moral dilemmas, philosophy

Moral Dilemma (25): Gone Baby Gone

gone_baby_gone_ver2

First a quick reminder of the purpose of these posts. I’m trying to collect data on people’s views on moral dilemmas. This is the 25th dilemma I post. You would do m a great favor if you could answer the questions below, after having read about the dilemma. I promise that one day, I’ll publish a big analysis of all the data I have collected.

[Spoilers ahead.] Gone Baby Gone is a movie about two private investigators hunting for an abducted four-year-old girl from Boston. The two investigators get on the case after witnessing a televised plea by a woman named Helene McCready for the return of her missing daughter Amanda, who was abducted with her favorite doll “Mirabelle”.

It turns out that a police officer had conspired to stage a fake kidnapping in order to save Amanda from her mother’s neglectful parenting. The investigators do indeed find Amanda living happily with the officer and his wife. One of the investigators threatens to call the authorities, but the police officer attempts to convince him that Amanda is better off living with them than with her mother. The officer is later arrested, and Amanda is returned to her mother amidst heavy publicity.

The investigator responsible for the arrest later visits Amanda as Helene is about to leave on a date with someone she met during the publicity over her daughter’s disappearance. Helene has no babysitter for Amanda. The investigator volunteers to watch Amanda, who is holding her old doll and watching television. Patrick asks Amanda about Mirabelle, only to hear Amanda inform him that her doll’s name is “Annabelle” — implying that Helene did not even know the name of her daughter’s favorite toy.

If you want to add your voice to previous moral dilemmas, you can do so here. I would be eternally in your debt.

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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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human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (134): 10 Year Old Rape Victim Prevented From Aborting Twins

A 10-year-old girl [not in the image above] who is pregnant with twins after she was raped by a neighbour has been forced to continue with her pregnancy after human rights campaigners lost their fight to secure a legal route to abortion.

The plight of the girl, who is five months pregnant and lives in Ziguinchor in the south [of Senegal], highlights the heavy cost women and children are paying for a Napoleonic law on abortion that is still in force in the former French colony.

“She is going to have to go through with the pregnancy,” said Fatou Kiné Camara, president of the Senegalese women lawyers’ association. “The best we can do is keep up pressure on the authorities to ensure the girl gets regular scans and free medical care.

“Senegal‘s abortion law is one of the harshest and deadliest in Africa. A doctor or pharmacist found guilty of having a role in a termination faces being struck off. A woman found guilty of abortion can be jailed for up to 10 years.”

Forty women were held in custody in Senegal on charges linked to the crimes of abortion or infanticide in the first six months of last year, official figures show. According to estimates, hundreds of women die every year from botched illegal terminations.

“For a termination to be legal in Senegal, three doctors have to certify that the woman will die unless she aborts immediately. Poor people in Senegal are lucky if they see one doctor in their lifetime, let alone three,” Camara said. (source)

Brings to mind this older case. Now, I personally have doubts about the permissibility of abortion in a lot of circumstances, but this is pretty clear I think, and it should be clear even to those who are more staunchly opposed to abortion than I am. Other posts in this series are here. More on abortion rights here and here.

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citizenship, international relations

We Are All Immigrants

Or at least descendants of immigrants:

Spreading homo sapiens

This map depicts the widely accepted “out of Africa” theory – or the single-origin hypothesisdescribing the early migration of modern humans. Members of one branch of Homo sapiens started to move out of Africa between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago, and over time they replaced “native” human populations such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

Is it silly to think that the idea of our common immigrant origins can make us more supportive of present-day immigrants? A bit like the fact that race is a social construct unsupported by genetics can perhaps help to combat racism? Maybe it is silly. After all, our common immigrant ancestry doesn’t seem to matter to the people who oppose immigration. If you believe, incorrectly, that present-day immigrants destroy your culture, then you can point to the fact that immigration is now different from the out-of-Africa migration. Cultures in their current form didn’t exist 50.000 years ago. The same is true for those who worry, also incorrectly, that immigrants come to steal our jobs: there weren’t any jobs 50.000 years ago. Rinse and repeat for the anti-immigrant arguments based on welfare tourism, crime etc.


Hence early human migration is irrelevant to opponents of present-day immigration. It’s not because early migration was harmless or even beneficial that the same is true for modern migration. You can oppose modern migration and at the same time acknowledge the benefits or early migration. Perhaps we are indeed talking about two different things altogether: migration today versus migration in a stateless world, in a world without borders, jobs, welfare or highly developed cultures.

And yet, if we are the descendants of people who traveled thousands of miles in order to look for a better life then we still profit, to some extent, of their efforts – even if millennia have passed since. And then it seems inconsistent to deny other people and their descendants the same opportunity. In addition, I’ve argued before that the differences between ancient and modern migration aren’t that important after all: immigrants today are just as big a threat to the jobs, welfare, culture or safety of natives as their predecessors were dozens of millennia ago. Meaning no threat at all.

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human rights and crime, law

Crime and Human Rights (22): Blame Is So 20th Century

Blame is useless in criminal punishment. We don’t need it. Rather than blaming the criminal, as we so often do, we should pay sole attention to criminal actions. It’s those actions that are the problem. Crimes are bad - i.a. because a lot of crimes result in rights violations - and whether criminals are bad is of secondary importance. What we need to do is put an end to rights violations and crimes. In order to do that we have to focus on actions: on the consequences of certain harmful actions, and on ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Blame doesn’t help us to stop harmful actions. At least not immediately. (One could argue that blame teaches people about morality, but that’s a longterm goal). What does help, in some cases, is a focus on character. However, the purpose of this focus on character is not to build a case for blame. An understanding of a criminal’s character - of his or her general viciousness or dickishness – can help us avoid future crimes and rights violations because this understanding can tell us something about the need for incapacitation. A bad person poses a higher risk of recidivism than someone who has made a mistake or has committed one intentional evil act. However, this punishment of incapacitation isn’t the result of the criminal’s blameworthiness. The only reason to incapacitate a criminal is the risk of future harmful actions.

What we tend to do is the opposite. If we speak about a criminal’s character, it’s usually because we want to blame the criminal beyond what we would normally think is necessary. There are at least three stages of blame: people are blamed for doing something wrong accidentally or stupidly; people who do something wrong intentionally are blamed somewhat more; and people who do something because of their nasty character are blamed even more. (In criminal trials it’s common that judges take into account past actions as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances).

blameWe often want to impose additional blame on someone who has done wrong and has a history of doing wrong because we believe that blame should be about character. Bad people should receive more blame than people who do one thing wrong. If two people commit the same crime but one does it because he or she is a bad person and the other for opportunistic reasons for example, then the former should receive more blame simply because he or she is a bad person. A bad character is worse than one bad intentional act.

What I want to do is sever the link between blame and character, and use a person’s character not as a source of blame but as a means to assess the likelihood of future wrongdoing and to avoid crimes and rights violations. Rather than use people’s character as a source of blame – which is very hard anyway given what we don’t know about genetics, early childhood experiences etc. - we should do character assessment, to the extent that it is possible, because it teaches us something about the need for incapacitation as a means to avoid harmful actions.

Obviously, this has consequences for the types and severity of the criminal punishments we can impose. (A person’s character or habitual behavior shouldn’t be an aggravating circumstance in itself, irrespective of the need for incapacitation). However, what I’m arguing here may have consequences beyond the realm of criminal punishment. It may be true that we blame too often and too much in general. A child who is blamed for wrongdoing may thereby learn the rules of morality; a worker who is blamed for misconduct may become a better worker, etc. But we should admit that we usually don’t have a good reason for blaming people. People’s intentions are hard to figure out. And it’s even harder to judge someone’s character, except in a few extreme cases. We’re also in the dark about what drives people: are their actions really the result of blameworthy choices, or is there something deeper such as their genetic make-up or early experiences that makes them do what they do? Hard to tell, and yet blame seems so easy.

More posts in this series are here.

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philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (52): Legal Rights, and Something More

Ask a lawyer and she will say that human rights are a kind of law that people can appeal to in a court of law. Ask a member of Amnesty International and she will say that human rights are moral claims about what people – all people, everywhere – are entitled to on the basis of their humanity, even if the laws of their country don’t give them what they are entitled to. Ask an anthropologist and she will say that human rights are moral or legal claims that are part of a certain culture somewhere.

And all of them are right, of course. I’ve tried to put this in a drawing:

types of human rights

Human rights are, in many cases, legal rights, together with other legal rights which aren’t human rights (for example the right to acquire a driver’s license at the age of 18). However, some human rights in some countries in particular aren’t yet recognized in the local legal system. In that case, rights are “mere” moral claims, rhetorical claims one could say, with an uncertain effectiveness compared to legal rights. Perhaps these moral claims are “legal rights in waiting”. Indeed, many moral claims are uttered in an attempt to turn them into legal claims if at all possible. An example could be the right to free speech in China.

However, not all moral claims have this intention. It’s not always obvious that the law is the best means to foster respect for moral claims. The right to work, for instance, may be better served by sound economic policy than by its transformation into a legal right. In the case of some moral claims – and now I turn to point 3 in the drawing above – it’s even wrong to try and turn them into laws. A woman’s right to equal standing and voice in her household for example – which is a right based on the right not to be discriminated – should probably not be turned into a legal right because we don’t want the law to mess with people’s households.

The fourth point in the drawing refers to morality not in the prescriptive but in the descriptive sense: rights can be part of a culture’s accepted ethical standards. In which case it may or may not also be part of that culture’s legal system (if the right is deeply entrenched in the culture it may not be necessary to recognize it in law).

Each of these four types of human rights are equally “real”. You sometimes hear the argument that only legal rights are “real” rights, and that moral rights – or natural rights, or human rights or whatever – are “nonsense upon stilts“. This is a strange assertion, when you think about it. Moral claims can be quite effective. Amnesty International and others have done great work over the years. Conversely, many legal rights are less effective than we tend to think. Most jurisdictions have incorporated the right to life through laws against murder, manslaughter, aggressive war etc. And yet murder and war are still quite common.

The four types of rights are connected and interdependent. Human rights are both the children and the parents of law. Law is often an effective means to make rights real, and in that sense rights are the children of the law. But laws are often legal translations of pre-existing moral claims, which makes rights the parents of the law. Human rights are also the children and the parents of culture. It’s undeniable that rights have developed in cultural contexts that were amenable to rights (and I’m not only talking about the West, by the way). Conversely, it’s equally true that rights create their own culture. Something similar is the case for morality: rights are the children of morality because they are means to realize certain moral values, but at the same time they become moral values themselves.

More posts in this series are here.

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