes of human rights violations, freedom, philosophy

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop - When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all

The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop - When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all "because they are sour".


One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

self-delusion I have forgotten who I am

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

equality, ethics of human rights, justice, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert



Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

thomas malthus

Thomas Malthus

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

lazy homer simpson

Homer Simpson being lazy

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

fable of the ant and the grasshopper

fable of the ant and the grasshopper

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • blameFirst, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

(image source, image source)
data, law, racism

Racism (22): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice, Ctd.



Being less than white in the US is not an asset when you’re in court, in more than one sense. It’s well known that black defendants face prejudice in the criminal justice system. There’s in fact a double injustice going on: dark skinned people get a raw deal from juries, and there are more of them facing juries because of racial profiling. But something similar is happening on the other side of the court room:

In this paper, I find that cases decided by black federal lower-court judges are consistently overturned more often than cases authored by similar white judges. I estimate this effect by leveraging the fact that incoming cases to the U.S. courts are randomly assigned to judges, which ensures that black and white judges hear similar sorts of cases. The effect is robust and persists after matching exactly on measures for judicial quality (including quality ratings assigned by the American Bar Association (ABA)), previous professional and judicial experience, and partisanship. Moreover, by looking more closely at the ABA ratings scores awarded to judicial nominees, I demonstrate that this effect is unlikely to be attributable exclusively to differences between black and white judges in terms of quality. This study is the first to explore how higher-court judges evaluate opinions written by judges of color. (source)

If we assume that it’s likely that black judges are more sensitive to the possibility of racial injustices suffered by defendants – and that assumption doesn’t require a huge leap of faith – then we’ll have a vicious feedback loop: if the decisions of black judges are more often overturned, then that will also harm black defendants. Add this to the harm done by prejudiced juries and police officers, and you’ll have a good explanation for this.

causes of income inequality, equality

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (20): Weak or Declining Unionization, Ctd.

drowning in money


Not all countries where income levels are very unequal are also countries where labor unions are weak or in decline; but some are, notably the U.S. For that reason, and because labor unions are generally regarded as forces advocating for a more equitable wage distribution, it’s tempting to see a causal link between declining unionization and increasing income inequality.

There’s a study out which estimates that approximately a fifth of the increase in hourly wage inequality among women in the U.S., and about a third among men, is explained by declining union membership.

Deunionization also increases inequality in sectors where unions have always been weak or absent, because companies in those sectors tended to follow wage levels in unionized sectors as a means to compete with union employers or to discourage unionization. Unions also influenced general government policy – e.g. minimum wage laws – which benefited non-unionized sectors. And, finally, with unions no longer making the general moral case for equality, voices against equality have gained the upper hand.

union density income inequality


I know it’s only a correlation and hence no evidence of causation, but the correlation is indeed striking:

union membership and minimum wage


More posts in this series here.

causes of human rights violations, data, economics, equality, work

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (30): Language

speech and language


The effect of language on human rights can be straightforward, as in the case of hate speech. Imagine an individual member of a racial minority living among members of the majority. The latter are constantly hurling insults and hateful bile at this individual, making it almost impossible for her to move about the neighborhood, find employment and do many of the other things she has a right to do. In this case, a particular type of language and a particular use of this language has obvious repercussions on someone’s human rights.

But what I’m interested in here are more subtle effects of language on human rights. Take the example of the gender-exclusive pronoun. In most languages, personal pronouns distinguish male from female, and the male pronoun is the default: when we’re not talking about a specific person, or when we’re talking about a mixed gender group, then we use the male pronoun. (This is similar to the equally common rule that children should get the surname of the father). Attempts to invent and promote gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns haven’t quite succeeded, and the habit of using the female pronoun as the gender-exclusive one is often considered awkward. I also fail to avoid the traditional rule in my writing. In general, this problem is often labeled a fake one, invented by people high on political correctness.

And yet, the problem isn’t fake at all. Compared to other, more extreme uses of language such as hate speech, the harm done by the use of gender-exclusive pronouns may be small, but it’s not negligible. There’s a study here that tries to measure the harm:

Three studies assessed whether a common cultural practice, namely, the use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women. Women responded to the use of gender-exclusive language (he) during a mock job interview with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language (Studies 1 and 2). Moreover, the more emotionally disengaged women became over the course of a job interview upon hearing gender-exclusive language, the less motivation and job identification they subsequently reported (Study 3). Together, these studies show that subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.

Rosie "we can't do it"Another study focused on the use of gendered words in job ads, and found that ads signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. As a result of this signaling, women are less likely to apply to certain jobs, and this in turn perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace. Wording differences in ads affect the job’s relative appeal to men and women, independent of the type of job. The use of more masculine wording such as “competitive” makes traditionally female-dominated jobs more appealing to men, and vice versa.

In both these examples – gender-exclusive pronouns and gendered language in job ads – women respond – or are made to respond – in an unconscious way so as to perpetuate gender inequality.

A similar example of language affecting human rights is called stereotype threat: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent through some kind of preliminary “information” or briefing, then you perform worse at that task. For example, if a group of girls about to take a mathematics test, is “reminded” that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it’s likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have done had they not been told. It’s not difficult to imagine cases in which this can be used in order to perpetuate inequality, submission and domination. (More on stereotype threat here and here).

signalingI just mentioned signaling, and signaling in the more strict definition of the term – engaging in speech or activity not necessarily for the sake of this speech or activity but in order to convey relevant information about yourself (for example, people acquire an education and talk about it not only because they want to be educated but also because they want to signal ability to potential employers) – is yet another example of the way in which language affects human rights. Take the case of capital punishment: I strongly believe that this is not about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or even anger and revenge. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. This is especially important for politicians, elected judges etc. In other words, for those who could, if they wanted, end the practice. (More on human rights and signaling is here).

Obviously, language doesn’t always have a negative effect on human rights. It’s easy to find examples of a positive effect: storytelling can promote empathy, and language aimed at shaming people can rid the world of rights violations when reasoning is insufficient.

(image source)
causes of poverty, economics, equality, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (50): The Structure of Income Inequality

social classes

It seems that one particular aspect of income inequality – namely the degree of inequality between middle income and lower income people – determines the degree of redistribution in a society, and hence the level of poverty of the poorest:

the key factor determining redistribution is the income gap between middle income voters and lower income voters. Where this gap is low, middle class people feel some degree of solidarity with the poor and exhibit what Lupu and Pontussen describe as “parochial altruism.” That is, they are more likely to support income redistribution because they feel that the poor are in some sense, “like them”. When the gap is high, middle class people will have a much weaker sense of solidarity with the poor, and hence be less supportive of redistribution.

Lupu and Pontussen suggest that the US is an outlier, with weaker solidarity than the structure of US inequality would suggest. They argue that the explanation for this is straightforward – “it is clearly attributable to the high-concentration of racial-ethnic minorities in the bottom of the income distribution.” More bluntly put – middle class Americans feel less solidarity with the very poor because the very poor are more likely to be black. (source, source, source)

Yet another reason to worry about income inequality. More on the impact of relative poverty on absolute poverty here. More posts in this series are here.

data, discrimination, discrimination and hate, equality, work

Discrimination (9): The Beauty Bias

Although someone’s looks and attractiveness aren’t explicitly mentioned in human rights law as prohibited grounds of discrimination, we can safely say that the general prohibition on discrimination does apply to discrimination based on appearance, just like it applies to discrimination of people belonging to a certain race, sex, religion etc. This statement may sound extreme – and some will call it the first step on a slippery slope – but I think it’s a justified statement given the fact that appearance based discrimination can be just as harmful as more traditional types of discrimination.

uglinessPeople generally prefer beautiful individuals and express this preference by giving them certain advantages. One symptom of the beauty bias is the beauty premium: in the U.S., and probably in most other countries, an attractive person earns more: the premium is about $250.000 over the course of a lifetime, compared to the least attractive. Monthly averages point to a difference between 10 and 12%, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Daniel Hamermesh (in “Beauty Pays“) found evidence of differences in promotions, risks of unemployment, credit facilities etc.

A number of role-playing, laboratory studies have demonstrated that more attractive men are more often hired, but the laboratory data for women are less consistent. … more attractive men had higher starting salaries and they continued to earn more over time. For women, there was no effect of attractiveness for starting salaries, but more attractive women earned more later on in their jobs. (source)

There’s no reason to believe that beautiful people deserve this kind of advantage since they generally aren’t more intelligent, productive, etc. (although some disagree about productivity). It’s simply the case that people who decide about employment, pay and career prefer beautiful people. Beauty brings along a degree of self-confidence I guess, which may persuade (possible) employers and makes them believe – correctly or not – that with higher self-confidence comes higher productivity. But that isn’t all that’s happening:

even when the experimenters controlled for self-confidence, they found that employers overestimated the productivity of beautiful people. (source)

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

So it looks like the beauty bias is just that, a bias, much like the bias against women and blacks.

The beauty bias can be measured because a

common standard of beauty does exist. Based on an attractiveness scale of one to five, most people surveyed will come to near agreement on a test subject’s looks, a finding that holds true across all cultures. (source)

By the way, the beauty bias operates in other areas as well. Beautiful candidates are more successful in democratic elections. And ugly criminals face rough justice:

Stephen Ceci and Justin Gunnell, two researchers at Cornell University, gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. (source)


11 percent of surveyed couples say they would abort a fetus predisposed toward obesity. College students tell surveyors they’d rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or a shoplifter than one who is obese. (source)

Of course, earning a little less and having a smaller chance of being elected aren’t the world’s gravest human rights violations. It’s not as if we still banish the ugly from the public square:

In the 19th century, many American cities banned public appearances by “unsightly” individuals. A Chicago ordinance was typical: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting subject … shall not … expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.” (source)

However, the evidence above suggests that beauty does play an important role in many different areas, making the impact of appearance based discrimination potentially large. Hence the obvious question: should ugly people be protected against discrimination? Should there be a law making it illegal to pay people more simply because of their looks? After all, there seems to be no difference between this form of discrimination and more traditional forms. All forms of discrimination impose a disadvantage on a group of people for no other reason than their group membership.

However, legal protections would require a public determination of beauty and ugliness. And they would require the ugly to step forward and claim damages or benefits. That’s stigmatizing, and open to discussion: there is, as stated, a common standard of beauty, but there can still be disagreement on specific cases, especially along the margins. Beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re labeled as ugly by some or even by the majority, there may still be others who think the world of you. Including yourself. De gustibus non est disputandum. The same isn’t true for gender, sexual orientation and race (with some caveats for the latter). When governments sanction a universal scale of attractiveness we’re going down a dangerous route because this can ossify opinions about beauty and lead to even more discrimination. And then there’s the issue of self-esteem: would people be willing to apply for official recognition of their ugliness, even if the money is good?

Posts on similar subjects, such as colorism and heightism, are here and here. More of my drawings are here.

data, freedom, human rights maps

Human Rights Maps (149): Freedom of the Internet

Lots of authoritarian regimes impose restrictions on the types of information their citizens can access or publish on the internet. Some countries systematically limit the available websites, and others only do so when their citizens use the internet to organize protest actions (as was recently the case in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt).

China is often criticized for its large-scale and systematic filtering (dubbed the Great Firewall of China), but the phenomenon is relatively widespread. Here are some maps showing the extent of internet censorship:

internet filtering map social content

internet filtering of social content

internet filtering map security content

internet filtering of security content

internet filtering of political content

internet filtering of political content

(source, where you can also find more detailed information)

And this is the index of Reporters Without Borders:

reporters without borders map of internet censorship

reporters without borders map of internet censorship

And the 2011 version:

map of internet censorship

map of internet censorship


More data on this are here and here. More on free speech and the internet is here. Something about the related topic of internet access rights is here. More human rights maps in general are here.

freedom, human rights violations, international relations, terror, torture

Terrorism and Human Rights (34): Terrorism Reduces Respect for Human Rights

cctv camera spying rl peters


And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense: terrorism is a human rights violation and therefore reduces respect for human rights. I’m more interested in the indirect effects of terrorism on human rights. According to this study, terrorist attacks substantially diminish governments’ respect for human rights. Extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, torture, attacks on privacy etc. are much more common in countries that have witnessed terrorist attacks. One commonly cited reason for this is the perceived necessity of balancing human rights and security. However, it’s not clear whether restrictions on human rights do indeed work to deter or fight terrorism – perhaps such restrictions just make terrorism more likely in the long run (oppression creates resentment). It’s also unclear whether terrorism is the real reason for the restrictions or merely a pretext.

If terrorists are indeed motivated by their hatred of “our freedom“, then they are extremely successful because they have forced democratic countries to destroy a substantial part of their own freedom. Examples are here, here, here and here.

And whether or not restrictions of freedom do effectively improve security in the short and in the long run, governments can’t claim that what they do is what the public wants:

giving up freedom to gain security

acceptance of restrictions on freedom, years after 9-11

(source, source)

More here and here.

data, freedom, human rights maps

Human Rights Maps (148): The Right to Internet Access

internet access a human right


The right to internet access is obviously not a widely recognized right yet, but should it be? As a rule, we should avoid rights inflation because creating new rights dissolves the importance of rights in general. However, in this case we may be able to argue that a right to internet access is necessary for the protection and realization of other, existing rights. I’m thinking of course of the right to free speech – maybe also the right to association or education, but I guess it will be a lot harder to make the case that the internet is necessary for those rights.

So let’s take a look at free speech. I think it’s useful for present purposes to break this right down into two parts. The right to free speech is in fact the aggregate of two distinct rights:

  • the right to freely express yourself, and
  • the right to receive information (which is the right to read and hear the free expressions of others).

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is explicit about this:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice [my emphasis].

This clearly encompasses the two elements of free speech. It also makes it illegal to prohibit the use of the internet for free speech because it mentions all media. However, the right to freely use the internet for speech is different from the right to have internet access; I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Now let’s see how it can be argued that these two rights, expression and information, require the right to internet access. Normally, the right to free expression doesn’t include a right to the means of expression. Suppose I lose my vocal cords in an accident or because of a disease. That doesn’t undermine my right to free speech, and this right doesn’t create a derivative right to the possession of vocal cords. That’s the case because if I can’t speak I can still write and express myself in other ways.

So that doesn’t seem promising. However, one could argue that things are different with the internet, and that the internet has become so important that it overwhelms all other means of speech. It has, therefore, become a necessary condition for free speech because free speech would be meaningless without the internet. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, but it’s not a silly argument. Losing access to the internet or never having had access isn’t quite the same as losing other, more traditional means of speech. Falling back on those other means when the internet is not available does render freedom of speech much less meaningful and the consequences of the loss or absence of internet access aren’t comparable to the loss of vocal cords.

The same argument can be made for the other part of the right to free speech, namely the right to receive information. And it’s probably even stronger in that case because people depend even more on the internet for their information requirements than for their expressive needs.

What about internet censorship (also known as internet filtering)? As I’ve said, that’s a different although obviously related matter. Internet censorship means that a government actively intervenes to violate people’s right to free speech on the internet (given article 19). In the case of internet access, on the other hand, we have a government failing to act and to provide the means to use a right. Of course, a government intent on censoring the internet can do so by failing to provide internet access (take the recent case of the Egyptian government blocking the entire internet as a means to stop protests), and that would be just as effective as content censorship. Likewise, a government that doesn’t want to censor the internet but fails to provide access because of other reasons (ineptitude or lack or resources for example) merely produces the same result as a government that does censor.

Still, it’s useful to distinguish the two rights: the right to use the internet for expression and information gathering (an existing right, see article 19) and the right to have internet access (not as yet a recognized right in most parts of the world) are clearly not the same thing, even if the results of respecting or violating these rights can be the same.

This reminds me of the eternal misunderstanding about negative and positive rights, and about how only the former are real rights. So let me repeat, all rights are both negative and positive in the sense that they all require both forbearance by the state and positive action by the state. Take the case we’re discussing here: the right to freedom of speech on the  internet does not only require that the government abstains from censorship; it also requires of the government that it actively intervenes to stop private censorship (for example, there have been cases in which internet providers favored certain sites above others). Conversely, the “new” right to internet access does not just require positive action from the government; for example, the government, when setting up a system of universal access, should abstain from according the provider contract to a provider monopoly because that would inflate prices and hamper universal access.

However, from the fact that these two rights – free speech on the internet and free access to the internet – are both negative and positive rights doesn’t follow that there’s no difference between them. They are clearly different rights.

Here’s what the public thinks about the right to internet access:

public opinion on the right to internet access


And this is how much work countries still need to do when such a right is enacted:

Internet use percentage of population penetration rate map


Here’s another version of this map (click to enlarge):

internet penetration map


This map juxtaposes population density and internet access (populated places in blue, about 350,000 locations of IP addresses in red, and white dots indicate places where many people live and many IP addresses are available):

internet and population

(source, where you can find a higher resolution image)

More human rights maps here.

human rights violations, justice, law, most absurd human rights violations, privacy

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (86): “We Inflict an Injustice Upon You, and Then We Make You Pay For It”

Two horrible cases of government officials treating people unjustly and then making them pay for it:


According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, “A Las Cruces woman has been charged $1,122 by a local hospital for a forcible body cavity search ordered by the Metro Narcotics Agency that did not turn up any illegal substances.” The search was conducted pursuant to a search warrant, based on what the police said was “‘credible information from a reliable source’ that the woman was concealing up to an ounce of heroin”…

Fortunately, a story a couple of days later relates that the county did indeed pay — which I think they’d have to do, since I see no legal basis for holding the woman responsible for a procedure that she didn’t seek and didn’t benefit from. The involvement of a lawyer, though, suggests that it took some work and expense to get the county to pay, work and expense that the woman shouldn’t have been put through (even assuming the search itself was justified). (source)


The Arizona Department of Corrections is charging people money to visit their loved ones in prison. … New legislation allows the department to impose a $25 fee on adults who wish to visit inmates at any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners. The one-time “background check fee” for visitors, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, has angered prisoner advocacy groups and family members of inmates, who in many cases already shoulder the expense of traveling long distances to the remote areas where many prisons are located.

An Arizona official confirmed that these “background check fees” will not actually pay for background checks, but are instead intended to make up part of the state deficit. This policy not only places an unfair burden on those who wish to visit prisoners, but is bad for public safety. According to the ACLU’s David Fathi: We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they’re in prison…Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish. (source)

And for those of you who think incarceration isn’t inherently unjust, read this, this and this. More absurd human rights violations here.

data, economics, housing, poverty, racism

Racism (21): The Recession Isn’t Colorblind

change in net worth of households, by race


The recession obliterated more than half of the wealth (assets minus debts) of the average black and hispanic household in the U.S. White households lost “only” 16%. (Assets are houses, cars, savings and checking accounts, stocks and mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc. Debts are mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, etc.). The main culprit was the bursting of the housing market bubble.

As a result, the average black household had just $5,677 in wealth in 2009; the typical Hispanic household $6,325; and the typical white household $113,149. In relative terms, this means that in 2009, the median wealth of white households in the U.S. was 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households; this difference is twice the size it used to be before the recession. Also, a third of black and Hispanic households now have zero or negative net worth.

Moreover, since the official end of the recession in mid-2009, the housing market in the U.S. has remained in a slump while the stock market has recaptured much of the value it lost from 2007 to 2009. Given that a much higher share of whites than blacks or Hispanics own stocks — as well as mutual funds and 401(k) or individual retirement accounts (IRAs) — the stock market rebound since 2009 is likely to have benefited white households more than minority households. (source)

Add to that the racial differences in unemployment rate, poverty rate and income, and you have what one could call a “racist recession”.

More on wealth inequality here.

data, discrimination and hate, equality, gender discrimination, work

Gender Discrimination (28): Occupational Sex Segregation as One Cause of the Gender Pay Gap

It’s common knowledge that women tend to earn less that men, even in countries that pride themselves on their respect for gender equality. Here are the data on the gender pay gap in the U.S.:

gender pay gap


One of the causes of this gap is occupational sex segregation, meaning that women and men tend to work in very different occupations. Coincidentally or not, “men’s jobs” are generally better paid than “women’s jobs”:

occupational sex segregation and wage inequality

(source, click image to enlarge)

Now, “segregation” in this context may be too strong a term, since there are no longer a lot of legal restrictions on the employment of women, at least not in the U.S. Women aren’t segregated into very specific occupations, at least not by law. Cultural pressures may still exist, however. Women often feel obliged to choose occupations that mix well with family responsibilities, and those occupations tend to be less profitable. Such a sense of obligation is not a sign of gender equality.

It’s also not clear to what extent women – voluntarily or not – choose jobs that are less well paid, and to what extent employers decide that jobs chosen by women merit less pay.

And finally, let’s not forget that there’s a gender pay gap even within professions. Occupational sex segregation therefore can’t explain the whole pay gap. Hence, the gender pay gap may be an indication of different types of gender discrimination:

  • forcing women into jobs that are less well paid
  • paying less for the types of jobs that women tend to choose
  • paying women less than men within the same types of jobs
  • failing to give women and girls the same opportunities to enter some types of jobs (e.g. because of unequal education, child marriage etc.)

More on the gender pay gap here.

economics, equality, freedom, philosophy, trade, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (26): Human Rights and Diminishing Marginal Utility

Vomit scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Vomit scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

The marginal utility of something – usually a consumption good or a service – is the utility (pleasure, happiness, wellbeing or whatever) gained from an increase in the consumption of the thing. The law of diminishing marginal utility states that the first unit of consumption of a good or service yields more utility than the second and subsequent units (in other words, the utility of each unit decreases as the supply or consumption of units increases).

all-you-can-eat-2The classic example is the buffet-style restaurant promising “all you can eat” for a fixed sum. Each additional plate of food you take provides less utility than the one before. After the first plate, your hunger has been somewhat tamed, meaning that your enjoyment of the second plate is less, and so on. After a certain number of plates, you reach a point at which eating more would make you sick. Utility may therefore become zero or even negative, so-called “disutility”. The restaurant has determined the price of a meal at a level slightly above the level at which the average person decides that the additional marginal utility of one more trip to the buffet isn’t worthwhile (or is zero or negative).

Let’s model this using the following standard drawing:

law of diminishing marginal utility

You start of with zero meals; you’re hungry. Your utility, which we’ll call here “satisfaction”, is zero. You eat your first plate, which gives you a whopping utility of 20. You’re very satisfied with it. The next plate is nice as well, but only half as nice. It gives you a satisfaction of 10, and puts your total satisfaction for the dinner party thus far at 30. 10 is the marginal utility of this second plate; 30 the total utility of the evening out. And so it goes on. The third plate only adds another 8 points of satisfaction etc. By the time of the 7th plate, the food doesn’t do anything to you. You eat it just because you want to get the maximum out of the fixed amount that you paid for the use of the buffet. It has zero marginal utility, adding nothing to the total utility of the night out. However, you decide to go for your 8th plate, because, hey, bang for the buck. And, surprise, surprise, it makes you feel slightly sick. It has a negative marginal utility, diminishing the total utility of the dinner party. The 9th plate…, well, no need to elaborate beyond the fact that input equals output and that Monty Python is great. You wish you hadn’t come.

Here it may be noted that the utility of the successive plates diminishes not because they are of inferior quality – all plates are just as tasty. The utility of the successive plates diminishes simply because they happen to be consumed consecutively. I can also mention that in some cases, marginal or total utility diminish but never fall to zero; that may be the case for money for instance.

The law of diminishing marginal utility applies to many things in life, but not all: antibiotics need to be taken till the end, and the utility of the first dose depends on the last dose; people interested in rare collectables may value an additional piece more than the first piece because a larger collection of rare things is more valuable than a small collection; greedy people may value each addition to their assets equally, and so on. Moreover, there’s also something called increasing marginal utility:

American actor Janet Leigh screams in the shower in the famous scene from the film, 'Psycho,' directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

American actor Janet Leigh screams in the shower in the famous scene from the film, 'Psycho,' directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

[P]icture you are in a room with 10 people screaming. You hate it when people scream, and you can pay a person to get them to stop screaming. … Would you pay a $1 to get the first person to stop screaming, and a penny for the 10th person to stop screaming? No. Getting one person to stop screaming would make very little difference in how much you dislike being in the room. Modern psychology tells us you might not even notice it. You’d probably only pay a penny to get that first guy to stop screaming. However getting the second guy to stop screaming might be worth 10 cents. And the last guy, the difference between some screaming and no screaming, might be worth the full dollar to you. The more quiet it got, the more a marginal difference in how quiet it is would be worth to you. There’s increasing returns to this good; the 10th guy not screaming is worth more than the first guy not screaming, which is the exact opposite dynamic of the 10th cake being less delicious than the first. (source)

The “law” of diminishing marginal utility is therefore not really a law at all; it just describes a rather common phenomenon. And because it’s common, it’s really no surprise that it’s valid in the field of human rights as well. The same inverted U-shape that we see in the graph above for the total utility trend of increased consumption, is present in a lot of human rights related issues. Take the example of freedom, a notion that looms large in human rights language. Let’s simplify the concept and state that a person has more freedom if the number of his or her options – or possible and realistic objectives in life – increases. When, in other words, people or governments don’t block or impose options, and when a person’s resources – education, wealth, health, parents, abilities etc. – are sufficient to know, evaluate and choose objectives from a large and unconstrained set, and also to pursue the chosen objectives with a reasonable chance of success. Freedom is of course a much more complicated concept than this – see here for example – but for present purposes this can suffice.

diminishing marginal utility of freedom

Hence, a person with only very few options has limited or no freedom; his or her freedom levels off after the number of options reaches a certain point (there’s not much additional freedom going from a life that has the option of 2 holidays a year to one that offers three holidays, although the level of your happiness may rise slightly); and then your freedom decreases sharply beyond a certain number of options because an excess of options is inhibiting and disconcerting.

Something similar happens in the case of equality, also an important concept in human rights language:

diminishing marginal utility of equality

Let’s look at this graph first from the perspective of an individual. Individuals who are at the wrong side of inequality in a society – be it income inequality or other types of inequality – resent this and experience this as disutility: their self-esteem and health may suffer, their life expectancy is diminished etc. Their overall wellbeing increases as they manage to achieve more and more equality, more equal rights, more income and social security benefits and so on. However, beyond a certain level of equality, people start to see equality as disutility, since they also value achievement and success, both for themselves and in others.

The same is true on the social level: unequal societies experience less overall trust, more anxiety and illness, more excessive consumption and other failings. However, a very equal society fails to provide incentives for success and is therefore viewed as a negative.

A final example has to do with rights themselves:

diminishing marginal utility of human rights

A society that doesn’t recognize any rights is obviously failing in “utility”. Once different rights receive recognition, utility increases. However, societies can recognize too many rights: rights inflation empties the notion of rights of its meaning, resulting in disutility. Rights have to be relatively scarce in order to be able to do their work.

So far, these examples of the applicability of the law of diminishing returns in the field of human rights seem to help us to make the world a better place: they tell us that freedom is about more than just multiplying our options, that equality can have a downside beyond a certain point, and that we should be careful when extending the language of human rights to new areas of concern. Another interesting policy implication of the law is in poverty reduction, another human rights issue. The diminishing marginal utility of money can justify redistribution: taking $100 from the rich hurts them a little, while it helps the poor enormously if they receive this $100 through redistribution mechanisms such as social security, unemployment benefits etc. While billionaires do care about losing $100, their loss of utility (happiness, satisfaction, wellbeing) is small compared to the gain in a poor person’s utility when he or she receives the same amount. (On the other hand, the diminishing marginal utility of money can be an argument against doing something about income inequality; after all, if the extra dollars of the rich don’t matter as much for wellbeing, inequality also doesn’t matter as much. I think this argument is wrong because the extra dollars of the rich matter for democratic politics, but that’s a different issue).

However, one can just as easily see negative human rights implications of the law of diminishing returns. A torturer can use this law in order to determine the optimal amount of pain to inflict. Too little pain results in low levels of “utility”, just as too much pain. In the former case, the victim will not divulge information or confess; in the latter case, the victim will say anything.

More Monty Python here.

data, law, racism

Racism (20): Racial Discrimination in Marijuana Arrests

Marijuana use by black residents of Washington DC is only slightly higher than among white residents. Given that blacks are slightly more numerous in DC than whites, we should – if criminal justice were fair – also see only slightly more blacks arrested for marijuana use. Surprise, surprise: that’s not the case. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. Adjusting for population, African-Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested.

racial discrimination in marijuana arrests

(source, source, the drawing makes it look like blacks are more than 11 times more likely to get arrested – 8*11=91 – but that doesn’t take into account the fact that blacks are slightly more numerous in DC – hence the correct number is 8 times)

A similar pattern for Chicago (where whites are more numerous than blacks):

marijuana arrest rates by race, chicago

marijuana arrest rates by race, Chicago

(source, click image to enlarge)

And this is the case for many if not all types of crimes. The racial distribution of inmates in U.S. prisons is highly negative for black Americans. Whereas they only make up 12% of the total U.S. population, they represent more than 40% of all inmates. It’s obvious from the case of cannabis that this difference isn’t due to a higher level of involvement in crime. I wonder, could racial profiling perhaps explain something? Actually, I don’t wonder…

democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (56): The Effect of Unconscious Priming?

looking at the American flag, by Pam Glew

looking at the American flag, by Pam Glew


People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. The same seems to be true in democratic politics. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. This effect can last up to 8 months. Exposure to the Confederate activates negativity toward Blacks and results in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. In 2007, Israeli researchers showed that even subliminal exposure to a national flag influences voters (in their study, it encourages voters to support politically moderate views).

This is proof of a lack of voter rationality and of the limited effect or even the futility of deliberation. It’s all very depressing and, when taken together with some other disturbing facts about democracy, it makes you reconsider the supposedly good reasons for promoting democratic governance. Let’s hope nobody in the Middle East is listening.

More posts in this series are here.

activism, freedom, law, most absurd human rights violations, photography and journalism

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (85): Three Weeks in Jail for Throwing a Pie

laurel and hardy pie throwing

Laurel and Hardy pie throwing scene

Comedian Jonathan May-Bowles was yesterday sentenced to six weeks in jail for throwing a shaving-foam pie at Rupert Murdoch whilst the media tycoon was giving evidence at the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Better known as “Jonnie Marbles”, May-Bowles was also ordered to pay £250 costs and a £15 victim fine after pleading guilty to one count of common assault and another count of causing harassment, alarm or distress … Of those six weeks, Jonnie will serve three. …

Jonnie’s sentence was handed down by the same judge who gave policeman Marcus Ballard 150 hours unpaid work for pushing a teenager through a shop window. She also gave James Allen QC a 12-month supervision for beating his wife over an uncooked dinner. She let off TSG Sergeant Delroy Smellie over hitting G20 protester Nicola Fisher across the face and whacking her in the legs with a baton.

As argued by Jonnie’s lawyer in court “slapstick and pie throwing is a recognised form of protest.” No injury was caused — nor was there any intent to cause it — and there was limited damage to the suit. (source)

More absurd human rights violations here. More about pie throwing here and here.

data, economics, equality, income inequality

Income Inequality (24): Wealth Inequality

If you think income inequality is a problem – and leads to a number of human rights violations – wait until you see the numbers for total wealth inequality. Take the example of the U.S.:

income inequality US

wealth inequality US


inequality of income and wealth


And then remember that income inequality is a problem because of the differences in wealth it generates. It’s apparent from these graphs that income is just one determinant of wealth (a very ill person may have a high income but low wealth; someone owning three different houses may have a retirement income very much below a large young family struggling to remain afloat on a considerably higher income etc.).

data, discrimination and hate, equality, gender discrimination

Gender Discrimination (27): Women’s Inheritance and Property Rights Throughout the World

In many parts of the world, women face legal restrictions of their property and inheritance rights. Apart from the obvious violation of the equal right to private property, there’s the fact that such legal restrictions form part of and serve to entrench a wider web of gender discrimination. Furthermore, they can impact women’s economic security and prosperity, their ability to obtain loans and credit, their privacy rights etc.

women's inheritance and property rights

(source, click image to enlarge)

gender equality middle east


More on gender discrimination. More human rights facts.

children's rights, culture, data, discrimination and hate, education, equality, health, law

Children’s Rights (13): Minimum Age of Marriage Laws Reduce Incidence of Child Marriage

child marriage


In many countries, it’s customary for girls to marry at a very young age, voluntarily or not. This practice is detrimental to the human rights of women, as I argued before.

In the developing world, more than one third of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in a union by the age of 18. (source)

This practice is often legally entrenched:

In 50 countries, the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females. (source)

However, it seems that the law can also work the other way:

laws on age of marriage and incidence of early marriage

(source, click image to enlarge)

Or perhaps the causation goes the other way: countries where customs are against early marriage also adopt laws stipulating a high minimum marriage age. In general, we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the power of legislation.

More on child marriage here. More human rights facts here.

data, discrimination and hate, equality, gender discrimination, work

Gender Discrimination (26): Legal Restrictions on Women’s Right to Work

legal restrictions on women's right to work


A lot of gender discrimination is informal and cultural, but some of it is still entrenched in legal norms. Often those norms are justified on the basis of a vague narrative about the need to protect women. That’s the case of many laws prohibiting the employment of women in certain sectors of the economy. Such limitations exist in 48 countries. The human rights consequences are numerous:

  • These limitations violate the right to work.
  • They also make women dependent on the income of their husbands, and this dependence can be used by husbands to entrench other forms of gender discrimination.
  • Labor market restrictions force women into marriages they would otherwise not choose, and they probably encourage child marriage.
  • Because women live longer, tend to have smaller saving rates and are not allowed to inherit in certain countries, labor market restrictions can result in poverty in old age.
  • Etc.

More on gender discrimination here. More human rights facts here.

freedom and equality, governance, human rights and crime, law, philosophy

Crime and Human Rights (14): The Limits of the Law

justice cartoon by Ares

justice cartoon by Ares


We need rules to live together in a spirit of respect for each other’s rights, freedom and equality. We need to tell people what they can, cannot or should do in order to respect the rights, freedom and equality of others, and we need to coerce people if they don’t respect these rules.

It seems that the best way to do this is to translate these rule into laws and then to use a justice system and a police system to enforce respect for these laws. That’s obviously not the only way to do it – education, tradition, social control, incentives etc. are other ways – but it’s one that has proven to be successful (yet not perfectly successful since legal prohibition of acts and enforcement of this prohibition never completely prevent those acts and may even backfire). If that is correct, then laws and their enforcement institutions are necessary parts of modern life.

So, these are, in broad strokes, the limits of the law: laws should protect people’s rights, freedom and equality, no more, no less, and nothing else. However, once the institutions of the law and of law enforcement have been created, there’s always the possibility and perhaps even the certainty that they will be used not to protect rights, freedom and equality, but for other purposes, or for the enforcement of controversial and exotic interpretations of rights, freedom and equality. That’s one way in which the law can overstep its limits or, if you want, become corrupted. (I focus here on the corruption of the law, not the law enforcement institutions. The latter is for another time).

Quantitative limitations

Detail from Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elih...

Detail from Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Main figure is seated atop a pedestal saying "CORRUPT LEGISLATION". Artist's signature is dated 1896.

But a system of law can overstep its limits in several other ways as well. The purpose of the law – rights, freedom and equality – is a limitation, but it’s a limitation that requires other limitations, for example a quantitative limitation. There’s always a tendency for the number of laws to become too large. That’s a problem because a violation of this quantitative limitation has qualitative consequences for the ability of the system of law to serve its purpose, namely the protection of rights, freedom and equality:

  • When laws become too numerous, it becomes difficult for people to know what is and is not legal. As a result, people may find that they are ambushed by the law. When people are ambushed in this way, they risk losing their freedom through no fault of their own, and that means that the system of law doesn’t perform its main function, namely protecting rights, freedom and equality. Moreover, after having endured or seen this kind of ambush, people will start doubting the value of the whole system of law. This undermines the credibility of the system, making it again difficult to use it for its intended function.
  • When laws become too numerous, the enforcement institutions will have an increasingly difficult task. Some laws will no longer be enforced, or will be enforced in an unsatisfactory or selective way, something which again destroys the credibility and hence the effectiveness of the system of law and again has consequences for the purpose of the system.
  • When laws become too numerous, it’s likely that the focus of the law will be lost. People have a limited number of rights, and there are a limited number of ways in which people can infringe on each other’s freedom and equality. Hence, the number of laws should also be limited. When there are more laws than necessary, people will be coerced for other reasons than rights, freedom and equality, and they will rightly resent this. This resentment will again be directed at the law in general, including the laws that are necessary for rights, freedom and equality.

Formal limitations

It’s not only the number of laws that can force the system of law beyond its limits. The nature of laws is also important. After all, just as a vast body of law can coerce too much, so can one very sweeping law. Laws should have certain characteristics if they are to stay within their limits:

  • Laws should be precise: they should be targeted at very specific threats to freedom, equality and rights, and not at vague threats or at threats to something else. For instance, a law that makes hate speech illegal, but doesn’t specify hate speech, is too vague. It risks coercing too much and hence destroying rights, freedom and equality rather than protecting those values.
  • Laws should also be effective: they should have a proven track record of countering specific threats to rights, freedom and equality. Otherwise they should be repealed. It often happens that laws are counterproductive: rather than countering a specific threat to rights, freedom and equality, they enhance it. For example, capital punishment for murder may make it more likely that witnesses are murdered.
  • Laws should be proportional. They should not provide a punishment for those threatening rights, freedom and equality that produces a greater threat to the rights, freedom and equality of the punished criminals (and their relatives etc.). And they should not produce other unwanted side-effects that have an impact on rights, freedom and equality. An example of a law – or better a set of laws – that creates more harm than it prevents is the “war on drugs“. Maybe this is a set of laws that effectively suppresses drugs, but in doing so it disproportionately harms rights, freedom and equality in other places (it leads to excessive incarceration of ethnic minorities).
  • Laws should not be secret, retroactive (a retroactive law is one that punishes acts that have occurred before the law came into force) or unstable (they should not change all of the time).  Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for people to respect the law, creating again the risk of ambush and the consequent loss of credibility for the whole system of law.
  • Laws should not be bad law. They should not be too complex, incomprehensible or contradictory. Otherwise they will have the same effect as secret, retroactive or unstable laws.
  • And, finally, laws should be necessary. If there’s a non-coercive tool to protect rights, freedom and equality that is equally effective and proportional, then this tool should used. A law, after all, because it is coercive, is a violation of freedom. Laws can therefore only be used if they are the only available means to produce more freedom than they take away, or if they are more effective.

Content limitations

Another limitation of the law is that it can only be designed to serve rights, freedom and equality. If people want to waive or destroy their own rights, freedom and equality, the law should not force them to do otherwise. In other words, the law should not be paternalistic, although there may be room for some form of soft paternalism in the case of people who obviously don’t understand their own interests or who have a hard time acting on their interests. If paternalism can enhance autonomy, why not. I won’t develop that point in this post, however.

Some also argue that religious people, or people holding other, non-religious but substantial moral convictions that are very controversial, should avoid using those religious or moral convictions as a justification for laws. Laws should in other words be neutral in order to avoid coercing people in ways that they can never accept. I rejected this argument here, so in my view that’s not a proper content limitation of the law.

If we want to keep the law within the limits stipulated here, we have to be aware of the possible roads to corruption. First, legislators should think, in every legislative decision, about the ways in which the proposed law is necessary and effective for the protection of freedom, equality and rights. Next, they should respect some formal and content limitations, as well as quantitative ones. And finally, they should have a coherent understanding of the nature of freedom, equality and rights. That, of course, in controversial – different people will always have different views of the proper meaning of these concepts. However, democratic deliberation and public reasoning can at least guarantee majority support for a particular interpretation of this meaning, and make it possible to avoid private and self-interested meanings to sneak into the law.

More on the corruption of the law is here, here and here. Something about the corruption of the enforcement institutions is here and here.

data, discrimination and hate, equality

Racism (20): Evidence of Colorism

colorism dark girls poster


Colorism is prejudice of or discrimination against other people based on skin color. The concept is different from racism because it’s usually used to describe discrimination within a certain race or ethnic group, based on the tone of skin color, rather than discrimination of an entire race or ethnic group. In general, this means that lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable. Lighter-skinned members of a certain race or ethnic group can discriminate against members with darker tones within the same group, but colorism more often means a general social preference for lighter skins.

Separation of light and darkness, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

Separation of light and darkness, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

One cause of colorism may be a traditional and historical preference for light and an abhorrence of darkness, light being good and godly, dark being evil and scary. However, I won’t explore the causes and just limit myself to some examples. There’s the one I mentioned some time ago, and then there’s this one:

Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more-lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones. The researchers found that light-skinned women were sentenced to approximately 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Women with light skin also served 11 percent less time than darker women.

The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman’s criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. The work builds on previous studies by Stanford University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and other institutions, which have examined how “black-looking” features and skin tone can impact black men in the criminal-justice arena. …

Part of the reason may simply come down to how pretty jurors consider a defendant to be, and that being light-skinned and thin (also a factor studied in the research) are seen as more attractive. (source)

More on discrimination in incarceration is here.

culture, data, discrimination and hate, economics, equality, gender discrimination, work

Gender Discrimination (25): The Plough as a Cause of Gender Inequality

plough egypt

Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:

  • in political representation or participation
  • in income or labor market participation
  • in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
  • in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
  • in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.

Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.

When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:

Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …

[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)

And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women. More human rights facts here.

data, racism

Racism (19): Racial Inequality in U.S. Incarceration Rates

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

The boom in incarceration rates in the U.S., following the War on Drugs and other sentencing reforms inspired by the “tough on crime” ideology, has had devastating effects on the rights of the incarcerated – many of whom are in prison for deeds that resulted in little or no harm to anyone – but also on the rights of their family members, none of whom did anything wrong. These rights violations have fallen disproportionally on an already disadvantaged group of American society, namely African-Americans. And it’s their children who suffer along:

Graph demonstrating increases in United States...

Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails (click image to enlarge)

  • 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  • 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  • inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and
  • by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned. (source, source)
parental incarceration by parents' education and race

parental incarceration by parents' education and race


Children especially are placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. Incarcerated men are less likely to contribute financially or otherwise to their families and their children’s education. The same is true even in the case of formerly incarcerated men, because of their inferior earnings. Hence, the effects of incarceration place children at a significant economic disadvantage, which is punishment without a crime, worthy only of a dictatorship.

More data on incarceration are here. More human rights facts are here.

economics, housing, poverty, privacy

Poverty and Privacy


"Orphans" by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916)

The poor suffer certain specific violations of their right to privacy, and it’s fair to say that in general poverty means less privacy. Being poor often means having substandard housing. Without a proper house, or without a house at all, it’s much more difficult to be private. Furthermore, poverty often implies that people live together in “extended families”, perhaps even with others who aren’t family at all, strictly speaking. And this also reduces privacy in several ways (most obviously the intimate side of privacy).

In addition, being poor means being dependent on government welfare. But in order to benefit from welfare payments, tax credits, subsidies etc. the poor have to prove that they are indeed poor. Hence they have to divulge personal information to the government, and the government has a right to check this information. Some governments even have the right to do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud.

If you view abortion as an aspect of privacy, then there’s an additional way in which poverty hurts privacy: the poor, because they have less access to birth control, will want to engage in abortion more often, and will therefore have their privacy violated by anti-abortion laws. Because the poor use public transportation more often, they are more likely to be tracked by police surveillance systems. They represent a disproportionate part of the prison population, and prison life obviously isn’t good for privacy. The poor are also more likely to be illegal immigrants, and therefore subject to control by the competent government agencies.

On the other hand, being poor allows people to avoid some types of privacy invasion: they use the internet less and hence are less at risk of internet related privacy violations; the poorest of the poor are less likely to take credit (credit means telling the bank about your income, spending, previous credit scores etc.) or to enroll in fidelity schemes (in which the use of a fidelity card tells the shop what you consume). Perhaps they won’t be taxed as much – or at all – and therefore don’t have to divulge private information to the tax authorities.

Still, on balance poverty is likely to have an adverse effect on privacy. Some even say that the poor are targeted by the government and that they are discriminated in their right to privacy simply because of their poverty. For instance, the way in which governments do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud would be unthinkable if it were directed at other purposes and other social classes. It seems that the poor don’t only lose their privacy but also their right to privacy.

And poverty often also means the forfeiture of other, non-privacy rights. Simply begging or being homeless can still land you in jail and can get you kicked out of public places. In most countries, the days are gone when poor people were sterilized against their will, excluded from the vote, their children taken away from them etc. But in many parts of the world, poor children are still discouraged from going to school and forced into labor or warfare. Healthcare for the poor is still a problem, even in some developed countries, making it less likely that their health rights are respected. So don’t tell me poverty isn’t a human rights issue.

More on poverty and on privacy.

democracy, education, freedom, why do countries become/remain democracies

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (20): Education Again

cleverIt’s a common assumption that democracy is driven by levels of education:

  • Less educated people are – supposedly – easier to oppress and more willing to accept extreme and simplistic ideologies that authoritarian rulers can exploit. They are also said to be less tolerant, and therefore less willing to accept freedoms and rights that protect outgroups.
  • Once people become more educated, they start earning more. And because they earn more, they have more leisure time. And because they have more leisure time, they have more opportunities to engage in various activities. And because they have these opportunities, they start to demand the freedoms they need to take up these opportunities. Better education itself, irrespective of the higher earning potential that goes with it, opens up opportunities to do things, and hence drives the demand for the freedom necessary to do things.
  • More educated people are also more aware of the ways in which their governments oppress them and of the liberties enjoyed in other countries, and they are better able to organize and mobilize against their governments.
  • Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs also plays a part: when lower needs – such as food, clothing and shelter – are met, then the preconditions are fulfilled for the appearance of higher needs. Higher education levels, because they help to fulfill lower needs, assist the appearance of needs such as self-actualization, self-esteem and belonging, needs that require freedom for their realization.
  • Democracy requires a certain level of education among citizens in order to function properly. Of course, it’s not because B requires A that A results in B; claiming that education results in democracy because democracy needs education would mean committing a logical error. However, the fact that democracy needs education does probably increase the likelihood that democracy will follow from more education. At least the absence of some level of education will diminish the chances of democracy.
  • And, finally, more education improves the capacity to make rational choices, and democracy is essentially a system of choice. Democracy will therefore intrinsically appeal to the higher educated.

And indeed, there is a correlation – albeit not a very strong one – between levels of education and degrees of democracy:

education and democracy

education and democracy correlation


The correlation may be due to the fact that democracies are better educators, but there are some reasons to believe that part of the causation at least goes the other way. Anecdotal evidence is provided by the recent Arab Spring: education levels in Arab countries have risen sharply in recent decades.

More posts in this series are here.

(image source)
ethics of human rights, freedom, health, justice, law, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (47): What’s So Funny About Paternalism?

finger pointing

In general, those who promote human rights will not be tempted to engage in paternalistic policies. That’s because human rights are about protecting people against each other, not about protecting people against themselves. And one of the foundations of human rights is the moral value of personal autonomy: people have a right to organize their lives according to their own plans and reasons, free from the influence and manipulation of others, even if others believe they are mistaken or self-destructive. Personal autonomy in this sense of the word is the basis of rights such as the right to privacy, property, political participation etc.

So, paternalism can be seen as detrimental to human rights. On the other hand, all societies are to some extent paternalistic, with the apparent consent of all. So what’s the deal? Let’s go through this topic in a systematic way, starting with some definitions, typologies and proposed justifications of paternalism, in order to end up with a clearer vision about paternalism’s temptations, dangers and limits.

Definition of paternalism

Paternalism is

  • interference
  • usually by the government
  • with an agent’s strictly self-regarding actions
  • and against the will of the agent.

It’s the use of coercion, force or incentives, against the initial will of the agent, with the purpose of imposing or preventing a certain type of action or lifestyle that has, respectively, positive or negative consequences for the agent and that does not harm or benefit a third party.

The purpose of paternalism is therefore to make the agent who is the object of paternalistic force, better off. She’s better off because she is forced, by the paternalist, to do good things to herself or to abstain from doing harm to herself.

Types of paternalism

This definition allows us to distinguish two types of paternalism: positive and negative (these qualifiers do not imply value judgments):

  • positive paternalism means forcing people to benefit themselves
  • negative paternalism means forcing people not to harm themselves.

The latter is much more common, I believe. Examples are anti-drug legislation, laws forcing people to wear seat belts or crash helmets etc. An example of the former are laws requiring people to contribute to a pension fund (although that case may not be strictly self-regarding since part of the motivation for such laws is the protection, not only of the future pensioner, but of his or her descendants or society in general).


Paternalism should therefore be distinguished from other types of coercion that aim at preventing people from harming others or forcing people to benefit others (such as laws against murder or laws imposing taxation respectively). Such non-paternalistic types of coercion focus on other-regarding consequences, whereas paternalistic coercion focuses on self-regarding consequences. Paternalism wants to limit the harm people’s actual or possible voluntary actions can do to themselves, and maximize the benefits that people’s possible but not voluntarily chosen actions can produce for themselves.

Paternalists are therefore “do-gooders” who want to maximize people’s utility, benefits, happiness, wellbeing etc. and who believe that this requires more than mutual protection.

(Other typologies of paternalism are, of course, possible: a soft form of paternalism would not intervene if people consciously and with full knowledge harm themselves, and only when self-harm results from lack of information; or would only intervene using incentives or “nudges” rather than coercion; hard paternalism would discount knowledge and intervene anyway; paternalism may be limited to the means people choose for their ends, or may also include these ends etc.).

Justifications of paternalism

Paternalists offer different reasons why they think that people, in some cases, should be prevented from engaging or forced to engage in certain actions.

  • As stated a moment ago, there may be a lack of knowledge on the part of the agent forcing the agent to unwittingly harm herself or fail to benefit herself. And this can be a lack of knowledge of different kinds:
    • First, the agent may not be aware of the harmful self-regarding consequences of a chosen or intended action, or may not be aware of the beneficial self-regarding consequences of an unchosen and unwanted action. In such cases, there are two possibilities. Either the simple delivery of information regarding the consequences – for example through education or communication – is enough to convince the agent to avoid harmful action or to choose beneficial action, and then no paternalistic action is necessary. Or this is not enough and paternalistic action is necessary. An example of the latter can be marijuana: according to some paternalists, the consequences of marijuana use are harmful, but this “information” doesn’t seem to register with users.
    • The absence of knowledge may be a deeper problem. The agent may not be aware of her true interests. Example: a terminally ill patient who wants to die may not be aware that her true interest – according to some – is respecting God’s will and God’s rules against suicide.
  • In many cases, people justify paternalism not because there’s a lack of knowledge, but because there’s a lack of “character” on the part of the agent. The agent may know very well what is and is not in her interest and what actions have beneficial or harmful consequences, but she just can’t bring herself to engage in or avoid those actions. There’s clarity about her interests and about consequences, but not the will, the courage, perseverance etc. to act correctly.

Most cases of paternalism, I guess, are of the first kind, where it is assumed that there’s a lack of continuous knowledge and a lack of conscious and lasting awareness of the consequences of certain actions, and that someone else, e.g. the state, knows better.



Hence, paternalism deserves its name. Paternalists assume – much like Plato – that society is divided into two groups of people, the “fathers” and the “children”, those who know better and are more rational, and those who don’t know and can’t be counted on to take their lives into their own hands. However, paternalism goes beyond the father-child metaphor because it believes that the “children” will never fully grow up: knowledge about consequences acquired through information and education, knowledge about which actions are or are not in the best interests of people, or knowledge about how people can act to best serve their true interests will often not be enough to act in a certain way. Apart from knowledge, character can be lacking, and that’s a fault that is much more difficult to correct without continuous paternalistic force.

The temptation of paternalism

John Stuart Mill

So, all that sounds pretty awful, and yet all or most societies engage in some kind of paternalism without much public opposition. The examples given above are quite common. And indeed, some forms of paternalism are quite harmless and difficult to avoid. John Stuart Mill cites the case of a bridge that is about to collapse. The circumstances are such that only engineers are in a position to know this. Regular drivers don’t and can’t know the consequences of their actions – in this case driving across the bridge – and should therefore be prevented from acting by those who know better. This isn’t usually called paternalism, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear difference between this case and real cases of paternalism, such as laws forcing people to wear crash helmets (assuming that the reason why people don’t wear helmets is an insufficient awareness of the possible consequences), or moral rules dictating that we should try to convince our friends not to commit suicide if they are so inclined.

So, paternalism is there to stay. I don’t think there are many “hard anti-paternalists” around. Hence, as is often the case on this blog, we are faced with value pluralism and two contradicting values: in some cases it’s obviously good to protect people against themselves, but at the same time it is generally correct to respect people’s autonomy, their self-determination and their right to make their own decisions and to live according to their own reasons and motives, free from external forces.

Where’s the trade-off? I would say that the burden of proof is on those wishing to limit people’s autonomy, given the general importance of autonomy. Their case can made stronger when, for example, there’s absolutely no doubt that a certain course of action will produce serious harm to the agent. Otherwise the case for paternalistic coercion is less strong and the best we can do is simply warn people of the possible consequences. Their case can also be made stronger when medical opinion about an agent’s neurological or psychological disorders is unanimous.

The dangers of paternalism

The burden of proof is on paternalists because of the risks inherent in paternalism. We also tend to overestimate the effectiveness of paternalism. Generally, individuals are the best judges of their own needs and wants and of the means to realize them. It’s not obvious that a paternalistic class of “fathers” can have better knowledge, given the vast number of people, options and risks involved. And even if individuals make mistakes, the harm done by forcing them into a system in which they are treated like children may be greater than the harm they do to themselves when left alone. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves and the value of this freedom can sometimes compensate the cost of self-inflicted harm. It’s also likely that mistakes make people better judges.

Does that mean that people should have the freedom to damn themselves? In most cases, yes, if that’s someone’s free and voluntary choice, made in the light of all the information available and accessible to her.

More about paternalism here. More posts in this series are here.

freedom, human rights quote, law

Human Rights Quote (83): Free Speech vs. Stick and Stones



If speech can cause joy, tears and pain, what distinguishes it from action? The singling out of expression as a category worthy of special — even categorical — protection makes sense only if the work speech does is different from the work done by physical acts, if for example the effects of speech are limited to changing minds or increasing the store of information or enlarging the number of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas, and do not include bodily harms.

This is of course the traditional view as encapsulated in the familiar proverb “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” The problem with this ditty is that it is false; names, libels, lies, defamatory statements and harangues do hurt, and moreover the hurt they inflict — extending sometime to measurable physical distress — is often what those who utter them are most invested in. Stanley Fish (source)

The Snyder v Phelps case, in which religious lunatics were initially convicted for using hate speech to disturb a soldier’s funeral (a conviction subsequently rendered void by the Supreme Court), was the background for this remark.

My view is that speech is indeed different from other actions and deserves special protection for some very good reasons (the work that speech does is indeed different), but that it’s still a type of action, and one that can cause harm just as other types of action. Speech can harm the rights of others – it can harm their privacy, their income, their ability to live in certain places etc. If that’s the case, then there’s no good reason to automatically prioritize protection for speech rights over all other rights. That said, speech protection is important, and not any type of harm – such as insults or the shock caused by sexual images – is a good reason to forbid speech.

More on the limits of freedom of speech. More on hate speech. More on speech acts. More human rights quotes.

democracy, economics, governance, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (55): A System For Signaling Disapproval of the Economy

r.crumb statistics

statistics cartoon by R. Crumb


It’s the economy, stupid“. The famous phrase suggests that economic basics rather than social or cultural issues, politicians’ personal merit, foreign policy successes etc. determine democratic outcomes. People vote against incumbents when unemployment is high and GDP growth low, whatever the causes of the economic downturn. One can accuse George H.W. Bush of many things but he wasn’t by far the sole or main cause of the recession that propelled Clinton to power.

It seems that people use democratic elections – especially high profile one such as presidential elections – to signal disapproval of the economy, whatever the real responsibility of individual politicians for the state of the economy (it’s silly to assume that individual politicians, even American presidents, have the power to dramatically change the unemployment rate, for better or worse).

This graph shows a clear correlation between incumbent margins of victory in US presidential elections and changes in the unemployment rate:

incumbent margin of victory vs change in unemployment rate

incumbent margin of victory vs change in unemployment rate

(source, incumbents running for a second full term won when the unemployment rate was falling and they lost when it was going up)

The unemployment rate in 1980 was 7.2%, up considerably from the year before; Jimmy Carter duly lost his bid for reelection. In 1984, the unemployment rate was actually higher at 7.5%, but was on its way down from the previous year; Ronald Reagan was reelected in a landslide. (source)

Granted, the number of observations is low, too low to be certain about the correlation (and others have expressed doubts about the data).

Some more certainty is given by the fact that it’s not just unemployment but also income that is correlated with election results:

presidential vote against income


If we assume that the economy does indeed determine democratic outcomes in this way, then we face a problem because some of the traditional justifications of democracy become unavailable. Democracy is supposed to improve the quality of politicians: when a politician has to face popular judgment and has to pass the test of accountability, she will try harder to respect the will of the people, to avoid engaging in corruption and to generally do a good job, because doing so will convince the people that she deserves reelection. Also the freedom of the press is in part justified on this basis. A free press is able to give people the information about politicians necessary to make an informed judgment at the next election. Government transparency combined with accountability as a prerequisite for reelection provides politicians with the necessary incentives to do a good job, or at least a job that is considered good by an informed majority of public opinion.

If, however, democratic election results are determined less by the actual way in which politicians do their job than by the economic basics, then we lose this justification. If a politician won’t be reelected during an economic downturn, even if she does all that’s humanly possible to avoid it or lessen its impact, she has one less reason to do her best. She may still do her best out of a sense of responsibility or public service and remain unconcerned by electoral prospects, but we should not underestimate the motivation provided by the mere fact of having and retaining a position of power.

More posts in this series are here. More on signaling here, and on accountability here.

freedom, law, philosophy

The Freedom to Speak Implies the Freedom to Shut Up



I argued before that there can’t be a duty to speak, except in certain very specific cases involving a moral urgency. Hence, if you’re free to speak you’re also free to shut up. The freedom to shut up, although not recognized as a human right, can be important for the protection of other rights, either the rights of the person deciding to remain silent, or the rights of others.

For example, you have a right not to incriminate yourself (in the U.S., this right is translated into the Miranda rights and the Fifth Amendment). You may also want to remain silent because you want to choose your audience carefully. Some of your speech has to remain private, and your right to privacy would therefore be violated if you can’t remain silent in certain settings.

Or you may decide to remain silent in order to protect the rights of others: for instance, you may decide that certain words at a certain time and place would risk inciting others to commit crimes. Or perhaps your words may make it easier for others to commit crimes (take the case of a murderer asking you where he can find his intended victim).

However, the right to shut up is not just relevant in cases in which it can protect the speaker or others against rights violations. For instance, someone may refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, take an oath on the bible, divulge his or her religious beliefs etc.

discrimination and hate, equality, human rights nonsense

Human Rights Nonsense (26): Anti-White Bias Bigger Problem Than Anti-Black Bias?


White, it seems, is the new black:

Both white Americans and black Americans perceive significant progress in the fight against anti-black bias, but white Americans believe the progress has come at their expense, a new survey finds.

The researchers contacted a random national sample of 209 whites and 208 blacks, and asked them how much discrimination each group faced, on a scale of one to ten, for each decade since the 1950s.

Black Americans saw anti-black bias as declining steadily, from 9.7 in the ’50s to 6.1 in the ’00s. Over the same period, they perceived a small increase in anti-white bias, from 1.4 to 1.8.

White Americans saw an even steeper decline in anti-black bias: from 9.1, in the ’50s, to 3.6, in the ’00s. But more striking, according to the researchers, was the sharp increase in perceived anti-white bias: Among whites, it shot up from 1.8 to 4.7.

White Americans, in short, thought that anti-white bias was a greater societal problem by the ’00s than anti-black bias. (source, source)

discrimination against whites


So why bother with all those data indicating that anti-black discrimination is still a huge problem after decades of struggle?

More posts in this series are here.

freedom, philosophy, work

The Fable of An Randy’s Libertism


An Randy has an idea, others are excited


Once upon a time, An Randy made her life. She wrote stories and became famous and wealthy. She attributed her success to her talent, effort and intelligence, and to the near total freedom she enjoyed in her beloved country of residence. Her freedom-loving philosophy permeates her writing, inspires her readers, and has become a social movement with a smallish yet enthusiastic following. Called “libertism”, the philosophy champions heroic individualism, productive and creative achievement, and near total liberty and self-centeredness as preconditions for this achievement. It requires a minimal government, minimal taxation, no redistribution and no welfare. Freedom from government is necessary for creative achievement, and redistribution implies theft of resources that are the product of solitary and well-deserved achievement.

Randy did not believe that her success or the success of similarly talented and disciplined creators is dependent on the receptiveness of an audience. The success of the talented depends merely on their talent, not on fashion, audience preferences, cooperation, marketing, being in the right place at the right time etc. Hence, because there’s no luck or cooperation involved in success, the fruits of this success are the product only of talent and effort. An individual therefore deserves his or her success, and should not be forced to share its fruits.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

Libertism views success as an individual achievement rather than the product of a combination of individual achievement, talent, luck and social cooperation. In other words, there’s no real division of labor or joint production. The creators are Robinson Crusoes, producing everything by themselves. Libertism denounces the “socialist” vision in which everything is jointly created, in which every creator depends on a large web of support and in which no creator can do anything without a vast army of teachers, parents, food producers, road workers, bus drivers, doctors, police officers, book printers, librarians, internet providers, etc. Libertism believes the members of the creative class produce their work and achievements only by themselves and by their own efforts alone. Division of labor is necessary only for menial production.

The moral of An Randy’s story: were it not for the silly preferences of a part of the general audience, the feverish cooperation of a number of fanatic devotees and a suitable working environment, she would have had no success at all. Double irony: because she proved, unwittingly, that achievement is essentially a cooperative effort, she also showed that the fruits of achievement should be distributed across all participants; hence, that taxation, redistribution and reductions of income inequality are justified.

PS: no prizes for guessing whom this is really about…

democracy, freedom, health, international relations, why do countries become/remain democracies

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (19): Psychological Reactions to the Threat of Disease




There sure are many reasons why countries become or fail to become democracies. In this blog series I’ve mentioned climate, geography, inequality, external triggers, prosperity, religion, resources, education etc. An original approach to this question looks at psychological reactions to the threat of disease:

Conventional explanations for a country’s political system would draw on its history, economy and culture. Randy Thornhill from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, however, thinks it might be determined by the threat of disease in a region. This triggers psychological biases, which originally evolved to prevent illness spreading, that also hinder the emergence of democratic ideals. (source)

The logic is that people develop psychological reactions – call them biases – which they need to protect themselves against infectious diseases, and these reactions in turn make it difficult to adopt democracy, individualism and an attitude of criticism of authority.

germsThe starting point for Thornhill and Fincher’s thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society – the social classes, for instance – to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease.

What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination. Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. (source, source)

What is, initially useful for public health, becomes detrimental for self-government:

[S]pecific behavioural manifestations of collectivism (e.g. ethnocentrism, conformity) can inhibit the transmission of pathogens; and so we hypothesize that collectivism (compared with individualism) will more often characterize cultures in regions that have historically had higher prevalence of pathogens. Drawing on epidemiological data and the findings of worldwide cross-national surveys of individualism/collectivism, our results support this hypothesis: the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism. (source)

democracy and infection correlation

(source, dots represent countries)
equality, justice, philosophy, what is equality

What is Equality? (3): Equality of Rights

equal opportunity oppression

Equality of what? There’s hardly a more confusing philosophical question. This is my attempt at sorting things out. I apologize for the length of this post, but there’s a lot to digest.

Equality of resources

A well-known problem with theories that focus on equality of resources is that different people need different resources because they have different abilities and different needs. Someone may need more food (in terms of calorie intake) because she has a physically demanding job, or may need more education than the average person because she has a brain dysfunction making it difficult for her to read or remember. Someone with a physical handicap may need expensive tools such as a wheelchair – and therefore more resources compared to a person not suffering a handicap – in order to have the same capability or opportunity to realize freely chosen goals as that other person.

The latter is an important point which I’ll come back to later on: you can’t just think about resources in isolation; you’ll have to consider which purposes these resources serve. Even if different people have the same purposes, they need different amounts of resources to achieve these purposes (and when they have different purposes, the need for unequal resources is even stronger). Hence, equality of resources seems to be an inadequate theory of equality.

A standard reply by resource based theories of equality is to count someone’s abilities (such as the ability to walk) as resources and try to equalize those as well. In our example, the handicapped person would then have equal resources when she has more money than average and just enough money to compensate the loss of resources resulting from her handicap. So it looks like equality of resources is a theory that can be salvaged.

The problem with this rescue is that not all abilities can be equalized by way of the redistribution of resources. Certain handicaps can be reasonably compensated by way of extra (financial or other) resources; paralysis may be one of them, especially given the most recent breakthroughs. But other handicaps can’t. A blind person for instance will probably never have equal abilities, no matter how much extra money or tools she gets. Her loss of eyesight is a loss of resources that can’t be fully compensated by other, equivalent resources.

blindedAnother problem with this attempted rescue of the equality of resources theory: there’s no good reason to limit abilities to physical ones. Talents are also abilities, and if you insist that all abilities are resources that should be equalized as much as possible then you’ll have to explain how to equalize talent. It seems very difficult if not impossible to supply extra resources to the less talented so that they end up with equal resources compared to the more talented. Like in the case of many physical abilities, a lack of talent can’t be compensated by way of extra resources.

So the attempt to rescue resource theories by including abilities in the pot of resources looks like it’s bound to fail. Resource theorist could reply that abilities and talents should be viewed as commonly owned resources. And, indeed, no one deserves her talents or most of her abilities; those are largely a matter of luck. Hence it’s not silly to view them as commonly owned. A talented person using her talents only for her personal benefit seems to be making an unjust use of her good luck. If abilities and talents are viewed as a common resource, then equality of resources could be achieved by giving those with few abilities and talents a right to use a share of the abilities and talents of others. However, this solution to the problems faced by resource theories creates another problem because it seems to imply the slavery of the talented (in the words of Dworkin). A talented person will find that she is less able to realize her freely chosen goals compared to another, less talented person, and equality of resource is justified, if at all, by the fact that it allows people to have an equal ability to realize goals. We thereby reverse the initial problem faced by resource theories, and put the burden of equality of resources on those with more abilities rather than on those with less abilities. That’s not a solution; it’s shifting the problem elsewhere.

If we can’t equalize all abilities, maybe equality should be limited: we can try to equalize as many abilities as possible and as far as possible. We can’t equalize a blind person’s abilities, but we can go some distance towards equality (we can offer Braille, improved transportation infrastructure etc.). We can’t equalize the abilities of a person without any talent, but we can offer this person some resources that help her attain a decent level of abilities.

Equality of preference satisfaction

But then we’ll have to say something more: we can’t talk about abilities in isolation (like we can’t talk about resources in isolation); we have to answer the question: abilities to do or be what exactly? One possible answer, and in fact the traditional liberal answer is: whatever people think they should do or be. Then we’re essentially talking about equality of preference satisfaction. Welfare is another word for preference satisfaction and the theory that tries to equalize people’s preference satisfaction is usually called equality of welfare. The purpose is then to distribute resources and improve abilities in such a way that people’s preference satisfaction (or welfare) is equal, or rather as equal as possible given people’s different and often fixed abilities to do things.

i want powerHowever, this theory faces a similar problem as equality of resources: people don’t just have unequal abilities and talents but also unequal preferences (preferences in the sense of the ability to do or be something). And those different preferences require different amounts and types of resources. As such, that’s not a problem. The problem is that some people have preferences that requires very large amounts of resources in order to be satisfied, and these extraordinary preferences are often self-chosen. In this case, these people’s claim on others to the resources necessary for the satisfaction of their extraordinary preferences seems hard to justify, especially from an egalitarian viewpoint. Society is under no obligation to redistribute resources to these people in order to guarantee equal preference satisfaction. Caviar fans have to work for their own money. And if they won’t, well then they have to adapt their preferences rather than appeal to society to redistribute the resources they need for their preference satisfaction. This is one reason why equality of preference satisfaction also seems to fail as a valid theory of equality.

However, we shouldn’t always force people to take care of their unequal or extraordinary preferences by themselves or to modify their preferences if they can’t. Some idiosyncratic preferences are closely connected to people’s identities, and in some cases those may not be self-chosen. Indigenous tribes may consider it essential to their unchosen identity that they have an exclusive right to a certain part of a country’s territory and resources (such as hunting grounds and the stock of fish or deer). There may even be self-chosen preferences that merit the same treatment. People with a preference for artistic expression may have a good claim to transfers of social resources (in the form of subsidies for the arts for instance). In those cases, equality of preference satisfaction does also apply to extraordinary preferences.

Still, notwithstanding these counter-examples, there are numerous cases of preferences requiring relatively large amounts of resources that those holding the preferences can’t produce themselves and at the same time can’t legitimately claim from society. Hence, equality of preference satisfaction does not seem a worthwhile goal.

And it’s not worthwhile for another reason as well. It’s not just that some preferences require unjustifiably large amounts of resources; some preferences are immoral. One can’t justify redistribution of social resources for the satisfaction of immoral preferences. Yet another argument against equality of preference satisfaction results from reflection about the term “preferences”. What is a preference? Is it every unreflected desire? Or rather only those desires an agent would pursue if she had the chance to rationally consider and evaluate all possible desires on the basis of all pertinent information? Do we want a drug addict and a bacillophobe to engage in preference satisfaction? And to redistribute social resources in such a way that they can in an equal manner compared to students and entrepreneurs?

Welfare theories may start off with equality and neutrality regarding preferences (the liberal premise), but because of the problems of morality and unreflected or irrational preferences, they quickly become paternalistic. Welfare theories, compared to resource theories, have the advantage of focusing not on instrumental values but on what ultimately matters to people, namely preference satisfaction. But not everything that matters to people, or that people think matters to them, should receive equal social concern or approval. Some things that matter to some people should not be encouraged from a moral point of view, let alone be subsidized. Other things don’t merit support from redistribution of resources because those things are irrational or self-chosen, expensive and not instrumental to other values such as identity. But once you have to decide which things that matter to people should or should not have a place in social policies that aim at equal preference satisfaction, you are likely to act in a paternalistic way and endanger another important value, namely freedom.

And even when welfare theories manage to remain neutral regarding preferences and don’t encourage or discourage certain preferences, they face the problem of comparing amounts of preference satisfaction across different preferences. Does a music lover, who has the resources to listen to music one hour a day, have an equal level of preference satisfaction as the American Indian who is able to hunt and fish freely and undisturbed whenever he wants? Are those things not inherently incommensurable? If so, how are we to achieve equality?

Equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction

Given the problems faced by preference satisfaction theories, one could assume that theories of equality should move to equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction. Rather than distribute resources so that people have equal preference satisfaction, we could limit distribution to those resource people need in order to have an equal opportunity to satisfy their preferences.

This move, however, doesn’t solve anything. We don’t want people to have the opportunity to act immorally, let alone the equal opportunity. And neither do we want them to have the equal opportunity to do expensive and extravagant things.

Equality of rights

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess. We have to limit the range of equal opportunity, equal resources, equal abilities and equal preference satisfaction. A social and political regime should offer people an equal opportunity to a limited set of actions, functionings and beings, namely those that are necessary conditions for their human rights (see also here). People have equal human rights, and they should therefore have an equal opportunity to enjoy those rights in an equal way. Likewise, people should have the resources and abilities that are necessary for them to enjoy their rights, and their preference satisfaction should be a social concern and should be equalized only when those preferences are preferences for human rights (or for the conditions and resources for or the opportunities to enjoy human rights). (And yes, rights are preferences in the sense that they can be waived).

job or charity

A problem faced by all theories of equality – including the one focused on or limited by equal human rights – is that people often squander their resources, their abilities, their preference satisfaction and their opportunities. They should be held responsible for their voluntary choices, and if those choices put them in a situation in which they have less resources, abilities, preference satisfaction or opportunities compared to others, then they don’t have a claim to more of those. That’s true for all resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities, except the resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities for human rights. If someone squanders her financial resources, she still has a right not to be poor. But if she loses her ability to acquire enough caviar, then she should take responsibility and not claim that society restores her resources. Similarly, if someone loses the ability to use her limbs through her own negligence, she still has a right to healthcare and mobility and a legitimate claim on society. However, if she thereby also squanders her ability to seduce men, she has no claim on anyone. If the same person has a preference for the enjoyment of a particular human right, but puts herself in a situation in which this enjoyment is impossible, she still has a claim to help. But her preference for fine chocolate made impossible through self-induced or non-self-induced diabetes doesn’t generate a legitimate claim on society. And, finally, if she squandered a good opportunity to education, she still has a valid claim to get some minimum level of education; if, however, she squandered a good dating opportunity, she doesn’t have a claim to the restoration of this opportunity.

Although the sidelining of responsibility is usually not a good thing, there are some practical advantages to it in this case. It’s often extremely difficult to detect responsible or irresponsible behavior. Seemingly irresponsible behavior may look like a voluntary choice but in reality it’s perhaps a choice that is determined by genetics, upbringing etc. Theories of equality which make responsibility and choice a precondition for equality – like luck egalitarianism for instance – face some challenging problems and a high risk of mistake.

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is yet another theory of equality. It demands that people’s unchosen luck (called brute luck, as opposed to option luck, the latter being the luck that people have when taking risks) be equalized. People should start life (in some versions of luck egalitarianism, adult life) with equal fortune, and equal fortune means equal resources, abilities and opportunities. They should be compensated for misfortune due to the lottery of birth. After that, all inequalities resulting from voluntary choice should be accepted by people themselves and by society.

Luck egalitarianism, like all other theories of equality discussed here (with the exception of equality of rights), is plagued by serious problems. Apart from the epistemological one (the difficulty of detecting voluntary choice and responsibility), there’s the problem of cruelty: why should we leave people to starve even if they have brought starvation upon themselves? They have, after all, a right not to starve. And then there’s the problem of intrusiveness: the epistemological problem will force luck egalitarian governments to enact KGB style measures in order to gain as much certainty as possible about responsibility. Other problems are discussed here.

The same solution is available here: instead of compensating people for all types of bad brute luck (but not option luck), we should compensate them for bad luck – brute or option – when this bad luck implies violations of their human rights or difficulties for future enjoyment of their human rights. People who are born paralyzed or who become paralyzed later in life – due to an accident which is or isn’t their own fault – all have a right to mobility and hence an egalitarian claim to social assistance. People who are born without talents or who squander their talents, don’t have such a claim because there is no right to have talent.

More on the equality of what question is here.

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freedom, human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (80): Solitary Confinement for 28 Years

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Thomas Silverstein, who has been described as America’s “most isolated man,” has been held in an extreme form of solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order for 28 years. Originally imprisoned for armed robbery at the age of 19, Silverstein is serving life without parole for killing two fellow inmates (whom he says were threatening his life) and a prison guard, and has been buried in the depths of the federal prison system since 1983. …

Silverstein [has been held] in a series of what constitute the most secure and isolated housing in the federal prison system: in the notorious Control Unit at Marion, the supermax prototype; at USP Atlanta in a windowless underground “side pocket” cell that measured 6 x 7 feet (“almost exactly the size of a standard king mattress,”); at Leavenworth in an isolated basement cell dubbed the “Silverstein Suite”; on “Range 13″ at ADX Florence, where the only other prisoner was Ramzi Yusef; and finally in ADX’s D-Unit, where he can hear the sounds of other prisoners living in neighboring cells, though he still never sees them.

The following is from Tommy Silverstein’s description of his life at USP Atlanta:

The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture.

My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all … The walls were solid steel and painted all white.

I was permitted to wear underwear, but I was given no other clothing. …

During my first year in the side pocket cell I was completely isolated from the outside world and had no way to occupy my time. I was not allowed to have any social visits, telephone privileges, or reading materials except a bible. I was not allowed to have a television, radio, or tape player. I could speak to no one and their was virtually nothing on which to focus my attention.

I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world.

Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was.

I tried to measure the passing of days by counting food trays. Without being able to keep track of time, though, sometimes I thought the officers had left me and were never coming back. I thought they were gone for days, and I was going to starve. It’s likely they were only gone for a few hours, but I had no way to know. (source)

More on solitary confinement and prison conditions. More absurd human rights violations.