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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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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ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (90): Rights and Virtue Ethics

virtue

At first sight, virtue ethics seems irrelevant to human rights. Rights are about what people do to each other and what the state does to people. They’re about rules and consequences, not about people’s good character or virtuous dispositions. Deontological or consequential ethics look like they’re more adequate from a rights perspective. Whether or not people possess the right virtues can of course make a difference with regard to the level of respect for rights. Courageous people will sometimes use their courage to help others in need and help them protect their rights. Honest people will not steal from each other. Compassionate people will assist the poor. Judges and police officers with a sense of duty will help to right wrongs.

However, it’s risky to depend on virtues. Virtues are a rare commodity, and if we need virtues in order to have rights then rights as well will be rare. That’s why some who call themselves realists about human nature argue that we should economize on virtue. Better, they say, to mobilize people’s self-interest as a means to enhance overall respect for rights. For example, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be in their self-interest to cherish the rights of others as well, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. It’s also the case that most rights don’t make a lot of sense if they’re not widely spread. It’s quite useless, for instance, to be the only person on earth having the right to speak. We speak with each other. So if it’s in our self-interest to have a right to speak, our self-interest will automatically favor the same right for others.

Opponents of a strong focus on virtues do not only turn towards enlightened self-interest but also insist that we can do a lot by trying to improve institutions rather than individual dispositions. Good institutions do not only protect people’s rights but also promote virtues. Examples of institutional solutions are courts that reliably protect people’s property rights and personal security rights. Or trade agreements and immigration rules that don’t aggravate global poverty. Once these institutions are in place people will recognize their benefits and develop the virtues necessary to keep them in place. Virtue ethics, according to this view, has things backwards.

However, I do think virtue ethics has something interesting to say about human rights. Virtue ethics focuses on character, not on the rules we should follow or on the good consequences of some rules or some ways of acting. And the advantage of focusing on character is that we introduce a sense of reliability. If human rights depend on frivolous self-interest and fragile institutions – the same self-interest and institutions that so often destroy rights – then they are precarious. If, on the other hand, we argue with virtue ethicists that the consequences of acting in a certain way or of following a certain rule have in themselves no ethical content unless our actions or obedience to rules are preceded and caused by virtuous dispositions and good character (similar to Kant’s “good will” for example), then we can build rights on a firmer ground. Virtues, by definition, are reliable and permanent. Our character doesn’t depend on who we are today, but on who we are predictably. (Although one can of course cultivate one’s virtues and become more virtuous over time).

Maybe human rights activists have a tendency to promote rules over motivations and good outcomes over good intentions. While we can have good outcomes and rules that are respected without also having people acting on good intentions, perhaps it’s true that we’ll have more secure outcomes and rules when we find a way to promote virtues and good intentions. A virtue ethicist will of course claim that we need our virtues for their own sake and not for their instrumental role in rights protection, but he or she will not object to that role. Of course, everything I’ve said here depends on the controversial claim that we are indeed able to promote virtue.

By the way, there’s an interesting parallel between virtue ethics and confucianism.

More posts in this series are here.

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ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (89): Anti-Consequentialist Consequentialism

trolley problem

(source)

There are two words in “human rights”. “Rights” are claims that override the claims, wishes or welfare of a government, a majority, or even the totality of a population minus one. In other words, they are claims that need to be respected whatever other claims are present, such as the claims of law, morality, welfare, religion etc. Rights should be respected irrespective of the law of the land, of someone’s legal status, of someone’s religion, race, gender, citizenship, country of residence or moral conduct. That’s where the other word comes in: all “human” beings have rights and these rights should be respected simply because human beings are human. No other reason is required. No law, no conduct, no welfare consequences. These two words – “rights” and “human” – are connected: both are about priority, overriding importance and lack of conditionality.

This would seem to imply that human rights are the ultimate anti-consequentialist morality. We are not to enslave, torture or murder one person even if that would increase total welfare. Forcibly removing one eye from a series of two-eyed people in order to give blind people one eye would clearly increase overall welfare since the gains for the blind are greater than the losses for the others. And yet human rights prohibit coercive organ transplantations. However, it’s not entirely correct to view human rights as anti-consequentialist. Human rights are also, and somewhat paradoxically, consequentialist. In two ways:

  • First, the welfare of the majority or of the “society” can to some extent be defined as respect for human rights. Torturing one terrorist in order to discover and defuse a ticking time bomb would allow us to safeguard the right to life and bodily integrity of a large number of other people or even of society as a whole. Rights need to be balanced against each other, and when more rights or more important rights for a large number of people can be safeguarded by way of a violation of the rights of one, then that’s the result or the “consequence” we should favor over the alternative, which is protecting the rights of one to the detriment of the rights of many. The balance is clearly in favor of the many, and that’s a consequentialist calculus. (I have to say here that these are not, in practice, the only alternatives and ticking time bomb arguments are often very misleading. But as a theoretical example it will do. I have a separate discussion of the limits of this kind of calculus here).
  • Second, human rights are means to achieve some goods or values. We don’t have rights because it’s good to have rights. We have them because they have good consequences. I need a right to free speech because having free speech results in certain things that are good for me: knowledge, self-development etc.

There’s considerable tension between the consequentialist and anti-consequentialist strains in human rights. It’s a tough problem. I’ve tried to come up with ways to relieve this tension in some older posts.

More posts in this series are here.

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activism, human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

Photo by Karl Robertson

Photo by Karl Robertson

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.43.14 PMThe interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

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law, vagaries of moral progress

The Vagaries of Moral Progress (20): Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Iraq

Martin Rowson on democracy in Iraq, 2008

Martin Rowson on democracy in Iraq, 2008

(source)

So, let me get this clear. We’ve had a military intervention in Iraq and a massive, decade long war, all in the name of democracy and rights, during which the US

[d]efeated a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world(source)

and

offer[ed] democracy and freedom to [Iraq’s] 25 million residents. (source)

But instead of all that, we now have pending legislation that would restrict women’s rights in matters of inheritance and parental and other rights after divorce, make it easier for men to take multiple wives, and allow girls to be married from age nine (9!).

It includes provisions that prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslims, legalizes marital rape by stating that a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife regardless of her consent, and prevents women from leaving the house without permission from their husbands. The law would automatically grant custody over any child age two or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and fifteen for boys, and even allow girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. … The draft law violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Iraq ratified in 1986, by giving fewer rights to women and girls on the basis of their gender. It also violates the Convention on Rights of the Child, which Iraq ratified in 1994. (source)

Thank you very much! Really worth the trouble.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (57): Some Clues From the Broken Windows Theory?

broken window

(source)

The Broken Windows Theory (henceforth BWT) was first described by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article. The idea is that social disorder – exemplified by a neighborhood where many windows are broken – fosters crime. Disorder sets certain destructive norms and signals that those norms are OK. Broken windows, even a few, that are left unfixed will soon come to represent a lack of accountability and judicial redress. Unrepaired broken windows are a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. Hence people will not refrain from breaking more and you’ll have a vicious cycle of disorder. This is a kind of lawlessness that will eventually also lead to bigger crimes.

If, on the other hand, a part of town is well-maintained, people will be less likely to engage in acts of vandalism there because they know that they will be held accountable if they do. The same is true for other types of antisocial behavior such as littering. Throw one thing away in a clean environment, and you’ll have the police at your door. Throw something on an existing pile and you’ll feel better.

The BWT can perhaps explain certain human rights violations. I see two ways in which it can: it explains crime, and most crimes are human rights violations; and perhaps the same broken window logic applies to human rights violations themselves: one rights violation that goes unpunished may start a sequence of impunity and repeated violations.

However, this means assuming that the BWT is more than just a theory and can be supported by facts. There’s some controversy as to whether it can be.

NB: Wilson’s Broken Window theory should not be confused with Bastiat’s theory.

More posts in this series are 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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philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (51): Types of Rights

types of people

(source)

Even a cursory look at some of the more famous human rights treaties or declarations makes it clear that the different rights that are listed in them are often quite different from each other in the sense that they intend to do different things. Some rights give people freedoms. Other rights offer protection or certain benefits. Still other rights recognize a status. And some rights are more like goals.

An example of a freedom is speech or property. The rules against torture or slavery are protections. Education is a benefit. Rights of defendants in court are status rights. And work and a minimum standard of living are goal-rights.

In fact, it’s wrong to say that rights themselves do things such as giving people freedoms, protecting them or offering them benefits. It’s duty bearers, responding to their obligations, who make freedoms real when they abstain or forbear, who protect, who give certain benefits or assist people in achieving those benefits, who respect or recognize people’s status, and who work towards progressive realization of certain goals. These different types of obligations are implicit in the different types of rights – sometimes even explicit.

It’s important to make these distinctions between types of rights and types of duties because people need to understand their duties and what is expected of them. If the human right to have a certain minimum standard of living is understood as a protection rather than a goal, then a third world government failing to eradicate poverty and yet making as much progress as it can would be wrongly condemned as violating this right. Likewise it would be wrong to view the elimination of torture as a goal requiring progressive realization.

Of course, these distinctions aren’t as neat as I present them here. You can make the case that poverty reduction is not just a goal but also a freedom. Government abstention rather than goal centered intervention is sometimes a better means to fight poverty. The same is true for the right to work. And slavery is just as much a matter of status as something that people need to be protected against. And so on.

More on types of rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

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