activism, human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (22): What Hope is There For Persuasion?

An American suffragette with an umbrella stands next to a baby carriage and wears a sign proclaiming "Women! Use your vote", circa 1920

An American suffragette with an umbrella stands next to a baby carriage and wears a sign proclaiming “Women! Use your vote”, circa 1920

The ability to persuade other people is important for human rights in at least two different ways:

  • How do we achieve respect for human rights? Since a lot of human rights violations are caused by ideas and opinions – for example by harmful moral judgments or political ideologies – respect for human rights depends at least in part on our ability to change minds, other people’s as well as our own.
  • Why do we need human rights? Certain human rights in particular, such as the right to free speech, are justified by our need to persuade others. We want to express ourselves and we express ourselves for different reasons: to communicate our identity, to signal what we think about something, but most importantly to persuade others of the goodness of our opinions, compared to their opinions. That’s a universal human need. Ideally, we also believe that expressing our opinions improves those opinions. We prepare our opinions in advance of expressing them, and – knowing that we will be criticized for those opinions by other agents freely expressing themselves – we try our best to prepare our opinions for this criticism. We consider possible counterarguments in advance and how to reply to them. This brings with it the possibility that we refine our opinions or even replace them with better ones, based on our inner reasoning in preparation of our expression. Free speech – our own free speech and that of our critics – helps us improve our opinions. Persuasion – both of others and of ourselves – is therefore an important reason why we need human rights. (This is the theory behind the notion of the marketplace of ideas).

The problem is that people don’t seem to be very good at persuading each other or themselves. The description of communication that I’ve given here is highly idealized. If we can’t dramatically improve our ability to persuade, then we’ll have a hard time fighting for rights because we’ll lose weapons as well as reasons necessary for this fight. There are other non-communicative means to increase the levels of respect for human rights (reciprocity, self-interest, the law etc.), and the need to improve our opinions and to persuade isn’t the only possible justification for human rights (other justification are offered here). But in such an important fight a restricted arsenal or rationale is a net negative. So it’s worth the effort to try and remove some of the things that make it hard to persuade.

So what are we up against? Apart from the obvious and uninteresting fact that some people are immune to persuasion – good luck talking to the Taliban – there are other and perhaps even more damaging causes of a lack of persuasion: confirmation bias, the importance of emotions rather than reasoning or argumentation as a basis of our beliefs, polarization, and a whole set of other psychological biases (e.g. the belief that beautiful people make better sounding arguments).

Damaged_Snapseed

What to do about all this? We should avoid the obvious conclusion that humans are merely bias machines governed by unconscious reflexes, responses to stimuli, emotions and prejudices formed through ages of human evolution. Or that rational argument based on facts and sound reasoning never plays any role. Many but probably not all our opinions and decisions are biased by prejudice and emotive reactions created by a mind shaped by evolution. There’s certainly no hope of radically removing those parts of our minds that work that way, but we can hope to reduce their effect. If we are conscious of our confirmation bas, for instance, then we can try to counteract it by actively seeking out disconfirming information or by making an effort to read people from the opposing side. Rational persuasion can and does occur, and we can make it occur more often than it does today. For example, here and here are two examples of cognitive scientists pushing back against the current trend in their profession. They show how strong arguments can indeed persuade people and how group reasoning in particular is helpful.

More posts in this series are here.

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what is freedom

What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

free will

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • free willAnchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

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 (52): Not Enough Bias

Mr Spock illogical

“Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain”

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

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democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (65): A Political Decision Procedure Distorted by the Order Effect

ballot

ballot

(source)

People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,

In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. (source)

Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:

The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate. (source)

In California,

being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)

And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.

Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.

More on the order effect here. More posts in this series are here.

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human rights promotion, human rights violations, law, philosophy

Human Rights Promotion (11): Intentionality Bias Causing the Surge in Human Rights Talk

Laurel and Hardy accident

First, there has indeed been a surge in human rights talk over the past decades and even centuries (see here for some evidence). This is particularly obvious for the period since the end of WWII. Human rights have become the lingua franca among the oppressed, the persecuted and the bleeding hearts worldwide, effectively replacing language based on benevolence, honor etc. (No insult intended, I’m a bleeding heart myself). There’s something about the notion of a human right that captures the strength of demands for freedom and equality like nothing else. It makes a claim sound very strong and difficult to ignore.

Other reasons for the popularity of human rights – or better the fascination with human rights – are their clarity and simplicity, their obvious universality and the fact that they cover most if not all areas of human suffering, depravity and failing, including persecution, violence, lack of freedom, discrimination, poverty, work and the family.

A further, and as yet unexplored reason is the so-called intentionality bias. The intentionality bias is a psychological bias where actions are viewed as intentional even when they’re not.

Three studies tested the idea that our analyses of human behavior are guided by an ‘‘intentionality bias,” an implicit bias where all actions are judged to be intentional by default. In Study 1 participants read a series of sentences describing actions that can be done either on purpose or by accident (e.g., ‘‘He set the house on fire”) and had to decide which interpretation best characterized the action. To tap people’s initial interpretation, half the participants made their judgments under speeded conditions; this group judged significantly more sentences to be intentional. Study 2 found that when asked for spontaneous descriptions of the ambiguous actions used in Study 1 (and thus not explicitly reminded of the accidental interpretation), participants provided significantly more intentional interpretations, even with prototypically accidental actions (e.g., ‘‘She broke the vase”). Study 3 examined whether more processing is involved in deciding that something is unintentional (and thus overriding an initial intentional interpretation) than in deciding that something is unpleasant (where there is presumably no initial ‘‘pleasant” interpretation). Participants were asked to judge a series of 12 sentences on one of two dimensions: intentional/unintentional (experimental group) or pleasant/unpleasant (control group). People in the experimental group remembered more unintentional sentences than people in the control group. Findings across the three studies suggest that adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior. This research has important implications both in terms of theory (e.g., dual-process model for intentional reasoning), and practice (e.g., treating aggression, legal judgments). (source)

Laurel and Hardy accident2If there is indeed a tendency to view actions as intentional, then there will also be a tendency to frame problems in terms of human rights. For example, if the intentional actions of an oppressive majority assisted by prejudiced legislators and law enforcers are believed to be the main cause of discrimination of a racial minority, then holding those intentional actors legally and judicially responsible for rights violations makes sense and may be effective. When, on the other hand, a lot of this discrimination is in fact the result of unconscious bias, or when it is statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination, then judicial action based on human rights is much less effective.

And it’s my opinion that a lot of human rights violations are unintentional, unconscious and statistical. That doesn’t mean we should stop framing the underlying problems in human rights terms, but it does mean that our efforts to do something about them should be non-legal and non-judicial. Story telling, making people aware of their unconscious biases against certain groups of people, incentivizing people and other strategies can then be more successful in stopping rights violations.

The intentionality bias can be understood as an example of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. A simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

More on human rights and intentionality is here, here and here. More on biases is here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (71): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control, Revisited

marshmallow test

(source)

Almost as old as the problem of poverty itself is the story that poverty is caused by insufficient self-control and willpower. Never mind that things may just as well be the other way around: poverty drains the will. And never mind that the most famous study cited by proponents of the willpower story is apparently misleading:

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? … The research … began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required…

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

“I was astounded that the effect was so large,” says Aslin. ” … You don’t see effects like this very often.” …

The findings, says Kidd, are reassuring. She recalls reading about the predictive power of these earlier experiments years ago and finding it “depressing.” At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” she says. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’ “

But as she observed the children week after week, she began to question the task as a marker of innate ability alone. “If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice. Then it occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows—like having a stable environment.” (source, source)

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (46): Justificational Reasoning

swimsuit special

(source)

People act in all sorts of dubious ways, but they often justify their behavior after the event using imaginary motives or reasons, and then they come to believe those motives and reasons themselves. It’s a kind of cognitive failure and self-deception which, when it occurs in the field of human rights, makes it hard to do something about rights violations. If people can’t even admit to themselves what the real reasons are for their bad behavior – rights violations in this case – then it becomes very difficult – for others and for themselves – to do something about those reasons and to prevent future occurrences of the behavior.

As long as we – and, as a result, others as well – believe that we were motivated by ethical justifications which we in fact constructed and invented after the facts rather than by the often more suspicious justifications that really drove our actions, then we have less reasons to avoid those actions in the future. True, well-intentioned rights violations do exist and good intentions don’t make remedies more difficult – often it’s enough that we become aware of the possible dangers of good intentions. But when bad intentions masquerade as good ones, even to the person having the intentions, then things become more difficult. It’s always good to know the exact and true causes of something if you want to avoid it in the future. When people really know what motivates them but choose to present themselves in another way – perhaps because of shame -we can still try to pierce their cover. But when people fool even themselves, then there’s very little we can do. And it seems that people are indeed frequently unaware of the real causes of their own behavior.

An innocent example of justificational reasoning to begin with:

[M]ale students [were asked] to choose between two specially created sports magazines. One had more articles, but the other featured more sports. When a participant was asked to rate a magazine, one of two magazines happened to be a special swimsuit issue, featuring beautiful women in bikinis.

When the swimsuit issue was the magazine with more articles, the guys said they valued having more articles to read and chose that one. When the bikini babes appeared in the publication with more sports, they said wider coverage was more important and chose that issue. (source, source)

A more harmful case from another experiment:

Managers … have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. (source)

And it’s not easy to imagine the same thing going on in even more harmful actions.

There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance behind justificational reasoning: we want others to think that were are good people and we want to think of ourselves this way. When the facts contradict this belief, we change the facts.

Other posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (42): First is Best

prison photo

Psychological tests have shown that the first experience in a series of two or more is cognitively privileged. The order in which people experience things affects how they evaluate them: they tend to think the first option is the best.

Here’s an experiment showing how people decide that a criminal presented first is more worthy of parole:

Two criminals’ photographs, from the Florida Department of Corrections website … were used. Photos depicted 29 year-old males known to have committed the same violent crimes. Criminals were wearing identical correctional facility outfits; photos were pre-tested to be equally attractive and both expressing neutral facial expressions. …

Thirty-one participants … were asked to evaluate [the] two criminals and to determine who should “stay in jail” versus “be released on parole.” … [P]articipants automatically associated the first criminal with being more worthy of parole (rather than prison) compared to the second criminal. Regardless of which photo was presented first, it was the one presented first who was judged to be more worthy of parole. (source)

This is a form of order effect: people’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. (“First is best” is only one form of order effect; in some other cases, order effects show that the last options are privileged). As is clear from the example above, order effects can have consequences for human rights: if people are given parole on the basis of the psychological biases of those who decide rather than on the merits of the case, then equality before the law is done with.

It wouldn’t be very difficult to imagine and test other cases.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (67): Lack of Hope

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

(source)

Esther Duflo tells us about a program in West Bengal. People were given a “small productive asset” such as a farm animal for instance, and some money so as to prevent people from eating or selling the animal.

Well after the financial help and hand-holding had stopped, the families of those who had been randomly chosen for the … programme were eating 15% more, earning 20% more each month and skipping fewer meals than people in a comparison group. They were also saving a lot. The effects were so large and persistent that they could not be attributed to the direct effects of the grants: people could not have sold enough milk, eggs or meat to explain the income gains. Nor were they simply selling the assets (although some did). (source)

The most likely reason for this is hope. The handouts broke the cycle of pessimism and lack of hope. People were finally offered some mental space to think about something else than just mere survival. The tiny bit of security that came with a farm animal and a financial buffer opened up the possibility of planning, of looking into alternative livelihoods etc. For example, recipients worked 28% more hours, mostly on activities not directly related to the assets they were given. The rate of depression among participants also plummeted.

Some older and related posts:

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, health, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (63): Stress, Ctd.

stress

(source)

Poor people are often blamed for their own poverty. And indeed, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of poor people doing dumb and self-destructive things. However, even if we assume – and that’s a big if – that this evidence can be confirmed by more rigorous statistical analysis, then we’re still not allowed to claim that stupidity is in general – and not just in some cases – an important cause of poverty. First, it may very well be the case that everyone, rich and poor, is likely to make the same stupid mistakes but that the poor just have a smaller margin of error. The same stupid mistake made by a poor person costs him or her more dearly. Rich people on the other hand can afford to be stupid. Second, even if it’s true that the poor are on average somewhat more stupid and self-destructive, they should perhaps not be blamed for this. There’s some evidence from psychology that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities:

In a behavioral economics experiment several years ago, researchers asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to handle the following decision: Have your faulty car repaired for either $150 or $1,500. While the participants were considering how to decide, they were given simple cognitive tasks like solving puzzles.

The researchers, Prof. Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, both from Princeton University, and Harvard University Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan, expected that the stress from contemplating the $1,500 expense would hurt performance. They were right. But participants with above-average incomes succeeded in their tasks under both scenarios, while those with average or low incomes did worse as repair costs climbed.

Even the prospect of spending any money at all damaged the ability of low-income earners to think rationally. (source)

Other tests measured IQ before and after a harvest, i.e. in uncertain times and in more comfortable times:

The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. (source)

The stress of poverty causes distractions, which in turn show up as cognitive deficiencies. It’s not cognitive deficiencies that cause poverty but the other way around. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the causality goes both ways.

More on poverty and behavior, on poverty and stress, on poverty and intelligence and on poverty and brain functions.

More posts in this series.

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lies and statistics, statistics

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (39): Availability Bias

availability bias on newspaper frontpage

example of availability bias on a newspaper’s frontpage

(source)

This is actually only about one type of availability bias: if a certain percentage of your friends are computer programmers or have red hair, you may conclude that the same percentage of a total population are computer programmers or have red hair. You’re not working with a random and representative sample – perhaps you like computer programmers or you are attracted to people with red hair – so you make do with the sample that you have, the one that is immediately available, and you extrapolate on the basis of that.

Most of the time you’re wrong to do so – as in the examples above. In some cases, however, it may be a useful shortcut that allows you to avoid the hard work of establishing a random and representative sample and gathering information from it. If you use a sample that’s not strictly random but also not biased by your own strong preferences such as friendship or attraction, it may give reasonably adequate information on the total population. If you have a reasonably large number of friends and if you couldn’t care less about their hair color, then it may be OK to use your friends as a proxy of a random sample and extrapolate the rates of each hair color to the total population.

The problem is the following: because the use of available samples is sometimes OK, we are perhaps fooled into thinking that they are OK even when they’re not. And then we come up with arguments like:

  • Smoking can’t be all that bad. I know a lot of smokers who have lived long and healthy lives.
  • It’s better to avoid groups of young black men at night, because I know a number of people who have been attacked by young black men (and I’ll forget that I’ll hardly ever hear of people not having been attacked).
  • Cats must have a special ability to fall from great heights and survive, because I’ve seen a lot of press reports about such events (and I forget that I’ll rarely read a report about a cat falling and dying).
  • Violent criminals should be locked up for life because I’m always reading newspaper articles about re-offenders (again, very unlikely that I’ll read anything about non-re-offenders).

As is clear from some of the examples above, availability bias can sometimes have consequences for human rights: it can foster racial bias, it can lead to “tough on crime” policies, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (38): Status Quo Bias

dangerous intersection sign

when you’re affected by status quo bias, all places where you can go right or left rather than merely straight forward look dangerous

(source)

Status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, even when there are no obvious reasons why this state of affairs should be preferred over possible and knowable alternatives.

A preference for the status quo is not always a bias and can be entirely rational in some cases:

  • when the balance of costs and gains is in favor of the status quo and when all possible and knowable alternatives yield a lower balance
  • when some alternative yields a higher balance but the transition cost is too high
  • when your role in society requires that you are consistent (you’re a school teacher and you’re supposed to teach the canon, or a judge and precedent and predictability are important)
  • etc.

When a preference for the status quo is a form of reasonable risk avoidance, then it’s also wrong to call it a bias: it’s true that sticking with what worked in the past is a safe option when the consequences or costs of alternatives – compared to the cost of existing arrangements – are uncertain or unknowable.

However, people also tend to stick with proven options when the respective costs of different options are clear and an alternative is less costly than the status quo. We sometimes even prefer the status quo when costs aren’t an issue at all. In those cases, it’s correct to call our preferences a bias. Maybe the bias occurs because people don’t want to invest the effort of looking for alternatives and calculating all the costs. Status quo requires no mental effort. Choice is difficult, hence the tendency to do nothing. Or maybe cost calculations – when they are performed – are distorted because people wrongly attribute goodness to longevity. People often believe that something must be worth something if it has existed or if it has been practiced for a long time.

Cost calculations can also be biased because people tend to weigh the potential losses of switching from the status quo more heavily than the potential gains. This is called loss aversion – people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains even if the gains objectively outweigh the losses – and it could explain a preference for the status quo in the presence of alternatives that are objectively less costly. But status quo bias occurs even when there are no losses or gains from alternatives (experiments have shown that just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly). Hence, status quo bias is not always a form of loss aversion. Maybe regret avoidance plays a role (a past experience of regret teaches people to avoid decisions that imply change). Or an overvaluation of the virtue of consistency. Or the sunk cost fallacy: American involvement in Vietnam continued for years despite massive loss of lives, precisely because this loss would make defeat costly.

This last example shows how status quo bias can cause human rights violations. Other examples:

  • The use of precedent in judicial decisions even if those decisions violate human rights (overvaluing consistency).
  • Female genital mutilation often has no other justification than the fact that it has been practiced a long time, that it’s traditional (overvaluing longevity) and that abandoning it would cause disaster.

Something on the related endowment effect is here. More posts in this series are here.

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capital punishment, law

Capital Punishment (41): The “Healing” Argument and the “Danger” Argument

Jesus in the electric chair

Jesus in the electric chair, sculpture by London artist Paul Fryer, titled "Pieta"

(source)

Capital punishment is usually defended on the basis of a theory of deterrence or retribution, but there are some other, less common arguments as well. There’s for example the argument that capital punishment is necessary for “closure” and “healing” of the victim’s surviving family and friends. Capital punishment is therefore viewed as a therapy. Apart from the doubts that capital punishment can serve this purpose – what does closure and healing mean and do they necessarily require an execution? – there’s a strong case that it shouldn’t be used for this purpose even if it can be: it would amount to crude instrumentalization of the criminal, even more than in the case of deterrence. Moreover, there’s a problem with cause and effect: if people are told that they need an execution in order to accomplish closure, then perhaps they’ll start to believe there’s no other way.

Another argument in favor of capital punishment is based on guesses about the harm that would result from failing to use this type of punishment. If we don’t satisfy the public’s blood lust – or call it “punitive emotions” if you want – the public will seek to satisfy it in ways that we wouldn’t like (e.g. lynching). However, there’s again a problem with cause and effect in this argument: the justice system does not merely reflect opinion about appropriate punishment, but also shapes it. Far from reducing blood lust, capital punishment may instead promote it. This is the so-called brutalization effect.

The basis of blood lust is moral outrage, and such outrage – contrary to blood lust – is often completely justified. And it should be recognized, but it can be in ways that don’t involve executions.

More on capital punishment is here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (36): Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect is a psychological bias that leads us to rely too heavily on one piece of information – often even information that is totally irrelevant – when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward adjusting or interpreting other information to reflect the “anchored” information. I can best explain this with an example. It’s well known that judges do not simply apply legal rules to the facts of a case in a purely rational or mechanical manner. In fact, the decisions of judges are influenced by political, social and psychological biases, one of those being the anchoring effect.

German judges with an average of more than fifteen years of experience on the bench first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months; the anchoring effect was 50%. (source)

What does this have to do with human rights or with the causes of human rights violations? Well, if you replace the loaded dice in the quote above with the sentencing demands of prosecutors or even the demands of the “public”, you will not be surprised to find unfairness in sentencing:

evidenceThe results of a recent study of ours (Englich & Mussweiler, 2001) indicate that accomplished trial judges with an average of more than 15 years of experience were influenced by sentencing demands, even if the demands were made by non-experts. In fact, the magnitude of this influence proved to be dramatic. Judges who considered a high demand of 34 months gave final sentences that were almost 8 months longer than judges who considered a low demand of 12 months. A difference of 8 months in prison for the identical crime. Notably, this influence occurred although both demands were explicitly made by a non-expert. (source)

Sentencing demands can be an effective “anchor” leading to violations of those human rights that require fairness in criminal trials. Skilled but ruthless prosecutors can use this in order to influence even experienced judges and to have them impose unfair sentences.

Obviously, the anchoring effect isn’t limited to criminal trials, and it’s not just the anchoring effect that can introduce a bias in judges’ rulings. I’m not sure if I already mentioned this incredible finding:

proportion of rulings in favor of prisoners

The percentage of judges’ rulings that are favorable to the accused drops gradually from about 65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to 65% after a break. This indicates that judges are swayed by things that shouldn’t have any bearing on their decisions.

I’m still looking for other examples of rights violations caused by the anchoring effect, but in the mean time I should mention that it must also be possible to use the effect to improve respect for human rights.

Something about the related topic of unconscious priming is here. More posts in this series about the causes of rights violations are here.

(image source)
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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (35): Last Place Aversion

pecking order

pecking order

It seems that it’s very important to people that there are others who have it worse:

Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals [in the US] whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available.  Other surveys have shown similar results.

What might explain this trend? First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

“[L]ast place aversion” … can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them. (source)

Lab experiments have shown that people

choose gambles with the potential to move them out of last place that they reject when randomly placed in other parts of the distribution. In money-transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. …

Using survey data, we show that individuals making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase. (source)

I think it’s not far-fetched to assume that this isn’t limited to issues of redistribution and that something like it can lead to the persistence of certain types of rights violations. Perhaps some men in societies with endemic gender inequality actually like the fact that women are below them. And perhaps some groups in some societies need people like the Roma, “illegals”, immigrants or blacks to live in poverty and suffer from discrimination in order to feel better about themselves.

Moreover, individuals in positions of power can use last place aversion to create divisions and antagonism among groups belonging to the lower strata of the population and avoid the formation of a common front against the rulers. Last place aversion therefore leads to first place preservation.

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 (34): Learned Helplessness

incubus

incubus

Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. This is called “learned helplessness” and it’s caused by a persistent feeling of powerlessness and lack of control. You learn over time that there is no escape, and you won’t escape when there’s an unexpected possibility of escape. You often see press reports of battered women, hostages or abused children who no longer try to escape and who inexplicably fail to seize opportunities.

The phenomenon was first seen in dogs. In a gruesome experiment, a dog was repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it couldn’t escape. Eventually the animal stopped trying to avoid the pain and behaved as if it was utterly helpless to change the situation. Finally, when opportunities to escape were presented, the dog’s learned helplessness prevented any action. The only coping mechanism the animal used was to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.

Similar although less cruel experiments have shown the same effect in humans. There are even some indications that people can learn to be helpless through observing other helpless people.

More posts in this series are here.

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measuring human rights, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (24): Measuring Racism, Ctd.

racist watermelon stereotype

(source, more about the watermelon stereotype here)

Measuring racism is a problem, as I’ve argued before. Asking people if they’re racist won’t work because they don’t answer this question correctly, and understandably so. This is due to the social desirability bias. Surveys may minimize this bias if they approach the subject indirectly. For example, rather than simply asking people if they are racist or if they believe blacks are inferior, surveys could ask some of the following questions:

  • Do you believe God has created the races separately?
  • What do you believe are the reasons for higher incarceration rates/lower IQ scores/… among blacks?
  • Etc.

Still, no guarantee that bias won’t falsify the results. Maybe it’s better to dump the survey method altogether and go for something even more indirect. For example, you can measure

interracial marriage February 10, 1955

newspaper clipping about an interracial marriage; February 10, 1955

(source)

A disadvantage of many of these indirect measurements is that they don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of the whole population. You can’t just extrapolate the rates you find in these measurements. It’s not because some judges and police officers are racist that the same rate of the total population is racist. Not all people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods do so because they don’t want to live in mixed neighborhoods. Different crime rates by race can be an indicator of racist law enforcement, but can also hide other causes, such as different poverty rates by race (which can themselves be indicators of racism). Higher numbers of hate crimes or hate groups may represent a radicalization of an increasingly small minority. And so on.

Another alternative measurement system is the Implicit Association Test. This is a psychological test that measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

Because the IAT requires that users make a series of rapid judgments, researchers believe that IAT scores may reflect attitudes which people are unwilling to reveal publicly. (source)

Participants in an IAT are asked to rapidly decide which words are associated. For example, is “female” or “male” associated with “family” and “career” respectively? This way, you can measure the strength of association between mental constructs such as “female” or “male” on the one hand and attributes such as “family” or “career” on the other. And this allows you to detect prejudice. The same is true for racism. You can read here or here how an IAT is usually performed.

Yet another measurement system uses evidence from Google search data, such as in this example. The advantage of this system is that it avoids the social desirability bias, since Google searches are done alone and online and without prior knowledge of the fact that the search results will be used to measure racism. Hence, people searching on Google are more likely to express social taboos. In this respect, the measurement system is similar to the IAT. Another advantage of the Google method, compared to traditional surveys, is that the Google sample is very large and more or less evenly distributed across all areas of a country. This allows for some fine grained geographical breakdown of racial animus.

nigger make up

More specifically, the purpose of the Google method is to analyze trends in searches that include words like “nigger” or “niggers” (not “nigga” because that’s slang in some Black communities, and not necessarily a disparaging term). In order to avoid searches for the term “nigger” by people who may not be racially motivated – such as researchers (Google can’t tell the difference) – you could refine the method and analyze only searches for phrases like “why are niggers lazy”, “Obama+nigger“, “niggers/blacks+apes” etc. If you find that those searches are more common in some locations than others, or that they become more common in some locations, then you can try to correlate those findings with other, existing indicators of racism such as those cited above, or with historic indicators such as prevalence of slavery or lynchings.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, justice

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (32): The Just World Fallacy

Dr. Pangloss, who often uses the phrase best of all possible worlds

Dr. Pangloss, who often uses the phrase "best of all possible worlds"

(source)

Here’s another psychological bias that causes human rights violations to persist: the just world fallacy.

It seems that we want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. This strong desire causes us to rationalize injustices that we can’t otherwise explain: for example, we look for things that the victim might have done to deserve the injustice. The culture of poverty is a prime example, as is the “she asked for it” explanation of rape. This fallacy or bias is obviously detrimental to the struggle against human rights violations, since it obscures the real causes of those violations. The belief in a just world makes it difficult to make the world more just.

And even if its effect on human rights was neutral or positive, the fallacy would be detrimental in other ways: it doesn’t help our understanding of the world to deny that many of those who are lucky and who are treated justly haven’t done anything to deserve it, or that many of those who inflict injustices get away with it. The prevalence of the fallacy can be observed in popular culture, in which the villain always gets what he or she deserves; the implication is that those who “get” something, also deserve it.

Psychologists have come up with different possible explanations of the just world fallacy. It may be a way of protecting ourselves: if injustices are generally the responsibility of the victims themselves, then we may be safe as long as we avoid making the mistakes they made. The bias lessens our vulnerability, or better our feeling of vulnerability, and therefore makes us feel better. Another explanation focuses of the anxiety and alienation that comes with the realization that we live in a world rife with unexplained, unexplainable and unsolvable injustices. The fallacy is then akin to religious teachings about the afterlife, which are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for coping with the anxiety and alienation caused by mortality. Melvin Lerner explains the just world fallacy as a form of cognitive dissonance:

the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character. (source)

sensationalist newspaper headlineAll this argues against making desert central to our theories of justice: if desert is difficult to determine because there are biases involved, then surely desert can’t be a good basis of a theory of justice.

An interesting aside: it seems that the opposite bias also exists. The so-called “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violent content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Indeed, perceptions of violence and criminality often do not correspond to real levels. People who consume a large amount of violent media or who often read the crime sections of sensationalist newspapers tend to overestimate the prevalence of violence and crime.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

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causes of human rights violations, freedom, philosophy

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop - When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all

The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop - When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all "because they are sour".

(source)

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

self-delusion I have forgotten who I am

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

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causes of human rights violations, data, economics, equality, work

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (30): Language

speech and language

(source)

The effect of language on human rights can be straightforward, as in the case of hate speech. Imagine an individual member of a racial minority living among members of the majority. The latter are constantly hurling insults and hateful bile at this individual, making it almost impossible for her to move about the neighborhood, find employment and do many of the other things she has a right to do. In this case, a particular type of language and a particular use of this language has obvious repercussions on someone’s human rights.

But what I’m interested in here are more subtle effects of language on human rights. Take the example of the gender-exclusive pronoun. In most languages, personal pronouns distinguish male from female, and the male pronoun is the default: when we’re not talking about a specific person, or when we’re talking about a mixed gender group, then we use the male pronoun. (This is similar to the equally common rule that children should get the surname of the father). Attempts to invent and promote gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns haven’t quite succeeded, and the habit of using the female pronoun as the gender-exclusive one is often considered awkward. I also fail to avoid the traditional rule in my writing. In general, this problem is often labeled a fake one, invented by people high on political correctness.

And yet, the problem isn’t fake at all. Compared to other, more extreme uses of language such as hate speech, the harm done by the use of gender-exclusive pronouns may be small, but it’s not negligible. There’s a study here that tries to measure the harm:

Three studies assessed whether a common cultural practice, namely, the use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women. Women responded to the use of gender-exclusive language (he) during a mock job interview with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language (Studies 1 and 2). Moreover, the more emotionally disengaged women became over the course of a job interview upon hearing gender-exclusive language, the less motivation and job identification they subsequently reported (Study 3). Together, these studies show that subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.

Rosie "we can't do it"Another study focused on the use of gendered words in job ads, and found that ads signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. As a result of this signaling, women are less likely to apply to certain jobs, and this in turn perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace. Wording differences in ads affect the job’s relative appeal to men and women, independent of the type of job. The use of more masculine wording such as “competitive” makes traditionally female-dominated jobs more appealing to men, and vice versa.

In both these examples – gender-exclusive pronouns and gendered language in job ads – women respond – or are made to respond – in an unconscious way so as to perpetuate gender inequality.

A similar example of language affecting human rights is called stereotype threat: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent through some kind of preliminary “information” or briefing, then you perform worse at that task. For example, if a group of girls about to take a mathematics test, is “reminded” that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it’s likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have done had they not been told. It’s not difficult to imagine cases in which this can be used in order to perpetuate inequality, submission and domination. (More on stereotype threat here and here).

signalingI just mentioned signaling, and signaling in the more strict definition of the term – engaging in speech or activity not necessarily for the sake of this speech or activity but in order to convey relevant information about yourself (for example, people acquire an education and talk about it not only because they want to be educated but also because they want to signal ability to potential employers) – is yet another example of the way in which language affects human rights. Take the case of capital punishment: I strongly believe that this is not about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or even anger and revenge. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. This is especially important for politicians, elected judges etc. In other words, for those who could, if they wanted, end the practice. (More on human rights and signaling is here).

Obviously, language doesn’t always have a negative effect on human rights. It’s easy to find examples of a positive effect: storytelling can promote empathy, and language aimed at shaming people can rid the world of rights violations when reasoning is insufficient.

(image source)
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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (29): The Bystander Effect

Kitty Genovese

artistic rendering of the Kitty Genovese case

(source, the murder of Kitty Genovese is the archetypical although contested example of the bystander effect)

The bystander effect can explain the persistence of certain types or instances of rights violations. If many people witness a person in distress, then it’s the less likely that any one person will help. “I could help, but I’m sure someone will”. Numerous experiments have proven the effect. Virtually all of them find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. The probability of help is indeed inversely related to the number of bystanders, although not necessarily one-on-one. More precisely, the effect occurs when bystanders are strangers; when bystanders are friends help is usually forthcoming.

What are the reasons for this effect? Hard to tell, but social influence may be one: bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If everyone first looks at the others, then you have a vicious circle of influence. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing – i.e. nothing – they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. Diffusion of responsibility may be another reason: when a lot of people are present, they all assume that others carry more responsibility to intervene, because others may be seen as closer or stronger or first on the spot (this is also the thinking behind the firing squad or the Japanese procedure for capital punishment). The fear of being harmed or of offering unwanted assistance may also explain the effect.

Increasing urbanization and improved knowledge of everyday events (by way of better information systems such as the internet) can make the bystander effect more common, and can therefore make it more difficult to stop rights violations.

bystander effect

(source)

There’s a peculiar reaction to the bystander effect described here. And here are some notorious cases of the effect. More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (28): Inattentional Blindness

blind

(source)

Why do human rights violations endure? Because we don’t see them. Or better, some of them. We often suffer from so-called inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight because we are paying attention to some other details. If we don’t pay attention to an object that is really obvious, we simply will not perceive it, even if we “see” it, and that’s because attention is extremely important for perceiving. The best-known example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla test: observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking through the action.

Recently, a policeman was convicted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else. If even a policeman, trained to spot human rights violations, doesn’t notice them under certain circumstances, why should the rest of us?

If the persistence of human rights violations can be explained – in part – by inattentional blindness, than that’s depressing, since we have every reason to believe that inattentional blindness isn’t going away. On the contrary, our lives and societies are become more and more complex, urbanized and technology-based, requiring higher levels of attention to details. If this complexity makes it more likely that we fail to see certain human rights violations, then it’s clearly very difficult to do anything about them. You can’t change what you can’t see.

More posts in this series are here.

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democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (56): The Effect of Unconscious Priming?

looking at the American flag, by Pam Glew

looking at the American flag, by Pam Glew

(source)

People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. The same seems to be true in democratic politics. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. This effect can last up to 8 months. Exposure to the Confederate activates negativity toward Blacks and results in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. In 2007, Israeli researchers showed that even subliminal exposure to a national flag influences voters (in their study, it encourages voters to support politically moderate views).

This is proof of a lack of voter rationality and of the limited effect or even the futility of deliberation. It’s all very depressing and, when taken together with some other disturbing facts about democracy, it makes you reconsider the supposedly good reasons for promoting democratic governance. Let’s hope nobody in the Middle East is listening.

More posts in this series are here.

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art, health, law, limiting free speech

Limiting Free Speech (45): Selling Violent Video Games to Children

videogames are dangerous

(source)

A recent US Supreme Court ruling invalidated a California law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to children on the grounds that the law violated freedom of speech. The controversy is an old one, and goes roughly as follows. Proponents of laws banning violent media – especially the sale of violent media to children – point to different studies arguing that violence in media promotes violence in real life and that children in particular are at risk of becoming violent adults. Since people have a right to be protected against violence and children have a right not to suffer the psychological harm that purportedly comes from the consumption of violent games, we have here a case of rights conflicting with each other: on the one hand the free speech rights of the makers and sellers of games, and on the other hand the security rights of the potential victims of violent behavior provoked by the consumption of violent games, as well as the mental health rights of the consumers of those games. Hence, one of those rights should give way to the other rights.

Proponents of restrictions of free speech in this case argue that a prohibition of the sale of violent games to children is the best option since the speech value of a violent video game is small, and since producers of such games still have the freedom of “artistic expression” because they can still sell to adults. The cost of limiting free speech in this case is small compared to the gains in terms of physical security and psychological health. And there are precedents such as movie ratings.

The opponents of limitations on free speech can also point to studies showing the absence of an effect on real life violence or even the opposite effect – the so-called “pressure valve theory“. They can also use the slippery slope argument and claim that the sale of many classical works of fiction should then also be prohibited on the same grounds, since they also contain scenes of violence.

violence in video gamesThe US Supreme court sided with the opponents, unsurprisingly given the near absolutism of free speech protection in the US (only a couple of exceptions to free speech are recognized in US jurisprudence, and expression of violence isn’t one of them).

While I personally find US free speech jurisprudence difficult to accept and generally hypocritical – why can obscene material be censored but not violent material? – I think in this case the SCOTUS decision is probably right. The psychological evidence does not, as far as I can tell, clearly show an effect of media violence on real life violence, and even if there is a small effect, a general prohibition on violence in media probably goes too far, as does a general prohibition on the sale of media containing violence. Even a prohibition on the sale of such material to children is probably too much, even given the fact that children are more impressionable. Violence has many causes, and the “pressure valve” theory has some intuitive appeal (also in the case of pornography by the way). A rating system, allowing parents to do their job, is probably better.

Bonus cartoon:

free speech

 

(source)

More about media violence and free speech here. More posts in this series here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (46): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control

self-control

(source)

Conservatives often argue that the absence of certain mental goods such as self-control and willpower are to blame for the absence of material goods: poverty of the mind and of the will leads to material poverty. Now it seems that things are actually the other way around. Psychological experiments have shown that

an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower [is] finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. … After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task. (source)

That’s a general rule, but also one which affects the poor disproportionately: their material poverty forces them to exercise self-control and willpower much more frequently and intensely. They therefore deplete their mental “stock” much more rapidly, and as a consequence lose the necessary mental powers in situations where they need them most. This in turn, makes their material poverty worse or at least more difficult to overcome.

The basic process have been shown over and over again in simple experiments. Here’s one:

[F]ood-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. (source)

This makes intuitive sense:

Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. … [P]overty appears to [make] economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people. … In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. …  [I]f you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. (source)

work

(source)

This leads to some profound philosophical questions. Poverty seems to reduce free will, making it hard for the poor to use their own mental powers as means to escape their circumstances. However, if that is the case, we’ll be tempted to adopt some form of classism, blaming the poor rather than the economic and social structures they live in, the economic ups and downs that determine their job prospects, the discrimination some of them face, the politics and laws they endure etc. And then we’ll be right back where we started, with the conservative criticism of poverty discourse. The poor become a lesser form of humans, devoid of some of the essential human characteristics such as free will, self-control, intelligence etc.

However, the basic logic of the self-control argument remains persuasive, as long as one doesn’t focus too much on it at the expense of other causal explanations. The logic is also reminiscent of another causal theory, namely the bee sting theory of poverty. Both theories focus on the psychological causes of poverty:

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …

[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

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democracy, freedom, health, international relations, why do countries become/remain democracies

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (19): Psychological Reactions to the Threat of Disease

microscope

microscope

(source)

There sure are many reasons why countries become or fail to become democracies. In this blog series I’ve mentioned climate, geography, inequality, external triggers, prosperity, religion, resources, education etc. An original approach to this question looks at psychological reactions to the threat of disease:

Conventional explanations for a country’s political system would draw on its history, economy and culture. Randy Thornhill from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, however, thinks it might be determined by the threat of disease in a region. This triggers psychological biases, which originally evolved to prevent illness spreading, that also hinder the emergence of democratic ideals. (source)

The logic is that people develop psychological reactions – call them biases – which they need to protect themselves against infectious diseases, and these reactions in turn make it difficult to adopt democracy, individualism and an attitude of criticism of authority.

germsThe starting point for Thornhill and Fincher’s thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society – the social classes, for instance – to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease.

What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination. Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. (source, source)

What is, initially useful for public health, becomes detrimental for self-government:

[S]pecific behavioural manifestations of collectivism (e.g. ethnocentrism, conformity) can inhibit the transmission of pathogens; and so we hypothesize that collectivism (compared with individualism) will more often characterize cultures in regions that have historically had higher prevalence of pathogens. Drawing on epidemiological data and the findings of worldwide cross-national surveys of individualism/collectivism, our results support this hypothesis: the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism. (source)

democracy and infection correlation

(source, dots represent countries)
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democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (54): Kalocracy?

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan looking handsome

Beautiful people have a number of advantages in social life. They earn more, even in occupations where appearance does not seem relevant to job performance. And, somewhat surprisingly, the beauty premium – and the corresponding ugliness penalty – are higher for men than for women. (I say surprisingly because we usually think that women are more often judged on the basis of their looks). A related effect is heightism: tall people, who are often considered to be more beautiful, also earn more.

And it’s not just in salaries that beauty makes a difference. Beautiful people are also more successful in democratic politics. They are more likely to be elected and, again, the marginal effect of beauty is larger for male candidates than for female candidates. So democracy is in fact kalocracy, rule of the beautiful (from the Greek “kalos“).

But why is there a political benefit of good looks? Probably because there’s a general benefit of being beautiful and because people generally – and hence also in politics – value good looking people more than the rest of us. Psychological experiments have shown that a snap judgment of whether we like someone’s face determines what we believe about that person’s character. And character is important in politics. There’s also the fact that the visual media give more attention to beautiful politicians, something which probably translates into a higher voter share.

Makes you doubt the value of democracy, doesn’t it? And makes you wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off handing over politics to some kind of elite. More positively, perhaps we should start seriously considering a type of democracy that isn’t focused on the selection of candidates through the means of a media circus.

More posts in this series are here.

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philosophy, why do we need human rights

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

look, human rights graffiti

(source)

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

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

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

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

closing your eyes to reality

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

lie your way to happinessSelf-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

(image source)
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causes of human rights violations, democracy, freedom, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett, about violence and political rhetoric

editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett, about violence and political rhetoric

(source)

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

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causes of human rights violations, data, discrimination and hate, equality, health, trade, work

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (23): Unconscious Bias

thinking_man rodin

No matter how egalitarian, unbiased and unprejudiced we claim to be and believe to be, underneath it all many of us are quite different.

If you ask people whether men and women should be paid the same for doing the same work, everyone says yes. But if you ask volunteers how much a storekeeper who runs a hardware store ought to earn and how much a storekeeper who sells antique china ought to earn, you will see that the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously believe to be a man is valued more highly than the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously assume is a woman. If you ask physicians whether all patients should be treated equally regardless of race, everyone says yes. But if you ask doctors how they will treat patients with chest pains who are named Michael Smith and Tyrone Smith, the doctors tend to be less aggressive in treating the patient with the black-sounding name. Such disparities in treatment are not predicted by the conscious attitudes that doctors profess, but by their unconscious attitudes—their hidden brains. (source)

And even if most of our actions are guided by our conscious beliefs, some will be caused by unconscious prejudice, in which case we’ll have identified a cause of discrimination, a cause that will be very hard to correct.

More on the related topic of unconscious discrimination is here. More about prejudice here, and about bias here.

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economics, measuring poverty, poverty, statistics

Measuring Poverty (12): The Experimental Method

deliberation

(source, photo by Richard Sclove)

The so-called experimental method of poverty measurement is akin to the subjective approach. Rather than measuring poverty on the basis of objective economic numbers about income or consumption the experimental method uses people’s subjective evaluation of living standards and living conditions. But contrary to the usual subjective approach it’s aim is not to ask people directly about what poverty means to them, about what they think is a reasonable minimum level of income or consumption or a maximum tolerable level of deprivation in certain specific areas (food, health, education etc.). Instead, it uses experiments to try to gather this information.

For example, you can set up a group of 20 people from widely different social backgrounds and some of them may suffer from different types of deprivation, or from no deprivation at all. The group receives a sum of money and has to decide how to spend it on poverty alleviation (within their test group or outside of the group). The decision as to who will receive which amount of funding targeted at which type of deprivation has to be made after deliberation and possibly even unanimously.

The advantage of this experimental approach, compared to simply asking individual survey respondents, is that you get a deliberated choice: people will think together about what poverty means, about which types of deprivation are most important and about the best way to intervene. It’s assumed that such a deliberated choice is better than an individual choice.

More posts in this series are here.

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data, discrimination and hate, equality, gender discrimination, law

Gender Discrimination (23): Reverse Gender Discrimination in Criminal Justice

Using data obtained from the United States Sentencing Commission’s records, we examine whether there exists any gender-based bias in criminal sentencing decisions. … Our results indicate that women receive more lenient sentences even after controlling for circumstances such as the severity of the offense and past criminal history. …

Studies of federal prison sentences consistently find unexplained racial and gender disparities in the length of sentence and in the probability of receiving jail time and departures from the Sentencing Guidelines. These disparities disfavor blacks, Hispanics, and men. A problem with interpreting these studies is that the source of the disparities remains unidentified. The gravest concern is that sentencing disparities are the result of prejudice, but other explanations have not been ruled out. For example, wealth and quality of legal counsel are poorly controlled for and are undoubtedly correlated with race. …

The findings regarding gender in the case of serious offenses are quite striking: the greater the proportion of female judges in a district, the lower the gender disparity for that district. I interpret this as evidence of a paternalistic bias among male judges that favors women. (source)

More on unconscious discrimination and incarceration rates.

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democracy, freedom, philosophy, what is freedom

What is Freedom? (1): Three Kinds of Freedom

People usually talk about two kinds of freedom, negative and positive freedom. This common framing of the discussion about freedom is a result of the pervasive influence of Isaiah Berlin. However, this influence can be inhibiting in the sense that it can discourage other ways of thinking about freedom. Let me propose one other way.

Isaiah Berlin, Photo by Mats Lund

Isaiah Berlin, Photo by Mats Lund

We can, for instance, argue that there are not two but three kinds of freedom. Take the case of a business man being unfaithful to his wife. He tells her he’s going on a business trip but he’s meeting his lover instead. On his way to her, he’s not hindered in any way on his trip. There are no impediments or obstacles to overcome. His wife doesn’t try to stop him since she’s not aware of the affair. He takes the plane to see his lover and the airline cooperates in an unusually efficient way, security checks are cleared without any problems etc.

So the business man is free in the first sense of the word: freedom from external impediments. Let’s call this FREEDOM 1. It’s, in the tradition of Berlin, a negative kind of freedom.

However, the business man, while on his trip, is torn by guilt. Part of him tells him to stop and go back home. He knows that’s the best thing to do. But another part of him is driven by sexual desire and passion. The rational part wants him to be free of sexual desires because it knows that they may destroy everything that is dear to him.

So the business man isn’t free in this second sense of the word: freedom from internal impediments. He’s not free, not because of the presence of outside control, but because of the absence of self-control. Let’s call this FREEDOM 2. It’s also, obviously, a negative form of freedom in the sense that it requires the absence of internal impediments to a preferred action. (Berlin would not call this a negative freedom, but this post isn’t about Berlin, so let’s skip that).

We can also define this freedom 2 by way of the concept of “second-order desires” (following Harry Frankfurt). You are free if you can exercise self-control or self-mastery, and you can if you are able to act on your second-order desires. In our example, the businessman is free to have sex with his lover – no one forces him to have sex with her or to not have sex with her (this is freedom 1) – but he’s not free in the sense that he succeeds in acting on his second-order desire to remain faithful to his wife.

Freedom 1 is essentially a political concept, and receives most attention in political discourse. It’s the basis of concepts such a limited government, rule of law etc. Freedom 2 is usually part of discussions about psychology, personal morality and some forms of religion (such as Buddhism, which teaches that we should rid ourselves from desires). It also features in criminal justice (to what extent is a person criminally responsible for his or her acts, and to what extent is that person driven by passions, desires etc.). For this reason, freedom 2 can be likened or perhaps even equated to the concept of free will.

Freedom 2, although not political, can be reinterpreted in a political sense. Personal self-control and self-government – with the rational part of the individual taking control over the irrational and self-destructive part – can be seen as the starting point of a certain form of political freedom. Self-government is then translated from an individual notion into a collective one. If an individual wants to exercise self-government, he or she may also want to do that together with others. A society takes the model of individual self-control and uses it to exercise collective control over common matters.

Let’s call this FREEDOM 3: you’re free if, as a member of a community, you participate equally in the government of common affairs. This freedom is autonomy and democracy. One could call it a negative freedom as well, in the sense that a community, in order to govern itself, should be free from the rule of external forces (a dictator, a ruling class etc.). But even when those external forces are absent a community still needs to act together in order to govern itself. In that way, freedom 3 is not similar to freedom 2, and therefore it makes much more sense to call it a positive freedom: not merely a freedom from something, but a freedom to control a common destiny, a freedom to make your own rules and laws. (You could argue that freedom 2 is also positive in this sense, but it is much more negative than freedom 3 in other ways. And anyway I want to go beyond the positive-negative distinction here, so let’s drop that).

Freedom 3 is autonomy and democracy because it allows a community to take control of its common life. The problem with freedom 3, as already argued by Berlin, is that it can easily spill over in paternalism and become unfreedom. Rather than a collective acting together in a democratic spirit in order to govern their common affairs, we have a split in the collective: some use the split inside an individual between the rational part that tries to govern the irrational part and achieve freedom in this way (i.e. freedom 2), as a metaphor justifying a social distinction between more and less rational individuals. The former know best what is in the rational interest of the latter, and start to force the latter to act “rationally”, whatever that means (e.g. avoid adultery or compulsive gambling, live according to the communist worldview etc.). By forcing the irrational to act rationally, the paternalists make the irrational free, just like an individual who forces her irrational part to act rationally thereby makes herself free (freedom 2).

Coercively forcing an adulterer to mend his ways makes him free because mending his ways is presumed to be what he really wants (his second-order desire). So people are coerced for their own good, a good that they themselves are perhaps too blind to see.

This criticism was forcefully described by Berlin, and it remains very useful. However, I don’t think it necessarily discredits freedom 3. On the contrary, paternalism is a deviation from freedom 3, not its logical conclusion. Freedom 3 can avoid the pitfall of paternalism as long as it focuses on the mode of formation of desires rather than on their content. (See John Christman for a more elaborate version of this argument).

Freedom 3 remains important, like the other two types.

  • Freedom 1 is important because people want to be able to do what they want with a minimum of external impediments.
  • Freedom 2 is important because people often want to be able to decide rationally what they want, rather than instinctively. And rationally here means a thinking and reasonable assessment of the available options, which in turn means that you’re not forced into an option by your passions (or by your government, tradition, family etc. in which case we’re back in freedom 1).
  • And freedom 3 is important because people want to be autonomous and want to shape their common life. They don’t want their common lives dominated by a ruler or a ruling class.
Cuneiform symbol "ama-gi", usually c...

Cuneiform symbol "ama-gi", usually considered to signify "freedom"

If all three types of freedom are important, then none of them is sufficient by itself. Freedom 1 leaves the individual at the mercy of internal impediments and assumes – incorrectly – that the prior fixation of the individual’s volition is unproblematic. Freedom 2 shows that it is problematic. But it’s not only problematic because of the possible effect of passions; see here and here for some other reasons why the fixation of volition requires more than simply the absence of overbearing passions.

People do not simply want unimpeded action. They also want to reflect on what it is that they want. Freedom 1 is also insufficient for another reason. External impediments are often defined in a very limited way: to some who adopt freedom 1, only impediments intentionally produced by fellow human beings count, which means that unintentional impediments such as economic forces or non-human or natural impediments such as a handicap do not make people unfree (they merely make them “unable” to do something). That seems to me very restrictive. What difference does it make that my freedom of movement is impeded by an authoritarian government rather than by my poverty or disability?

Freedom 1 is insufficient because it can’t produce freedom 2, but also because it can’t produce freedom 3. It can’t be, by itself, the basis of democratic government. It’s perfectly compatible with some forms of limited dictatorship, on the condition that this dictatorship is relatively non-interfering. However, one could argue that a democracy – freedom 3 – is the best way to protect freedom 1 since a democracy protects human rights, and human rights limit external impediments.

Freedom 1 is insufficient, but so is freedom 2. Freedom 2 – the absence of internal impediments – can’t possibly produce freedom 1. On the contrary, it’s often a reaction to the absence of freedom 1. When faced with numerous external impediments, it can be reasonable to retreat into yourself and cut back your desires (like a Buddhist). The other option, going against the external impediments that block your desires, can be very costly, especially when the impediments are caused by your dictatorial government.

Freedom 3 as well is insufficient, even though it promotes freedom 1. After all, it doesn’t necessarily promote freedom 1, especially not for democratic minorities. And it’s completely unable to promote freedom 2.

I’ve tried to put some of this in a drawing:

three kinds of freedom

More posts on freedom are here.

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data, discrimination and hate, equality, justice, law

Racism (12): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice

Overt manifestations of racial or other types of group-based hate, prejudice or discrimination are relatively rare these days because they have become increasingly unacceptable. However, the racist or prejudiced ideas that form the basis of such overt manifestations aren’t necessarily less common than they used to be. Or perhaps the word “idea” is too strong. “Unconscious biases” or even “instincts” may be more appropriate terms. “Instincts” in this context is a term used to link contemporary racism and prejudice to lingering aspects of early human evolution encouraging distrust of other groups as a survival strategy.

Indeed, certain psychological experiments have shown how easy it is to induce people to hateful behavior towards members of other groups, even people who self-describe as strongly anti-prejudice. There have also been some notorious cases of the effect of hate propaganda on people’s behavior.

On the other hand, there are some indicators that suggest a decrease in the levels of racism, and there are theories that say that it should decrease. However, other data suggest that “unconscious biases” are still very strong:

[T]his Article proposes and tests a new hypothesis called Biased Evidence Hypothesis. Biased Evidence Hypothesis posits that when racial stereotypes are activated, jurors automatically and unintentionally evaluate ambiguous trial evidence in racially biased ways. Because racial stereotypes in the legal context often involve stereotypes of African-Americans and other minority group members as aggressive criminals, Biased Evidence Hypothesis, if confirmed, could help explain the continued racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system.

To test Biased Evidence Hypothesis, we designed an empirical study that tested how mock-jurors judge trial evidence. As part of an “evidence slideshow” in an armed robbery case, we showed half of the study participants a security camera photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator and the other half of the participants an otherwise identical photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. We then presented participants with evidence from the trial, and asked them to judge how much each piece of evidence tended to indicate whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty. The results of the study supported Biased Evidence Hypothesis and indicated that participants who saw a photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator judged subsequent evidence as more supportive of a guilty verdict compared to participants who saw a photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. (source)

Perhaps this can indeed explain part of the racial discrepancies in incarceration rates or execution rates (see also here), as well as the phenomenon of racial profiling. It could also explain this.

Maybe racism hasn’t decreased but has just become more difficult to spot, including for the racists themselves. Swastikas and KKK hoods aren’t so common anymore, and instead we have to look for unconscious biases, implicit racism or even unintentional racism.

In order to test your own unconscious biases you can take a racism test here. More on racism is here. Something on the related topic of unconscious discrimination is here.

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aid, data, economics, human rights facts, poverty

Human Rights Facts (56): The Poor Are More Generous Than the Rich

I go on a lot about charity on this blog, and about how important it is in the fight against poverty (a major human rights issue). (Some recent posts about charity are here, here and here).

Now, because charity is a means to fight poverty, we don’t expect the poor to be charitable. Indeed, they can be excused for being selfish and self-interested. The rich, especially the super-rich, on the other hand, are expected to be generous, and many of them are (there’s this recent story about 40 U.S. billionaires pledging half their wealth to charity).

However, as I’ve mentioned before, in relative terms (compared to an individual’s wealth) it’s in general the poor who are most generous. This is now confirmed by a serious of psychological experiments conducted by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley (see here). Before the experiments, participants were asked to position themselves on a ladder with ten rungs on it. Each rung represented people of different levels of education, income and occupational status. They were asked to place an “X” on the rung they felt corresponded to where they stood relative to others in their own community. The experiments showed that

generosity increased as participants’ assessment of their own social status fell. … Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. (source)

Why is this the case? It seems odd, and possibly fatal for the argument that poverty alleviation should be done through private charity (an argument I espouse). One possible explanation is that people aren’t (relatively) selfish because they are rich but that they are rich because they are selfish. Indeed, selfishness can be seen as a driver of wealth creation. But the experiments were controlled for self-made wealth and inherited wealth, and this distinction didn’t change the outcomes. So selfishness as a driver of wealth is not very strong, if it’s a factor at all.

Hence the causal link probably goes the other way: people are selfish because they are rich. The experimenters hypothesize that a climate of compassion among the poor – as opposed to a climate of competition among the rich – can instill a general spirit of compassion, help and cooperation. And that does seem convincing.

Fortunately, the experiments also showed that the rich can be encouraged to be compassionate. (If poverty alleviation through charity must depend on the poor, we’ll not go very far). Compassion inducing videos had a positive effect on the level of charity among the rich.

More on charity. More on psychology and human rights.

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international relations, measuring human rights, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (12): Measuring Public Opinion on Torture

Measuring the number and gravity of cases of actual torture is extremely difficult, for apparent reasons. It takes place in secret, and the people subjected to torture are often in prison long afterwards, or don’t survive it. Either way, they can’t tell us.

That’s why people try to find other ways to measure torture. Asking the public when and under which circumstances they think torture is acceptable may give an approximation of the likelihood of torture, at least as long as we assume that in democratic countries governments will only engage in torture if there’s some level of public support for it. This approach won’t work in dictatorships, obviously, since public opinion in a dictatorship is often completely irrelevant.

Here‘s an overview of some opinion polls on torture. However, measuring public opinion on torture has proven to be very difficult and misleading:

Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack. … But this view was a misperception … we show here that a majority of Americans were opposed to torture throughout the Bush presidency…even when respondents were asked about an imminent terrorist attack, even when enhanced interrogation techniques were not called torture, and even when Americans were assured that torture would work to get crucial information. Opposition to torture remained stable and consistent during the entire Bush presidency.

Gronke et al. attribute confusion of beliefs [among many journalists] to the so-called false consensus effect studied by cognitive psychologists, in which people tend to assume that others agree with them. For example: The 30% who say that torture can “sometimes” be justified believe that 62% of Americans do as well. (source)

More posts on human rights measurement are here. More on torture here.

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discrimination, discrimination and hate, equality, law, statistics, work

Discrimination (6): Should People Be Liable For Unconscious Discrimination?

First of all, it’s evident that people often have unconscious motives for their actions. For example, parents “wishing the best” for their children can act out of frustration about their own past failures. So it’s likely that some acts of discrimination are based on similar “deep” motives. Some of us who genuinely believe that we are colorblind may still avoid black neighborhoods at night, cross a lonely street when a tall black male comes our way, or favor a CV sent in by someone with a “‘Caucasian” name. Tests have shown that people are more biased than they admit to themselves. (You can test your own racism here).

So we may be violating anti-discrimination laws without “really” and consciously wanting to. You could say that in such cases we shouldn’t be prosecuted for breaking the law, because there is no intent on our part. Discrimination takes place but no one really wants it to take place. True, normally there’s an intent requirement when deciding liability: if you drive your car and you hit someone who crosses the road where he or she shouldn’t do so, you’re not criminally liable. You killed a person but didn’t intend to. In some cases, the lack of intent diminishes rather than removes liability: if you’re in a fight with someone and the other person dies because of your actions, you won’t be charged with homicide but with the lesser crime of manslaughter if you didn’t intend to murder.

As the example of manslaughter already makes clear, intent isn’t always necessary for liability (another example would be Eichmann). Hence, lack of intent can’t be the reason not to make unconscious discrimination a crime.

Anyway, intent or the absence of it is often very difficult to prove. In the case of homicide/manslaughter, you can use witness accounts or physical evidence, you can reconstruct the crime and try to figure out if the killing was planned or intended, or you can interrogate the perpetrator, and even then it’s rarely easy. Things seem to be much more difficult still in cases of unconscious discrimination. Looking for intent is basically trying to look inside people’s minds, which isn’t obvious, and when people fool their own minds it’s becomes even harder.

If we accept that unconscious discrimination should be a crime in certain cases, and perhaps equivalent to conscious discrimination, then the problem is how to prove that it took place. In the case of conscious discrimination, you can often rely on the utterances of the person(s) who discriminate. That’s evidently impossible in the case of unconscious discrimination. Perhaps you can’t prove it in individual cases – if one black person’s CV is rejected, it’s probably impossible to say it’s because of implicit or unconscious racism. However, if a company rejects a large number of such CVs, and correcting for other factors such as education or skill level doesn’t remove bias in the distribution, then you may perhaps have evidence of discrimination (that’s a technique that’s useful in cases of conscious discrimination as well, by the way). So you would need to rely on statistical analysis, something that usually isn’t done in the determination of criminal liability. It’s not because x % of all killings are manslaughter that everyone charged with a killing has x % change of “getting away” with manslaughter. The decision to sentence someone for the crime of murder or manslaughter is always made on an individual basis and not a statistical one, although past conduct of the suspect can sometimes come into play.

An additional difficulty: if we accept that laws aren’t only meant to punish but also to prevent and deter, it seems that the latter goal is futile in the case of unconscious discrimination. People who are not aware that they engage in discriminatory activities will hardly be persuaded by laws telling them to stop doing so.

I’m personally not yet ready to take a firm position on these issues. For more information on this topic, take a look at this interesting paper.

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economics, education, health, poverty, what is poverty

What is Poverty? (5): A Psychological Thing

Poverty is not just the absence of sufficient income or a level of consumption that is below a minimum threshold. Poverty is multidimensional: it also means bad health, high mortality rates, illiteracy etc. And these different elements of poverty tend to have a negative effect on each other (the so-called poverty trap). Being deprived of literacy or education is usually seen as an obstacle to material wellbeing.

The absence of material wellbeing – whether expressed in terms of income, consumption, health, mortality etc. – is often viewed as an isolated evil. However, it’s possible to make the case that it can also have psychological effects that harm people’s mental wellbeing. If this is true, and I think it is, then poverty does more harm than we usually think it does.

I believe it’s widely accepted that poverty does some psychological damage, such as stress, depression, loss of self-esteem and of the feeling of control, loss of ambition and aspirations etc. Although usually people assume – correctly or not – that this type of damage is less severe or less urgent than the physical damage that results from poverty (such as bad health, mortality, hunger etc.). Some even argue that there’s a tendency to overemphasize the link between material deprivation and (the perception of) subjective wellbeing, and that psychological problems which may seem to be caused by material deprivation have in fact other causes (genetics, upbringing, personality etc.).

However, I think the tendency is rather to underestimate the effects on mental wellbeing. A recognition of the psychological effects of poverty would also open the possibility of a more positive evaluation of notions such as poverty as vulnerability and relative poverty. Vulnerability, or a high level of risk of poverty, can perhaps produce the same amount of stress as actual poverty. And one’s self-esteem can suffer as much from actual deprivation (including illiteracy) as from comparative (or relative) deprivation (e.g. comparatively low levels of education or income).

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (39): The Bee Sting Theory of Poverty

(This is a follow-up from two previous posts, here and here).

Why are people poor? A cursory investigation almost always blames the poor for their own poverty. Poor people seems to make stupid choices all of the time. They are disproportionately likely to have children while in their teens, to be an unmarried mother, to drop out of school, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes etc. Non-poor people also engage in this kind of irrational behavior but the costs to them are much smaller. So rationality would tell poor people to stay away from such behavior. The fact that they don’t leads many to conclude that poor people are especially irrational, perhaps even dumb.

Many conservatives often adopt this causal theory of poverty, although not always in those terms. Perhaps it’s a reaction to liberals who tend to situate the cause of poverty far away from the poor themselves, e.g. racism, capitalism etc. Both camps, however, remove responsibility from the discussion. If you’re too dumb to escape poverty, you’re not likely to magically develop the responsibility to take your life in your hands. And if outside forces as powerful as racism and capitalism make you poor, no matter how strong your sense of responsibility, you’re not likely to win.

A multicausal understanding of poverty seems closer to reality: dumb choices, lack of effort and responsibility and outside forces all contribute to create and maintain poverty, in different measures for different people. It’s likely that poor people aren’t different from anyone else in this respect: everyone makes dumb choices, lacks responsibility in key moments and suffer the brunt of outside forces, the poor just pay a heavier price. They have smaller margins of error, so they suffer disproportionately from the errors they make. And their reserves and defenses are weaker, so the impact of outside forces is stronger. And we shouldn’t forget poverty traps as a cause of poverty (see here, here and here): the more you’re down, the more difficult it is to get up again. Partly because of material reasons (for example, the trap of the ghetto or the vicious circle of poverty and ill health), but also because of psychological reasons:

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems. …

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …

[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)

Camden, New Jersey is one of the poorest citie...

Image via Wikipedia

This is a classic example of a poverty trap: being poor makes you poorer. People just get overwhelmed by problems and their ability to cope suffers. It’s not just that they are dumb or irresponsible; they’re simply overwhelmed. All of us would be, even the smartest and most responsible among us.

It also means that, as Charles Karelis has argued, there’s something wrong with the disincentive argument about help to the poor (giving them help reduces their incentives to do something about their situation, like giving unemployment benefits reduces the incentive to find a job). Things may actually be the other way around:

Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. (source)

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causes of poverty, economics, education, philosophy, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (38): Behavior

poverty cartoon by Patrick Corrigan

poverty cartoon by Patrick Corrigan

(source)

Following an earlier post, some more evidence free musings on the causes of poverty. Theories about the causes of poverty typically fall into two camps:

  1. either the poor are victims of circumstances that are irrational (trade restrictions, misguided government policies, etc.)
  2. or the irrationality is situated within the minds, lifestyles, behaviors and values of the poor whose lack of rational calculation and foresight condemns them to a life of poverty.

Theory 1 describes the poor as people who satisfy the commonly accepted economics paradigm of the rational economic actor, but who also face economic or political structures that make it difficult for them to reap the usual benefits of rational self-interested economic interaction in a mutually beneficial market. Theory 2 blames not the dysfunctions or imperfections of the market and of government, but the dysfunctions of the self-destructive individual.

Poverty alleviation in theory 1 means market corrections or improvements in government (redistribution, market liberalization, breaking poverty traps, institutional improvement, the struggle against corruption etc.). In theory 2, it means better education, family planning and perhaps even psychological and paternalistic guidance. Some will go to extremes such as sterilization or eugenics. In the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes:

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony… She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother… and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child… An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives… We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson. v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (source, source)

That’s not so popular anymore these days, fortunately, and invasive actions like these or like the aboriginal “Stolen Generations” are widely condemned. And yet, extremely paternalistic interventions still occur (take for example the current Australian aboriginal policy, aptly called “the intervention“).

Theory 1 seems to blame “society” for the fate of the poor, and this violates some of our philosophical intuitions about (limited) self-control and self-responsibility. Theory 2 seems very cold-hearted and even classist, and violates moral intuitions about the requirements and consequences of living together. That’s probably why the most common view is a mix of both theories (call it theory 3). Most of us believe that poverty has multiple causes and that these causes can be situated both in the economic-political structures and in individual psychology and behavior, in varying degrees depending on the specific cases.

However, there’s also a theory 4, described in this paper, and it’s one that avoids the (partially) paternalistic, classist, anti-activist or anti-individualist pitfalls of the previous three theories:

The behavioral patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes. (source)

So the poor only give the impression of being deviant and self-destructive. They are, but not more or less than anyone else; it just shows more. For example, many poor people fail to open a bank account, notwithstanding the large benefits and the low costs of doing so. That failure is self-destructive because it increases the cost of payments and revenues, something the poor can afford least of all. However, this doesn’t prove that the poor are particularly self-destructive people. It only shows the effects of minor and universal human failures, such as embarrassment (when faced with a bank teller), short-termism, time preference etc., failures which happen to have graver consequences for the poor than for the rest of us because of their smaller error margins.

More on the causes of poverty here.

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causes of human rights violations, discrimination and hate

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (21): Hate is Just a Word Away

It’s shouldn’t be surprising that there are so many human rights violations. Psychologists have shown how easy it is to induce cruelty, prejudice and hate. There’s for example the famous Milgram experiment. People seem to be very obedient to authority figures, even if they are told to be cruel to other people (giving them electric shocks in this case; the shocks were fake but the subjects didn’t know that). Milgram’s test suggested that the millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were violent and cruel because they were following orders. Authority made them do things that violated their deepest moral beliefs. If you see how much pain people are willing to inflict on another person they don’t even know, simply because they are ordered to by an experimental scientist, you can imagine how easy it is for real authority figures to “convince” them. Which doesn’t mean that ordinary perpetrators of genocide or other acts of cruelty are guiltless tools of central command.

(The Milgram experiment was recently “reproduced” in a game show on television).

A similar experiment is the Hofling hospital experiment. Nurses were ordered by unknown doctors to administer what could have been a dangerous dose of a (fictional) drug to their patients. In spite of official guidelines forbidding administration in such circumstances, Hofling found that 21 out of the 22 nurses would have given the patient an overdose of medicine, even though they were aware of the dangers.

Then there are the Asch conformity experiments. One subject and a series of fake subjects were asked a variety of questions about an image containing lines, such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line is longer than the other, which lines are the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The fake subjects always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses. You wouldn’t expect a majority of people to conform to something obviously wrong, such as “line A is longer than line B” when it’s clear to the eye that the opposite is the case. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing such an incorrect answer, many participants also provided incorrect responses. This kind of group pressure and tendency to conform can explain mob violence and government organized genocide.

In the Stanford prison experiment, also called the Zimbardo experiment, people were selected to play the roles of guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what was expected. The guards became authoritarian and effected draconian, sadistic and abusive measures which were even accepted by the suffering prisoners.

And, finally, there is the Third Wave experiment demonstrating the appeal of fascism for ordinary people.

These social psychology experiments show that government efforts to mandate and enforce cruelty, prejudice, racism, hate and even genocide fall on fertile grounds. Human nature’s dark side seems to lurk just below the surface, ready to come out, and merely awaiting the wink of the boss or the group. A negative dialectic quickly settles in between government prejudice and private prejudice.

More on cruelty, prejudice, violence and hate.

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freedom, philosophy, why do we need human rights

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

confirmation bias

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

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

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

confirmation bias

(source)

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

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

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

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

More on confirmation bias and on freedom of speech.

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causes of human rights violations, discrimination and hate, education, equality, philosophy, poverty

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (18): Stereotype Threat and Michel Foucault

There’s an interesting phenomenon called the stereotype threat, or, in other words, the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. (Some say that this is a type of confirmation bias, a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their existing preconceptions – they selectively collect new evidence, interpret evidence in a biased way or selectively recall information from memory. But I’m not convinced).

A typical example of stereotype threat manifests itself when a categorical group is told or shown that their group’s performance is worse than other groups before giving them a test; the test results are often abnormally lower than for control groups. For example, on a mathematics test, if you remind a group of girls that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it is likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have had they not been told. (source)

Here’s another example:

Stereotype threat

(source)

[Irwin] Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ test, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. (source)

Indeed, that could be one explanation of the stereotype threat. Or it could simply be that people score worse because they are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and that this anxiety provokes stress because of the will to do well and prove that the prejudice is wrong. Ironically, they score worse: this anxiety and stress makes them less able to perform at normal levels. Or it could be something more sinister: something like internalization of oppression. People who suffered prejudice for centuries can perhaps convince themselves of their group’s inferiority. When this inferiority is made explicit beforehand, they are reminded of it, and somehow their recollected feelings of inferiority tweak their performance.

So inferior test results – compared to control groups who haven’t been exposed to explicit stereotypes before the test – can be caused by

  • a lack of motivation to disprove entrenched and difficult to change prejudices
  • stress and anxiety, or
  • recollected feelings of inferiority.

Or perhaps something else I’m not thinking of at the moment.

Some say that this is all crap, and an extreme example of the file drawer effect or publication bias: those studies that find positive results are more likely to be published, the others stay in the file drawer. I don’t know. I do think it’s true that whatever the reality of the stereotype threat, talk about it can have perverse effects: differences in test scores are considered to be wholly explained by the threat, and real education discrimination or differences in economic opportunities are removed from the picture. In that way, the stereotype threat functions as a solidifier of prejudice and stereotype, quite the opposite of what was intended.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Assuming the threat is real, Michel Foucault comes to mind. Foucault wrote about power and the different ways it operates. Rather than just force or the threat of force, he found “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving subjugation”. If you can convince people of their own inferiority you don’t have to do anything else. They will take themselves down. Or at least you may be able to convince people that it’s useless to struggle against prejudice because it’s so entrenched that you may as well adapt your behavior and confirm it. Also, Foucault’s claim that “power is everywhere” can be used here: power over people is even in their own minds. For Foucault,

power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. … Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable “truths”, come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such “truths” becomes normalized. (source)

The stereotype threat is a good example of a system that makes people behave in other ways, and of a belief system (based on prejudice) that becomes common knowledge, even among those targeted by the prejudice. Even they see it as unthinkable that their own inferiority is prejudice rather than knowledge.

More on prejudice, stereotypes, racism, gender discrimination, and Foucault.

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discrimination and hate, equality, lies and statistics, statistics

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (29): How (Not) to Frame Survey Questions, Ctd.

Following up from an older post on the importance of survey questions, here’s a nice example of the way in which small modifications in survey questions can radically change survey results:

homosexual or gay importance of survey questions

(source, source, source)

Another example:

Our survey asked the following familiar question concerning the “right to die”: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?”

57 percent said “doctors should be allowed,” and 42 percent said “doctors should not be allowed.” As Joshua Green and Matthew Jarvis explore in their chapter in our book, the response patterns to euthanasia questions will often differ based on framing. Framing that refers to “severe pain” and “physicians” will often lead to higher support for ending the patient’s life, while including the word “suicide” will dramatically lower support. (source)

Similarly, seniors are willing to pay considerably more for “medications” than for “drugs” or “medicine” (source). Yet another example involves the use of “Wall Street”: there’s greater public support for banking reform when the issue is more specifically framed as regulating “Wall Street banks”.

survey wording effect

(source)

What’s the cause of this sensitivity? Difficult to tell. Cognitive bias probably has some effect, and the psychology of associations (“suicide” brings up images of blood and pain, whereas “physicians” brings up images of control; similarly “homosexual” evokes sleazy bars, “gay” evokes art and design types). Maybe the willingness not to offend the person asking the question. Anyway, the conclusion is that pollsters should be very careful when framing questions. One tactic could be to use as many different words and synonyms as possible in order to avoid a bias created by one particular word.

More on DADT and homosexuals in the military. More on assisted suicide. More on lying with statistics.

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causes of poverty, health, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (26): Hereditary Poverty, Another Poverty Trap

Fra Angelico's portrait of Saint Mark

Fra Angelico's portrait of Saint Mark

(source)

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. Mark 14:7

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land”. Deuteronomy 15:11

I’ve discussed poverty traps before on this blog (here, here and here), but I think I failed to mention the most important one: hereditary poverty. As a result of having parents who are poor, children

  • receive substandard education because they enroll in substandard schools (if at all)
  • may be forced to quit school early and start working
  • do not receive quality healthcare (because of the costs)
  • are more likely to be obese, with negative consequences for their health
  • have a lower birth weight, something which also has a negative impact on health.

Growing up in poor families has negative effects on children’s education and health, and these effects in turn make it more likely that these children grow up to become poor as well. And their children will go through the same process, and so on. Hence the concept of hereditary poverty.

Just a few more words on the effect of substandard education. The quality of schools (or better the cost of good schools) and the element of child labor aren’t the only factors limiting the education levels of children in poor families. An interesting article in The Economist (gated) points to effects discovered by neuroscience. It seems that stress, induced by poverty, lowers memory capacity, and this lowered memory capacity makes it more difficult to learn and to obtain a good education as a means to escape poverty traps. It’s been well known for a while that stress lowers memory capacity (it reduces the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with memory). However, Evans and Schamberg (see the paper here) showed that stress caused by poverty reduces memory capacity. First they showed that poverty is correlated with higher stress, and then that higher stress is correlated with lower memory capacity. Comparisons of the memory capacities of poor and middle class people showed indeed a difference in memory capacity, and this is caused by poverty induced stress rather than other elements of poverty. Poverty causes stress, which reduces memory, which in turn makes it harder to learn, which in turn makes it more difficult to escape a poverty trap. How does poverty cause stress? Well, there’s the obvious cause: financial insecurity. But low self-esteem caused by poverty (including for children in poor families) also seems to contribute. See this paper for instance.

the vicious cycle of hereditary poverty

the vicious cycle of hereditary poverty

The poor indeed will always be with us. At least if we don’t help them to get out of the traps in which they find themselves.

For those who wonder why I believe poverty is a human rights issue, go here. And here are other human rights quotes.

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capital punishment, law

Capital Punishment (22): Deterrence

crime cartoon

crime cartoon

Many crimes, especially violent crimes and property crimes, are human rights violations. The fact that theft, assault, violent attack and murder are crimes in most if not all national legal systems, indicates a high degree of normative consensus on the importance of a subset of human rights, namely the right to life, the right to property and the right to physical security.

Moreover, there’s also a high degree of consensus across different national legal systems as to the best way to react to these rights violations and to stop them from happening in the future: isolate the perpetrators in prisons. We believe that this will prevent crime in three ways:

  • It stops the criminal from re-offending during the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops the criminal from re-offending after the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops other people from following his/her example.

The last two bullet points are what’s called “deterrence”. We tend to believe that this deterrence effect correlates with the severity of the punishment. More years in prison means more deterrence. More brutal punishments – such as capital punishment – means even more deterrence. The belief in this correlation between degree of deterrence and degree of punishment rests on the “rational actor hypothesis”: people will take only those actions that produce more benefits than costs. If the punishment for a certain type of crime imposes a much lower cost on the potential criminal than the benefits the result from the crime – for instance a few weeks in prison for a theft worth several millions of dollars – and if the chances of being caught are reasonably low, than a “rational actor” is likely to become a criminal. Deterrence is therefore a function not only of the severity of the punishment but also of the probably of getting caught.

There are three problems with deterrence understood like this.

Irrationality

Many people don’t fit the rational actor description. They don’t make cost-benefit analyses before engaging in actions, especially not when crime is concerned (and certainly not in cases of certain types of crimes, such as “crime passionnel”). See this cartoon for a mockery of the rational actor hypothesis.

Reductio ad absurdum

There’s an element of “reductio ad absurdum” in deterrence: if you want to deter certain types of crimes, especially crimes with very high potential benefits, you have to impose very high costs. Hence you may find that your logic leads you into acceptance of very brutal punishments: e.g. very painful, prolonged and public types of capital punishment, the killing of the family and friends of criminals etc. The danger with all cost-benefit logic in human affairs – and with utilitarian philosophies in general – is that you wind up accepting the sacrifice of some for the larger benefit of society as a whole. Rawls called this the failure to take distinctions between persons seriously. Utilitarianism means

extending to society the principle of choice for one man, and then, to make this extension work, conflating all persons into one through the imaginative acts of the impartial sympathetic spectator. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons. John Rawls (source)

It seems that if you want to defend deterrence, you have to stop at some point and accept that there are limits to it. There are certain things you just can’t do to people, and no amount of deterrence or other benefits can justify doing these things.

Doesn’t work, unless…

It’s not beyond doubt that deterrence works, probably in part because of the first point. There’s solid evidence to the contrary in the case of capital punishment (see here). But also for crime in general and prison sentences there’s doubt:

Although long sentences are now common and the incarceration rate is five times what it was during most of the 20th century, the crime rate is still two and a half times the average of 1950-62. … most criminals are not the dispassionate rational actors who populate standard economic models. They are more like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain punishment. (source)

Detention only seems to work when the odds of apprehension and punishment are very high.

The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their crimes. (source)

This would seem to undermine the argument for capital punishment. Of the two elements that are believed to cause the deterrent effect, only the odds of getting caught seem to matter, not the severity of the punishment. Hence, capital punishment is useless. What counts is the odds of getting caught, not what happens when you’re caught. In general, people take costs that are relatively modest but immediate and certain much more seriously than higher costs that may or may not happen in the longterm.

Experimenters have found, for example, that even long-term alcoholics become much less likely to drink when they are required to receive a mild electric shock before drinking. Many of these same people were not deterred by their drinking’s devastating, but delayed, consequences for their careers and marriages. (source)

More on deterrence and prevention.

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discrimination and hate, freedom, law, limiting free speech

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

In this photo taken by a neighbor Thursday July 16, 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr. center, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Police say they were called to the home of Gates after a woman reported seeing a man try to pry open the front door. (AP Photo/Demotix Images, B. Carter)

In this photo taken by a neighbor Thursday July 16, 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr. center, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Police say they were called to the home of Gates after a woman reported seeing a man try to pry open the front door. (AP Photo/Demotix Images, B. Carter)

(source)

Thanks to the cops who, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”, I have a new instalment in my series about possible limits to our freedom of speech.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

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discrimination and hate, quiz, racism

Racism (3): Test Your Racism

racism

(source)

Try this test and see how racist you are, consciously or even – and more interesting – unconsciously. A few words from the designers of the test:

It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’. … No personally identifying information is collected. IP addresses are routinely recorded, but are completely confidential.

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ethics of human rights, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (6): Human Rights and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

abraham maslow

Abraham Maslow

(source)

Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values. Abraham Maslow

Economic theory is or was dominated by the assumption of the homo economicus, the human being as a rational, perfectly informed and self-interested actor who desires nothing but wealth and profit. It is certainly one of the achievements of Maslow that today we are all conscious of the variety and complexity of human motivation and human needs.

A human need is something that is essential to survive and to survive in a decent, happy and fulfilling manner. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with the lowest or most fundamental needs at the bottom. He distinguished 5 types of needs:

  1. Physiological needs such as food, water and sleep
  2. Safety needs such as security of the body, health and property
  3. Social needs such as friendship, family, belonging and identity
  4. Esteem needs such as recognition, self-esteem, confidence, justice and respect
  5. Growth or self-actualization needs such as creativity, problem solving, art, beauty, personal fulfilment and freedom.

maslows hierarchy of needs

(source)

The assumption of the hierarchy is that the lower needs have to be met first, and are preconditions for the realization of the higher needs, although a temporary insufficiency in the lower levels will not undo the aspirations of the higher levels. For example, a surgeon who normally has no problem satisfying his or her physiological or safety needs, and instead focuses on recognition, may be forced to concentrate temporally on his or her health without sacrificing the overriding importance of recognition.

Conversely, someone who normally has problems satisfying lower level needs, will not find the resources necessary to focus on higher level needs.

Criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The hierarchy is not strict or linear. Higher needs can sometimes become so strong that they override the lower needs: the need for recognition for example can overcome the need to survive (we’ll call this “courage”). And people do not always automatically move from one, satisfied need to a higher one. It’s not because someone’s physiological and safety needs are satisfied that he or she necessarily strives towards recognition or self-development. The latter needs are very weak for some people, just as they can be overriding for others.

Also, how do we determine that a particular need is “higher” than another? Doesn’t this imply subjective judgment? Why would hedonism for example be inferior to self-development? I agree it is, but that’s just my subjective preference. I have no way of proving to a hedonist that he or she is wrong.

Some needs can also become too important, at the expense of other needs. In the American culture for example one can observe that recognition (“fame”) is given way too much attention, and to a certain extent the physiological and safety needs are reduced to a matter of individual responsibility. In Islam, there is an exaggerated focus on respect and honor, and too little attention is given to self-development and freedom.

fame

(source)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human rights

This indicates that a strict, universal hierarchy among human needs does not exist. But while it is certainly impossible to offer a fixed hierarchy or even classification of ever-changing needs in an ever-changing society, the model of Maslow offers some advantages. Especially its relationship to the issue of human rights is interesting.

First of all, one could claim that all human rights violations are caused by conflicts between human needs, between one type of need for one person and the same need for another person (e.g. food or safety), or between different types of needs for different persons (e.g. the needs of justice and the needs related to the safety of property).

This is not completely correct because many rights violations have other causes: outright evil, unintended consequences of actions, structural or institutional causes, self-inflicted causes etc. But it remains useful to see rights violations in the light of needs. However, one shouldn’t expect too many useful results from this approach. How to quantify which needs are causing which violations or conflicts? Or to quantify which needs would be met when respecting a particular human right?

Secondly, there is a hierarchy in the system of human rights that can be linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are different types of human rights, and one can claim that respect for some types of rights is a precondition for respect for other types. In this post I outlined the argument that social and economic human rights, which are rights that give people the opportunity to fulfill their physiological and safety needs, are necessary prerequisites for the exercise of freedom rights, which are rights that are more focused on people’s social, esteem and growth needs (and some safety needs as well such as bodily integrity, property and life).

However, things are not as simple as that. Here I argued that freedom rights and even political rights can help to meet physiological and safety needs. Furthermore, it is far fetched to describe some of the purposes of some human rights as “needs”: is equality or justice a need? Or is it rather a “value”, something that is important in our lives but not quite a “need”?

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