ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Place of Human Rights in Morality


Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]
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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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cultural rights

Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

vladimir putin

vladimir putin

(source)

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

secessionSo what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on secession here, here, here and here. More on cultural rights here.

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art, equality, ethics of human rights, justice

The Ethics of Human Rights (88): Justice and Proportionality

disproportionate_world_by_astridle-d541ace

(source)

The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:

But why should “things” be proportional? Perhaps it’s some kind of esthetic ideal: a beautiful body is a proportional one; a tasty dish is one with the right proportions of ingredients. So maybe justice is merely about beauty and taste. The world is just if things are not out of proportion, because if they were that would insult our esthetic taste. The word “fair” in “fairness” – often a synonym for justice – also means beautiful.

But I find that hard to believe. People want justice for other reasons than a desire for beauty, and demands of proportionality are about something more than esthetics. But whatever the reasons, proportionality has it’s place in theories of justice, and it would be illusory to try and get rid of it. The notion seems deeply engrained in moral intuitions.

However, while we should in general accept that proportionality plays a role in justice, we should also criticize some uses of proportionality. It’s hard to deny that more serious crimes should be met with more serious punishments, but it’s equally hard to deny that there should be an upper limit to this (you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times) and that criminal punishment should also serve other goals than people’s desire to have things in proportion. Punishment is used in order to protect the public against the criminal, and if a non-proportional punishment serves this goal then maybe we shouldn’t insist on proportionality for proportionality’s sake.

It’s also possible to criticize the use of proportionality in discussions about economic rewards, redistribution, poverty relief etc. If you want to argue that people who are more deserving have a claim to more compensation – and that undeserving people should receive less or nothing – then you need a good account of desert. However, such an account is elusive if not outright impossible. Effort and skill may not be signs of desert but rather the product of undeserved genetic inheritance. Difficult to know, and very intrusive if you want to find out. Proportional distribution as a method of realizing an idea of justice based on desert depends on desert being a good basis of justice. If it isn’t, proportionality may lead to injustice rather than justice because it may leave the poor to starve.

There’s a third case in which proportionality can undermine justice instead of promoting it. Governments may want to limit certain rights because they believe that this is necessary for a public good such as protection against terrorism, in which case they often make claims about proportionality. The possible consequences of terrorism are supposedly so severe that limitations of people’s right to privacy or right not to be tortured are proportional responses, even if these limitations are far-reaching. You can’t lift a heavy rock with an elastic band. The tool should be proportional to the end you want to achieve, and a world without terrorism requires some heavy tools. But again, proportionality as a method to achieve justice – a just world is a world without terrorists killing innocent people – may achieve the opposite. The harm caused by limitations of rights is often greater than the harm of terrorism (some numbers here about the relative harm imposed by terrorism).

A final example of the way in which proportionality can lead us astray when thinking about justice. Many of us tend to believe that we owe more to those close to us and that justice is in the first instance something between members of the nation state. And it is indeed common to see concerns about human rights violations diminish in proportion to the distance between those who are concerned and those whose rights are violated. However, if ideas about closeness are overemphasized in thinking about justice – and they often are since patriotism, nationalism, racism and other forms of in-group bias are quite common – then proportionality will again cause injustice rather than justice.

The point of all this is not to criticize proportionality as such but the manner in which it is used. Proportionality is one method to achieve justice, and can, given some prerequisites, help us to achieve justice. You can’t fight terrorism with good will alone. You shouldn’t impose life sentences for traffic violations. And you shouldn’t give everyone equal economic rewards. But let’s not overemphasize one very peculiar method to achieve justice, a method moreover that is often based on shaky assumptions such as desert, the moral relevance of closeness or the effectiveness and necessity of certain policies.

More posts in this series are here.

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ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (87): General and Special Moral Obligations

partiality

People have two kinds of moral obligations:

  • Some of our duties are duties to all people. We have those duties simply because people are human beings. These are general moral duties that apply regardless of specific relationships.
  • Other duties are duties that we owe to a subset of people. These are special obligations we have to those with whom we have some sort of special relationship.

An example of the former are the duties generated by human rights or the duty not to lie; an example of the latter are our duties as parents, friends and citizens.

Both types of duties have a basis in moral intuition. Most of us believe that we should try to save a child drowning before our eyes, any drowning child, whatever our relationship or lack of relationship with it. But most of us would also allow a parent to save his own child first if it was drowning together with an unknown child and if he had to make a choice. Some special obligations are the same as general obligations, just with an added urgency (as in the case of the drowning child). Other special obligations are totally different from general obligations (we have a duty to raise our children, but we don’t have a similar duty towards the children of others, not even a less urgent duty).

child_drowningThis is all boilerplate. What’s interesting to me is the double nature of human rights duties. These are obviously general duties, but I do believe that in some cases we should prioritize the rights of those with whom we have a special relationship. Human rights create special duties in the sense of general duties that are more urgent in the case of some people. The right to life of our drowning children does indeed create a more urgent obligation than the right to life of the millions of extremely poor and starving children elsewhere in the world. Part of the explanation is that we often can do more to save our own child. We are normally close by, we know the risks and we know exactly what to do when things go wrong. The same isn’t always true in the case of distant strangers. Can implies ought. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of our special obligation, I think. It’s the relationship that generates the special duty, not just the fact that we can offer more immediate and effective help. After all, as Peter Singer has pointed out, immediate and effective help is sometimes also an option for distant strangers.

The problem is that special obligations tend to take over. There’s a lot of in-group bias and the rights of those close to us receive an overdose of attention, sometimes to the detriment of the rights of strangers (“strangers” not always in the literal sense of the word, because most fellow-citizens are literally strangers and yet they often enjoy more rights than foreign strangers). A lot of people only see special obligations and ignore general obligations.

Hence, it’s understandable and commendable that the focus in human rights talk is on the impersonal and general obligations that they yield. This focus, however, should not obscure the very real special obligations that also result from human rights. A lot of immediate good can be done when we admit that human rights create special obligations. There’s often a very tricky balancing act to perform here, but few of us admit it. Many tend to favor special obligations, while others react by speaking only of general obligations. Very rarely do we see people working through the difficulties of when to decide in favor of one or the other type of duty; for example, the difficulties of knowing when it is right to save your own child when you can save hundreds of distant children with the same amount of effort. When do we simply follow in-group bias, and when do we have a good reason to favor the in-group members? When are we real humanitarians and when are we heartlessly blind to the justified demands of those who are close to us? I think we should admit that the choice between partiality and impartiality is often a difficult one, and that those of us who systematically favor one or the other point of view are wrong most of the time.

More on partiality/impartiality here. More posts in this series are here.

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annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (55): The Ethics of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Dekkers

Dekkers

(source)

Pharmaceutical companies from Merck & Co. (MRK) to Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY) face fresh threats to protecting their patents in India as a government-appointed panel prepares to evaluate more drugs for local makers to copy. … [S]o-called compulsory licenses … allow local firms to make low-priced copies in India. … [D]rugmakers are facing a rising threat to their patents as India’s government seeks to make treatments cheaper locally. … Compulsory licensing occurs when a government allows someone else to produce a patented product without the consent of the patent owner, who still owns the rights and receives payment for its use, according to the World Trade Organization. Such licenses can therefore put pressure on brand-name manufacturers to cut prices in response to cheaper generics. …

Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers called the compulsory license “essentially theft.” “We did not develop this medicine for Indians” Dekkers said Dec. 3. “We developed it for western patients who can afford it. (source)

More in the annals of heartlessness.

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ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (81): Changing Morality

insight_morality_shallnotPark

(source)

Morality is a moving field. Its scope changes over time. Things which used to be considered an appropriate object of moral approval or disapproval are no longer, and vice versa. It’s difficult to say if the field is becoming larger or smaller. I would guess smaller, but that’s a very uninformed guess. It’s based on my impression that we tend to become more tolerant of each other’s behavior, especially when this behavior is strictly self-regarding and doesn’t involve the risk of harm to others. For centuries, mutually agreed divorce, homosexuality, masturbation, suicide and a large set of other types of behavior were not deemed morally neutral. Many of those could even land you in jail or in hell. Today, in a lot of societies around the world, these things are considered private choices that should not be interfered with and should not even be judged by others. Perhaps some of those behaviors should also be viewed as “rights” (I’ve once written an odd post about the right to masturbate).

But even some types of other-regarding behavior that used to be seen as immoral have become acceptable over time. For instance, many types of speech were once considered harm producing – blasphemy, pornography, lèse majesté etc. – but are now believed by many to be less harmful or not harmful at all.

And yet, the reverse movement has also occurred. Slavery used to be morally neutral or even morally required (see Ephesians 6:5) and is now considered one of the worst evils. Cruel and unusual punishment used to be completely acceptable and even enjoyable. The proper treatment of animals, women and indigenous people has also become part of morality, or has shifted place within morality.

So instead of claiming that the field of morality is shrinking, it’s safer to say that it’s moving. Moving where? I guess morality has been moving away from private and self-regarding behavior and towards social behavior. I think this movement is on the whole salutary. Moral progress? To some extent, and certainly not in all domains. On the other hand, the movement of morality can convince some that all morality is just subjective and relative and that everyone can do as they please. If opinions about morality change, then morality is perhaps no more than subjective opinion. That wouldn’t be progress at all, of course, since it would destroy morality completely. Morality can never be completely subjective since it implies a judgment about how others should act and what others should believe.

More here. Other posts in this series are here.

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law, vagaries of moral progress

The Vagaries of Moral Progress (16): Teaching Criminals a “Lesson”

wagging-finger

Let’s assume that we punish criminals in order to “teach them a lesson”: by imposing pain, suffering or unpleasantness on the criminal we intend to make it clear that he or she has done wrong and that we “as a society” disapprove. This lesson in turn is supposed to prevent criminals from reoffending, and hence it is intended to enhance respect for society’s rules. Punished criminals may not always internalize society’s rules and change their mentalities or criminal convictions as a result of “the lesson”, but at least the unpleasantness of “the lesson” will deter them from acting on the basis of their mentalities and convictions. In short, criminal punishment is a means to achieve moral progress. Perhaps if we’re lucky we’ll achieve moral progress in the minds of people, but if we don’t we’ll certainly see moral progress in people’s actions. Or so the story goes.

This is perhaps the most widely shared view of criminal punishment, which is weird when you think of it. After all, one can very easily identify numerous problems with this view. First of all, we impose criminal punishment for the violation of a wide range of rules, many of which we would not or should not view as moral rules. Some of those rules are perhaps even immoral: for instance, the rule against the use of soft drugs can be and often is seen as immoral because it restricts personal freedom. The imposition of punishment for the violation of such immoral rules is a clear step backward from the point of view of morality. No progress there. (The same is true for merely a-moral rules).

Furthermore, one can argue that many of the punishments we impose even for moral rules are in fact brutalizing. Prison is a school for criminals and prison crime is rampant. To argue that imprisonment deters crime and makes the world more moral is to deny the facts of prison life. Prisoners often just become better criminals and make others better criminals, both inside prison and upon release.

And finally, there are certain psychological biases present in those who impose criminal punishment, and these biases also undermine the story of “the lesson”. For example:

In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money.  At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing.  One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.” … the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold. In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.

Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter. But … we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity. So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.

In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-to-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin. He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact. (source)

The unfair imposition of punishment as illustrated in this case and in many other real cases of punishment makes a joke of the story about moral progress resulting from the “lesson” of punishment. I’m not saying that fair punishment, deterrence or internalization of rules are impossible. What I’m saying is that we are usually too optimistic about these processes and that we shouldn’t view our current system of criminal punishment as a good driver of moral progress.

More about criminal punishment here. More posts in this series here.

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