philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (43): Positionality and Transpositionality

different perspective

(source)

Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.

different perspectivesBut our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.

Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.

Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.

The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

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why do we need human rights

Murky Yet Suggestive Evidence That Democracy Promotes Economic Growth

Cross-country analysis often shows only a weakly positive correlation between democracy and economic growth:

democracy gdp correlation

(source)

The correlation is weak because there are some authoritarian countries that have strong growth figures. Most notably China of course. The impressive growth rates of a few oppressive regimes has successfully undermined the once popular theory about democracy’s positive effect on growth, and has even fostered the opposite belief: that authoritarian government is necessary for growth. (The story goes somewhat like this: authoritarian rule means longterm planning, discipline in production and consumption, national harmony and popular respect for often difficult decisions, which in turn means efficiency and productivity, and hence growth).

However, those non-democratic countries that do indeed show high growth rates shouldn’t be viewed as typical: there are just as many authoritarian countries with very weak growth figures. It’s a bit silly therefore to derive a general law about authoritarian economic success when that supposed law can be so easily falsified. Here are some numbers:

gdp growth and authoritarian government

gdp growth and authoritarian government 2

(source, the growth rate here is the geometric average of per capita growth per year for the years between 1960 and 2008; the source for the democracy data is Polity IV)

The success of China and a few other authoritarian countries doesn’t warrant a general conclusion about the beneficial effects of autocracy on growth. Bill Easterly in his “Tyranny of Experts” has argued that the prosperity of successful autocracies may not be due to a lack of freedom. Most of those countries experienced a recent move towards relatively more freedom and democracy. It was only after China started to soften its horrific totalitarian rule that prosperity began to rise. It’s not crazy, therefore, to assume that a more rapid liberalization would have resulted in even higher growth rates. Furthermore, most autocracies start from nowhere. It’s relatively easy to produce good growth figures when baseline prosperity is very low, as was China’s some decades ago (not in the least because of authoritarian rule). It’s relatively easy, even – one is tempted to say – for fools and autocrats.

The low baseline from which most autocracies start shows up when we compare not the growth rates but the level of GDP between countries. The correlation between democracy and GDP is stronger when we look at the level rather than the growth of GDP. Richer countries (with the exception of most wealthy Muslim countries) tend to be or become democracies:

democracy and income correlation

democracy and income correlation

(source)

Because the graph above plots income in 1971 against democracy scores in the following decades, you can see that the causation seems to go from income to democracy. A high level of GDP predicts a flourishing (or at least continuation) of democracy. However, this could again be used by the authoritarian growth crowd. They can use this to argue that poor countries need autocracy in order to kick-start growth, because democracy can only come when the level of GDP is sufficiently high (the “democracy as luxury” argument). It’s probably true that prosperity fosters democracy (for the obvious reasons: democracy requires money, leisure, education etc.). But it’s good to see some evidence of causation in the opposite direction, from democracy to growth – if only to undermine self-congratulatory autocrats. For example, here’s a graph plotting current income against older democracy scores, suggesting that democracy also promotes growth:

gylfason%20fig3%2015%20nov

(source)

Here are some more correlations between the levels of GDP and of democracy:

gdp and probability of democracy correlation

political rights and gdp correlation

(source)

democracy and gdp

(source, scatter plot covers all countries with population larger than 1 million and with fuel exports less than 50% of export revenues)

These graphs are less interesting because they only show correlations without any effort to infer causation. If, however, we accept that there is indeed a causal effect of democracy on the level of GDP, how exactly does that effect occur? Perhaps transparency, the rule of law, accountability, property rights and other characteristics of democracy are good for growth.

If we want further evidence of a causal effect of democracy on growth, we can do an in-country analysis. This paper examines the effect of democratic transitions on economic growth. The encouraging conclusion is that countries which have experienced a transition to democracy experience higher average growth after the transition.

The graph below, from the paper, plots the evolution of real per capita GDP growth in the years surrounding a successful democratization (the year of the democratization being T), compared to the global growth rates in each year. The average growth is the purple dashed line. The graph also shows that the transition itself may imply economic costs, but in the longer term democracy pays off.

gdp growth around permanent democratizations

 

I should also mention a recent paper by Acemoglu et al that points in the same direction.

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philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (42): Agency

secret "agent"

secret “agent”

A human being is an “agent” in the sense of a person able to act in the world. The words “agent”, “act” and “agency” all come from the Latin “agere”, “to set in motion, drive, lead, conduct etc.” Human agents have goals in life and pursue them through their purposeful actions.

Now, if a human being is an agent or has agency, then we should give her rights because we have to define the range of activities that she is allowed to engage in. We have to decide what she can do without obstruction and defend her against obstruction if necessary. Otherwise her agency will be largely ineffective. It’s constitutive of human beings to pursue goals and hence we owe it to them to create a framework in which they can reliably do so. Whether or not they actually realize their goals is another matter, dependent upon lots of things – circumstances, luck, resources, ambition etc. We can’t and shouldn’t promise people that they’ll get what they’re after, but making it impossible for them to try is a denial of their humanity. The point is that we can only make it possible for them to try if we give them rights. Of course, people without rights or people suffering rights violations can sometimes act purposefully. But they’ll always be precarious agents. A predictable and reliable form of agency depends on respect for rights.

This kind of justification of human rights is by definition a limited one. It isn’t complete. There are people who have no agency in the relevant sense of the word – for example babies or the severely handicapped – but who still have rights. So we’ll have to look for additional justifications, which is what I’ve tried to do in the other posts in this series.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (41): Our Interests or Our Autonomy?

interest theory will theory

Two competing answers to a fundamental question about rights are doing the rounds: why do we need rights anyway? There’s an interest theory of rights which gives one answer, and then there’s a will theory of rights which gives another, incompatible answer. (There are other theories but most of the discussion is between these two). Very, very simplistically, the answers are these:

  • Will theory (WT), otherwise known as choice theory, argues that the purpose of rights is to protect and foster individual autonomy. An individual who has rights is a small-scale sovereign. WT attempts to establish the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom. Rights help to protect and realize this capacity. This implies that the rights holder has the moral power to waive or annul his or her rights. All rights are derived from the essential right of all human beings to be free.
  • Interest theory (IT) argues that the principal function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests. This is another way of saying that rights protect what is beneficial to individuals:

Necessary though insufficient for the holding of a legal right by X is that the duty correlative to the right, when actual, normatively protects some aspect of X’s situation that on balance is typically beneficial for a being like X. (source)

Both theories have appealing and somewhat less appealing features. One appealing aspect of WT is that it wants to offer equal freedom to all. People want things, face choices – good and bad – and need opportunities to do things. Rights offer the ability to make preferred choices and provide the opportunities to do things. The understanding that most rights are alienable is also positive, in my view.

However, more problematic – and some say fatal – is the fact that WT rules out the holding of rights by animals, dead people, future persons, infants, comatose people, severely mentally disabled people, senile people and fetuses. In WT, people only have rights when they are competent to claim rights, and members of the cited groups can’t typically claim rights. If they don’t have rights, we can do whatever we want to them. Not a good conclusion.

Personally, I think the most appealing feature of IT is that it more or less corresponds to my own value theory of rights (which I argued for here). Also not to be frowned upon is the fact that IT avoids the problem of the rights of non-autonomous beings.

One problem with IT is the vagueness of the term “interests”. What is an interest? Should it be the case that an individual understands an interest as an interest (in other words, should an interest be a felt interest)? Or is it enough that the interest is objectively a human interest? In the former case, IT replicates the problem of the comatose and others who can’t be said to understand their interests. In the latter case, we’ll quickly end up with paternalism and we’ll also have to enter the treacherous domain of human nature.

Another problem is that most versions of IT don’t define which specific interests we’re talking about, and which interests create rights. Consequently, IT also remains vague about the exact rights people have. In one sense, that may be positive. Rights have to evolve. But I think that the vagueness here is to be deplored.

Also, rights don’t only exist to benefit the rights holder. Your freedom of speech is in my interest as well (more on that here). Again, IT can’t deal with this very well.

To conclude, if we have to choose between IT and WT, I guess the problems faced by IT are less deep. The exclusion of large groups of beings in WT is very hard to solve. Compared to that, one can at least see some possible solutions to the problems raised by IT.

More posts in this series are here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (40): On the Relative Unimportance of the Notion of Human Dignity

dignity village

(source)

I think I owe my readers an explanation. After 2.876 (!) blogposts about human rights, I’ve hardly ever mentioned the notion of dignity. That must look like gross negligence on my part, given the fact that the word “dignity” features prominently in most human rights treaties and declarations. For example, the Vienna Declaration of the 1993 World Human Rights Conference affirms that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person”.

I don’t buy it. Human rights derive from human values. We need rights, not to protect our dignity, but to realize our values. I subscribe to a value-based approach to human rights. I can’t and won’t explain this approach here – you can read this older post if you want – because what I want to do now is simply argue against dignity as a basis or justification of human rights. In fact, that sounds a bit too extreme: dignity can be a basis, at least of some human rights, but it’s not the one I prefer. It’s my view that there really is no analytical or practical need for the concept of dignity in the field of human rights.

Of course, if someone decides that he or she wants to believe in human rights because of an affection for the notion of dignity, why not. In the end, what we want is full protection of all human rights, and the things that produce this protection are of secondary importance. However, I’m convinced that progress towards that end is more likely when we focus on values rather than dignity. Dignity, compared to values, is an extremely vague and contradictory notion, one that has many meanings, few of which are practically useful in grounding or justifying human rights.

1.

dignitary

a “dignitary”

Let’s start with the word’s inherent contradictions. Dignity implies both radical inequality and radical equality. Originally, inequality was central to the notion. Dignity was, and to some extent still is, the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, or better of a certain amount of honor or respect. Some people deserve respect due to their status, standing, position or function. For example, respecting the dignity of the queen means honoring her as a person having her function. A “dignitary” is defined as a person who has a high rank or an important position. A head of state or a government respects the dignity of foreign emissaries by giving them the proper privileges. All these and many other uses of the word “dignity” reveal the inequality that the word is intended to convey.

Another use of the word shows that it is about inequality not only of people but of things as well: “I will not dignify your question with an answer” means that your question is so silly and so far below an adequate level of quality that my answering it would give it more respect than it deserves.

On the other hand, dignity also has a radical egalitarian meaning. This is a relatively recent development. There is, it seems, something like human dignity, a dignity all humans share regardless of rank and position. This comes across in certain recent uses of the word. People are said to behave in an undignified manner when they fail to show sufficient self-respect: for example, a person who is about to be executed for a grave crime and who has be to dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows. Such a person certainly does not have a high rank or status and yet is still seen as behaving in an undignified manner. Why? Because that’s not how humans should behave. Humans should show self-respect.

People can also treat each other in an undignified manner: keeping a patient in a persistent vegetative state alive against her will and against hope is often described as undignified; the same is true for a failure to give someone a proper burial. “Aging with dignity” means being old and at the same time able to continue to perform normal human functions.

a degrading depiction of a woman

a degrading depiction of a woman

All these modern uses of the word “dignity” convey equality, and more specifically an equality based on a certain understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. Being treated with dignity means being treated in a human and non-degrading way, in a way that respects our common humanity, and in a way that all humans deserve.

Perhaps we have to thank democracy for this egalitarian turn in our understanding of dignity. Democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings. Jeremy Waldron has famously argued that the notion of human dignity comes from the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. There has been a “leveling up”: all of us deserve the same respect that was once reserved for high status people. We are all “dignitaries” now. Human dignity, as opposed to old-fashioned dignity, is considered to be “inherent” rather than given by class or status, by ritual, coronation, anointment, dress, office etc. However, while this egalitarian turn is to be commended, it looks like we have arrived at a point where dignity is no longer different from equality. It’s another word for the same thing. In what way is being treated with dignity different from being treated equally? Hard to say.

Another problem is that the two meanings of the word “dignity” – the egalitarian and the inegalitarian one – continue to exist side by side. This is confusing and it can lead to the idea that some people, on account of their actions, are no longer dignified or have lost their dignity and self-respect and hence no longer deserve their human rights.

2.

On to the matter of the practical utility of the notion of dignity. To what extent can the word be used to justify specific human rights and denounce specific human rights violations? If we understand dignity as the preciousness of each human individual then we are not allowed to treat humans in a degrading way or in a way that diminishes their humanity. Torture would be a clear case of degrading treatment in this sense. Hence, a right not to be tortured would receive strong support from the notion of dignity. A similar reasoning is perhaps possible for certain other human rights such as the right not to be enslaved and the right not to suffer poverty. A slave or a poor person can be said to be have lost his or her dignity.

But how do violations of someone’s freedom of speech violate his or her dignity? Or someone’s right to associate and assemble on the town square? That’s not clear at all. Dignity, it seems, is of limited use in the justification of human rights. Perhaps one can make the case that dignity requires respect for autonomy, and free speech protects autonomy (see the argument here). But why not focus directly on autonomy? What is the value-added of dignity here? Looks like a detour. If anything, dignity is important because autonomy is, not vice versa. More generally, it’s entirely possible to defend the claim that people have dignity because they are rights bearers (or, somewhat less ambitious, that they have dignity because they are autonomous persons able to make rights claims). That they have rights because they have dignity may be the wrong way around.

In any case, the sweeping claim that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person” seems to be untrue. Sometimes we can say that dignity requires a certain human right but more often than not dignity does not tell us anything useful. Given that there are many better reasons to promote human rights, including those rights that can if necessary be based on dignity, I fail to see the strategic advantages of focusing on dignity. Sure, if dignity can justify some but not other human rights, we should not dismiss it. Everything that helps is welcome. However, I have the feeling that dignity is often used as the ultimate and deepest ground for all human rights. And that is plainly wrong. Our common human values are the ultimate and deepest ground for human rights.

3.

A third problem with human dignity is its religious origins. If old-fashioned dignity comes from rank, position and function, then where does human dignity come from? What’s so special about human beings? Why do we deserve a certain treatment? Many would say that dignity comes from God. Because human beings are created in the image of God they have a certain value that needs to be respected if God is to be respected. However, the religious origins of the notion of dignity may make it unappealing to non-believers or adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions.

Of course, it’s possible to generate a plausible non-religious account of dignity. I mentioned autonomy a moment ago. Kant had an interesting view based on the idea that using people as means is an affront to their dignity. I’ve appealed to this view in the context of capital punishment and yet I’m not convinced that it is really necessary as a ground for human rights in general.

More posts in this series are here.

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philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (39): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas, Ctd.

screaming fanatic

a screaming fanatic

(source)

We need rights such as free speech, assembly and association (as well as other rights that function as prerequisites for these rights, such as the right not to suffer poverty) for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the way in which these rights protect open, public, inclusive and widespread deliberation.

But why do we need this kind of deliberation? Deliberation, ideally at least, forces ideas through a process of criticism, counter-arguments and competition with other ideas. Ideas that can get themselves accepted in such a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. Hence the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. A crucial point is that participation in public deliberation should be as free and as massive as possible, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas.

The marketplace of ideas improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking, and that’s a good thing. The fact that some human rights – and perhaps even all human rights given the interdependence of human rights – are necessary for the functioning of this marketplace justifies human rights. (More here).

I used the word “ideally” a moment ago, because the actual functioning of the marketplace of ideas in the real world is often marred by “market failures”. I listed a few here, such as confirmation bias, polarization, political correctness and other biases or processes that inhibit the free and open discussion and exchange of possibly persuasive arguments.

Here are a few more:

fanatic

No he’s not.

  • There’s what we could call the “fanatic effect”: fanatics have few if any doubts about their ideas and hence are more likely to set up lobbying groups, think tanks, political parties etc. As a result, a fanatic will receive more media exposure than the thinking person constantly revising her often complicated opinions in the light of new evidence. This is the supply side factor favoring the appearance of extreme views. Now, these views may well be correct in some cases, but it’s hard to know if those views are the ones that receive most coverage; views or arguments that go against the extremes may come from less convinced sources and hence may not find their way into the debates. As a result, the marketplace does not function adequately. This type of market failure is obviously linked to polarization, but it’s not completely the same thing. Polarization can occur between 2 or more non-fanatical or non-extreme views.
  • There’s not only a supply side factor; the demand for extreme and fanatical positions also plays a role in undermining the marketplace of ideas. Extreme positions are better for pageviews and ratings. People want good TV and interesting websites, and extremists battling each other with soundbites are better than long nuanced arguments. Who doesn’t prefer a debate between a racist and a black radical to a polite discussion based on charts, numbers and philosophical references? The soundbites may come from fanatics, but they don’t have to. If very reasonable points of view are only marketed in the form of sound bites, and if nuanced or lengthy arguments are thought to scare away viewer or readers, then the market fails just as badly.

However, let’s not despair. There’s also a lot of evidence that people arguing in groups come to better decisions than people on their own. Here’s a sample of some of the evidence:

A group of players is told that they should choose a number between 0 and 100, and the winner of the game will be the person who chooses a number that is (say) 1/2 of the average of the other choices. In this game, the rational player will reason as follows: “OK, let’s say that the other players choose randomly, so the average will be 50, and I should choose 25 to win. But if other players have this first level of insight, they will all choose 25 to win, and I should instead choose 12. But if other players have this second level of insight, then they will choose 12, and I should choose 6. Hmmm. If the other players are rational and self-interested, the equilibrium choice will end up being zero.”

The players … can be either individuals or groups. It turns out that groups choose lower numbers: that is, as a result of interacting in the group, they tend to be one step ahead.

Here’s another example … [P]layers get the following question: … “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable: (a) Linda is a bank teller. (b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Notice that Linda is a bank teller in both choices, but only active in the feminist movement in the second choice: that is, the second choice is a subset of the first choice. For that reason, it is impossible for choice b to be more likely than choice a. However, early research on this question found that 85% of individuals answered b. But when the game is played with groups of 2, and with groups of 3, the error rate drops. (source)

So the marketplace of ideas could justify human rights after all. More posts in this series are here.

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why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (38): Different Justifications for Different Types of Free Speech

fuck you
(source)

There are different types of speech, and therefore also different types of free speech. The point I want to make here is that different types of free speech require different justifications. It’s a common error to reject some kinds of free speech because they seem unacceptable from the point of view of justificatory theories that are useful only for other types of free speech.

What does that mean, different types of speech? We can have different goals when we speak: we can try to persuade, to signal our allegiance or identity, to harm, to ostracize, to insult, to express emotions, to promise or to enter into a contract, to state facts, to name something, to order someone, etc.

Each purpose of speech requires a separate justification of free speech, and some purposes may be very hard to justify at all, in which case a limit on freedom of speech may be necessary. However, much talk about limits springs from a logical error. It’s important not to try to use a justification for one type of free speech in order to examine the justification of another type. This may result in the unwarranted conclusion that some type of free speech is not justifiable and that it can therefore be limited, whereas in reality we just use the wrong justification.

Take one type of speech: persuasion. Free persuasion is usually justified on the basis of the marketplace of ideas. In a nutshell: people should be allowed to try to persuade each other freely, because this process of free persuasion will improve the quality of opinions.

fuckNow take another type of speech, namely emotive speech. Examples of emotive speech are “fuck you” (expressing rejection or disgust), “fuck” (expressing disappointment), “shit”, “motherfucker” etc. Such expletives, and emotive speech in general, are often viewed as completely lacking in merit and therefore unworthy of protection. US First Amendment jurisprudence is a case in point. The Supreme Court labels a lot of emotive speech as no-value or low-value speech and has no problem with restrictions of it. (See also here). Speech lacks value, according to the Supreme Court, if it’s no essential part of the exposition of ideas and doesn’t bring us closer to the truth. Any slight benefit it may have is outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

However, this means focussing on persuasion and the truth seeking purpose of speech, and using the justification of this type of speech in order to reject another type of speech. If, on the other hand, you believe that speech also has an emotional purpose, you would regard expletives as more valuable and more worthy of free speech protection.

fuck

(source)

The distinction between low or no-value speech on the one hand and high value speech on the other hand, whatever its merits (and those are not obvious), points us towards a further remark regarding the distinction between types of speech and between types of justifications. Those distinctions aren’t clear-cut: even people who express themselves merely because of signaling needs can be justified to do so because of the value of the marketplace of ideas. Although they don’t want to persuade, the fact that they merely express an opinion without arguing for it is valuable in the marketplace of ideas because it can convince others of the lack of real value of their opinions. Likewise, an order may indicate that persuasion has failed, and this in turn may indicate the relative weakness of an opinion.

More posts in this series are here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (37): The Right to Life

a scene from Michael Crichton’s “Coma” (1978)

a scene from Michael Crichton’s “Coma” (1978)

(source)

Of all human rights, the right to life is probably the least controversial. It’s almost universally accepted and it’s supposed to have absolute or quasi-absolute power: most of us have a hard time accepting or even imagining justifiable limitations of this right. Hence, the question of the justification of the right to life seems relatively uninteresting. Compared to some other rights, it’s clear why we need it: we all want to live, or at least decide for ourselves whether or not we want to live.

If, for instance, you ask people why we need the right to free speech, or why violating this right is wrong, then they’ll have a much harder time coming up with a solid answer (even though there are solid answers). They’ll also assume that they would somehow be able to live without it. Life would perhaps not be pleasant or fulfilling, but it would go on. Not so without the right to life.

So why talk about the justification of the right to life? Well, because on closer inspection things aren’t so simple. If you ask yourself why killing is wrong, the answer is surprisingly difficult. The best attempt to answer the question has some unappealing results. We can argue that killing is wrong because living allows you to do things, be someone, become someone etc. (See here for instance). It’s because life is this fundamental prerequisite and this necessary condition for everything else that a right to life is basic, quasi-absolute and easy to justify in the minds of most people. It’s a justification without which there are no other justifications. It’s axiomatic. You can’t not take it for granted.

But if killing is wrong not because it takes away a life – living in itself is not valuable – but because it takes away the ability to act and be, then it’s OK to kill off people in an irreversible coma, harvest their organs etc. The harm imposed by killing can’t be the mere fact that life stops; a person whose life is ended by way of killing can’t experience the harm of absence of life. This person can’t experience anything. Adead person can no longer have any experiences, and taking away people’s ability to experience, in other words their ability to do things and to be someone, is indeed an imposition of harm. A special harm, yes, but a harm nonetheless. Contrary to the usual type of harm, this harm does not imply the experience of harm – how can it? – but rather the harm of absence of experience.

So it’s the imposition of complete and irreversible disability – the complete and final lack of the ability to do things and be someone – that is at stake, that makes killing wrong, and that justifies a right to life. Not the absence or the taking of life as such: the mere absence of life is not a harm. The disability has to be irreversible, because anaesthesia for example has the same disabling effect, but in a reversible manner. That is why killing the anesthetized and harvesting their organs is still wrong.

scene from Tarantino's "Kill Bill"

scene from Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”

(source)

This answer to the question of the wrongness of killing is discomforting. Many of us would shudder at the conclusion that killing off people in an irreversible coma is right because it doesn’t mean imposing harm (the harm – complete and irreversible disability – has already been done). It doesn’t sound right. We sense that we would still impose a harm. But which harm? It can’t be a harm that they can experience, given that they can’t experience anything (so we’re not talking about cases of locked-in syndrome here). Hence, irreversible coma is the same harm as death. Killing people in an irreversible coma does not mean imposing extra harm. It’s not the loss of anything valuable that hasn’t been lost already by the event of the irreversible coma.

And yet, this still sounds unsatisfactory. Many of us would try to keep comatose people alive. After all, what looks like irreversibility may not be so in the future. But even if irreversibility is a certainty, we still wouldn’t be OK with pulling the plug. I’m afraid I have no solution. I’m stuck. And the absence of a solution complicates the justification of the right to life: if killing off irreversibly comatose people is not wrong, then the right to life loses part of its meaning.

More posts in this series are here.

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data, democracy, economics, freedom, poverty, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (36): The Economic Case Against Democracy

wealth in China

wealth in China

(source)

Democracy is a human right. But how do we justify this right? One common argument is that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies. However, there’s some disagreement about this argument: not about the goodness of wealth and wealth-enhancing institutions, but about whether democracies are in fact such institutions. Impressive economic growth rates in non-democratic countries such as China have planted doubts in many people’s minds.

Some time ago, I offered a rather “philosophical” argument against the view that democracies perform worse economically than some types of authoritarian government (i.e. China-style). But in fact we’re dealing with empirically verifiable hypotheses here. So I looked for some numbers and found this article by Dani Rodrik:

The relationship between a nation’s politics and its economic prospects is one of the most fundamental – and most studied – subjects in all of social science. Which is better for economic growth – a strong guiding hand that is free from the pressure of political competition, or a plurality of competing interests that fosters openness to new ideas and new political players? …

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership. (source)

Some data on democracy and growth are here.

The darling of the “authoritarian=efficient” crowd is, of course, China. China has indeed performed extremely well economically under a rather authoritarian government. However, that government is much less authoritarian than it was during the post-WWII decades of stagnation and extreme poverty. So maybe it’s the relative move towards greater freedom that is the true cause of China’s economic performance, rather than its authoritarian government per se.

Moreover, China has done very well in terms of growth and poverty reduction, but in terms of levels of prosperity it’s still way behind most countries that are much more free. Its astounding progress is partly due to the very low starting point that was engineered by its authoritarian rulers.

And finally, the supposed economic success of authoritarianism in China – if it exists – isn’t necessarily proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in general (authoritarian disaster stories are unfortunately far more common than authoritarian success stories). It may not even be proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in China, since correlation doesn’t imply causation, especially not if there are only very few observations: China’s economic success may be due to other factors – and maybe this success would have been even greater without authoritarian government.

Jesus raises the dead man Lazarus back to the living world (mosaic from Ravenna, 500's AD)

Jesus raises the dead man Lazarus back to the living world (mosaic from Ravenna, 500’s AD)

The economic case for authoritarianism is a bit like this: usually, people don’t return from the dead. But there’s this one guy, Lazarus, who did. Some claim that there was this other fellow, Jesus, who done the deed and made Lazarus walk again. There are no other Jesuses around, and this one Jesus only did his trick once. Nobody quite knows how he did it. Some say he just happened to be around when it occurred and people put one and one together. Lazarus would have walked anyway, perhaps even sooner had this other fellow not stolen all the attention.

More here, here, here and here on the myth of successful authoritarianism.

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aid, data, democracy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (35): Why Do We Need Democracy?

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Democracy is a human right. In the past, I’ve  listed a number of reasons why we should prefer democracy over other forms of government (here and here for example). I’ve now come across another reason, one that may not be convincing or relevant to everyone, but still it’s mildly interesting:

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames...

Lisbon, Portugal, during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755. This copper engraving, made that year, shows the city in ruins and in flames. Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic.

All things — including wealth — being equal, earthquakes kill more people in dictatorships than in democracies, write NYU political scientists Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores. The reason that democratically elected leaders prepare their countries for disaster better is because they fear they’ll be voted out of office if their governments are caught unprepared. (Dictators obviously tend to worry less about election outcomes.) A recent World Bank study backs up this argument, with an added wrinkle: institutionalized autocracies, like China’s, tend to outperform non-institutionalized or corrupt autocracies as well as young democracies when it comes to preventing earthquake deaths. Still, another study finds that politicians in democratic elections benefit even more from doling out disaster relief after a catastrophe than they do from preparing for disasters yet to come. (source)

More on democracy and human rights here, here and here. More on earthquakes and accountability.

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culture, intervention, law, philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (34): Which Are the Best Anti-Human-Rights Theories?

free speech

Those of us who believe human rights are important have an intellectual duty to engage with the best critics of human rights. “Engage” may be too big a word for this blog post, but what I’ll do here is list some of the best anti-rights theories and link to previous posts where I’ve dealt with them in some more detail.

By “best” I obviously don’t mean “convincing”. If I was convinced by any (or all) of these theories I wouldn’t be writing this blog. None of the theories I list here, or any other anti-rights theories for that matter, are even remotely convincing on close inspection. I won’t provide that close inspection in this post. In most cases I’ve done so before, and I’ll therefore take the luxury of linking back to older posts.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism comes in many shapes, but the most basic form of the theory is evidently opposed to human rights. Human rights limit the things that can be done to maximize aggregate utility, and the efforts to maximize aggregate utility often – in some forms of utilitarianism – justify harm done to individuals if that harm is necessary for greater gains elsewhere in society.

Of course, there is such a thing as rule utilitarianism which claims that respect for rules (e.g. human rights) usually maximizes utility or is the best proxy for utility in the absence of detailed knowledge about consequences of specific actions. Read more here and here about the link between utilitarianism and human rights.

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism doesn’t reject human rights as such, but only their universal applicability and desirability. According to this theory, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is therefore something valuable that needs to be protected. Efforts to universalize human rights will destroy moral diversity and non-western cultural identities, and are in fact exercises in cultural imperialism and cultural genocide.

Read more here, here, here and here about cultural relativism and human rights.

Empire

A related criticism views human rights as a tool in outright power imperialism. Human rights talk only serves to justify violent interventions in so-called “rogue states” or other countries that provide a selfish and imperial benefit to the U.S. (but also Europe). The violent interventions in Kosovo/Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. have all been partially justified by human rights talk but were, according to some, primarily motivated by the strategic interests of the intervening powers. More here.

The economic case against human rights

It’s often argued that economic growth is enhanced by certain policies and actions that imply violations of human rights. The Chinese government in particular is quick to use this argument. And the whole “Asian values” debate – somewhat outdated now – was based on it. Especially developing countries supposedly can’t afford the luxury of human rights. They need discipline and organization in production and consumption, not freedom. Read more here, here and here.

Legal positivism

Legal positivism doesn’t claim that there are no rights, simply that there are no human rights. Rights exist only if they are part of the law. Human rights in the abstract, as something that human beings possess independently of their country’s laws, is simply idle talk. It seems I still have to make the case against legal positivism…

Marxism

According to Marx, human rights are the rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature and they are designed to protect the wealthy from the poor. More here, here and here.

More posts in this series are here.

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philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (33): A Full Human Life

choice of life

a choice of lives

(source)

Again, I feel the need to rewrite an older post. Not a good sign. Still, here we go.

One way to look for an answer to the question in the title of this post is to focus on the kind of life we can achieve with the help of human rights. Ideally, most of us want a life that isn’t just mere existence or survival. Not even decent survival or a successful struggle for life is enough. We want a full human life. However, a full human life has a different meaning for different people. It’s a controversial notion, and we probably will never agree on the definition of a full human life.

Human rights won’t be able to help achieve all visions of the good life, and rightly so because some visions are destructive and harmful. However, they do give us the freedom and capabilities to try to achieve a very wide range of visions of the good life. Perhaps part of the good life is precisely this ability to make a free choice between a wide set of visions of the good life, to pursue that choice, to have the capabilities to do so and to have a reasonable chance of success whatever our choice. It’s now widely accepted that “a full human life” should be left to individual choice and can’t logically mean something that would be imposed on people.

Human rights give us the choice of a good life, the capabilities to pursue it, and a good chance to do it successfully. But how exactly do they do that? In order to pursue our self-chosen vision of the good life, we need some degree of freedom so that our life plans aren’t dominated, controlled or imposed by others, by governments, religious leaders, etc. For example, we need to be able to decide freely which kind of religion we want to practice, where to live, what job to do etc. Also, if we are to be able to plan our life freely, our choice of plan must be a real choice. Hence, we need a minimum of education, information and physical resources and capabilities (e.g. good health) in order to make an informed choice from a wide range of options, and in order to try to realize our choice. All these resources and capabilities are protected by human rights.

However, this thin and at the same time all-encompassing vision of a full human life may already be too specific and controversial. Some cultures or individuals may not want to give their female members the choice of deciding to shape their own vision of the good life. So how do we reply to that concern?

self

(source)

Perhaps we may get somewhere if we rephrase the question in the title of this post so that it states “why do I need human rights?” instead of “why do we need human rights?”. People usually are more willing to accept reasons for the importance of their own human rights than they are to accept reasons for the importance of the rights of others. More specifically, when the possibility to shape your own life is the reason for accepting human rights, there will be few people rejecting this reason as long as it’s about their own lives.

Once we can convince people of such a reason for the importance of their own human rights, we can then try to take the next step and try to convince them of the importance of the rights of others. At that moment, we may use elements outside of the system of human rights. Perhaps we can’t convince them of the importance of the rights of others when we focus on those rights, but maybe we’ll be more successful using other, non-rights based moral imperatives. These imperatives then apply the value people see in their own rights as a means to persuade them of the value of the rights of others.

For instance, the old maxim called the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” – does have some power of persuasion, but in this context it requires that we first convince people that human rights are necessary for themselves as human beings and that they view other human beings as human beings. Since we’re dealing with people who deny the rights of others, we may run the risk of including the conclusion in the premise. In other words, people who believe in the Golden Rule probably don’t need to be convinced of the general importance of human rights, and those who need to be convinced may not be swayed by the Golden Rule.

golden rule sign from toledo

Similarly, we could try to persuade people of the importance of the rights of others by appealing to Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. But again, this may fail, since it’s very unlikely to find a Kantian who isn’t already convinced by the general importance of human rights, or to find an opponent of the rights of others who can be convinced by Kantian arguments.

Still, you don’t know if you don’t try, so let’s leave aside these worries for the moment and go back to the first step in this strategy: how can we convince people that human rights are important for themselves? I still think a description of the ways in which these rights can help them to achieve a self-chosen vision of a full human life is promising, even if the definition of this full human life has to remain very abstract and vague and can’t include anything more specific than the capacity to choose your own path through life and your own final goals and perspectives.

This kind of justification of human rights, because it builds on a vision of a full human life that is very vague and that only includes the free choice of what it means to have a full human life, holds across a wide range of different individuals, ideologies and cultures. A vision of a full human life that is paradoxically “thin” can justify human rights, at least as long as we limit the ambition to egocentric justification, i.e. a justification of people’s own rights. Justifying rights as something that people need to respect in each other is then the next and more difficult step. Also paradoxically, this thin version of a full human life doesn’t justify a thin set of human rights but rather a set that contains many rights that are still controversial, even among those who generally view human rights in a positive way.

More on justifications of human rights here.

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economics, philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (32): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

the marketplace of ideas

(source)

First, a brief reminder of how I understand the marketplace of ideas and how it justifies freedom of speech. I normally don’t do this, but I can save us all a lot of time by quoting myself:

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

cry of the masses

cry of the masses, by Jozef Vachal

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

If this metaphor of the market is convincing then it can provide a powerful reason for adopting and protecting the right to free speech. There’s hardly a more valuable good than quality in thinking and if free speech can help to deliver that good it’s difficult to argue against this right.

Personally, I do think that the metaphor of the free market can help us to understand the logic and benefits of free and widespread public discussion and of the free exchange of and competition between ideas, and that this understanding can provide a good justification for freedom of speech. Much of what goes on in the marketplace of ideas is similar to what goes on in a market of goods or services. The important similarity is the free exchange of and competition between ideas, the lack of restrictions on exchange and competition, and the freedom of all to join in the exchange and competition on a equal footing. And although I would advise not to push the metaphor too far (a perpetual and fatal temptation of all economic metaphors), there’s probably one more similarity that can be useful, namely the concept of market failure.

Market failure in economics refers to those cases in which a free market, left to itself, fails to allocate goods and services efficiently. In other words, there is at least one market participant who may have been better off without anyone else being worse off had other systems operated instead of the free market. Examples of market failure are

  • information asymmetries, which occur when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other (classic examples are the used-car salesman selling a defective car to someone who has no knowledge of cars, and the terminally ill person buying a life insurance)
  • externalities, which occur when a transaction has a cost that is not transmitted through prices and that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost (the classic example is industrial pollution imposing costs on the whole society, costs that are not included in the transaction price of the polluting goods).

Market failures can also occur in the marketplace of ideas. It’s important to check whether these market failures are enough of a problem to render the concept of a marketplace of ideas unworkable. If the marketplace of ideas can’t work properly most of the time, then it can’t function as a justification of freedom of speech. However, if market failures are due to insufficient free speech, then free speech can still be justified by the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that market failures in the marketplace of ideas often go beyond insufficient free speech. Let’s list some of those market failures:

  • Political correctness: political correctness is a form of silencing and therefore introduces market failure; if some arguments or some positions can’t be expressed and heard, then they can’t enter into the calculus of arguments and can’t improve our thinking. This is true even if those arguments or positions are manifestly unsound, because silencing them means that we lose a way of stressing the soundness of other arguments and positions (saying what’s wrong about something is often an indirect way of saying what’s right about something else).
  • Silencing more generally: political correctness isn’t the only form of silencing; pornography may silence women and hate speech may silence minorities; silencing means the absence of arguments and positions, and such an absence always harms the operation of the marketplace of ideas.
  • Polarization: polarization occurs when groups in society do not argue, convince or engage in public thinking but instead simply express claims motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show their identity or belonging; no one is convinced, people stay in their respective camps and these camps drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
  • Biased media attention: a lot of the argumentation in the marketplace isn’t direct but gets channeled through media; if these media don’t take the ideal of the marketplace seriously and don’t function as stages for debate but instead play the game of polarization and present ongoing debates in a biased way, then there’s less debate.
  • Lack of education: the argumentation in the marketplace of ideas obviously requires a relatively high level of education; absent this education for the large majority, the marketplace can’t function since it depends on massive participation.
  • Psychological biases: even if general education levels are high, certain psychological biases can hinder the operation of the market; one example is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable; it’s obvious that this harms the operation of the marketplace.
  • Privacy issues: some people may be discouraged from entering the marketplace of ideas because they can’t handle exposure or the possible intrusions into their private lives that may follow from participation in the marketplace.
  • Etc.

Now, many of these market failures do look pretty serious and may discredit the whole notion of a marketplace of ideas, at least in the foreseeable future. However, most can be addressed in some ways. Media can be forced to present different viewpoints, hate speech can be curtailed etc. So there may be ways of rescuing the ideal of the marketplace of ideas both as an ideal in itself and as a justification of free speech. Much like the economic market in goods and services isn’t necessarily discredited by economic market failure and can be rescued by targeted government intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

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international relations, intervention, law, philosophy, poverty, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (31): Or Maybe We Don’t? – Exploring the “Dark Side” of Human Rights

dark side

(source)

Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.

Complaints about particular human rights

Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.

Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.

The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.

Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).

torture scene from Tintin

torture scene from Tintin

Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.

Complaints about human rights in general

A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.

Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.

There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.

Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.

greed

(source)

Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).

Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.

A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.

More posts in this series here.

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philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (30): Strategies for Justifying Human Rights

17 reasons

(source)

When we try to answer questions such as “why do we need to respects human rights?”, “why are there human rights?”, “where do human rights come from?” and “what are the grounds of human rights?”, then it’s not beyond doubt that our answers will result in any practical benefits or real improvements in actual respect for human rights. One often hears the argument that all such answers are useless, since those looking for them are already convinced that human rights are important and are simply engaged in an intellectual exercise without practical consequences. These answers will – by definition – fail to produce beneficial consequences in practice, because those who violate human rights will not be persuaded by intellectual exercises.

I think that’s true for some violators. The Taliban for instance seem to be impervious to reason. Others, however, may be swayed. Hence, the exercise may be more than intellectual; there is a chance that good answers to questions about the grounding of human rights have some practical effect and can produce some improvements in levels of respect for human rights.

There’s an obvious and easy answer to those questions, but I doubt that it’s a very useful one. It’s provided by religion, and more specifically by the Judeo-Christian religion. If human life is sacred because all men and women are equally the children of God and created in His image, then there are certain things one cannot do to them and certain standards of conduct that apply equally to all human beings. With the help of some interpretation of the Bible, it should be possible to express those standards in human rights language. Some would even claim that there is no other way to ground human rights, since this grounding requires the concept of the sacredness of human life, and this sacredness can only be defended by positing a divine creator.

Detail of the Creation of Man by Michelangelo

Detail of the Creation of Man by Michelangelo

There are at least two difficulties with this approach. First, attempts to ground human rights in religion sound vaguely anachronistic: human rights have started their ascent during an era of increasing secularization. So it seems that they can survive and thrive without a religious basis and that there’s no need to use categories such as “sacred”.

The second difficulty with the religious approach is its lack of universal appeal: it will only persuade the persuaded. Adherents of other religions, non-believers or Jews and Christians who interpret the Bible differently will often find such a grounding of human rights hard to swallow.

So it seems that a proper justification of human rights – proper in the sense of being universally acceptable, at least potentially – has to be a-religious and purely rational. However, rational justifications also face some problems. A rational justification is limited by definition. Because you can’t appeal to the word of God, you have to use other values to ground human rights. And to some extent, you have to justify the grounds you use as a justification. However, this can’t go on indefinitely. For example, if you argue that we need human rights in order to protect human dignity or rationality, you also have to expound the reasons why we need dignity or rationality (at least, that is what you have to do when you can’t or won’t assume that our dignity comes from God). And then the same for the reasons why we need those reasons etc. At a certain point, you just have to accept circularity and admit that at a basic level of morality you need to do what is moral simply because that is what morality requires (and not because of some other reason).

Still, before you reach that point you can do useful work by linking respect for human rights to some other values that people deem important. Because people have already adopted those values, you don’t need to argue for them. Hence you can avoid the infinite regress of justification, and you can limit yourself to the reasons why the protection and realization of certain given values require human rights.

More on the justification of human rights is here and here.

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art, philosophy, religion, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (29): Human Rights as Expressions of Human Duties in Early Protestant Thinking

Anti-papal painting by Girolamo da Treviso, "A Protestant Allegory"

Anti-papal painting by Girolamo da Treviso, "A Protestant Allegory"

(source – The painting refers to the English Reformation, formally sanctioned by the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereby Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and was established as head of the Church of England. The painting was in the collection of Henry VIII who owned at least two other anti-papal pictures. The composition comprises a pope sprawling on the ground, flanked by two female figures representing avarice and hypocrisy, all of whom are being stoned by the four evangelists. On the ground in front of these figures are a cardinal’s hat and a document with four seals (probably a Papal Bull). The city in the distance on the left may be Jerusalem. Above the city is a burning candle, which contrasts with another in the immediate foreground that has been extinguished by a cooking pan. These candles have been interpreted as symbolizing respectively the true light of the Gospels and the false doctrine of Rome)

Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However,  it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.

Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.

How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.

Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?

Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain

All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism – as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.

More on the justifications of human rights here, here and here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (28): Protection, or Something More?

Tom being nice to Jerry

Tom being nice to Jerry

The standard answer to this question is protection: human rights offer people protection against other people or the state. People need rights because they want to protect their interests, their freedom, their equal status, their opportunities, their values and their projects in life against attacks by those more powerful. (There’s a more elaborate version of this standard thesis here).

However, there’s a sense in which we need rights even if no one harms anyone else. Immanuel Kant has made this claim in a very convincing manner. Suppose that all those people who are powerful and strong enough to frustrate our interests, projects, opportunities and values and to harm our freedom, independence and equal status refrain from doing so in a coherent, systematic and predictable manner. Hence, there is no harm imposed by people on each other, and one could assume that human rights retreat to the background. In fact, they would seem to become totally useless.

And yet, such a social setting would imply that the weak are able to enjoy their rights, their freedom and their equal status and to pursue their goals and values only “on the sufferance of the strong” and with their explicit or implicit permission and indulgence. Kant thinks, rightly I believe, that it is wrong for people to be dependent on others for their freedom and equality in this manner. And if we understand the “weak” to be almost everyone – even the strong have to sleep – then this dependence on indulgence will be a general phenomenon. Hence, even in such a seemingly idyllic society awash with benevolent and self-restrained power we need human rights.

More on the reasons why we need human rights here and here.

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

babies' rights dolk graffiti

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

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

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

man with camera in his eye

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

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

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

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

Vomit scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Vomit scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

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

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

Let’s model this using the following standard drawing:

law of diminishing marginal utility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diminishing marginal utility of freedom

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

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

diminishing marginal utility of equality

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

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

A final example has to do with rights themselves:

diminishing marginal utility of human rights

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

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

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

More Monty Python here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (25): Human Rights and the Endowment Effect

look, human rights graffiti

(source)

Why do we say that people fighting for their rights are in fact fighting for the recognition of their rights? That people have rights even when the law doesn’t recognize these rights? That, in other words, people have moral rights that precede their legal rights? And that these moral rights can be used to evaluate and, if necessary, create their legal rights?

At first sight, such statements imply the dubious ontological claim that moral rules have an objective reality, independent of what people believe or do, and that these rules populate a parallel and invisible universe of morality. These days, we usually think that rights and rules are the products of human beings, rather than natural or God-given entities. On closer examination, however, denying that there are such independent rights creates a problem and ignores an opportunity.

  • The problem: without independent moral rights, all we’re left with are the existing legal rights, which more often than not are insufficient or even complicit in human rights violations. In other words, we’re left with legalism and legal positivism, rather unattractive worldviews.
  • The missed opportunity: without independent moral rights, we ignore the strategic advantages of the endowment effect: people are much more eager to fight when they believe they are fighting to keep what is theirs already, than when they fight in order to get what isn’t theirs already. Usually, the endowment effect is considered to be a cognitive bias (in economics, the value of something shouldn’t change just because you already have it), but in this context all means to make the fight for rights more successful are welcome.
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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (24): What is the Marketplace of Ideas?

dilbert marketplace of ideas

(source, click image to enlarge)

I’ve often invoked the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to justify the right to free speech. (See these older posts). I think it’s useful to spell out in some more detail what the metaphor means, how far it goes and how it can bolster the right to free speech.

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

square cubeExposing ideas to the test of the market doesn’t mean telling only your friends or your countrymen about them. Ideally, the market includes the whole of humanity; people who are close to you may share your biases and hence may not see the weakness of certain arguments or may not come up with the killer counter-argument. Another metaphor that can make this point somewhat clearer is the metaphor of perspectives: if you only look at a square from one side (or from one perspective) because no one told you that there’s another side or because in your group or culture it’s not common to suppose that there’s another side, you may not come to see that the square is actually a cube.

Without this massive and global participation of free speakers, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

This ultimately global nature of the marketplace of ideas gives us not only a justification of the equal right to free speech, but also a justification of the universal right to free speech.

Homer trying is the first step toward failureSo, the marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be understood in purely economic or literal terms, as a place where ideas are “traded” or “sold”, or “produced” and “consumed”; that wouldn’t make any sense. Of course, the result of the marketplace of ideas is that some people “trade” their old ideas for other ideas because the marketplace has proven that some ideas are hard to defend. In some sense of the word, ideas – and alternative ideas – are “exchanged”, as are arguments for and against ideas, but they aren’t exchanged in an economic sense. Also, one can argue that ideas have a cost: it may have been very hard and therefore costly to establish the set of arguments in favor of a winning idea (the marketplace of ideas is a tough place); or it may be costly in terms of status to hold on to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked in the marketplace. In the end, however, it’s never advisable to take metaphors too far or to use economic thinking where it doesn’t belong.

One important caveat: none of this should lead to the conclusion that massive support for an idea automatically turns this idea into a good one. It’s not because many people have decided that an idea is strongly supported by the best arguments and that other ideas have failed, that they are right. Maybe the marketplace of ideas hasn’t worked properly, because some of the prerequisites aren’t there (massive participation, strong speech rights, an educated citizenry etc.). Maybe the popular assessment of the balance of arguments rests on nothing more than prejudice. If you insist you can call this a “market failure”.

Here’s a quote that nicely illustrates my point – it’s about scientific discourse but it applies generally:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out. … [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution. (source)

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (23): Privacy, Justifications and Objections

charlie brown privacy

Charlie Brown having some privacy

(source)

The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:

Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Types of privacy

Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):

  • Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
  • Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
  • Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
  • Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
  • Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.

(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).

cctv and surveillance

(source, source, work by Will Varner)

All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.

Justification of privacy

Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.

Objections to privacy

Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.

However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.

karl marx

Karl Marx

Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.

Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).

More here and here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (22): Private Property Rights, Justifications Based Not On Their Origins But On Their Purpose

private property

I guess a few clarifications about the right to private property are in order (this older post was rather unsatisfactory).

Property is the set of rules governing people’s access to and control of things. Three types are traditionally distinguished: private property, common property and collective property.

Types of property

1. Private property

In the case of private property, an individual agent (usually persons, but also families, businesses etc.) has a right to private property if he or she has a right to control the object and to regulate access. Control means sole decisional authority: the individual agent is the only one who has a right to decide what should be done with the object or what should happen to it.

This right allows the owner to decide, to some extent, to do things with the object that affect other people. Private property rights include the right to use property in ways that disadvantage other people, as long as these disadvantages do not include violations of the rights of other people. For example, a factory owner can decide to close her factory. A rich person can decide to buy and own a large house even if some other families would benefit more from living there.

However, a factory owner deciding to use his factory in such a way that it harms the health of workers or of neighboring families violates the rights of these people, and her property rights do not include a right to violate the rights of others. In such cases, rights have to be balanced and the more important right (depending on the circumstances) should prevail.

tragedy of the commons

2. Common property

In the case of common property, the purpose is not individual control and exclusive access, but, on the contrary, equal access to all. Common property of a park or a common grazing field, for instance, is meant to stop certain people using it as if it was private property and as if others were precluded from using or accessing it. If farmers are allowed to use a common field for their cattle, common ownership would imply that no farmer overuses the field and brings so many cattle that there’s no grass left for the cattle of other farmers. Farmers who violate this rule of common property act like the field is their private property because they exclude others from using it. (That’s also called the tragedy of the commons, to which I will return below).

3. Collective property

In the case of collective property (sometimes also called joint property), the purpose is not only equal access to all but also equal control and decisional power. The community as a whole determines, through systems of collective decision making, how the resource is to be used. Each individual’s use is subject to a decision process to be concluded to the satisfaction of each of the co-owners – or of a majority, depending on the type of collective decision procedure. Collective ownership of a farm, for instance, means not only that all farmers belonging to the collective have an equal right to access the farm (as in common property), but also that all farmers have an equal say in the management of the farm. The latter is not (always) the case in common ownership: equal access to a commonly owned park does not (necessarily) imply an equal say in the management of the park.

When does property make sense?

In many cases, talk of property only makes sense under conditions of scarcity. In the case of private property, there would be no reason to demand exclusive control over and access to things if these things were so numerous and abundant that no one else would want to control or access what you want to control or access.

And yet, in the case of intellectual property for example, which is by definition, in our age at least, anything but scarce given the means of reproduction, we still talk about private intellectual property in the sense of exclusive control of access. But in general, it makes sense to view private property as meaningful only in circumstances of scarcity. (Perhaps that’s a good reason not to talk about “intellectual property” at all). The same is true of common property: if the whole wide world were a park, there would be no risk of some people excluding others from accessing it, and hence no need to talk about the common property of the “park”. And the same is true for collective property.

What does property require?

First, it requires rules. It only makes sense to view types of ownership as rule based. Property is in essence a rule. You can’t say that something is your property simply because you have it, hold it, exclude others from it etc. You have property because there are social rules granting you property of something and granting you rights to defend it. People should not rely on their own strength or willingness to cooperate in order to defend their holdings.

Because the state intervenes in the enforcement of property rules and rights, it’s important to have a morally sound justification of those rights. Hence, property also requires a justification. We wouldn’t want the state to use its power for immoral or unjustified ends. I’ll focus on the justification of private property in the remainder of this post because that’s arguably the most common type and the one that most often raises moral issues.

Some of those issues are the morality of taxation and eminent domain, the needs of the poor, the justification of redistribution, the property we’re allowed to own (guns?) or sell (organs?), the things we’re allowed to do with our property (shoot our gun at people? suicide?) etc.

Justifications of private property

What is the point of private property? It must have some moral value, otherwise the moral issues just cited wouldn’t arise in the first place and private property wouldn’t receive legal protection. From the discussion above, we know what private property is, which other types of property there are, which rights property entails, when it is likely to make sense, and what it requires. But we don’t yet know why there should be private property. Some would say that there’s no way for property rights to come about or to be justified because if you go back far enough in time – and sometimes that’s not very far – all “property” is in fact the result of theft of commonly owned resources.

John Locke

John Locke

John Locke is famous for his attempted justification of private property. My body is my own and my property, and hence I also own the power of my body. Through labor I incorporate the power of my body in the goods I produce. By working on an object, I mix my labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from me, he also takes away my labor, which means that he takes away the power of my body. He therefore uses my body, which is incompatible with my right to possess my own body.

However, justifications like these tend to be very shaky. Hence, I think it’s better not to focus too much on the ways in which, historically or theoretically, a right to private property has/can come about in a world that’s originally equally owned by all. We should rather think about what would happen when a right to private property, taken as a given, would disappear, and distill a justification from that (in other words, trying to look for a consequentialist justification).

We can, in fact, without much trouble, list a number of harms that would result from the elimination of a right to private property. Kant defined property as “that with which I am so connected that another’s use of it without my consent would wrong me”. What wrongs would that be? Here’s a tentative list:

  • Private property is a means to protect the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public. Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights).
  • Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Freedom of speech, one of the most public acts, is difficult to imagine without privacy and secrecy, and hence without private property.
  • Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.
  • Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again. And it’s difficult to imagine a place in a particular community without you own home and hence without private property.
  • Private property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.
  • It is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.
  • Private property prevents the tragedy of the commons, referred to above. If everyone has free access to a piece of land for example, then no one has an incentive to avoid over-usage. Every additional cow an individual introduces for grazing brings full benefits to the individual, whereas the costs of overuse resulting from the additional cows are shared among all individual users of the land. Conversely, the benefits of any individual’s self-restraint will accrue to all the other individuals whether or not they also exercise self-restraint. Individual self-restraint is ultimately useless unless all cooperate, which is unlikely because the benefits of self-restraint for each individual are outweighed by the benefits of overuse. Only private property allows people to reap the benefits of self-restraint.
  • The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).
  • As already mentioned above, you also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, access it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

Property is therefore an instrumental value, one which serves the realization of other values.

All these advantages of private property are advantages for everyone. Hence, everyone should have a right to private property, which may imply the need for some kind of redistribution benefiting those people who don’t have enough private property to realize all the benefits of private property (for example the homeless). Hence, the right to private property can be an argument against redistribution, but also one in favor of redistribution.

Private property as it is described and justified here is of course an ideal. The real existence of private property, and its actual distribution in the real world never matches this ideal, as is the case for all human rights. Property is often used to oppress others, and many people can never reap the full benefits of property. In the words of John Stuart Mill, the laws of property and the actual distribution of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of property rests.

But even in the ideal world, a right to private property is not absolute, nor is it absolutely beneficial, as I stated in the definition in the beginning of this post. Property can conflict with other values. There’s no way to escape value pluralism.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (21): Selfish Reasons for Respecting the Rights of Others

shoot yourself in the foot

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People usually have no problem acknowledging their own rights and demanding that others respect those rights. (I say “usually” because it’s not unheard of that people waive their rights. For example, some don’t want to live in a democracy). It’s the rights of others that are often a problem. One can try to foster benevolence, tolerance, mutual respect and humanitarianism as means to increase the level of respect for the rights of others, but perhaps that’s utopian, depending on your assessment of human nature. It’s true that the concept of human rights arose precisely because of deficiencies in human nature and an overall insufficiency of benevolence, tolerance etc.

So perhaps it’s better to try to find selfish reasons that may convince people to respect the rights of others. There’s a couple of those here:

  • To the extent that social stability and peaceful coexistence depend on some level of respect for certain human rights, and break down below that level, everyone has an interest in maintaining that level of respect. Massive and ongoing violations of certain human rights for a large enough subgroup of a population can cause social unrest that may ultimately affect the prosperity and security of all members of that population, including the violators.
  • I argued before (see here and here) that the optimal process for thinking and knowledge acquisition requires the free and public appearance of a maximum number of arguments for and against a theory or idea. Only those theories and ideas that survive this process will be of high quality. The multiplication of perspectives can, to some extent, be the result of solitary reflection (“imagination”) but is enhanced by the actual participation of others in the thinking process. It’s like you can’t know that a square shape is actually part of a cube rather than simply a square if you don’t look at it from all possible perspectives and if you don’t shine a “light” on all possible sides. Hence, if we assume that everyone has an interest in the quality of his or her own thinking and knowledge, then we can also safely assume that everyone has an interest in at least certain freedom rights being granted to a maximum number of other people (even people in other countries or cultures, since the marketplace of ideas should be extended as wide as possible in order to avoid national or cultural prejudice and to allow the appearance of unusual perspectives and arguments).
  • And then there’s reciprocity. If people cherish their own rights, it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity: others will to some extent return the favor. Respecting the rights of others can encourage them to respect your own rights. Conversely, if you claim the right to deny the rights of others, that sets the precedent that someone might deny your rights. This reciprocity operates on several levels: it’s probably a basic social instinct to answer respect with respect; and you may hope for reciprocity because your own practice of respect for the rights of others has contributed to a general culture of human rights.
  • Aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going. Hence their economic self-interest will convince them to be more positive about the freedom of movement and association of potential immigrants, something which will also be beneficial for those immigrants’ right to a certain standard of living.
  • Some other selfish reasons to respect the rights of others may seem a bit far-fetched but not completely unlikely. For example, people have an interest in art and want to consume art. Hence, they must grant artists freedom of expression.

The big question here is obviously the weight of these selfish reasons to respect the rights of others. There are, after all, numerous selfish reasons for violating the rights of others (for example, discrimination, like dishonesty, is an important producer of profit for the discriminators). And those reasons can easily be considered more important than the reasons to act benevolently. We wouldn’t need to discuss human rights if things were any different because the “invisible hand” would have eradicated all rights violations. Still, I believe it’s useful to emphasize some of the selfish reasons to respect the rights of others because those are clearly not understood well enough most of the time. A proper understanding could at least make things better at the margin, and in some cases.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

polarization

(Perhaps it’s best to read this post together with a previous one dealing with a similar topic).

One of the justifications of the right to free speech is an epistemological one: free, equal and massive participation in public discourse produces better decisions and opinions because it allows for

  • the appearance of a large number of arguments and perspective and
  • widespread criticism and examination of possible decisions and opinions.

Looking at possible decisions and opinions from a variety of perspectives and listening to a maximum number of critical arguments for and against, improves the quality of decisions and opinions. Freedom of speech is not, in theory, necessary for this improvement, since a single talented individual can, in isolation, imagine perspectives and counter-arguments. However, better than to trust the imagination and the limitless neutrality of an individual, it is better to use the resources of the crowd, and there is no better way to do that than to protect freedom of speech as an equal right for all. This idea has been called the marketplace of ideas.

An added advantage of involving the crowd in public discourse is that individuals will anticipate criticism and will therefore make better use of their imagination and improve their arguments even before entering the quality enhancing public discourse. (I’ve made a somewhat more profound version of this argument here).

us and them cartoon

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Intuitively, one would expect that this marketplace of ideas, protected by freedom of speech, should result in some convergence: bad arguments and weakly argued opinions and decisions would lose support in public discourse, because they are publicly shown to be bad or weakly supported. The majority of people should then gravitate towards the better opinions. However, we often see the opposite, namely polarization, i.e. increasingly sharp divisions in society with groups having extreme opinions that are strongly held and that aren’t thoroughly examined. Often, the strength at which those opinions are held bears no relation to the strength of the arguments in favor of them. That’s the marketplace of ideas equivalent of harmful but popular products.

We then have to ask ourselves which of these two statements is true:

  • Polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. In which case we can hold on to our epistemological justification of that right.
  • Or polarization happens notwithstanding freedom of speech. In which case we seem to lose a possible justification for freedom of speech.

“Both” is probably the best answer. Freedom of speech facilitates public discourse and improves the quality of it, but only if it is used. If people decide not to use freedom of speech, and decide not to listen to opposing views or to argue with opponents, then this freedom can’t improve public discourse. Yet the absence of a proper use of this freedom does not invalidate the freedom itself. It does make it harder to justify this freedom as something beneficial. If many people don’t use freedom of speech to improve public discourse it becomes more difficult to argue that we should protect freedom of speech because it improves public discourse. And yet, this doesn’t undermine the theoretical or philosophical argument that freedom of speech can – in theory – improve public discourse. So the inherent desirability of free speech remains, even if the practical desirability is weak. (Note that there are other possible justifications for freedom of speech, some of which have nothing to do with the topic we’re discussing here).

Also, we often see that polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. Cass Sunstein, for example, wrote about the “law of group polarization” and showed that polarization is to some extent the result of exclusively intra-group deliberation (climate change deniers who discuss their views only with fellow-deniers tend to come out of these discussions with an even stronger version of their initial opinions).

And finally, we should be careful in our estimates of polarization. Some high profile cases of polarization can give the impression that polarization is rampant. But people disagree about the extent of polarization. It all depends what topic you’re dealing with, and things differ from country to country as well. Also, the political class can make polarization look more common than it is among the general population. If polarization isn’t as widespread as we think it is, then its impact on freedom of speech is also smaller.

More on polarization here and here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (19): Justifying Human Rights

why

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Justifying human rights means answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. In this post I won’t try to answer that question (I tried to do that elsewhere) but rather discuss the reasons why we need to ask it in the first place. We need to ask that question because the desirability or necessity of human rights isn’t self-evidently or axiomatically true, like it’s the case with a phrase such as “nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect”. The latter phrase doesn’t require proof and can or even should be accepted as such. The same doesn’t apply to phrases such as “we need human rights”, “human rights are desirable rules”, “human rights are rules of morality” or “people ought to respect human rights”. Those phrases aren’t self-evident. They require rational and argumentative support. Not proof, of course, since there is never any proof in moral, legal or political matters. What they do require is the support of sound arguments.

Fortunately, it’s the case that many people, perhaps even a majority of humanity, believe that those phrases about human rights are actually self-evidently true. And a substantial part of those people, for a substantial part of their activity, act as if those phrases are self-evidently true. Still, this sociological fact about public opinion and public behavior does not absolve us from the duty of answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. After all, slavery was once believed to be self-evidently necessary by a majority of public opinion (as far as we can tell), and yet this wasn’t, fortunately, a good reason not to ask why it should be necessary. What ought to be can never be settled by pointing to what is (otherwise we would commit the so-called naturalistic fallacy).

Bundy mug shot, 1980, the day after he was sentenced to death for the murder of Kimberly Leach

Bundy mug shot, 1980, the day after he was sentenced to death for the murder of Kimberly Leach

In general, people should give reasons for their beliefs and actions. Some would even say that giving such reasons is what makes us human. Giving a justification for human rights is therefore an intellectual necessity. And it would require this even if every single individual believed that human rights are necessary and always acted in accordance with this belief. But, of course, not every individual believes this, or acts according to this belief. Hence the exercise of justifying human rights also has a practical necessity: some of those who don’t believe in human rights, or whose belief isn’t sufficiently strong to guide all their actions, may be persuaded by a good justification. I say “some”, because others are perhaps not open to rational persuasion or argumentation. Good luck trying to convince Ted Bundy or Osama bin Laden of the desirability of human rights. But even when faced with people like them, it’s good to have a sound justification of human rights, not because it will help to convince them, but because it will help us to know what we are doing with them and why we are doing it.

So, if it’s accepted that we have to try to produce a sound and possibly convincing answer to the question “why do we need human rights?”, and that this answer should be based on rational arguments, we still haven’t said anything about the content of such an answer. I think there’s a good reason for keeping that content as open as possible. I don’t believe that it’s possible to find the One or the Best Justification. There are many good ways of justifying human rights, none of them obviously better than all others. Some justifications will be more convincing to some people, others more to other people. Some justifications may even be in conflict with each other, or logically incompatible. And other justifications may be deeply flawed and yet convincing to many. None of this is a problem. None of it implies that human rights are self-defeating, incoherent or wrong. All that matters is that a maximum number of people find their own justifications and are sufficiently persuaded by them.

M.C. Escher, hands drawing each other, symbolizing reciprocity

M.C. Escher, hands drawing each other, symbolizing reciprocity

Justifications may be based on religious revelation or logical reasoning. On utilitarian calculations or on moral and deontological rules. On strong principles or on opportunistic reasons (opportunism on the part of rulers who believe that their rule may be safer when they respect human rights, or opportunism on the part of citizens who believe that their own rights will be safer when they respect the rights of others in a spirit of reciprocity). Justifications may use one moral value (for example dignity, equality or liberty) or may try to accommodate the plurality of human values. They may be based on a conception of a minimally good life which human rights are supposed to guarantee, or on something more. Justifications can also be derivative: like postulating one fundamental human right (e.g. the equal right of all to be free) and then trying to deduce all other rights from this basic right. And, finally, it may not be the content, the postulates, the basis, the structure or the motivation of the justification that can differ, but also its form: justifications may be rational endeavors like the examples cited here, or may ditch rationality altogether and use emotions such as sympathy. Whatever helps.

Here‘s a related post on the justification of the right to free speech.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (18): The Economic Case Against Human Rights

Some more comments following two previous posts on the topic (see here and here).

Do human rights promote or depress economic growth and prosperity? (I’ll focus on non-political rights for the moment because political rights – i.e. democracy – have very specific effects on the economy). The economic case against human rights could go something like this. Economic growth would be enhanced by different policies and actions that imply violations of human rights. E.g.

  • Killing criminals instead of incarcerating them would make substantial resources available for more productive investments.
  • The same is true for the resource that go into running legal and criminal judiciary systems that correspond to human rights requirements (e.g. high burden of proof, appeals systems, legal representation etc.). More about those requirements here.
  • Human rights, and specifically those regulating the judiciary, make it more likely that suspects who have indeed committed a crime are set free, which imposes an economic cost on society.
  • Killing the poor, the sick and the elderly rather than helping them would likewise liberate resources for more productive use.
  • Less extremely, assisting the poor, the sick and the elderly means creating a large government and a heavy tax and regulatory burden. These are detrimental to entrepreneurship and business because they are disincentives for wealth creators. When wealth creators are burdened, prosperity suffers. (More here).
  • Social and economic human rights such as a right to strike, to a decent wage, limited working hours etc. undermine productivity and hence prosperity.
  • Etc.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all these effects are real and not compensated by

  • positive economic effects of respect for human rights
  • other, negative economic effects of violations of human rights, or
  • long term disadvantages following the possible short term advantages of rights violations (the fear, distrust and uncertainty resulting from some if not all of the claimed economic advantages of the rights violations that I just cited would likely harm long term prosperity).

Then you still don’t have a watertight case against human rights because people may still be willing to pay the economic price for respect for human rights. They may prefer to have their rights respected even if that has economic costs.

But, of course, that assumption doesn’t hold. The possible economic benefits of rights violations are easily offset by their costs and by the benefits of respect for human rights. Ultimately, the question of the effect of respect for human rights on the economy is an empirically verifiable hypothesis: we have data on economic performance, and – to some extent – on rights performance. It’s just a matter of linking the two. There’s an interesting paper here trying to do just that. The conclusion:

Our results show that high degrees of human rights are conducive to economic growth and welfare in a significant manner.

Through which channels is this effect supposed to operate? There are a few candidates:

  • Physical security is a necessary precondition for the productive use of one’s resources and property.
  • Property rights and the rule of law – both are human rights (see here and here) – are necessary for the effective operation of free markets, and free markets promote growth. Neither the rule of law nor property rights are safe in authoritarian regimes: why would a government that imposes physical harm respect property rights?
  • Countries don’t attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) when they have a poor human rights record, rampant insecurity, ineffective rule of law and protection of property rights, poor labor conditions and the worker unrest that it implies etc. Stability, predictability, peace and calm lead to investment. Investment in rights abusing countries can also harm companies domestically when consumers revolt against the foreign conduct of their national companies.
  • Education is a human right, and investments – especially FDI – usually follow the trail of education. Education is typically considered growth enhancing.

The discussion should separate between growth and levels of prosperity. There is an obvious correlation between respect for rights and levels of prosperity: the most prosperous countries in the world are also those where respect for rights has achieved a higher level. The case that growth rather than level of prosperity is also correlated with respect for human rights seems a lot harder to make, given the high growth levels of countries such as China. The argument could be that respect for rights promotes but is not a necessary condition for growth. Or it could be that authoritarian countries with high growth rates would have had still higher rates had they respected rights to a higher degree. Such a counterfactual is of course very hard to measure.

So, it’s not just that richer countries can start to afford human rights (to some extent that’s true, because rights cost money); it’s also the case that respect for human rights leads to higher wealth. There’s a two-way causation at work here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (17): Freedom From Nature

From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.

Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.

The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated the harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.

Karl Marx

Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.

This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.

However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.

The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.

So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.

Hannah Arendt

One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.

That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).

Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.

What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.

Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.

This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.

Something on a related topic, namely Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is here. Some more stuff on the link between freedom and natural necessity is here and here.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (16): You Always Hurt The Ones You Love

Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni (c. 1616)

Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni (c. 1616)

Inflicting suffering on people is wrong. This simple and basic moral rule is a large part of the justification of human rights (although there are many other justifications). And yet, the parents among us – the large majority of human beings – simply by bringing children into existence, guarantee that those children will suffer. No life is without suffering. And they do so wittingly and willingly. So ignorance or impotence do not excuse this imposition of suffering. These children don’t get born because they have a right to be born. Non-existent people don’t have a right to come into existence. The opposite sentence would have some really scary and dizzying consequences. They are born because of parents’ choices. And those are informed choices. We all know that no life, not even the best one, is without suffering. Hence, the parents are, to some extent, responsible for this suffering (read more about the chain of causation here).

The fact that people keep reproducing without so much as an ounce of remorse, indicates that the willful infliction of suffering is an acceptable part of life, even if it is an infliction upon those closest to you. Perhaps we can explain this strange fact by the generally rational belief that the good that comes out of life compensates for the suffering we inflict on our children. Life’s suffering is just the price to pay for a greater good. Overall, most people do indeed find life worth living, notwithstanding the occasional suffering. Otherwise suicide would be much more common, I guess. But that kind of cost-benefit analysis is something we usually find repugnant. Many of us shudder at the decision to incinerate thousands of Japanese in order to end WWII.

But perhaps this cost-benefit analysis is much more acceptable when the cost for one persons isn’t intended to benefit another person. In our topic, the costs and benefits that are weighed against each other are for one and the same person. And yet, it’s not this person that does the weighing; it’s her parents. This is a case of literal paternalism: we decide for another person that some harm we do to her is necessary for a greater good. Like we decide that people can’t smoke cannabis (doing so is imposing a harm) because we believe that it’s in their interest and for their benefit. And paternalism is generally only acceptable when dealing with children, and with children as long as they are children. When reproducing we of course also inflict suffering on our children when they are grown up.

If you think all this is just a load of pretentious pseudo-philosophical BS, then maybe you’ll like this instead:

More on the rights of future generations, on children’s rights, and on suffering.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (15): Is Human Rights Talk Mere Signaling?

There’s certainly a lot of signaling going on in human rights talk. People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but rather want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that.

For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. Some allegations by torture victims may not be intended to stop a torture regime, but to signal extremist credentials to like-minded people. Also regarding torture, I’ve written not so long ago about a study suggesting that some governments sign torture conventions, not to rid the world of torture, but to signal ruthlessness: they sign the convention and just continue their torture methods, thereby telling their victims and their population in general that they are so powerful that they can voluntarily submit to laws and then deliberately and openly break them in the face of impotent international opprobrium.

Another example is the ritualistic condemnation of China’s human rights record. Western leaders, when visiting China or playing host to Chinese leaders, are expected to repeat some standard phrases about human rights in China. That’s what their national constituencies expect from them, and they grudgingly comply. It has become part of protocol, like kissing the Pope’s ring. It’s utterly meaningless because real action to pressure China is completely lacking. China knows this, but goes along and issues its equally ritualistic counter-claims of national sovereignty blah blah. The West signals that it cares about human rights; the Chinese leaders that they don’t.

Something similar is happening with universal jurisdiction. Countries engaging in universal jurisdiction often start court cases against foreign dictators, without the slightest hope of actually punishing and imprisoning those dictators, but at least they signal that the “world community” doesn’t silently accept atrocity. And perhaps they also signal their own country’s moral superiority. A lot of human rights talk seems to be about moral superiority.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Karl Marx already identified signaling as a important function of human rights, although he pushed his point a bit too far. Human rights, according to him, are an ideology. An ideology pretends to be a description of the world but in reality it masks certain key aspects of it in order to maintain the economic status quo. It is an instrument in the continuation of the existing social order. Those who may threaten the status quo in a revolutionary way can be convinced by the ideology of human rights to work within the system and struggle for equal rights. However, these equal rights, according to Marx, can only deliver formal equality, not real equality. Only a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can achieve the latter. Human rights signal equality but in reality serve to maintain class rule.

Those who benefit from the existing order and who are therefore part of the ruling class, will tend to produce and propagate ideologies. Religion is another example of an ideology, and one that works in much the same way as the ideology of human rights. Desires that can harm the existing order and the status quo – such as desires for equality – must be neutralized. The idea of the Christian paradise expresses certain desires for a better world but makes it impossible to realize them and to threaten the existing order. By convincing people that these desires can only be realized in the afterlife, the idea or better ideology of paradise pacifies relationships in this life. Why revolt if you know that equality and happiness are there for the taking in a future life? Especially when you will only get paradise if you respect morality in this life and when morality is often and conveniently incompatible with the consequences of revolt.

Religious ideology neutralizes desires by situating them in the afterlife. Religion is opium for the people, a drug that makes them forget the pain of this world, or at least convinces them to accept this pain, because pain can lead to revolt and those in power never like revolt. Something similar is inherent in the ideology of human rights. The use of force or coercion by the state in the defense of the right to capitalist property, for example, is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that property is a human right which is in their interest, rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights signal freedom and equality, and give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality, but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights, according to Marx, give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, he says, are a set of false ideas that have to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain.

I think that view is far too pessimistic and takes the signaling thing way too serious. It ignores the transformative power of human rights. There is signaling going on in human rights talk, but a lot of other stuff as well. Some talk is really aimed primarily or exclusively at a real transformation of reality toward a higher level of human rights protection. And a lot of that talk really works in the sense that life is changed by speech. Sometimes human rights aren’t about human rights, but often they are.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

confirmation bias

(source, I have to say that I don’t think that’s a correct way to describe the scientific method, but let’s not dwell on that for the moment)

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

confirmation bias

(source)

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

More on confirmation bias and on freedom of speech.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

be quiet

(source)

(You can read this post as part of a more general and older post on the reasons why we need human rights).

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

political-pictures-vladimir-putin-an-opinion

(source)

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (12): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the topic – in which I argued that the case is very weak – I found this quote by Bill Easterly which I thought would illustrate my point:

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles. Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself? (source)

Some data about the correlation between democracy and GDP (both level and growth) are here. My argument for democracy is usually instrumental (see here) and prosperity is one of the values that can and should be promoted by instrumental democracy. But I’ve also written about democracy as a good thing in itself. Go here if you care about that sort of argument.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

fully engage in the movement to increase production and to practice economy to set off a new upsurge in industrial production 1965

"Fully engage in the movement to increase production and to practice economy to set off a new upsurge in industrial production", Chinese poster from 1965

(source)

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.

Rebuttal

Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

Stop corruption sign graffitiThe utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived. Read more…

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction. Read more here and here.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally). See here, here and here.
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions. See here, here and here.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights. See here, here, here, here and here.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

Banksy, monkey parliament

Banksy, monkey parliament

(source, there’s more Banksy here)

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

More here. See some statistics on public support for democracy here.

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freedom, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (9): Free Speech, Democracy, Socrates and the Search for Truth

Just a few additional remarks on the way in which the equal right to free speech, and democratic deliberation based on this right, improve the quality of “knowledge” and of political decisions. (Continuing where this and this post left off).

Of course, “knowledge” and “truth” not in any absolute or objective sense, but in the sense of the best kind of thinking a given society at a given time can achieve.

Before arguing how Socrates is relevant in this discussion, allow me to cite a few 20th century thinkers. Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v California, stated that the

freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. (source)

Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

The freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on an issue. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality. Unfounded opinions or opinions that are open to sound criticism are not likely to survive this process. Free speech in general, and free speech as it is implemented in democratic decision procedures, initiate such a process. That is why opinions in a free society and political decisions in a democracy have what we could call an epistemological advantage. They are of better quality. At least as long as we contemplate the ideals. Real free societies and real democracies may fall significantly short of this ideal.

Again, epistemological advantage doesn’t equal “truth” and “knowledge”; just the best thinking we can get. Unfortunately, I’m not being very original here. This is obvious when we return to the Ancient Greeks. The Athenians especially believed that democratic deliberation (which for them was the same as free speech) was essential for wise decisions because it sheds the light of diverse opinions and criticism on policy options. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, said:

Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

None of this is limited to highly participatory systems of direct democracy such as the Athenian democracy, or to politics. The process can occur in modern, representative democracies and in any setting, political or non-political, guaranteeing free and equal speech. The scientific community for example heavily relies on peer participation. It’s fair to say that freedom of speech is essential for any collective search for of or advancement towards truth. In fact, the word “collective” is superfluous here, because the process is by definition collective. No one thinks more or less correctly in isolation.

John Rawls

John Rawls

We normally assume that an ideally conducted discussion among many persons is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusion (by a vote if necessary) than the deliberations of any one of them by himself. Why should this be so? In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from their standpoint and the limits of our vision are brought home to us … Discussion is a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments. At least in the course of time, the effects of common deliberation seem bound to improve matters. John Rawls

I know, I know: “what about Socrates!”. Well, the Socratic method is a type of discussion with adversaries which is intended to expose the adversaries’ pretensions, prejudices, dogmas and conventional beliefs. In other words, it targets opinions which are accepted as such, without having first passed through a process of examination and criticism. Socrates is a one man democratic agora, launching different criticisms and counter-arguments at an opinion, and shining the light of many perspectives.

More of the same.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

john stuart mill

John Stuart Mill

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

will kymlicka

Will Kymlicka

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.

More on freedom.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (7): From Democracy to Prosperity

In a previous post I commented on the beneficial influence of prosperity on democracy – democracy being one human right among many. Here are some reasons why democracy is good for prosperity. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. Only in a democratic society in which human rights are protected, can an economic injustice be exposed and can claims for its abolition be heard and implemented. People can use human rights to call on the government or the international community to fulfill its duties and to implement certain economic measures. Most governments, including democratic governments, act only when they are put under pressure. The freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly and association (associations such as pressure groups, labor unions or political parties) and the right to choose your own representatives are instruments in the hands of the economically disadvantaged. They can use their rights and the democratic procedures to influence economic and social policy. Poverty must have a voice.

It is true that without a minimum degree of prosperity, human rights and democracy lose a lot of their value. If you have to struggle to survive, then you do not have the time to form an opinion, let alone express it. “Primum vivere, deinde philosophari”; first you make sure you live, and only then can you philosophize. However, life is more than just living. In a situation of poverty, it is indeed difficult to use rights and democracy, but without rights and democracy it is much more difficult to fight poverty.

If there are no free flows of information, no accountable government that needs to justify its actions in order to be re-elected, and no free press, then you are likely to have more corruption, more embezzlement of public funds and more people who acquire an unfair advantage from the proceeds of natural resources and other sources of prosperity. The rule of law and the openness of government, which are typical of democracy, limit not only corruption but also the ineffective management or outright squandering of natural or other resources by untouchable governments.

Economic development is supported by free flows of information and freedom of movement, both typical of democracies. A free press encourages the economy because it allows entrepreneurs to make informed decisions.

Democracy also guarantees the rule of law, which means legal security and predictability. The number of investments – foreign and local – will grow when investors are certain that their contracts are guaranteed by the law and enforceable by a judge, when oppression does not cause violent revolt and when investors are relatively certain that their property will not be stolen without punishment or will not be nationalized by some new revolutionary government.

The rule of law creates a limited state and a society that is relatively free and independent of the state. This means that economic activity is also relatively independent. A certain limit on state interference in the economy is traditionally considered as beneficial for economic development. In a free civil society, everybody can be economically active. In many authoritarian states, only a handful of privileged persons can be economically active, and these persons are not always the ones most suitable for this kind of activity (for example: large landowners, members of the official “nomenclatura” etc.). A free civil society, guaranteed by the rule of law, which in turn is guaranteed by democracy (although not only by democracy), allows everybody to be creative, to cooperate and to exchange on a relatively level playing field. This increases the chances that the best man is in the best place, which in turn encourages economic development. Furthermore, by pumping in as many people as possible in the economy and by letting them move and communicate freely, the economically most efficient and profitable transactions can take place.

The link between the rule of law and prosperity is not only a theoretical one. This chart shows the actual correlation:

rule of law and gdp correlation

(source)
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democracy, freedom, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (6): Freedom Makes You Happy

democracy freedom happiness

(source)

This graph shows the correlation between the Freedom House ratings of countries (in fact a rating of the degree of democratic governance) and the average life satisfaction, feelings of well-being or happiness as measured by surveys. Of course, correlations do not show causal links, and many a statistician has fallen into the trap of seeing a causal link where there is only a correlation. The problem with correlations is that the causal link, if any, can go either way, and a correlation does not show which way. Furthermore, the correlation can have a third cause, invisible in the correlation.

However, since it is difficult to believe that happiness causes freedom, we have a prima facie reason to believe that the causal link, if there is one, goes rather the other way.

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freedom, housing, poverty, privacy, why do we need human rights, work

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (5): Property Rights

Joseph Mirachi

“The poor are getting poorer, but with the rich getting richer it all averages out in the long run.”

Private property often does not have a good press. It’s unequal distribution has often been criticized, also on this blog. However, there is a recognized human right to private property (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely) and this right is important for different reasons.

First of all, private property is a means to protect of the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.

Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights). More on privacy here.

Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore, also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.

Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again.

Furthermore, property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.

Finally, it is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.

The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).

The right to private property is, just as most of the other human rights, a limited right. There can and should be redistribution of private property from the rich to the poor, if other human rights of the poor suffer as a consequence of insufficient private property (for example, the economic rights of the poor). Taxation and expropriation, however, should be used carefully, in view of the numerous important functions of private property. The more property a state acquires, the weaker the citizen becomes. Weaker not only compared to the state, but also compared to fellow citizens. His fellow citizens will find themselves in a position whereby they can control and intervene in his weakened private space.

You also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

The property of your body can justify private property of material goods. The power of your body and your labor is incorporated in the goods you produce. By working on an object, you mix your labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from you, he also takes away your labour, which means that he takes away the power of your body. He therefore uses your body, which is incompatible with your right to possess your own body. See John Locke for a more elaborate exposition of this argument, for example here or here. If man owns his body, he also owns the power of his body and the objects in which this power is incorporated, to the extent that he has not stolen the objects. This can also be used as an argument in favor of some form of communism.

john locke

John Locke

The right not to be a slave is the negative version of the right to possess your own body. Those who commit slavery (but also those who steal) act as if the bodies of other people are their property, a property that can be bought and sold. Considering other people as your property diminishes the value and dignity of these other people. Other people should not be considered as a means.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (4): Economic Rights

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Thought, Walt Whitman

Of Equality–as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and
rights as myself–as if it were not indispensable to my own
rights that others possess the same.

Whitman was probably not thinking of economic rights, but let’s assume he was. There are two reasons why economic rights should be applied universally and why my economic rights depend on yours and vice versa: they address the universal problem of poverty, and they are prerequisites for cultural, public and political life. Poverty hampers public and political life in several ways:

  1. A poor individual has insufficient access to cultural, public and political life because he or she lacks the time, the means, the education and the information necessary for this kind of life. A certain level of detachment from the urgencies and necessities of nature, from basic biological needs and from the struggle to survive, as well as a certain predictable supply of food, a house, good health etc. are prerequisites for cultural, public and political life.
  2. Cultural, public and political life in general, for all individuals, whether poor or not, presupposes the equal participation of everybody. The more participants, the better and richer our cultural, public and political life will be.
  3. Poverty leads to violence, revolt and hate, and this destabilises the institutions necessary for the protection of public and political life (this is true also at an international level: economic development of less advanced classes and countries is in the interest of everybody, because it takes away the causes of national or international destabilisation).

So economic rights protect everybody’s cultural, public and political life, not only the public and political life of those who need economic rights to satisfy their immediate basic needs. Everybody, the rich included, benefit from economic rights because they benefit from maximum participation in cultural, public and political life and from the absence of violent revolt.

Of course, economic rights are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for public and political life. Classical rights are needed as well.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (3): Physical Security

self-defense cartoon

(source)

Those human rights that protect a person’s security, bodily integrity and life, and that prohibit physical assault, dismemberment, torture, cruel punishment etc., acknowledge deep-rooted needs such as the wish to survive and to avoid pain.

Now, if it is reasonable to presume that some or even all people will not always be able to avoid violence and that it is preferable to avoid having other people revenging violence, then it is also reasonable to create an impartial institution that is above the people and that is strong enough to counter violence. This institution is the state. In many cases, the only way to eliminate or avoid violence is to threaten and punish the perpetrators. In order to be able to threaten and punish, you must be stronger. Citizens are seldom stronger than other citizens because even the strongest have to sleep. Only a state can be strong enough to counter or avoid violence by way of punishments. It can act as a third party which restricts the conflicting parties. It is above the parties, both because of its impartiality and because of its superior power. This superior power makes it able to enforce a decision on the conflict. Its impartiality means that it is not involved in the conflict and that it has a clear and impartial view of the problem and the possible solutions. The state uses the “security-rights” to control conflicts.

The state controls or limits conflicts and protects the life and body of its citizens in different ways, by punishing violence, but also by using systems and institutions that formalize, ritualize and soften conflicts, for example court proceedings or the democratic power game (the discussions in parliament and the ritualized changing of leaders in a peaceful way make it possible to avoid revolutions and other violent reactions of opposition movements). Security, peace and the protection of life are the first mission of the state and especially of the judicial power and the police, because this mission, once fulfilled, makes all other human activities possible.

Of course, the state has other missions as well. Some of them, such as public life, justice and freedom, are even more important, albeit perhaps less urgent. Urgency, however, is a debatable matter. One could say that public life, freedom or justice should come first because they promote peace and security. Furthermore, it often happens that missions that are more important than peace and security—because they correspond more to human life (after all, animals also want peace and security)—are overshadowed by peace and security (as for example in the theories of Hobbes and Kissinger). This is of course reprehensible, and self-destructive. Too much attention to peace and security can endanger peace and security.

thomas hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

People whose economic rights or whose right to free expression are violated because the rulers think that these rights are less important than peace and security, or that they should be sacrificed for the sake of peace and security, will revolt, and revolt automatically creates insecurity.

The problem is that human rights should do more than just regulate the peaceful coexistence of people with conflicting ideas. They should also regulate public interaction (e.g. culture, art, education, science…). For this reason, we should avoid concentrating too much on security. Human rights protect security, not for the sake of security but for the sake of our public life, which of course needs security. However, security alone is not enough, and neither are those human rights that explicitly protect security. Human rights in general and the state acting as guardian of human rights do more than just guarantee peaceful and secure coexistence.

Concentrating too much on security also leads to a narrow view of the nature of citizenship. Citizens are more than people who try to achieve contradictory private interests, who come into conflict with one another, who cause violence and then require a state and rights in order to regain their security. They also create relationships and groups, they try to convince each other, they debate, they express themselves and they try to find a common interest. The state makes sure they can do so, both by limiting violence and by creating the structures in which debate and common actions are possible (structures such as elections, parliaments, court procedures, human rights etc.).

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (2)

Is it still necessary these days to promote the virtues of human rights and democracy (democracy being just one of many human rights)? Is it not kicking in an open door?

It seems that the end of the Cold War has settled the intellectual dispute. Democracy and human rights no longer have any rivals. There are no alternatives.

I’m not so sure. Democracy and human rights, to the extent that they are measurable, do not seem to flourish beyond expectations after the end of the Cold War, unless we limit democracy to a system of elections and human rights to the absence of extreme cruelty. And even then… There is progress, but not enough. There are also still theoretical challenges to the foundations of human rights and democracy (I’m thinking of radical nationalism, all sorts of religious fundamentalism, economic theories advocating limits on human rights etc.). Moreover, people in established Western democracies seem to exhibit a growing unease about the nature of their “victorious” political systems.

So a theoretical defense of the universal value of rights and democracy and of the reasons why they are so important, and universally important, is not useless or out-of-date. History, in other words, has not ended.

Why does the world need human rights and democracy? A lot depends on the definition of these words. I would favor a “heavy” definition: democracy is more than elections and representation. Human rights are more than freedom rights or the absence of genocide. In my books, I elaborate these definitions, and try to justify a particular kind of democracy and rights. I also criticize other, thinner kinds. My conclusion is that the reasons to favor my kind of democracy and rights are so strong that they, and only they, should be accepted on a global scale.

Of course, I can see practical problems: not all the necessary (never mind sufficient) preconditions for a heavy system of rights and democracy are everywhere available. So lighter versions are obviously acceptable, temporarily, and often a great leap forward compared to current political and legal systems. And much needs to be done to promote the conditions for going further. A reasonably well-functioning democracy without a solid protection system for human rights is much better than a dictatorship, but it’s not enough. Purely representative democracy as well is not enough, but is great progress in many places. Shortcomings in imperfect democracies and imperfect systems for rights protection should not lead to us reject democracy and rights altogether, but should convince us to make them better.

I’m convinced that democracy and human rights promote certain universal human values, and hence are universally desirable themselves. Universal human values are things which humans invariably deem important for their lives. Some examples: control over your own life, economic wellbeing, peace, physical security, property, belonging, identity etc. In one of my books, Homo Democraticus, I describe the way in which rights and democracy promote these values.

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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (1): Thinking (the Public Space and Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Thought)

immanuel kant

Immanuel Kant

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “Öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

thinking

(source)

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

(source)

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

mistake bridge fail

(source)

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill (1977:1115) has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abîme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramenée à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Alain Finkielkraut

Alain Finkielkraut

(source)

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.

References

Arendt, H. 1982, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Arendt, H. 1983, Condition de l’homme moderne, Paris: Calmann-Lévy
Arendt, H. 1990, On Revolution, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Arendt, H. 1992, La crise de la culture, Paris: Gallimard
Castoriadis, C. 1991, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Finkielkraut, A. 1996, “La crise de la transmission”, Esprit 227
Kant, I. 1992, Wat is verlichting?, Kampen: Kok Agor
Mill, J.S. 1977, On Liberty, Cambridge: Hackett
Taylor, Ch. 1994, De malaise van de moderniteit, Kapellen: Kok Agora
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