The government has been warned it must urgently fix flaws in its support system for successful asylum seekers, after a destitute child starved to death in temporary accommodation in Westminster. … [T]he family had become dependent on “ad hoc” charitable handouts despite a successful asylum claim because of “significant problems” transferring the family from Home Office to mainstream welfare support services. The family of three was forced to “actually become homeless” before local authorities could offer official help. (source)
Should lies and false statements of fact be protected by free speech laws, or can the speech rights of those who intentionally lie be limited in some cases? The US Supreme Court believes the latter is true, somewhat surprisingly given the often quasi-absolutist nature of First Amendment jurisprudence in the US. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, the Court claimed that
there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.
There are some obvious problems with this exception to free speech. First, it can’t work unless it’s possible to distinguish real lies from false statements of fact that are simple errors. This means it must be possible to determine someone’s intentions, and that’s always difficult. However, one could claim that a person’s speech rights can only be limited on account of lying when his or her intentions are clear.
That would save the exception, but it wouldn’t undo some of its harmful consequences. People who speak in good faith may still be afraid that their speech will unwittingly come across as false, without their good intentions being absolutely clear. Hence, they may fear that they will run afoul of the law, and limit their speech preemptively. The lies exception to freedom of speech has therefore a chilling effect, an effect which is enhanced by the fuzzy nature of the difference between facts and opinions.
Given these problems with the lies exception to free speech, how could we instead argue in favor of free speech protection for lies and knowingly false statements of fact?
One rather ironic way to do it is to appeal to the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas: free speech is necessary for the pursuit of truth (or, in a weaker form, for the improvement of the quality of our ideas). John Stuart Mill has the canonical quote:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
As such, this doesn’t really justify the acceptance of expressions of lies. If we need lies to see the truth more clearly, you could also say that we need evil to see the good more clearly, and few I guess would accept the latter statement. However, if we interpret this quote liberally (pun intended), we may get somewhere. We could argue that someone’s lies can motivate others to search for, investigate and disseminate the truth. For example, I think it’s fair to say that holocaust deniers have done a lot for holocaust education. They have given teachers and researchers a hook.
Another reason why we wouldn’t want to prohibit lying, at least not across the board, is the fact that lies are often necessary for the protection of human rights. This is the case that’s made in jest in the cartoon on the right, and is also the origin of the rejection of Kant’s claim that we shouldn’t lie to the murderer inquiring about the location of his intended victim. (I have an older post about the usefulness of lying here).
Obviously, nothing said here implies that lying is generally beneficial or that it should be welcomed and protected whatever the circumstances. If lying becomes the norm, we will most likely lose our humanity. In the words of Montaigne, “we are men, and hold together, only by our word” and our civilization and systems of cooperation would come crashing down if we can’t generally trust each other. However, the general albeit not exceptionless moral good of telling the truth doesn’t translate into a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth (and to shut up if we can’t). Mortality and human rights don’t completely overlap.
If lying were to become the normal habit, free speech would lose its meaning. We have free speech rights precisely because we want to share information, opinions and beliefs, and because we want to learn and pay attention to verbal assertions. There has to be some level of general trust that people speak their minds rather than the opposite. Otherwise it’s better if there’s no speech at all, and hence also no right to free speech. Hence, the free speech defense of lying has to be limited somewhere.
That is why, despite the fact that in general there shouldn’t be a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth, we do want some cases in which there is such a right and such a duty. Lying is legitimately prohibited in the case of libel, of witnesses testifying under oath, of someone impersonating a doctor etc. But those are cases of different rights having to be balanced against each other: the free speech rights of the liars against the rights of those suffering harmful consequences when people lie (consequences such as bad medical treatment, miscarriages of justice etc.). The duty of government officials and elected politicians to tell the truth is based on the requirement of democratic transparency, and is therefore also a case of balancing rights: democracy is a human right, and democracy can’t function if there’s no transparency and if people in power don’t tell the truth about what they are doing.
Critics say that as part of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers routinely tell suspects to empty their pockets and then, if marijuana is displayed, arrest them for having the drugs in public view, thereby pushing thousands of people toward criminality and into criminal justice system. (source)
- Is there a lot of light between cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and motivated reasoning? if not, why the excess jargon? Jargon bias?
- I guess I must be a libertarian communist: http://wp.me/pd52p-9VD + http://wp.me/PJ3Oa-5
- adventures in meta: “overhyped” now a hype itself #Irene
- someone should coin the phrase “unconomy”
- can anyone explain why democratic politics always devolves into a Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging?
- London rioters don’t like Banksy http://wp.me/pd52p-1eB #riot
- Jeez: “religious practices even when inflicting pain on the helpless do seem to fall within constitutional protection” http://bit.ly/jwqqLa
- just occurred to me that the word “law” is an acronym: “losers always win” which is indeed what happens in a perfect system of l.a.w.
- Mubarak, leaving the way he did, improved his image undeservingly; Ghaddafi, staying the way he does, worsens his image deservingly
- maybe it wasn’t such a good idea 2 build nuclear plants right at the coastline of a earthquake-prone country that invented the word #tsunami
- I’m applying for Guinness world record: highest ratio of books written to books sold (slowly reaching a number >1) http://bit.ly/hDoaX4
For some reason, my older posts on rioting are now immensely popular. So here’s an overview:
I’m not in the mood for serious analyses, but I do want to warn against simplistic explanations involving the words “poverty” and “multicultural”. (See also here). Those types of punditry are usually way off the mark.
Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:
[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)
So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.
Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.
On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.
More posts in this series are here.
In the case of Hinman vs. Pacific Air Transport, a landowner, Hinman, sued an airline (Pacific Air) for trespass. Hinman wanted Circuit Judge Haney’s court to affirm his right to stop airlines from flying over his property. … The judge … realized that giving every landowner a right to treat air traffic as a trespass would throttle air traffic, because the cost of an airline buying off every potential veto would be prohibitive.
The plaintiff’s unsuccessful suit relied heavily on the concept of ad coelum, an ancient Roman dictum that “he who owns the soil owns it to the heavens.” Was ad coelum relevant to questions about airplanes crossing over someone’s land at high altitude? Before the advent of air travel, there was no fact of the matter. No legal dispute had ever brought the issue to a head. (source)
It’s well-known that African-Americans make up a disproportionate part of the U.S. prison population. Racists of course have an easy explanation for this, but what is the real explanation? Part of it is probably racial profiling and bias among jury members. Another part of the explanation can be poverty, unemployment and lower education, burdens from which African-Americans also suffer disproportionately. And although crime has many possible causes, there’s some evidence that at least some types of property crime go up during recessions. This indicates that there’s a link between crime and poverty, something which in turn can explain different arrest ratios across races given the different poverty rates across races.
There’s an interesting paper here studying the effects of both labor market conditions and asset poverty on the property crimes involvement of American males. It turns out that poverty and labor market outcomes account for as much as 90% of the arrest rates ratio. More on racism and crime. More Banksy.
- Human Rights Facts (206): Race and Consumer Behavior (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- Discrimination is the well-documented cause of race disparity in prison (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Some Inscrutable Banksy Thing: The Movie [Trailer Park] (gawker.com)
- ‘Banksy’ city mural painted over (bbc.co.uk)
- Banksy in Basque (slamxhype.com)
- ‘Birth and death of a Banksy’ – mysterious artwork covered up (independent.co.uk)
- Banksy Does New Orleans [Art] (gawker.com)
I don’t think I need to spell out the ways in which terrorism is a human rights issue (beyond the obvious violations of the human rights of the direct victims of terrorism there are serious human rights implications of the so-called ”war on terror“).
Some time ago, I linked to a paper claiming that poverty and lack of education do not, contrary to common belief, contribute to terrorism. If this claim is correct, then it has major implications for counter-terrorism efforts. There’s another paper here making a similar claim, looking at the correlation between violent insurgencies and levels of unemployment, specifically in Iraq and the Philippines. One often assumes that unemployment and the economic and social alienation resulting from it, are elements causing or facilitating political violence, and that efforts to promote employment can have a beneficial effect on social cohesion and political loyalty. The unemployed are believed to have the mindset (frustration etc.), the time and the opportunity to radicalize and be radicalized, whereas people who are employed have a lot to lose, economically, from political instability. Positively stated,
insurgency is a low-skill occupation so that creating jobs for the marginal unemployed reduces the pool of potential recruits.
However, the authors find
a robust negative correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces and no significant relationship between unemployment and the rate of insurgent attacks that kill civilians. … The negative correlation of unemployment with violence indicates that aid and development efforts that seek to enhance political stability through short-term job creation programs may well be misguided.
Some of the reasons given in the paper in order to explain this negative correlation are:
- Counter-insurgency forces usually spend money to buy intelligence from the general population. More unemployment means that the available money can buy more intelligence, hence bring levels of violence down.
- Insurgents also need to live. If there’s a lot of unemployment, they need to spend more time on basic survival and hence can spend less time on violence.
- Efforts to enhance security—establishing checkpoints and the like—damage the economy.
The paper deals only with two countries, neither of which is perhaps a very typical case. Moreover, cross-border terrorism doesn’t seem to fit well into the analysis. But still, the findings are interesting.
I discussed in this older post some of the problems related to the measurement of human rights violations, and to the assessment of progress or deterioration. One of the problems I mentioned is caused by improvements in measurement methods. Such improvements can in fact result in a statistic showing increasing numbers of rights violations, whereas in reality the numbers may not be increasing, and perhaps even decreasing. Better measurement means that you now compare current data that are more complete and better measured, with older numbers of rights violations that were simply incomplete.
The example I gave was about rape statistics: better statistical and reporting methods used by the police, combined with less social stigma etc. result in statistics showing a rising number of rapes, but this increase was due to the measurement methods (and other effects), not to what happened in real life.
I now come across another example. Collateral damage - or the unintentional killing of civilians during wars – seems to be higher now than a century ago (source). This may also be the result of better monitoring hiding a totally different trend. We all know that civilian deaths are much less acceptable now than they used to be, and that journalism and war reporting are probably much better (given better communication technology). Hence, people may now believe that it’s more important to count civilian deaths, and have better means to do so. As a result, the numbers of civilian deaths showing up in statistics will rise compared to older periods, but perhaps the real numbers don’t rise at all.
Of course, the increase of collateral damage may be the result of something else than better measurement: perhaps the lower level of acceptability of civilian deaths forces the army to classify some of those deaths as unintentional, even if they’re not (and then we have worse rather than better measurement). Or perhaps the relatively recent development of precision-guided munition has made the use of munition more widespread so that there are more victims: more bombs, even more precise bombs, can make more victims than less yet more imprecise bombs. Or perhaps the current form of warfare, with guerilla troops hiding among populations, does indeed produce more civilian deaths.
Still, I think my point stands: better measurement of human rights violations can give the wrong impression. Things may look as if they’re getting worse, but they’re not.
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”).
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).
There’s a strange dualism inherent in the concept of state/government. Many of the most brutal rights violations are caused by governments, but rights also need governments. More here and here on the role of government and the efforts to minimize its scope. See also the previous post in this series.
The phrase is a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a 19th century anarchist.
Here’s a related one by Banksy:
- True Identity of Grafitti Artist Banksy is for Sale on Ebay (socyberty.com)
Feed the World