Rather less serious than the normal posts in this series:
If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:
- spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
- the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
- the notion that what comes first is also best
- a preference for the status quo
- the anchoring effect
- last place aversion
- learned helplessness
- the just world fallacy
- adaptive preferences
- the bystander effect
- inattentional blindness, and
- stereotype threat
So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.
However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:
Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.
But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)
Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.
All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.
More posts in this series are here.
Are we born as blank slates, and do we get our violent and malevolent inclinations through upbringing and social contact? Or are we born evil? I can’t possibly answer those questions in a blog post, or anywhere else for that matter. But we can get some clues if we focus on one type of rights violation, namely racism.
The available evidence seems to suggest that people are not naturally racist. I’ve discussed some recent findings here. Human evolution has indeed fostered a strong sense of group solidarity, and the dark side of this solidarity is a natural tendency to define outsiders as enemies. This is problematic from the point of view of human rights because it means that the interests and rights of outsiders are routinely discounted. However, “groupism” isn’t necessarily the same as racism. Outsiders can be virtually anyone: foreigners, heretics, infidels, Manchester United fans etc. Race can but doesn’t have to determine the inside-outside border. In fact, throughout much of early human history, when contact between races was the exception, groups have defined insiders and outsiders on other grounds than race. Racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the words of Robert Wright:
So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races. (source)
It seems we are ourselves responsible for the rights we violate. We can’t accuse nature or evolution.
[T]he persecution and expelling of Jewish people by pre-modern European states is linked to agrarian variations. Based on historical weather data, evidence suggests that during the 15th and 16th centuries, colder temperatures made it significantly more likely that a Jewish community would be expelled. … [A] Jewish individual from the 15th or 16th century, who lived to 50 years old, faced roughly an 18% chance of being expelled during their lifetime. This risk was almost twice as great during a cold year. (source)
Apparently, persecution of Jewish groups follows from the economic hardship that in turn follows from colder temperatures during the growing seasons (that is, April to September). Agrarian economies were more vulnerable to weather shocks, and these shocks produced negative economic outcomes which then led to the scapegoating of minorities. Cities with poorer quality soil also saw an increased chance in the occurrence of expulsions of Jewish groups.
Interesting, but I doubt it has much relevance for the problems of today.
More posts in this series are here.
There are some interesting things to say about the state of mind of the rights violator, and about how this state of mind leads to rights violations and subsequent liability and punishment. There’s malevolence, of course, but that’s just one extreme of a wide spectrum of states of mind that can cause rights violations. We’ll have a look at that spectrum here, and classify states of mind according to the degree of liability and the severity of punishment that should attach to them. (By some accident of the English language, all states have a name that ends in -ence. Makes it easier to remember).
A malevolent violator acts intentionally. She knows the harmful consequences of her actions and acts anyway. In fact, she acts precisely because of those consequences. The notion of mens rea is applicable here. An example of malevolence is premeditated murder.
A non-benevolent or negligent violator also acts – or omits an action – intentionally. She also knows the harmful consequences of her actions or omissions and proceeds anyway, not because she wants the consequences but because she doesn’t care enough about them. An example of non-benevolence is the failure to help persons in need (the classic case of the drowning child). An example of negligence is the factory owner failing to install safety measures for her workers. (There may be a problem with the notion of “failure to help persons in need”: given the large number of people in the world that are in some sense “in need”, we may not be able to help them all without radically changing our own lifestyles. All of us who are not now in Africa working to end poverty may then be liable. Perhaps we can avoid this excessive burden by limiting this liability to face-to-face situations such as the drowning child, but it’s not clear that there’s a sound moral basis for this limitation).
An unintelligent violator acts unintentionally. She doesn’t know the harmful consequences of her actions, but she could have known them without much effort. Because she could have known them, she should have known them. And because she should have known them she is liable for them. It’s a form of negligence: the actor is intellectually negligent. She is not negligent in the sense that she does not care about consequences but in the sense that she does not reflect on them or does not care enough to reflect on them. An example of an unintelligent actor is the bar fighter.
A coincidental violator also acts unintentionally, and also doesn’t know the harmful consequences of her actions. The difference is that she couldn’t have known them, or couldn’t have been expected to know them, within reason. Because she couldn’t have known them, we can’t demand that she should have known them. And yet, in some cases we may still hold her liable. An example is fraternal incest between brother and sister separated at birth. Another example is the drug company selling a product that has been thoroughly tested but still has some unforeseen and unforeseeable harmful effects. Obviously this is a reduced form of liability.
An ascendental violator also acts unintentionally. She may or may not know the harmful consequences of her actions. The nature of this type of state of mind is that she doesn’t know her actions. We’re dealing here with unconscious rights violations. People may violate rights but don’t realize that they do. They may act because of tradition, because certain rules or biases were instilled in them in early childhood etc. In some cases, they can be held responsible for their actions. The word “ascendence” therefore refers to what goes above and comes before. An example is here.
An incidental violator is just there. We don’t know anything about her state of mind. We don’t know whether she acts intentionally or not, knowingly or not, willingly or not. We don’t know whether she could or should have known or done something. For example, we see patterns of discrimination in society, and someone must be discriminating. We may be able to identify that someone and hold her responsible even when we lack all other knowledge about her. An example would be a company systematically paying female employees lower wages.
Here’s a summary representation of the spectrum of states of minds, according to the degree of liability :
More posts in this series are here.
- Accident Liability | eLocal (elocallawyers.com)
According to Steven Pinker, farmer cultures and regions or countries arising from farmer cultures are much more amenable to human rights than herder cultures and their successor societies.
The North [of the US] was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement.
As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults. (source, source)
It’s an interesting explanation, but also reductionist. Even if the descriptions of herder and farmer cultures are historically correct, it’s by no means evident that present-day people are determined by the mentalities of their distant forefathers.
More posts in this series are here.
Human history is often viewed as a widening circle of moral concern. In the olden days, the claim goes, people cared only about their siblings and tribe. Then they started to care about their class, their nation, their religious community, their civilization, and ultimately their shared humanity. Cosmopolitanism, or the equal respect for all human beings whatever their affiliation or location, is then the end-state of morality (although some want to go further and include animals or even inanimate objects in the circle of moral concern). This end-state dovetails with human rights concerns because human rights are also the rights of all humans, whatever country, class or culture they belong to.
The widening of moral concern – if it indeed occurred as described – went in tandem with other and more familiar globalization processes, such as increased international trade, integration of different economies, the development of international law, increased communication through the internet, easier transportation, intercultural dialogue, migration etc. And all these different processes interact: communication and transportation foster trade, trade fosters communication, communication widens the circle of moral concern etc.
This story implies that globalization – of any kind – is always or unequivocally beneficial from the point of view of human rights. However, that may not be true. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of different types of globalization.
- Increased migration is almost without exception beneficial to the prosperity and freedom of all parties involved, although the migrants obviously benefit most.
- Intercultural dialogue promotes tolerance and agreement on human rights, and this dialogue is not only fostered by new technologies but also by international trade. Better communication as well makes people care more about what happens in the world and makes it more difficult for oppressive regimes to hide their oppression. In this sense, communication and trade drive the widening circle of moral concern.
- Economic interdependence between countries creates a self-interested incentive for governments to promote rights and democracy elsewhere in the world and makes it more likely that international law can impose itself over concerns about national sovereignty. Global economic collaboration requires international regulation, and economic regulation can open the door for other types of regulation, including rights regulation. Countries that depend economically on an international institutional and regulatory system, will have a much harder time invoking their sovereignty when faced with accusations of rights violations, since they already lost a huge chunk of their sovereignty due to economic integration.
- The increasing importance of multinational companies makes it easier for consumers in one part of the world to lobby for corporate responsibility elsewhere in the world.
- Outsourcing, a commonly cited aspect of globalization, can result in people losing their jobs, and the threat of outsourcing can force people to accept lower wages or inferior labor conditions. And work is a human right.
- The threat of cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign products can lead to protectionism and immigration restrictions, two major causes of poverty in developing countries.
- Globalization may erode the welfare state because a large part of the tax base – corporations, financial intermediaries and skilled workers – become internationally mobile and can thereby avoid to pay the taxes that governments need to finance their welfare systems. The tax base can also decrease because governments cut taxes in an effort to maintain the competitiveness of local businesses.
- The previous three phenomena – outsourcing, labor and product competition and pressure on the welfare state – may not only lead to restrictions on international trade and migration, but can also counteract the widening circle of moral concern: politicians and local businesses can and often do use these threats to stir up xenophobia. A xenophobic public is more likely to vote in favor of trade and immigrations restrictions. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that people’s circle of moral concern is wider in countries that are more affected by globalization.
- Globalization implies a certain degree of power deflation: states lose power vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, international institutions and each other. This in turn means that decisions affecting the well-being of people are taken by outside forces. Democratic self-government – which is a human right – is then threatened.
- The interconnectedness of international financial markets increases the likelihood that a local financial or economic crisis spreads to the rest of the world.
- A higher number of increasingly globalized multinational companies also means a higher risk that some of those threaten indigenous cultures, exploite poor workers etc.
On balance, however, I believe that globalization is good for human rights, even though I can’t quantify the pros and cons.
People act in all sorts of dubious ways, but they often justify their behavior after the event using imaginary motives or reasons, and then they come to believe those motives and reasons themselves. It’s a kind of cognitive failure and self-deception which, when it occurs in the field of human rights, makes it hard to do something about rights violations. If people can’t even admit to themselves what the real reasons are for their bad behavior – rights violations in this case – then it becomes very difficult – for others and for themselves – to do something about those reasons and to prevent future occurrences of the behavior.
As long as we – and, as a result, others as well - believe that we were motivated by ethical justifications which we in fact constructed and invented after the facts rather than by the often more suspicious justifications that really drove our actions, then we have less reasons to avoid those actions in the future. True, well-intentioned rights violations do exist and good intentions don’t make remedies more difficult – often it’s enough that we become aware of the possible dangers of good intentions. But when bad intentions masquerade as good ones, even to the person having the intentions, then things become more difficult. It’s always good to know the exact and true causes of something if you want to avoid it in the future. When people really know what motivates them but choose to present themselves in another way – perhaps because of shame -we can still try to pierce their cover. But when people fool even themselves, then there’s very little we can do. And it seems that people are indeed frequently unaware of the real causes of their own behavior.
An innocent example of justificational reasoning to begin with:
[M]ale students [were asked] to choose between two specially created sports magazines. One had more articles, but the other featured more sports. When a participant was asked to rate a magazine, one of two magazines happened to be a special swimsuit issue, featuring beautiful women in bikinis.
When the swimsuit issue was the magazine with more articles, the guys said they valued having more articles to read and chose that one. When the bikini babes appeared in the publication with more sports, they said wider coverage was more important and chose that issue. (source, source)
A more harmful case from another experiment:
Managers … have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. (source)
And it’s not easy to imagine the same thing going on in even more harmful actions.
There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance behind justificational reasoning: we want others to think that were are good people and we want to think of ourselves this way. When the facts contradict this belief, we change the facts.
Other posts in this series are here.
Whereas it’s obvious that distance can be a protection against human rights violations – privacy needs distance, and physical integrity requires a safety zone – it’s equally true that it often harms human rights.
We care more about our friends and family than about strangers, especially distant strangers, about whom we know very little, if anything. Maybe we don’t know their predicament and hence the idea of our possible duty to help them and safeguard their rights doesn’t even arise. Or maybe we know about their predicament but we’re ignorant about the causes. Hence, they could have themselves to blame, in which case we tend to think that we’re not obliged to help. Or if they don’t have themselves to blame, our ignorance about the causes of their predicament inhibits our effective assistance. Maybe we also assume that the causes are local, and hence not our fault.
It’s safe to say that such feelings of detachment increase proportionally with distance, because the further away the less we know and the more we assume that we are not responsible. To some extent at least: the effect of distance flattens out; we’re not more detached from people five thousand miles away than from people four thousand miles away.
Drawing on motivational approaches to emotion, the authors propose that the perceived change in spatial distance to pictures that arouse negative emotions exerts an influence on the significance of these pictures. Two experiments induced the illusion that affective pictures approach toward the observer, recede from the observer, or remain static. To determine the motivational significance of the pictures, emotional valence and arousal ratings as well as startle responses were assessed. Approaching unpleasant pictures were found to exert an influence on both the valence and the arousal elicited by the pictures. Furthermore, movement of pleasant or neutral pictures did not influence startle responses, while the second experiment showed that approaching unpleasant pictures elicited enhanced startle responses compared to receding unpleasant pictures. These findings support the view that a change of spatial distance influences motivational significance and thereby shapes emotional responses. (source)
In other words: perceiving the approach of negative emotion-eliciting scenes intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving receding emotion-eliciting scenes weakens the associated felt emotion.
There’s a less abstract illustration of this point in an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely:
[W]hat causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by[?] To look into this question, I called on … an acting student at Boston University. I asked [him] to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him. (source)
So a reduction of both the physical distance (standing) and emotional distance (eye contact) resulted in more giving and less poverty.
At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who … said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not see him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. (source)
You could argue that this whole distance thing is a red herring. If everyone takes care of those who are close, then distance won’t be a problem. Still, it will be a problem in many cases because not everyone has friends and family who can help. The beggars in the quote above probably only know other beggars and hence have to rely on efforts to reduce distance.
Indeed, one way of solving the distance problem is to try to reduce distance. The beggars’ strategy isn’t the only example. NGO campaigns almost always feature close-ups of the faces of people in distress, as well as personal stories about their predicament and about how the global system has made it worse (implicating better off people far away). These faces and stories reduce distance in a way that is similar to the beggars’ eye contact. Alternatively, instead of trying to reduce distance, one can attempt to discredit the idea of distance altogether and foster a more cosmopolitan approach to caring.
There’s also another way in which distance can cause human rights violations, although you would have a hard time finding a lot of examples at this point in history (perhaps only in failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia where a violent and extremist rebel movement tries to assert its authority):
Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems. (source)
Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is immoral and bad in numerous ways, but it’s not a human rights violation. At least not as such. To my knowledge, human rights law doesn’t contain an explicit right not to suffer the consequences of corruption. However, it is the case that corruption causes various rights violations. For example, it can often be viewed as a form of theft and hence a violation of the right to private property. And in the case of corruption in the justice system, the right to a fair trial is violated.
Moreover, corruption has a negative impact on GDP (see here) – mainly because it’s a tax on investment – and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between GDP and poverty reduction, see here, here and here). And there is a right not to suffer poverty. Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries. It’s obvious that individuals – especially those who are poor or near the poverty line – can make better use of the funds that they have to spend on bribes.
Furthermore, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. The rule of law is also harmed directly by corruption, namely by corruption inside the judiciary and the police force, and this has an immediate impact on human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions. It can therefore destroy democracy, and democracy is both a human right and a means to protect human rights in general.
So, if we can agree that corruption is a cause of various human rights violations, then the question is: who is responsible for corruption and hence for the rights violations occurring because of it? I would say that it’s the government officials taking bribes (and possibly the banks safeguarding the proceeds) rather than the private persons or companies paying the bribes, at least in general. The latter would presumably prefer not to pay bribes and often find themselves in situations in which they have no choice.
Now, you could say that some corrupt officials, especially those at the lower levels of government, don’t have a choice either: without the proceeds of corruption they may well end up in poverty. Demanding bribes is then the alternative for a failed economy and a failed state. However, I think it’s fair to claim that they still have, in general, a wider set of options than many of those having to pay bribes. If you’re stopped by the police and they ask you for a bribe, it seems that your options are more constrained than the options of the police asking for the bribe. It seems easier for the police to find additional non-corrupt sources of income than it is for you to escape the demands of the police. Of course, this isn’t the case in all types of corruption. For example, a large multinational company may find it relatively easy to pay a bribe, and may have more options than the official who’s asking the bribe (and it may very well solicit the payment of the bribe in the first place as a way to outsmart competitor companies).
Next question: what to do about it? Everyone agrees that corruption is bad, and many believe that it’s bad for human rights, but almost no one seems to know how to stop it. And it is, indeed, a problem that is as old as history. One thing we could do is spell out the issue of corruption more clearly in terms of human rights. However, human rights claims by the victims of corruption are probably not very effective, since one consequence of corruption is the weakening or destruction of the judicial institutions necessary for the enforcement of human rights. In that sense, linking corruption and human rights may seem futile or at least of limited practical use.
However, human rights claims aren’t just legal claims that depend on functioning and non-corrupt institutions to be enforced. They are also moral claims and they can have some effect as such. They can be used to denounce widespread systems of corruption and thereby help to change a culture and a mentality, especially over the long run. But moral claims will not destroy endemic corruption by themselves. Countries that suffer high degrees of corruption probably need external help in institution building. Also, economic development will probably reduce corruption, given the correlation cited above between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption. Helping countries to develop will then also help them to fight corruption.
This is an interesting talk about ways to fight corruption (the relevant part starts around the 5th minute):
- Human Rights Watch: Police Corruption in Nigeria (huffingtonpost.com)
- Report: Bribes fuel corruption in Nigeria police (sfgate.com)
Disgust can be good or bad for human rights. It’s probably true that no amount of rational argument against torture, incest, cannibalism etc. is as strong as the feelings of disgust produced by such actions. Some, such as Leon Kass, have therefore conceptualized disgust as a kind of moral wisdom: wisdom which can’t necessarily articulate itself or reason about itself, but which nevertheless guides our actions in a morally sound direction and guides them better and more effectively than rational argument. Disgust or nausea often makes us shudder, literally, at the immorality of others or ourselves. As a result, it helps to bring about a better world, and it does so more effectively than reasoning or persuasion (in this sense, disgust is similar to other emotions such as sympathy and shame).
Disgust is not an argument, but that’s a strength rather than a weakness if you believe the likes of Kass. It grips us, whereas arguments can be boring or unconvincing. (This can also explain why many of us have a love-hate relationship with disgust: we’re disgusted by some things, but at the same time we relish this disgust). Because of its gripping force, disgust is the human psyche policing itself and other psyches, keeping desire and passion in check and in the process making life in society a lot easier.
That is why some view disgust as the evolutionary origin of morality and law. Initially a protection mechanism against putting bad, rotten or infected stuff into our mouths, disgust quickly evolved from an emotion focused on physical health to one including morality. Moral disgust came about as one of society’s self-preserving forces, and human evolution favored the emotion because it produces social benefits such as taboos, rules and order. Human evolution favored this extension of the feeling of disgust into the realm of morality because it made social life easier, more orderly and more peaceful. These supposed evolutionary origins of moral disgust give it an added advantage compared to more rational approaches to morality: the latter can be unconvincing but most people in the world will even fail to hear them, whereas the evolutionary origins of moral disgust means that it drives all people, even those who will never hear a moral argument in their entire lives. Moral disgust therefore delivers immediate, reflexive and almost universal moral judgments.
Complicating this simple evolutionary theory is the fact that disgust doesn’t seem to be innate, at least not in all cases: children are notoriously lacking this emotion and don’t develop it until they are three years old or something. This diminishes the strength of the evolutionary part of the argument. However, a more important problem with the argument is the fact that the objects of disgust are not the same throughout history and across societies. What was disgusting centuries ago isn’t anymore – or vice versa – and different societies find different things disgusting. Agreed, the range is somewhat limited: disgust is mostly about things related to the human body (e.g. torture), and more specifically to metabolism (eating and excreting disgusting things with our disgusting intestines), sex (doing disgusting things with each other with our disgusting organs) and mortality (being a disgusting corpse). But within this range many different things can be viewed as disgusting, and it’s not obvious that all the things we would label immoral from a reasoned point of view are always and everywhere disgusting, or that everything that is seen as disgusting by some is also immoral upon reflection.
For all these reasons, we have to conclude that disgust isn’t a very reliable moral faculty. It can make mistakes, and often has. Not so long ago, the supposed body odor of blacks, their curly hair and facial features routinely provoked disgust among whites (still today but less commonly so). And I’m convinced that this disgust was a major cause of the subjugation of blacks. The same is true for some, now less pervasive beliefs about the disgusting nature of homosexual activity.
So it’s clear that disgust can be either beneficial or detrimental for human rights. Lack of disgust where disgust would be appropriate can lead someone to violate someone else’s rights, but inappropriate disgust can have the same result. One would therefore be wrong to label disgust as a kind of moral wisdom, superior to rational thinking about morality.
The problem is then how to distinguish good disgust from bad disgust. For example, why is disgust directed at pedophilia appropriate, whereas disgust about interracial sex is not? Whatever the answer, we won’t get there without reasoning. Hence, reasoning reclaims its position at the top of moral faculties. Disgust, rather than a type of moral wisdom, seems to be a socially transmitted and culturally specific substitute for the absence of reasons.
This is why many argue against the use of disgust as a tool for human rights protection. In theory, it could work, just as the incitement of shame and sympathy can work. But it’s dangerous:
maybe we should try portraying racism and racists as disgusting. The powerful influence of this emotion might help push racism to the edge of society or eliminate it altogether, but my response is that we still shouldn’t do it. It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo. (source)
More posts in this series are here.
Psychological tests have shown that the first experience in a series of two or more is cognitively privileged. The order in which people experience things affects how they evaluate them: they tend to think the first option is the best.
Here’s an experiment showing how people decide that a criminal presented first is more worthy of parole:
Two criminals’ photographs, from the Florida Department of Corrections website … were used. Photos depicted 29 year-old males known to have committed the same violent crimes. Criminals were wearing identical correctional facility outfits; photos were pre-tested to be equally attractive and both expressing neutral facial expressions. …
Thirty-one participants … were asked to evaluate [the] two criminals and to determine who should “stay in jail” versus “be released on parole.” … [P]articipants automatically associated the first criminal with being more worthy of parole (rather than prison) compared to the second criminal. Regardless of which photo was presented first, it was the one presented first who was judged to be more worthy of parole. (source)
This is a form of order effect: people’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. (“First is best” is only one form of order effect; in some other cases, order effects show that the last options are privileged). As is clear from the example above, order effects can have consequences for human rights: if people are given parole on the basis of the psychological biases of those who decide rather than on the merits of the case, then equality before the law is done with.
It wouldn’t be very difficult to imagine and test other cases.
More posts in this series are here.
The theory of path dependence refers to the way in which our current sets of possible decisions are limited by the decisions we have made in the past. The classic example is the QWERTY layout of typewriters and computer keyboards. QWERTY was originally designed to avoid the “hammers” of typewriters interlocking when people type very fast. There’s no reason why computers should still use QWERTY keyboards rather than other layouts that permit easier and more ergonomic typing with less finger movement and less long term health effects, and yet they do. When typewriter users started to get used to QWERTY, switching costs and the cost of learning other systems went up. Consequently, the keyboard became more common, and the more common it became the more useful it became to learn to use it. When more people learned and used it, it became more profitable to sell this keyboard instead of competitors. Office managers worked with people trained in QWERTY and were therefore encouraged to buy QWERTY machines. And so on.
What does this have to do with human rights? Well, it seems to be the case that path dependence is the cause of a number of human rights violations. In an older post, I mentioned a study arguing that present-day poverty can be explained in part by the lingering effects of the slave trade (slavery fostered ethnic fractionalization in Africa and undermined the development of effective government institutions).
Acemoglu and Robinson make a similar claim about colonialism:
[T]he organization of colonial states, though it typically built on absolutist structures, often intensified these structures. … [T]he “Gate-Keeper” state … was designed for extraction and order but not for development or the provision of public goods. All of these ideas rest on some form of path dependence linking the institutional and political strategies of colonialism with those of post-colonial states. Second, the arbitrary way in which the European colonial powers put together very different ethnic groups into the same polities created countries which would be difficult to govern and very conflict prone after independence. Colonialism itself probably intensified notions of ethnicity and made them more rigid. (source)
The path dependence in this case is evident from the reluctance of post-colonial rulers to modify colonial borders even when those borders defy ethnic realities. It’s also evident from the way in which an authoritarian style of government was maintained after independence.
In fact, once you start thinking about it, you see path dependence everywhere. Take for example my native country, Belgium. It’s hardly the worst place in the world for human rights, but it is systematically governed in a bad way, making a mockery of political rights. Demographic minorities and minority interest groups weigh heavily on policies and legislation. The levels of taxation are much higher than justifiable, with negative effects on property rights and incentives. Linguistic minorities are not oppressed but they are often harassed. And I could go on. Add to that the dismal climate and the general ugliness of the country, and you can be forgiven for asking why people still live there. After all, within the European Union, it’s very easy to move to a nicer country. The answer, of course, is path dependence: people know the language, and switching to another language is difficult for many; people’s ancestors are buried there; they have friends and family, and often a good job. That’s alright as far as it goes, but we need to be more vigilant in those areas where path dependence causes significant harm. Of course, the word “dependence” means that it’s often difficult to do something about this harm. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
More posts in this series are here.
The traditional ways of silencing people are still all too common: libel or blasphemy laws, threats, the physical targeting of journalists, censorship, book burning or indexing, political correctness, exaggerated respect for people’s sensibilities etc. However, the silencers have developed new and increasingly sophisticated means. And I’m not thinking about tactics like internet filtering – this is indeed a new and sophisticated technology, but in essence it’s just a new form of book burning.
I’m thinking more about things like polarization as one of those new ways of silencing. A commonly cited justification of free speech is that it can help people to influence each other and spread their beliefs. We hold strong beliefs, we think we have good reasons supporting those beliefs, and we want to express these beliefs and these reasons in an attempt to convince others. Free speech helps us to do so.
At least, that’s the case in theory. In real life, this “marketplace of ideas” is dysfunctional. Many groups in society are not arguing, convincing or engaging in public thinking. Instead, ideas are expressed as claims rather than argued for. Expression, if you like, is limited to “brute” expression. One of the reasons for this is that expression can be motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show one’s identity or belonging. In other words, expression is signaling rather than arguing. Another reason for the lack of argumentation is the fact that a lot of expression is about being controversial and outrageous, antagonizing other groups on the polarized spectrum, provoking a “media storm” and cashing in on the advertizing generated by the ensuing pageviews, clicks or whatever.
If ideas aren’t debated but expressed in a “brute” way only, for whatever reason, then polarization is inevitable. No one is convinced by the brute expression of an idea or opinion. And if no one is convinced, then people stay in their respective camps. These camps then drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
Now, polarization is of course nothing new, but I can’t help thinking that nowadays some people in positions of power are actively encouraging polarization as a means to silence debate, consciously or not. People in positions of responsibility, people who could use their power in order to organize and protect debate, use it instead to promote brute expression and hence to stifle the exchange of arguments and to polarize society. Think of news network owners, politicians, many journalists etc. These people are interested in polarized expression rather than debate, particularly the type of polarized expression that is mildly upsetting to other groups because that brings in the readers, page views, ratings and the corresponding advertizing dollars. The silencing that occurs here is not the silencing of expression but the silencing of argumentation and debate. Opinions are still expressed but no longer argued because argumentation – compared to a blunt statement of a controversial opinion - doesn’t provoke and hence doesn’t produce income.
Why do people actively promote the brute expression of ideas and the silencing of debate? Because of the dollars, of course, but also because it diminishes some discomfort. When there’s only brute expression, we can avoid having to examine our beliefs, defend them and possibly change them. We all value consistency in our basic beliefs and we don’t always want to take the trouble arguing for them or responding to arguments against them. If we are shielded from arguments in the media, then we don’t have to take these argument into account. And that’s relaxing. However, the result is polarization because the flip-side of the relaxation offered by the absence of arguments is the increasing alienation from people holding other beliefs: we are also shielded from the arguments these people have (or could have) for their own beliefs, and hence these beliefs start to seem strange, bizarre and not something we want to be involved with.
More on polarization here.
Sorry for the strange title, but there is a logic behind it: it’s more difficult to end human rights violations the more widespread they are, and not just in a logistical sense. If rights violations are widespread, then they can become the moral norm. How does this happen? First, if everyone or a large group of people is victimized, victims start to believe that there’s nothing special about their predicament. Why would they make a fuss about something that happens to so many people, all of whom also don’t make a fuss. People don’t want to be crybabies and tend to align their behavior to that of others. They may suffer in silence or even fail to conceptualize their suffering as suffering. (This is similar to the bystander effect: if bystanders witness a crime, they first look at the reactions of other bystanders in order to see if the others judge the situation as one which requires intervention. When all bystanders do this simultaneously, then no one interferes).
A next step turns all of this into a vicious circle. When a certain practice is widespread, those who engage in it tend not be held blameworthy. Blame is always and only linked to practices that are more or less exceptional. It can’t be a perpetual and universal condition, because then it loses its meaning. This lack of blame then reinforces the sense that certain practices are normal, which again makes blame impossible. And so on. Hence, widespread human rights violations are their own cause.
Take this interesting story about sexual harassment at the Oxford University around the middle of the 20th century:
[A] group of remarkable [female] philosophers … were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment. What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behavior seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never “after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behavior seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us”. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, “Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…” (source)
At the time when sexual harassment was widespread behavior, it became the normal thing to do, nothing special and therefore also not blameworthy.
The obvious question is then: how do we escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of human rights violations? The easy answer would be that we can’t. This answer fits nicely with the fashionable idea that our morality isn’t a rational thing but rather a rationalization of universal, innate and ingrained moral emotions such as disgust – in other words, a fancy story built on gut reactions. This idea in turn corresponds to the recent finding that even very young children – as well as primates – have a sense of morality even though they don’t have the full ability of reason.
However, this answer won’t do because it’s obvious that we can escape from the cycle and that we can change our moral sense. History is rife with practices that were once considered normal and yet somehow became abnormal and blameworthy: slavery, gender inequality, sexual violence etc. Many of these changes have come about through a mix of reasoning, deliberation, storytelling and appeals to honor. To some extent, it’s true that morality is a reflection of common practice and determined by it. But fortunately it’s more than that.
Status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, even when there are no obvious reasons why this state of affairs should be preferred over possible and knowable alternatives.
A preference for the status quo is not always a bias and can be entirely rational in some cases:
- when the balance of costs and gains is in favor of the status quo and when all possible and knowable alternatives yield a lower balance
- when some alternative yields a higher balance but the transition cost is too high
- when your role in society requires that you are consistent (you’re a school teacher and you’re supposed to teach the canon, or a judge and precedent and predictability are important)
When a preference for the status quo is a form of reasonable risk avoidance, then it’s also wrong to call it a bias: it’s true that sticking with what worked in the past is a safe option when the consequences or costs of alternatives – compared to the cost of existing arrangements – are uncertain or unknowable.
However, people also tend to stick with proven options when the respective costs of different options are clear and an alternative is less costly than the status quo. We sometimes even prefer the status quo when costs aren’t an issue at all. In those cases, it’s correct to call our preferences a bias. Maybe the bias occurs because people don’t want to invest the effort of looking for alternatives and calculating all the costs. Status quo requires no mental effort. Choice is difficult, hence the tendency to do nothing. Or maybe cost calculations – when they are performed – are distorted because people wrongly attribute goodness to longevity. People often believe that something must be worth something if it has existed or if it has been practiced for a long time.
Cost calculations can also be biased because people tend to weigh the potential losses of switching from the status quo more heavily than the potential gains. This is called loss aversion - people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains even if the gains objectively outweigh the losses – and it could explain a preference for the status quo in the presence of alternatives that are objectively less costly. But status quo bias occurs even when there are no losses or gains from alternatives (experiments have shown that just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly). Hence, status quo bias is not always a form of loss aversion. Maybe regret avoidance plays a role (a past experience of regret teaches people to avoid decisions that imply change). Or an overvaluation of the virtue of consistency. Or the sunk cost fallacy: American involvement in Vietnam continued for years despite massive loss of lives, precisely because this loss would make defeat costly.
This last example shows how status quo bias can cause human rights violations. Other examples:
- The use of precedent in judicial decisions even if those decisions violate human rights (overvaluing consistency).
- Female genital mutilation often has no other justification than the fact that it has been practiced a long time, that it’s traditional (overvaluing longevity) and that abandoning it would cause disaster.
Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.
Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.
If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)
scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)
How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.
If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.
The anchoring effect is a psychological bias that leads us to rely too heavily on one piece of information – often even information that is totally irrelevant – when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward adjusting or interpreting other information to reflect the “anchored” information. I can best explain this with an example. It’s well known that judges do not simply apply legal rules to the facts of a case in a purely rational or mechanical manner. In fact, the decisions of judges are influenced by political, social and psychological biases, one of those being the anchoring effect.
German judges with an average of more than fifteen years of experience on the bench first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9. As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice. Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter. On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months; the anchoring effect was 50%. (source)
What does this have to do with human rights or with the causes of human rights violations? Well, if you replace the loaded dice in the quote above with the sentencing demands of prosecutors or even the demands of the “public”, you will not be surprised to find unfairness in sentencing:
The results of a recent study of ours (Englich & Mussweiler, 2001) indicate that accomplished trial judges with an average of more than 15 years of experience were influenced by sentencing demands, even if the demands were made by non-experts. In fact, the magnitude of this influence proved to be dramatic. Judges who considered a high demand of 34 months gave final sentences that were almost 8 months longer than judges who considered a low demand of 12 months. A difference of 8 months in prison for the identical crime. Notably, this influence occurred although both demands were explicitly made by a non-expert. (source)
Sentencing demands can be an effective “anchor” leading to violations of those human rights that require fairness in criminal trials. Skilled but ruthless prosecutors can use this in order to influence even experienced judges and to have them impose unfair sentences.
Obviously, the anchoring effect isn’t limited to criminal trials, and it’s not just the anchoring effect that can introduce a bias in judges’ rulings. I’m not sure if I already mentioned this incredible finding:
The percentage of judges’ rulings that are favorable to the accused drops gradually from about 65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to 65% after a break. This indicates that judges are swayed by things that shouldn’t have any bearing on their decisions.
I’m still looking for other examples of rights violations caused by the anchoring effect, but in the mean time I should mention that it must also be possible to use the effect to improve respect for human rights.
It seems that it’s very important to people that there are others who have it worse:
Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals [in the US] whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available. Other surveys have shown similar results.
What might explain this trend? First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.
“[L]ast place aversion” … can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them. (source)
Lab experiments have shown that people
choose gambles with the potential to move them out of last place that they reject when randomly placed in other parts of the distribution. In money-transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. …
Using survey data, we show that individuals making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase. (source)
I think it’s not far-fetched to assume that this isn’t limited to issues of redistribution and that something like it can lead to the persistence of certain types of rights violations. Perhaps some men in societies with endemic gender inequality actually like the fact that women are below them. And perhaps some groups in some societies need people like the Roma, “illegals”, immigrants or blacks to live in poverty and suffer from discrimination in order to feel better about themselves.
Moreover, individuals in positions of power can use last place aversion to create divisions and antagonism among groups belonging to the lower strata of the population and avoid the formation of a common front against the rulers. Last place aversion therefore leads to first place preservation.
More posts in this series are here.
Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. This is called “learned helplessness” and it’s caused by a persistent feeling of powerlessness and lack of control. You learn over time that there is no escape, and you won’t escape when there’s an unexpected possibility of escape. You often see press reports of battered women, hostages or abused children who no longer try to escape and who inexplicably fail to seize opportunities.
The phenomenon was first seen in dogs. In a gruesome experiment, a dog was repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it couldn’t escape. Eventually the animal stopped trying to avoid the pain and behaved as if it was utterly helpless to change the situation. Finally, when opportunities to escape were presented, the dog’s learned helplessness prevented any action. The only coping mechanism the animal used was to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.
Similar although less cruel experiments have shown the same effect in humans. There are even some indications that people can learn to be helpless through observing other helpless people.
More posts in this series are here.
I want to go out on a limb here and argue that most if not all human rights violations as they have occurred throughout human history can be explained and have been directly caused by the persistent and widespread use of metaphors. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no other causes).
But before I list some of the metaphors I have in mind, a few general words that may help to explain why I think simple metaphors can do so much damage. The fact that we constantly use metaphors in language and thought may buttress the thesis that they have some effect on our actions. The same is true for the fact that metaphors are not just figures of speech but are cognitively important as well: by claiming that some things are alike – metaphors are descriptions of one thing as something else – they help us understand things.
For example, if we say that compound interest is like a snowball rolling off a snowy mountain side, we use something we already understand – the snowball – in order to understand something else that looked and sounded strange before the application of the metaphor – compound interest. And when we then understand things in a certain way, we act according to our understanding of things – in our example, we put our money in a savings account that offers compound interest rather than in one that just offers a fixed interest on the basic sum.
Or let’s use another, more appropriate example (one which I will return to below): if we have difficulties assessing the impact of immigration on our own society and culture, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave of immigration” can help us to “understand” this impact and to do something about it (stop the wave, for instance). Immigration is like a wave because it’s equally overwhelming and harmful. It’s clear from this example that the word “understanding” should not be understood (pun intended) in an epistemological sense: the point is not that understanding produces correct knowledge about the world, but simply that we believe it does. In this case, I personally think the wave metaphor does not help us to understand the phenomenon of immigration (on the contrary), but many people believe it does and it inspires their actions.
If all this has convinced you that metaphors can indeed cause political actions, then it’s now time to list what I believe have been and to some extent still are some of the most destructive political metaphors in history. (Do tell me in comments if you think of other examples).
This metaphor is most clearly expressed in lex talionis – an eye for an eye – which is a form of criminal justice that claims to balance crime and retribution. A softer version is proportionality: even if people shouldn’t be punished in a manner that strictly balances out their criminal acts, they should get what they deserve and they deserve tougher sentences when their crimes are worse. There may also be a deeper metaphor at work here, one in which there is some kind of cosmic moral balance that shouldn’t be disturbed and that should be corrected when people do disturb it. Failure to correct it leaves moral imbalances intact, and that is damaging in some unspecified and metaphysical way.
Many people agree that the moral balance metaphor has done a lot of harm in the case of capital punishment, but I argue that it poisons our entire criminal justice system. We shouldn’t incarcerate people in order to punish those who deserve some amount of incarceration proportional to their crime. If we have to incarcerate, it’s because that’s the only way to protect other people’s rights. And this rule would drastically reduce the number of inmates currently in prisons all over the world. It’s fashionable to say that we have come a long way since the time of medieval criminal punishment, but I believe our current judicial practices – even those in “developed countries” – are still among the worst human rights violations in the world.
This metaphor is most harmful when it blocks assistance to the poor (and poverty is a human rights violation). It promotes an “understanding” of the phenomenon of poverty that paints the poor as lazy, self-destructive and undeserving people who only have themselves to blame and who could easily save themselves were they willing to invest the necessary effort. This “understanding” obscures many other and often more important causes of poverty and therefore perpetuates it.
Genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are made easier when the target group is persuasively depicted as some sort of “dirt”, “cockroaches“, “vermin” or any other dehumanized entity. The best way to violate human rights is to deny people’s humanity. However, dehumanization also occurs on a much smaller and seemingly harmless scale, in advertising, gender stereotypes, popular culture etc.
The dirt example shows that people often don’t even realize that they are acting on the basis of a metaphor and actually view what is supposed to be a similarity as being an identity. Many Rwandan Hutus implicated in the genocide probably believed that Tutsis and cockroaches were quasi-identical.
The metaphor of the family of fellow citizens is often used to justify differential treatment of citizens and non-citizens. For example, social security offers protection to fellow-citizens who are nationally the worst off but who are nevertheless relatively wealthy when compared to the poorest in other countries. And development aid is usually much less generous than social security. I would argue for a more cosmopolitan stance as a better means to protect the equal human rights of all human beings.
The same metaphor is used to justify excessive patriotism and the wars that seem an inevitable result of it, as well as authoritarian government by a father figure or by people who think they know better.
As mentioned earlier, this metaphor is used to counter immigration, when in fact increased immigration could do an enormous amount of good, not only for millions of poor people all over the world, but also for the populations in the more wealthy destination countries.
The metaphor does some more damage when it’s used in overpopulation discourse. Horrible population control policies are supposedly justified by the “wave” of overpopulation, and as if these policies aren’t harmful enough by themselves, they have disastrous side effects such as gendercide.
This metaphor has often been used to subjugate women, those supposedly childlike creatures unable to control their emotions or to marshal the forces – physical or mental – necessary for many social roles. Slaves and colonized peoples as well were often viewed as childlike beings in need of the White Man’s guidance.
So, what can we take away from this? It would seem that we can’t do much about human rights violations: metaphors are notoriously hard to weed out and if they caused rights violations in the past they will continue to do so. But that’s not entirely true. While we may not be able to remove certain metaphors from common language, we may reduce their impact on real life events and their salience in certain circumstances. We can chip away at their nefarious role in rights violations, and that’s exactly what we already did in the past.
For example, the child metaphor used to be an important conduit in the submission of blacks, but that’s no longer the case today. The metaphor is still there and is still doing damage (in criminal justice for instance, as an analogy for punishment based on a supposed lack of self-control), but its range has been curtailed. Curtailment of harmful metaphors often means dismissing the similarity between things that a metaphor has tried to establish. For example, if we can show that immigration doesn’t do the same damage to a society as a “tidal wave” but actually has a lot of benefits, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave” can be curtailed.
Here’s another psychological bias that causes human rights violations to persist: the just world fallacy.
It seems that we want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. This strong desire causes us to rationalize injustices that we can’t otherwise explain: for example, we look for things that the victim might have done to deserve the injustice. The culture of poverty is a prime example, as is the “she asked for it” explanation of rape. This fallacy or bias is obviously detrimental to the struggle against human rights violations, since it obscures the real causes of those violations. The belief in a just world makes it difficult to make the world more just.
And even if its effect on human rights was neutral or positive, the fallacy would be detrimental in other ways: it doesn’t help our understanding of the world to deny that many of those who are lucky and who are treated justly haven’t done anything to deserve it, or that many of those who inflict injustices get away with it. The prevalence of the fallacy can be observed in popular culture, in which the villain always gets what he or she deserves; the implication is that those who “get” something, also deserve it.
Psychologists have come up with different possible explanations of the just world fallacy. It may be a way of protecting ourselves: if injustices are generally the responsibility of the victims themselves, then we may be safe as long as we avoid making the mistakes they made. The bias lessens our vulnerability, or better our feeling of vulnerability, and therefore makes us feel better. Another explanation focuses of the anxiety and alienation that comes with the realization that we live in a world rife with unexplained, unexplainable and unsolvable injustices. The fallacy is then akin to religious teachings about the afterlife, which are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for coping with the anxiety and alienation caused by mortality. Melvin Lerner explains the just world fallacy as a form of cognitive dissonance:
the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character. (source)
All this argues against making desert central to our theories of justice: if desert is difficult to determine because there are biases involved, then surely desert can’t be a good basis of a theory of justice.
An interesting aside: it seems that the opposite bias also exists. The so-called “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violent content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Indeed, perceptions of violence and criminality often do not correspond to real levels. People who consume a large amount of violent media or who often read the crime sections of sensationalist newspapers tend to overestimate the prevalence of violence and crime.
More on the possible causes of rights violations here.
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.
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.
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.
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).
I 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.
(source, the murder of Kitty Genovese is the archetypical although contested example of the bystander effect)
The bystander effect can explain the persistence of certain types or instances of rights violations. If many people witness a person in distress, then it’s the less likely that any one person will help. “I could help, but I’m sure someone will”. Numerous experiments have proven the effect. Virtually all of them find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. The probability of help is indeed inversely related to the number of bystanders, although not necessarily one-on-one. More precisely, the effect occurs when bystanders are strangers; when bystanders are friends help is usually forthcoming.
What are the reasons for this effect? Hard to tell, but social influence may be one: bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If everyone first looks at the others, then you have a vicious circle of influence. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing – i.e. nothing – they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. Diffusion of responsibility may be another reason: when a lot of people are present, they all assume that others carry more responsibility to intervene, because others may be seen as closer or stronger or first on the spot (this is also the thinking behind the firing squad or the Japanese procedure for capital punishment). The fear of being harmed or of offering unwanted assistance may also explain the effect.
Increasing urbanization and improved knowledge of everyday events (by way of better information systems such as the internet) can make the bystander effect more common, and can therefore make it more difficult to stop rights violations.
Why do human rights violations endure? Because we don’t see them. Or better, some of them. We often suffer from so-called inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight because we are paying attention to some other details. If we don’t pay attention to an object that is really obvious, we simply will not perceive it, even if we “see” it, and that’s because attention is extremely important for perceiving. The best-known example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla test: observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking through the action.
Recently, a policeman was convicted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else. If even a policeman, trained to spot human rights violations, doesn’t notice them under certain circumstances, why should the rest of us?
If the persistence of human rights violations can be explained – in part – by inattentional blindness, than that’s depressing, since we have every reason to believe that inattentional blindness isn’t going away. On the contrary, our lives and societies are become more and more complex, urbanized and technology-based, requiring higher levels of attention to details. If this complexity makes it more likely that we fail to see certain human rights violations, then it’s clearly very difficult to do anything about them. You can’t change what you can’t see.
More posts in this series are here.
Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:
- One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
- Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
- The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
- Etc. etc.
The rational approach
It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.
You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.
That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.
One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.
The emotional approach
The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).
Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.
If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.
The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.
The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.
Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).
The diversity approach
Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:
- In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
- When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
- Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
- People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered. Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)
Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.
Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.
More on the causes of human rights violations.
- Serotonin regulates our moral judgements (mindblog.dericbownds.net)
- Morality: Beyond intuition (newscientist.com)
- A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute.wordpress.com)
- Frans de Waal on the origin of morality – and atheism (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Ewwwwwwwww! (boston.com)
- Consensus Statement on Morality (wired.com)
- “Hieronymus Bosch, Animal Altruism and Bottom-Up Morality” and related posts (mockingbirdnyc.blogspot.com)
- Morals Without God? (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Morality: Don’t be afraid – science can make us better (newscientist.com)
I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.
Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).
Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.
Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:
Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)
We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.
I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?
Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).
On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.
And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.
Let’s assume that the likelihood of a successful revolutionary overthrow of an authoritarian regime depends on how many people are involved in anti-government protests. (That’s a reasonable assumption, given the fact that mass opposition can grow so wide that repression becomes too costly. We’ve seen that recently in Egypt and elsewhere. See also here). If that is correct, then political freedom and respect for human rights (the latter almost always resulting from the former) depend on large numbers of individuals participating in protests. (It also depends on many other things, obviously. Democratization is a hugely complex process).
The next question is then: when will large numbers of individuals actually participate in protest and a revolution? A single individual will decide to participate after he or she has analyzed the possible costs involved. One element of the cost is the chance of being arrested, beaten up by the police or getting shot. The more people participate in the protests, the lower the probability for each individual of incurring this cost. It’s simply less likely that you get arrested, beaten or shot when there are many people surrounding you. In order to get many people involved, it’s therefore important that every individual has the impression or conviction that many people will be involved. This conviction can be encouraged by social networking websites, such as Twitter or Facebook. Communication about the protest through these media helps to spread the conviction that large numbers will be participating, which will encourage large numbers to participate.
One could argue that something similar happens in cases of racism, discrimination or bigotry. For example, when large numbers of gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, people who initially frowned upon same-sex marriage are now confronted with lots of married gay couples and may start to realize that their initial fears were unfounded. On the other hand, the close proximity between slave holders and large numbers of slaves didn’t reduce racism. Likewise, a larger number of immigrants usually – but not always – leads to more widespread and more intense anti-immigrant feelings rather than less.
Something more positive happens with the numbers involved in gendercide. When the number of sex-selective abortions reaches a certain point, the remaining women may start to escape their inferior position which was the original cause of gender selective abortions. They may do so because their bargaining power will increase: the gender ratio is now 1:<1 rather than the natural 1:1, and men – the majority of whom will still want a wife, I assume – will conclude that it’s necessary to make concessions to women as a means to gain the upper hand in their increasingly competitive struggle for mates.
When reporting of rape is taboo, rape will remain common. But when more and more women start to report rape, the stigma will move from the victims to the perpetrators. Also, when large-scale reporting makes people aware that rape is a widespread phenomenon, women will increasingly adapt their behavior so as to limit the risks. On the other hand, common knowledge of the widespread occurrence of rape can give (certain) men the impression that the practice is normal and acceptable.
My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:
- The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
- In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
- This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
- Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
- Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
- Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
- Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.
No matter how egalitarian, unbiased and unprejudiced we claim to be and believe to be, underneath it all many of us are quite different.
If you ask people whether men and women should be paid the same for doing the same work, everyone says yes. But if you ask volunteers how much a storekeeper who runs a hardware store ought to earn and how much a storekeeper who sells antique china ought to earn, you will see that the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously believe to be a man is valued more highly than the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously assume is a woman. If you ask physicians whether all patients should be treated equally regardless of race, everyone says yes. But if you ask doctors how they will treat patients with chest pains who are named Michael Smith and Tyrone Smith, the doctors tend to be less aggressive in treating the patient with the black-sounding name. Such disparities in treatment are not predicted by the conscious attitudes that doctors profess, but by their unconscious attitudes—their hidden brains. (source)
And even if most of our actions are guided by our conscious beliefs, some will be caused by unconscious prejudice, in which case we’ll have identified a cause of discrimination, a cause that will be very hard to correct.
- Human Rights Facts (201): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- Finding your inner bigot. (slate.com)
- Dreaming, Racism and the Unconscious (psychologytoday.com)
- The unconscious expert (mindhacks.com)
Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch
You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a new to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.
And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.
Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.
If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.
Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.
- Utopia or Dystopia? (readmorebooks.wordpress.com)
- First smitten by cynicism of dystopia, now fascinated by pursuit of utopias (boston.com)
- Book reviews: In search of Utopia (dailykos.com)
- Walden Two Isn’t Recession Proof (psychologytoday.com)
- The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (newstatesman.com)
- Utopia, With Tears (online.wsj.com)
It’s shouldn’t be surprising that there are so many human rights violations. Psychologists have shown how easy it is to induce cruelty, prejudice and hate. There’s for example the famous Milgram experiment. People seem to be very obedient to authority figures, even if they are told to be cruel to other people (giving them electric shocks in this case; the shocks were fake but the subjects didn’t know that). Milgram’s test suggested that the millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were violent and cruel because they were following orders. Authority made them do things that violated their deepest moral beliefs. If you see how much pain people are willing to inflict on another person they don’t even know, simply because they are ordered to by an experimental scientist, you can imagine how easy it is for real authority figures to “convince” them. Which doesn’t mean that ordinary perpetrators of genocide or other acts of cruelty are guiltless tools of central command.
(The Milgram experiment was recently “reproduced” in a game show on television).
A similar experiment is the Hofling hospital experiment. Nurses were ordered by unknown doctors to administer what could have been a dangerous dose of a (fictional) drug to their patients. In spite of official guidelines forbidding administration in such circumstances, Hofling found that 21 out of the 22 nurses would have given the patient an overdose of medicine, even though they were aware of the dangers.
Then there are the Asch conformity experiments. One subject and a series of fake subjects were asked a variety of questions about an image containing lines, such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line is longer than the other, which lines are the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The fake subjects always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses. You wouldn’t expect a majority of people to conform to something obviously wrong, such as “line A is longer than line B” when it’s clear to the eye that the opposite is the case. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing such an incorrect answer, many participants also provided incorrect responses. This kind of group pressure and tendency to conform can explain mob violence and government organized genocide.
In the Stanford prison experiment, also called the Zimbardo experiment, people were selected to play the roles of guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what was expected. The guards became authoritarian and effected draconian, sadistic and abusive measures which were even accepted by the suffering prisoners.
And, finally, there is the Third Wave experiment demonstrating the appeal of fascism for ordinary people.
These social psychology experiments show that government efforts to mandate and enforce cruelty, prejudice, racism, hate and even genocide fall on fertile grounds. Human nature’s dark side seems to lurk just below the surface, ready to come out, and merely awaiting the wink of the boss or the group. A negative dialectic quickly settles in between government prejudice and private prejudice.
In a previous post about the stereotype threat, I defined it as follows: the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something reduces the chances of success; 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, you perform worse at that task.
Here’s some new evidence:
The paper explains how workers’ expectations of being discriminated against can be self confirming, accounting for the persistence of unequal outcomes in the labour market even beyond the causes that originally generated them. The theoretical framework used is a two stage game of incomplete information in which one employer promotes only one among two workers after having observed their productivity, which is used as a signal of their ability. Workers who expect to be discriminated against exert a lower effort on average, because of a lower expected return, thereby being promoted less frequently even by unbiased employers. This implies that achievements of minority groups may not improve when the fraction of discriminatory employers actually decreases, and such a mechanism is robust both to trial work periods and to affirmative actions like quotas. (source)
Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.
That’s the basis of trickle down economics which is a theory about how inequalities ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also the basis of tax schemes such as a flat tax that limit forced redistribution, because the invisible hand will redistribute wealth or make it trickle down automatically.
And, when trickle down is discredited and when it turns out to be difficult to prove that inequality is a universal value, we hear that inequality isn’t as big a problem as it seems, and that this is the land of opportunity where even people who are on the wrong side of inequality can make it through hard work and discipline. Even Obama seems to believe this, as is clear from his inauguration speech. That’s a classic case of the anecdote turned into a “scientific” law. Data show that social mobility isn’t what the American Dream dreamers think it is. Implicit in this story is that existing inequalities are the sole responsibilities of individuals who haven’t made diligent use of the many opportunities this land has generously provided them. Discrimination, injustice, greed and lack of compassion are obscured as causes of inequality.
In reality, inequalities are indeed greater than could possibly be defended rationally, in the words of Niebuhr. The defense based on trickle down economics has failed, as has the defense based on the claim that inequalities are the sole result of individual choices and a lack of response to opportunities (this defense completely rejects effects of discrimination, which seems to be misguided).
However, it’s not because inequalities are greater than they should be that all inequalities are wrong. Some inequalities are unavoidable or even valuable. We do want Einsteins and Picassos. Society should reward merit. We all benefit from the recognition of exceptional individuals. Nietzsche for example rightly protested against the modern habit of cutting everyone down who dares to stick his head up. Equality of outcome is in many respects distasteful. And apart from the valuable inequalities, there are unavoidable inequalities. Some inequalities that are the result of the “lottery of birth” are impossible to correct: some people are born with more talent than others or with talents that are more appreciated in the economic or cultural market; and there will always be people who are born in privileged families.We wouldn’t want to engage in genetic engineering in order to redistribute talent, and neither would we be willing to redistribute children across families (at least not for the purpose of equality of opportunity).
Other aspects of the lottery of birth, however, are more difficult to defend. Why should the good luck of being born in a wealthy family with educated parents guarantee you a better education, better healthcare and better economic prospects? But of course it isn’t just the contingency of your place of birth that determines your opportunities and you future place in society. Some people are pulled down by discrimination or bad luck. We justifiably don’t accept that people’s prospects in life are fully determined by their family, luck or discrimination.
Again, equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome: most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome in most spheres of life. We’re quite happy to accept that some people earn less money, have less vacation time, have lower social status and recognition levels and have more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work etc. What we don’t accept is that those outcomes are predetermined by the family they happen to be born in, by discrimination they suffer or by other instances of bad luck.
Read more on equality of opportunity.
There’s an interesting phenomenon called the stereotype threat, or, in other words, the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something: 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, you perform worse at that task. (Some say that this is a type of confirmation bias, a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their existing preconceptions – they selectively collect new evidence, interpret evidence in a biased way or selectively recall information from memory. But I’m not convinced).
A typical example of stereotype threat manifests itself when a categorical group is told or shown that their group’s performance is worse than other groups before giving them a test; the test results are often abnormally lower than for control groups. For example, on a mathematics test, if you remind a group of girls that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it is likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have had they not been told. (source)
Here’s another example:
[Irwin] Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ test, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. (source)
Indeed, that could be one explanation of the stereotype threat. Or it could simply be that people score worse because they are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and that this anxiety provokes stress because of the will to do well and prove that the prejudice is wrong. Ironically, they score worse: this anxiety and stress makes them less able to perform at normal levels. Or it could be something more sinister: something like internalization of oppression. People who suffered prejudice for centuries can perhaps convince themselves of their group’s inferiority. When this inferiority is made explicit beforehand, they are reminded of it, and somehow their recollected feelings of inferiority tweak their performance.
So inferior test results – compared to control groups who haven’t been exposed to explicit stereotypes before the test – can be caused by
- a lack of motivation to disprove entrenched and difficult to change prejudices
- stress and anxiety, or
- recollected feelings of inferiority.
Or perhaps something else I’m not thinking of at the moment.
Some say that this is all crap, and an extreme example of the file drawer effect or publication bias: those studies that find positive results are more likely to be published, the others stay in the file drawer. I don’t know. I do think it’s true that whatever the reality of the stereotype threat, talk about it can have perverse effects: differences in test scores are considered to be wholly explained by the threat, and real education discrimination or differences in economic opportunities are removed from the picture. In that way, the stereotype threat functions as a solidifier of prejudice and stereotype, quite the opposite of what was intended.
Assuming the threat is real, Michel Foucault comes to mind. Foucault wrote about power and the different ways it operates. Rather than just force or the threat of force, he found “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving subjugation”. If you can convince people of their own inferiority you don’t have to do anything else. They will take themselves down. Or at least you may be able to convince people that it’s useless to struggle against prejudice because it’s so entrenched that you may as well adapt your behavior and confirm it. Also, Foucault’s claim that “power is everywhere” can be used here: power over people is even in their own minds. For Foucault,
power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. … Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable “truths”, come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such “truths” becomes normalized. (source)
The stereotype threat is a good example of a system that makes people behave in other ways, and of a belief system (based on prejudice) that becomes common knowledge, even among those targeted by the prejudice. Even they see it as unthinkable that their own inferiority is prejudice rather than knowledge.
What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.
Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.
But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which
- politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
- interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
- different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
- politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
- interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.
Given these risks, it’s unfortunat that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.
As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.
This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.
This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.
Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.
(source, more information about the Kulak purge is here; Kulaks were peasants in Russia who were opposed to collectivization and hence considered enemies of communism)
However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest—whatever it is—can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.
We usually distinguish between three different origins of human rights violations:
- The state. States commit rights violations for different reasons. Rulers may believe that such violations are necessary in order to maintain power, undermine or destroy the opposition, and impose some world view or economic organization of society. Or they may think that some types of violations are necessary evils when faced with certain risks. For example, torture or indefinite detention can appear to be a reasonable price to pay in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. States can also violate human rights unintentionally: lawmakers can draft a legal system that unnecessarily encroaches on private freedom (e.g. the “nanny state“). And, finally, a state can violate rights, not – as in the previous cases – by doing something it shouldn’t do, but by failing to do what it should do: a state that doesn’t provide an efficient judiciary or police force will be unable to protect the rights of its citizens and will be an accessory to rights violations.
- Selfishness. In the case of economic human rights – such as the right not to suffer poverty – it’s often greed, lack of compassion or generosity, or the absence of sufficient and adequate aid and intervention that causes rights violations. Selfishness can cause both individuals and states to violate rights. States, for example, can uphold international trade structure or protectionist legal systems that favor the local economy at the expense of relatively poor exporters elsewhere.
- Culture. Some say that certain elements of cultures and religions lead to practices that violate human rights. And then usually we get a mention of Islam, Shari’a, muslim misogyny etc. Here as well, we see that both states and individuals can use culture as a reason to violate rights.
Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. Michael Ross
Oil production and export crowd out other exports, and hence artificially restrict the manufacturing sector. Compared to oil production, manufacturing uses relatively large numbers of low wage workers, which is why manufacturing has always and everywhere been a booster for female labor participation. Female labor participation in turn has always and everywhere promoted female political representation and women’s rights. The paper shows that, in the Middle East, countries without much oil (like Morocco and Tunisia) do relatively well on gender equality, compared to oil-rich countries. The same is true when comparing oil-poor and oil-rich countries outside the Middle East.
If that’s correct, then it’s still cultural and religious practices and beliefs that cause gender discrimination, but these beliefs are themselves caused by or at least promoted by economic fundamentals. Sounds quite Marxian to me (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!).
Nobody in his right mind would advocate the abolition of prisons. However, no matter how much we agree that putting people in prison is often necessary, we shouldn’t forget that in so doing we limit these people’s human rights. Hence the importance of imprisoning people only when this is necessary.
The problem with the U.S. criminal justice system is that it looks as if this rule isn’t respected: more people are incarcerated than strictly necessary. Just look at some country comparisons here. Either U.S. citizens are distinctively evil, or people and governments in other countries have no problem with crime.
Of course, neither is the case. I can see at least 3 real reasons for the discrepancy in incarceration rates between the U.S. and the rest of the world. It seems that rehabilitation efforts can be much extended, which would lower the number of repeat offenders and the rate of people returning to prison. Another reason is that a large proportion of people in U.S. prisons are either mentally ill or drug abusers. Both types of people belong in hospital rather than in prison.
But the main problem is the misguided “war on drugs”. As a result of the combination of strict prohibition and hard-handed punitive criminal justice, a large group of U.S. citizens find themselves in prison for much too long and for a crime that’s in many cases victimless. Making drugs illegal creates more problems than it solves:
Even a casual observer can see that much of the damage done in the US by illegal drugs is a result of the fact that they are illegal, not the fact that they are drugs. Vastly more lives are blighted by the brutality of prohibition, and by the enormous criminal networks it has created, than by the substances themselves. This is true of cocaine and heroin as well as of soft drugs such as marijuana. But the assault on consumption of marijuana sets the standard for the policy’s stupidity. Nearly half of all Americans say they have tried marijuana. That makes them criminals in the eyes of the law. Luckily, not all of them have been found out – but when one is grateful that most law-breakers go undetected, there is something wrong with the law. Clive Crook (source)
The damage done by the war on drugs ranges from gang violence, HIV/AIDS infections from reused needles, OD’s from tainted drugs, political violence and destabilization in producing countries, to an erosion of civil liberties:
Since a drug transaction has no victims in the ordinary sense, witnesses to assist a prosecution are in short supply. US drug-law enforcement tends to infringe civil liberties, relying on warrantless searches, entrapment, extorted testimony in the form of plea bargains, and so forth. Clive Crook (source)
The benefits of the war on drugs are, on the other hand, indeterminable: drug use is down only moderately. Prohibition has failed as a policy, as it has before in U.S. history. Time to loosen up.
I’ve stated many times before (here and here for example) that I believe human rights and democracy are interdependent and cannot be properly understood if they are separated from one another. A democracy without human rights, without for example the freedom to speak and to organize, is not really a democracy, and the system of human rights is incomplete when political rights – i.e. rights which ground democracy – are left out. Rights and democracy are prerequisites for each other. What use is the right to vote if people don’t have the right to speak, to have an education etc.? And what use is the right to speak if you’re not allowed to vote? (See here). And there’s a dynamic aspect to this: a certain level of protection for human rights will lead to the development of (a stronger) democracy; and, vice versa, a certain level of development of democracy leads to better protection of human rights. It’s the latter point that I want to deal with in the current post.
Why do I assume that more democracy leads to better human rights protection? For several reasons. Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Democracies also have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement. And, finally, democracies need human rights to function adequately, so they have an added incentive to respect them.
However, all this isn’t just my personal assumption. Most of the political science literature supports the statement that democratic political systems decrease rights violations and repression (see here for an overview). What the literature doesn’t agree on is the pattern of the influence of democracy on rights. There are mainly 3 models doing the rounds: a linear one, an inverted u-shape model, and a threshold model.
1. Linear model
This model, which is the most popular one, states that every step towards democracy is a step away from repression and rights violations (perhaps with “diminishing returns” for human rights once democracy has reached a certain – high – level of development, in which case the linear pattern would be slightly bended downwards, as in the image below).
2. Inverted U-shape model
This model states that well-developed democracies do indeed offer better protection of human rights, but it also states that very authoritarian regimes are also not characterized by high levels of repression since these regimes enjoy such a high level of regime security – perhaps through previous repression – that repression is no longer necessary. This model is also called MMM or “more murder in the middle”. Regimes in the middle are unstable, mixed, and perhaps in a transition to democracy or to strict authoritarianism, and therefore may feel it is necessary to use repression.
3. Threshold model
This model, contrary to the first one, states that not every step in the development of democracy improves the rights situation. Only after democracy has reached a certain level of maturity (a “tipping point”) will repression diminish.
So, which one is closest to reality? Difficult to say. Much depends on the data used, but still more on the definitions. All 3 models have some intuitive appeal, but only if use different definitions. Model 2 for example is convincing, but only if we limit “repression” and “rights violations” to attacks on physical integrity rights. A well-established and very authoritarian regime will probably not need to go to such extremes. On the other hand, a weak authoritarian regime, threatened by a strong internal (democratic) opposition will be more likely to use force and violence. But all other human rights, apart from the physical integrity rights, are still heavily violated in a “safe” authoritarian regime. So it’s a bit dubious to say that such regimes are not “repressive”.
This post is about the law violating human rights. I understand that this is only one of many ways in which rights can be violated, and certainly not the most important one. Genocide, poverty, torture, war etc. are all major human rights violations, but only rarely if ever do they occur because a law instructs people to kill, maim or impoverish their fellow human beings. On the contrary, many human rights violations result from breaking the law, and the law has often been the last refuge for human rights.
So we have two different types of rights violations, illegal and legal violations.
1. Illegal violations
Illegal violations are acts that violate human rights and at the same time break laws that make these violations illegal. This type of rights violation always implies some kind of inefficiency in the national justice systems. These justice systems are supposed to prosecute illegal rights violations, but often fail to do so, for two possible reasons: inability or unwillingness. They may be grossly inefficient, or they may be corrupt and complicit with the rights violators. So illegal violations may be divided into two subtypes:
1.1. Illegal violations caused by government incompetence
1.2. Illegal violations caused by government complicity
These occur because of the governments unwillingness to stop them. The judicial and police systems are covering for the rights violators. An example could be torture in Guantanamo.
2. Legal violations
Legal violations, on the other hand, are rights violations that are condoned or imposed by the law and by the justice system. This type as well can be further divided into two subtypes:
2.1. Violations that are imposed by the law
2.2. Violations that are not punished by the law
These are acts which are not illegal because the law remains silent on them, but which violate human rights. This type can be further divided. Violations are not punished by the law
- either because it is believed that these violations should not be considered a crime (the contrary act is then often believed to be a crime) (case 2.2.1.)
- or because it is difficult to determine the party responsible for the violations (case 2.2.2.).
Some examples of case 2.2.1.: in some countries there is no legal concept known as marital rape; other countries do not outlaw abortion (for those who agree that abortion is a human rights violation). Some examples of case 2.2.2.: poverty, famine…
One caveat, however. “Legal” in this setting means “legal according to national law”. One could justifiably claim that there is no such thing as legal human rights violations since international law makes all violations illegal and renders national laws condoning or imposing violations, null and void. However, this is theory. In practice, national legal systems continue to impose and enforce, sometimes quite effectively, laws which either condone or impose violations.
Different countries and different cultures make different choices about the appropriate scope of criminal law. Some actions which are legal in one country are illegal in another.
The two tables below list a number of action types (certainly not all) and whether they are legal or illegal. This table can be used to classify countries or societies according to the degree of freedom that they grant their citizens. The legalization of some actions makes countries more free, the legalization of others less free. (And the same for the choice whether or not to criminalize certain actions). This table can therefore be used to distinguish between countries or societies that are more free or more ”liberal” than others which are more authoritarian or more ”illiberal”.
The distinction between countries can be made by attributing a certain score to each action and then making the sum. The scoring could be done like this: add a point when a country or society is best described by the right column, and subtract a point for the left column. Countries with high marks are then liberal, countries with low marks illiberal.
For example, if we would like to score the U.S., this country would be given one point for allowing gun ownership, making it a bit more “liberal” (I know this label doesn’t really fit U.S. politics, in which a favorable view of gun ownership is a rather more “conservative” than “liberal” position. But “liberal” here should be understood not in the context of U.S. politics but simply as meaning “more free”). However, the U.S. would lose a point because it has allowed torture. Done for every type of action, this scoring should then give an overall impression of the country, or of any other country.
I don’t intend to attach any moral significance to these terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”. One isn’t necessarily good or the other bad. More freedom isn’t always a good thing. The terms “liberal” and “illiberal” merely describe the degree of freedom in a country.
Now, the interesting thing from the point of view of human rights, is that liberal societies, in general (as can be seen from the tables) are more favorable to human rights than illiberal ones. So the table can be used to classify societies according to their respect for human rights (and then the distinction does take on a moral character). But this isn’t completely true, for two reasons:
- Some human rights issues, such as health or poverty, aren’t included in the table, because they aren’t relevant from the point of view of criminal law. But they can and should change the score: a society that scores as “illiberal” from the point of view of criminal law, can improve its score as a “human rights respecting country” when it offers its citizens good health care and income (but of course this doesn’t excuse the human rights violations resulting from its criminal law). Or vice versa.
- It’s debatable whether more freedom for certain actions results in more respect for human rights. One can think of pornography or abortion. So an extremely liberal society is perhaps not the best one from the point of view of human rights.
A correct distinction between more or less liberal countries should not only include the scope of criminal law, but also the severity of punishment when a crime is committed. Societies that have the same scope for criminal law as others, but use capital punishment, corporal punishment, mutilation, stoning or torture as methods of criminal punishment, should be classified as less liberal.
Readers can also use this table, not to score countries, but themselves. For example, I did it for myself using the scoring system proposed above, and this was the result (this image is unreadable because it is reduced in size to make it fit in this blogpost; click on the links to the tables above if you want to see the real size tables):
If you consider that the scoring system goes from -37 to +37, for respectively the most illiberal and the most liberal point of view, my score of +23 is quite liberal, but not extremely liberal. Compared to the mist liberal position, I “lost” points because of my opposition to pornography, obscenity, gun ownership, holocaust denial and hate speech, and because of my favorable views on affirmative action and sweatshops.
A state that is too powerful will violate human rights. But in many cases it is the absence of state power that leads to rights violations. A failed state, a state whose government is extremely weak or non-existent and has no control over what is happening in its territory, doesn’t actively violate rights, but neither is it able to play its constitutional role as a safeguard and protector of rights. The courts aren’t able to punish rights violations, the police don’t enforce the law and the judicial verdicts, the government administration isn’t able to provide education and health care etc. (There’s a post here on the importance of both state forbearance and active engagement in the protection of human rights).
Rights violations are horizontal as well as vertical; they take place between citizens and not only between citizens and the state. Hobbes has famously warned against state failure and the resulting “state of nature” in which man is like a beast to his fellow-man. The state is a necessary institution,
- both as a “zoo-keeper” holding an effective monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders, a monopoly not undermined by the presence of warlords, paramilitary groups or an insurgency,
- and as a provider of services such as education, health, poverty reduction etc.
Both types of active engagement are required for the realization of human rights. Even Ronald Reagan – who famously said that government is not the solution to our problems but rather the problem itself - admitted that government is the safeguard of human rights (although he probably had a somewhat simplistic and restrictive interpretation of human rights).
Libertarians and anarchists haven’t come up with any serious arguments against state actions in the field of human rights (all they managed to do was to restrict the notion of human rights). The arguments that
- it is the state that makes bad people
- man is a “noble savage” corrupted by society and the state (Rousseau)
have been thoroughly contradicted by the events in some of the world’s failed states. This is the failed states top 10 in 2007 according to Foreign Policy:
- Ivory Coast
- D.R. Congo
- Central African Republic
The complete list of states is here. Each nation is given an overall score based on 12 criteria:
- mounting demographic pressures
- massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples
- legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance
- chronic and sustained human flight (“brain drain”)
- uneven economic development along group lines
- sharp and/or severe economic decline (e.g. failure to pay salaries of government employees and armed forces)
- criminalization and delegitimization of the state
- progressive deterioration of public services
- widespread violation of human rights
- security apparatus as “state within a state”
- rise of factionalized elites
- intervention of other states or external actors
Brookings has a comparable index of state weakness.
The absence of an effective monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, proven by the activity of warlords, paramilitary groups, an insurgency or a civil war, is not the only criterion to assess the failure of a state. Extremely high crime rates, extreme political corruption, judicial ineffectiveness, and military interference in politics can also indicate state failure or state collapse.
Noam Chomsky suggests that state failure is a deliberate U.S. foreign policy objective, notwithstanding the publicly asserted policy of democracy promotion. He even claims that the biggest failed state is the U.S. itself, as it is apparently not able to provide good health care and education, but does routinely torture and flout international law.
Here’s a link to the related topic of good governance.
People who are aware of, and ashamed of, their prejudices are well on the road to eliminating them. Gordon Allport
Gordon Allport, a psychologist, created Allport’s Scale in 1954. It’s a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society. The scale contains 5 stages of prejudice, ranked by the increasing harm they produce.
Stage 1: antilocution
Antilocution (“speaking against”) means making jokes about another group, but also the expression of hateful opinions. In the former case it’s also called derogatory speech, and in the latter case it’s called hate speech. Both cases can be examples of prejudice, prejudice in the sense of an opinion reflecting negative stereotypes and negative images based on preconceived judgments rather than facts.
Antilocution is often believed to be harmless (“sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you”), but it can harm the self-esteem of the people of the targeted group, and it can clear the way for more harmful forms of prejudice. The line between violent words and violent acts is often very thin. The self-image of a group can be hurt, which can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stage 2: avoidance
People in a group are actively avoided by members of another group. Harm is done through isolation and by preparing the way for more harmful acts. Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange, results in exclusion. This exclusion can take various forms:
Stage 3: discrimination
A group is discriminated against by denying them equal access to opportunities, goods and services. Discrimination is intended to harm a group by preventing it from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc.
Stage 3b (added later): subtle aggression
This is an assumption of hierarchy, particularly hierarchy of power, an assumption that somebody has less knowledge because of their age, gender or race or other characteristics and that these people can be excluded in some way.
Stage 4: physical attack
This has become known as hate crime. Groups are the victim of vandalism, the burning of property or violent attacks on someone’s physical integrity such as lynchings, pogroms etc.
Stage 5: extermination
(source, Pavel Constantin)
I agree that a complex contemporary society needs a complex system of law, and I’m the last one to adopt a libertarian philosophy in which the state is evil (necessary evil or not) and should be kept as small as possible. I accept that the state has a role to play in poverty reduction and redistribution, for example. Laisser-faire leads to injustice.
However, the more rules there are, the more restrictions on individuals’ freedom to act. The rule of law, as opposed to a simple system of legislation, was designed precisely to limit the realm of state action and to open up a realm of society, distinct from the state, in which freedom can rule and laws do not apply (see also this post). The more laws, the smaller this space of freedom (although one very general and vague law can also reduce this space to nothing). A big state is an enemy of freedom.
The rule of law limits the state and opens up the realm of society in the following way. It limits the number and scope of laws because it allows only laws that are discussed, voted and published according to formalized procedures, and that stay into force until the same procedures result in another conclusion. Moreover, laws in a system of rule of law must respect the fundamental laws, the constitution, and cannot go beyond what is allowed by the constitution (for example civil rights, in a democratic constitution). So the rule of law creates a legal system in which laws are limited and stable. The rule of law therefore creates freedom (from the law) and is incompatible with an ever expanding system of law.
By comparison, the legal system in an autocratic rule by a dictator (as opposed to the rule of law) can result in whatever law the dictator decides, and whatever change in the law he decides (if he bothers at all to use laws for the purpose of his rule). Such a system is inherently unstable, unpredictable, unlimited and expanding.
Another reason why laws should not be too numerous, distinct from the concern for freedom, is that an extensive system of law makes it very difficult to respect the law and without respect for the law, there is no rule of law. People should be given the opportunity to plan their lives in such a way that they can respect the law and can avoid running foul of the law. That’s very difficult when there are too many laws.
Knowing what things the law penalizes and knowing that these are within their power to do or not to do, citizens can draw up their plans accordingly. One who complies with the announced rules need never fear an infringement of his liberty. Unless citizens are able to know what the law is and are given a fair opportunity to take its directives into account, penal sanctions should not apply to them. John Rawls
For the same reason, i.e. giving people the possibility to respect the law, it is also unacceptable to have secret laws, retroactive laws (laws that punish acts that have occurred before the law came into force) and unstable laws (laws that change all of the time). Bad law as well is unacceptable, again for the same reason (by bad law I understand complex, incomprehensible and contradictory law, which are types of law that make it impossible for citizens to respect the law).
A related but not altogether identical problem is the risk of rights inflation. I’ve posted about this before.
Bad governance is a cause of underdevelopment, poverty, war and human rights violations. Major donors and international financial institutions are increasingly basing their aid and loans on the condition that the recipient countries reform their systems so that these conform to the requirements of good governance.
Good governance means a good way to take and implement government decisions (corporate governance is the way to take and implement decisions in a company, but that’s another topic). When judging whether governance is good or bad one has to look at:
- the way decisions are taken and implemented
- the structures and rules that govern the decision making and implementing process
- the people involved
- the decisions themselves
- the outcome and consequences of the decisions.
The focus is both on what is done and on the way it is done.
Criteria for judging governance
The criteria used to judge governance are the following (some are partially overlapping):
- Is the government accountable or is there no way to criticize it, to replace it or to correct it?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation transparent or is it hidden from public criticism? Is information freely and directly accessible to those who will be affected by decisions?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation responsive to the needs of the citizens or does it follow other needs (such as business needs, international requirements, selfish needs…) and ignores or misrepresents the needs of the people?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation inclusive, just and fair? Are the needs of the most vulnerable taken into account? Do all the members of society feel that they have an equal stake in it, or do some feel excluded, left out, treated unfairly or discriminated?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation effective and efficient? Does it produce the results that meet the needs of society or results that are demanded by an elite? Does it deliver rapid service or are the procedures slow and cumbersome? Does it make the best use of resources or is it wasteful and time consuming? Does it make use of natural resources in a sustainable way and a way that protects the environment?
- Does the process of decision-making and implementation follow the rule of law or is it arbitrary? Are decisions based on enforceable rules that apply equally to all? Are these rules enforced by an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation participatory or is it exclusive? Does it respect equality and non-discrimination? Is the participation ad hoc or organized and structured?
- Is the process of decision-making and implementation oriented towards consensus, towards mediation of and compromise between different interests, or is it divisive?
The concept of good governance is therefore not limited to the government, but to the whole of society, including the effects of government on society and the input of society in government.
The criteria to judge governance are universal, but it is important to take into account local circumstances, historical “baggage” (like previous regimes, colonialism etc.), a country’s position in the international system etc.
Good governance, human rights, and democracy
Many of these criteria can be expressed in the language of human rights and democracy. I’ve tried to put this in the following table (click on the image to enlarge):
Indicators of bad governance
- Human rights violations
- Lack of democracy
- Inefficient government bodies, long delays in judicial verdicts or other government decisions, waste of resources, large budgets, overstaffing…
- Environmental degradation
- Resource curse
- Civil war or war
- Discrimination or inequality
- Underdeveloped legal institutions
More information and country reports are here.
Forms of corruption
Corruption can take on many forms:
- From limited competition when awarding government contracts to the setting up of wasteful mega-projects designed specifically for the corruption opportunities these can yield.
- From small bribes by ordinary citizens “in order to get things done” to larger payments as a means to escape criminal justice.
- From the nepotism of a father trying to get his children in a good school to outright kleptocracy (“rule by thieves”) infecting an entire government administration and political class.
However, it always means the use of governmental powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain.
Corruption in itself is not a human rights violation, and there is no right to live in a country that is not corrupt or that suffers no corruption. However, corruption does have consequences for human rights:
- It harms the economy and can create or exacerbate poverty.
- It destroys democratic government, even if it doesn’t take the very specific form of electoral corruption (hence it violates people’s political rights)
- Corruption in the judiciary compromises the rule of law and the effective enforcement of human rights law.
Consequences of corruption
Corruption is anti-democratic :
- Decisions do not reflect the will of the people but the private will of individuals or corporations who bribe elected or unelected government officials. Government policies serve individual interests rather than the public interest or the interest of the public.
- Persons engaged in corruption are likely to inhibit the democratic systems that guarantee free flows of information. If these systems can be distorted, it becomes much more difficult to expose corruption, to hold officials accountable and to force them to justify their actions. Such actions can have disastrous consequence for freedom of speech in general.
- Corruption also undermines the legitimacy of government and can lead to revolt and the outright destruction of democracy.
Corruption is economically unsound and unfair :
- In a corrupt economy, resources tend to flow to those already in a position of power, while those at the bottom of the economy have to spend a part of their scarce resources on bribes.
- Corrupt officials lay their hands on a part of the proceeds of natural resources and other sources of prosperity that should belong equally to the whole population.
- Corrupt governments will be more inclined to set up grandiose but foolish and wasteful mega-projects, because this gives them more opportunities for corruption. They thereby divert public investment from sectors that need it more or that yield more benefits for ordinary citizens.
- Corruption is a tax on investment, which hampers investment and economic growth. Especially the often all-important foreign investments (the import of technology and knowledge) diminish as corruption increases.
- Corruption increases the cost of business.
- It distorts the level playing field, giving an unfair advantage to firms with connections. These firms are perhaps not the most efficient but are propped up by corruption. As a result, the overall economy is not the most efficient.
- It discourages people to start or expand businesses because potential profits are taken away.
The graph below shows the correlation between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption (Corruption Perception Index, or CPI, of Transparency International):
Here’s another study pointing to the same conclusions:
In 2004, the global cost of corruption was estimated at $1 trillion a year.
Causes of corruption
- Lack of transparency and free flows of information
- Lack of a free press
- Lack of government accountability through a system of democratic elections
- Inability of civil society or NGO’s to monitor the government
- Weak rule of law
- Incentives, such as poverty or low wages
- Unclear rules of behavior for government officials
- Resource curse
- “Old boy networks”
Pervasiveness of corruption
There is corruption everywhere in the world, but some countries perform better than others. This is the country ranking of the CPI (Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International) in 2007:
The CPI measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. High numbers indicate relatively less corruption, whereas lower numbers indicate relatively more corruption.
- Clear rules on what is admissible behavior rather than broad or poorly defined powers
- Rule of law, law enforcement
- Eliminate incentives (proper wages)
- Employee training, competence
- Free press
- Democratic accountability
Private companies, especially companies engaging in international trade and multinational companies, have duties in the field of human rights. They can violate human rights or they can act positively to protect them.
- They are obliged to respect human rights, just as individuals or states. They can create labor conditions that respect human rights (fair wages, no child labor etc.).
- Multinational companies should not use the competition between workers (for example workers from different countries with different levels of wages or different labor conditions) to force down wages or loosen labor regulations.
- Multinational companies can be an example to local companies in the way they treat workers, and they can require that local companies that co-operate with them respect certain rules, such as the rules regarding labor conditions.
- Also non-multi-national companies that engage in international trade can require that their suppliers respect human rights. They can always threaten to go to another supplier.
- Companies have the technology, the know-how and the money that some governments need; hence they have the means to convince these governments to respect human rights.
- It is in the interest of companies that countries respect human rights and the principles of democracy. They need the rule of law (which is a human right), predictability, law enforcement, stability, an effective judiciary etc. It is also in their interest that the local population can afford to buy their products or services. So they may even be able to promote economic rights.
Companies that violate rights, that trade with dictatorships or with other companies that do not respect human rights, become more and more sensitive to the negative consequences of their choices. Their image and profits can suffer. Their good name is economically more interesting than rights violations, certainly in the long term. Public opinion can turn against them and consumers can stop buying their products or services.
Banks and arms producing companies have a particular responsibility. Banks could monitor and possibly even freeze the assets of dictators. Arms companies should avoid delivering arms to dictators.
A characteristic element of modern democratic states is their ability to offer fair trials to those accused of crimes. We try to treat everyone, even suspected criminals, with fairness, and we have two principal reasons for this:
- We only want to punish real criminals. A fair trial is one in which everything is done to avoid punishing the wrong persons. We want to avoid miscarriages of justice.
- We want to use court proceedings only to punish criminals and deter crime, not for political or personal reasons, as is often the case in dictatorships.
One important condition for a fair trial is publicity. Justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done, not only to deter other criminals and to give consolation to victims, but also because publicity makes it more likely that the real perpetrator is punished. Every trial is therefore a “show trial”. The publicity of a trial makes it possible to judge the judge and hence to correct mistakes if necessary.
The secret trial is typical of authoritarian regimes because it allows for abuses of power. It makes it easier to use the justice system for other purposes than the identification and punishment of proven criminals. It is very hard to use a public trial for power games or oppression.
On top of that, false accusations or false testimonies are more likely to remain undiscovered in a secret trial. After all, it is not only the state that can gain from a secret trial. Interested third parties can also benefit from an unfair trial.
However, publicity alone does not guarantee that trials and verdicts are fair and just (which is clear from the phenomenon of communist show trials). The following elements are just as important (as with publicity, most of them are included in the main human rights instruments, for example articles 9, 10, 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights):
- No punishment or imprisonment without an indictment and without swift information on the nature of the indictment. If the purpose of the justice system is to punish criminals, it’s very easy to tell the suspect who we want to imprison before his or her trial about the crime he or she is suspected of having committed. After all, the crime has been committed and the accusers surely must know the nature of this crime. It must be awful to be imprisoned without knowing why. The absence of indictments indicates that the authorities merely wish to use the justice system to terrorize the population, not to punish crime.
- No excessively long detention on remand (detention without a lawful and fair trial and conviction). We do not want to incarcerate innocent people.
- The possibility of an appeal to a higher court. Mistakes can be made.
- A competent and impartial judge; fairness, according to the dictionary, means impartiality. A partial judge is an absurdity. Such a judge would be completely useless, and people would be better off fighting their cases amongst themselves, one against one instead of one against two.
- The possibility to defend yourself and to receive free legal assistance. The possibility to argue and to give counter-arguments, to call witnesses for the defense and to question witnesses for the prosecution. This requires time, hence this must be balanced with the point mentioned earlier about the excessively long detention without a trial. “Swift justice” can be as unjust as detention without a trial.
- Innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests on the accusers. This is necessary to discourage wrongful accusations and also because the purpose of the trial is precisely the establishment of guilt. If guilt is assumed beforehand, then why have a trial in the first place?
- No forced confession, because that would defeat the purpose of convicting the real perpetrator. And no obligation to incriminate yourself (the right to remain silent), which is linked to the rule that the burden of proof rests with the accusers.
- No excessively tough penalties. The purpose is to punish, to prevent repetitions of the crime by the same criminal and to deter other criminals, not to balance the wrong that has been done by an equally painful punishment.
- “Ne bis in idem”: no two trials for the same offense. If people can be retried continuously for the same crime, then the purpose is obviously not the punishment of proven criminals, but punishment per se. Anyway, if all the rules listed here are respected, there is no need for a retrial. This rule is also called double jeopardy.
- “Nulla poena sine lege”: no crime or punishment without a law voted and published before the criminal deed. In other words, no retroactive laws, no laws with retroactive effect (laws which make deeds punishable after they have been committed). One cannot punish people for acts that were not a crime at the time when they were committed, because people should know what is or is not allowed so that they can plan their lives as law-abiding citizens.
- For the same reason, laws should be predictable and should not change all the time. Nobody is responsible for a violation of a law if the law changes from day to day, because if the law changes constantly, then nobody knows the law and then nobody can respect the law. Predictability and permanence of the law are prerequisites for obedience, just as knowledge and publicity.
- There should not be too many rules, otherwise the judges and the police will not have enough time to enforce them all or to punish all violations of all rules, which leads to injustice. Too many rules also leads to involuntary violations of rules, because citizens do not know what they are or are not allowed to do. The purpose of the justice system is to punish crimes, not mistakes; criminals who knowingly violate rules, not law-abiding citizens who unknowingly do what they shouldn’t.
All these elements put together make the justice system just, and protect the citizens against the state or against fellow citizens that want to abuse the justice system. If one element is missing, then all the others may become useless.
The expulsion from humanity is part of many rights violations because these violations can only be justified when the other is labelled as something less than human. Human rights can only be violated when the victim is not really human. Only a non-human does not have human rights.
If a person has rights because of his or her humanity, then it is important to recognize the right to belong to humanity. This right is indirectly expressed in art. 6 of the UDHR:
“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”.
Every culture has, at some moment in time, excluded certain classes of humans from humanity. Some cultures still do. Some of the major religions have considered or still consider non-believers to be an inferior species, outside of humanity, not real humans and therefore not entitled to the same rights.