More cartoons here.
Take the case of slavery in the American South. That’s an obvious human rights violation if there ever was one. Among the causes of this rights violation was the belief in white supremacy and black inferiority. I doubt that many US slaveholders read Aristotle, but the latter expressed the feelings of the former eloquently:
However, the practice of slavery was also the cause of white supremacy: the living conditions of enslaved blacks, the effect slavery had on the black psyche, the lack or insufficiency of slave rebellions and a series of other facts strengthened the belief in some that whites are indeed superior, and created this belief in others.
Another example is intolerance of religious or ethnic minorities. In many European countries, young Muslims are discriminated in the labor market and elsewhere (see this paper for some evidence). Unsurprisingly, this discrimination fosters feelings of marginalization, which in turn promote retrenchment and radicalization. Radicalized Muslims then become a rationale for further discrimination (see also here).
As is clear from these examples, the self-perpetuating circle of human rights violations typically occurs when violations are massive and systematic. Small scale and individual violations can’t usually be explained in this way, as I argued in this older post.
This is probably a cause for pessimism: the most outrageous human rights violations are also the toughest to deal with. However, slavery did end eventually, as will discrimination.
More posts is this series are here.
Daimler-Benz … avidly supported Nazism and in return received arms contracts and tax breaks that enabled it to become one of the world’s leading industrial concerns. (Between 1932 and 1940 production grew by 830 percent.) During the war the company used thousands of slaves and forced laborers including Jews, foreigners, and POWs. (source)
Can companies violate human rights and should they be held morally and legally responsible if they do? Or are companies just legal fictions that can’t do anything? In the latter case, if a company seems to be engaged in wrongdoing, then it’s really just the employees, the bosses or the shareholders – or all of them – that have done wrong. It’s therefore always the individuals who should be held responsible and not the company as such. This latter view is expressed in the following quote:
[C]orporate action and corporate responsibility is something of a metaphor. Corporations don’t misbehave, speak, think, and so on. People acting on behalf of corporations do. I support applying the First Amendment to the “speech of corporations” because I think the restrictions on such speech end up interfering with the rights of people, both as listeners and as people who associate in order to create an enterprise in which some of the employees speak on the enterprise’s behalf. “Corporations have First Amendment rights” is useful shorthand for conveying that, but we have to recognize that it’s just shorthand.
And because this is just shorthand, I find it hard to fault the Mercedes-Benz of today for the actions of the Mercedes-Benz of the Nazi era. Whatever Mercedes-Benz officers and employees did then is their responsibility — not the responsibility of the very different people who run the company today. And that action during the Nazi era strikes me as not really relevant to Mercedes-Benz’s current actions, or to what should be our attitudes with regard to the company and its products today. (source)
That sounds persuasive, until you start to think about the transtemporal aspect of things. Indeed, current Mercedes employees or bosses are not the same as those of the Nazi era, but the company is. It’s Mercedes now and it was Mercedes then. It’s not absurd to suggest that the company profited from its Nazi era wrongdoing – or from the wrongdoing of its people back then – and that this advantage extends to our current time.
I’ll explain. Suppose that the Nazis liked company X and its people, and that this liking led to the government backed discrimination or even elimination of competitors Y and Z. Y and Z never recovered after the end of the Nazi era, and hence company X continues to this day to profit from the absence of competitors Y and Z. And I could suggest numerous other examples of ongoing advantages resulting from actions taken decades ago (e.g. continuing returns on savings which accumulated while the wrongdoing took place and which resulted from the wrongdoing; continuing returns on expropriated goods, etc.).
This discussion is similar to the one about reparations for slavery. None of the current white citizens of the US are responsible for the slavery that ended more than a century ago, and yet they do still profit – as a group – from the defunct institution, even those whites who don’t have forefathers directly implicated in slavery or who came to the US after the end of slavery. Of course, those who do have implicated forefathers profit directly from the wealth their forefathers accumulated through slavery and subsequently transferred across generations. But whites in general profit from the fact that slavery has imposed disadvantages on blacks even after its demise (lack of education, lack of certain skills, segregation, forced migration etc.). These disadvantages were and still are benefits to whites. For example, they make it easier for whites on the job market and elsewhere.
However, the guy quoted above may insist that the “group of currently living whites” is a lot like Mercedes: the group is a social fiction in the sense that it can’t act and hence can’t be responsible. Only individual whites can act. And what they do today can’t have effects on the past. Hence they can’t be responsible for what happened in the past. A fortiori, the group of whites can’t be responsible either. I agree that all of this is correct, but it doesn’t follow that the group shouldn’t be forced to pay reparations. Just as Mercedes today, it continues to profit from wrongdoing done in its name in the past, and that is unjust. Hence they should pay compensation for the unjust profit they reap.
A nice quote from Abraham Lincoln, ridiculing the notion that U.S. slaveholders lost their “freedom” when slavery was abolished:
The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. (source)
It’s hard to believe, but at this very moment an estimated 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania – 340,000 to 680,000 people – still live in slavery. This is despite the fact that in 2007, the country became the last in the world to outlaw the practice. Anti-slavery activists are arrested and the government acts as if there is no problem. Only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.
It’s the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history that determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved. Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, too.
During and even immediately after the Civil War, very few American artists undertook direct representations of the catastrophic conflict or of the experience of the enslaved African Americans whose plight it decided. One of the most remarkable exceptions is this painting by the leading mid-century figure painter Eastman Johnson, who claimed to have based the subject on an actual event he had witnessed near the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield on March 2, 1862, just days before the Confederate stronghold was ceded to Union forces. In this powerfully simplified composition, a family of fugitive slaves charges for the safety of Union lines in the dull light of dawn. The absence of white figures in this liberation subject makes it virtually unique in American art of the period—these African Americans are the independent agents of their own freedom. (source)
More political art.
The theory of path dependence refers to the way in which our current sets of possible decisions are limited by the decisions we have made in the past. The classic example is the QWERTY layout of typewriters and computer keyboards. QWERTY was originally designed to avoid the “hammers” of typewriters interlocking when people type very fast. There’s no reason why computers should still use QWERTY keyboards rather than other layouts that permit easier and more ergonomic typing with less finger movement and less long term health effects, and yet they do. When typewriter users started to get used to QWERTY, switching costs and the cost of learning other systems went up. Consequently, the keyboard became more common, and the more common it became the more useful it became to learn to use it. When more people learned and used it, it became more profitable to sell this keyboard instead of competitors. Office managers worked with people trained in QWERTY and were therefore encouraged to buy QWERTY machines. And so on.
What does this have to do with human rights? Well, it seems to be the case that path dependence is the cause of a number of human rights violations. In an older post, I mentioned a study arguing that present-day poverty can be explained in part by the lingering effects of the slave trade (slavery fostered ethnic fractionalization in Africa and undermined the development of effective government institutions).
Acemoglu and Robinson make a similar claim about colonialism:
[T]he organization of colonial states, though it typically built on absolutist structures, often intensified these structures. … [T]he “Gate-Keeper” state … was designed for extraction and order but not for development or the provision of public goods. All of these ideas rest on some form of path dependence linking the institutional and political strategies of colonialism with those of post-colonial states. Second, the arbitrary way in which the European colonial powers put together very different ethnic groups into the same polities created countries which would be difficult to govern and very conflict prone after independence. Colonialism itself probably intensified notions of ethnicity and made them more rigid. (source)
The path dependence in this case is evident from the reluctance of post-colonial rulers to modify colonial borders even when those borders defy ethnic realities. It’s also evident from the way in which an authoritarian style of government was maintained after independence.
In fact, once you start thinking about it, you see path dependence everywhere. Take for example my native country, Belgium. It’s hardly the worst place in the world for human rights, but it is systematically governed in a bad way, making a mockery of political rights. Demographic minorities and minority interest groups weigh heavily on policies and legislation. The levels of taxation are much higher than justifiable, with negative effects on property rights and incentives. Linguistic minorities are not oppressed but they are often harassed. And I could go on. Add to that the dismal climate and the general ugliness of the country, and you can be forgiven for asking why people still live there. After all, within the European Union, it’s very easy to move to a nicer country. The answer, of course, is path dependence: people know the language, and switching to another language is difficult for many; people’s ancestors are buried there; they have friends and family, and often a good job. That’s alright as far as it goes, but we need to be more vigilant in those areas where path dependence causes significant harm. Of course, the word “dependence” means that it’s often difficult to do something about this harm. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
More posts in this series are here.
There is no human right to be free from exploitation, but some rights prohibit practices that we normally call exploitative: child labor, unfair wages etc. However, what exactly is exploitation and what is it that makes it wrong? According to Hillel Steiner, exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged. Or, in other words, exploitation is the voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value.
Now, what exactly is this unfair price that causes the values of the exchanged things to be unequal? Again according to Steiner, the party transferring the good or service gets a an unfair price when that price is below what she could have had in a fair auction. That’s a convincing argument since you can hardly claim that a fair price is the intrinsic price of something. Nothing has an intrinsic price or value. It’s also convincing because it avoids the extreme and implausible free market position that all voluntarily agreed prices are fair.
I think that this model does indeed cover part of what we usually call exploitation. The voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value is a case of exploitation, but in my view the Steiner model doesn’t really capture the essence of exploitation. But let’s first examine what’s convincing about Steiner’s position:
In Steiner’s model, these are the three necessary conditions that have to be jointly fulfilled in order to have a case of exploitation. And indeed, the model covers many cases which we normally call exploitative, such as unfair wages, some commodity markets where poor farmers sell their goods at very low prices compared to what they fetch later in the supply chain, child labor etc. However, there’s something missing from the model. It doesn’t describe exploitation in a sufficiently precise way. I’ll argue that there’s a fourth necessary condition missing.
What if someone gets a price that’s merely 20% below the fair price? We wouldn’t necessarily call that exploitation. What about a billionaire not getting a fair price for one of his goods? We don’t call that exploitation either (yet Steiner does; he has to, given his limited model). What about someone not very interested in getting a fair price? Is she exploited?
These questions suggest that the following condition is missing: exploitation only occurs when the party in the exchange that doesn’t get a fair price is already, before the exchange takes place, in a disadvantaged position. Take the example of a family selling its house for an unfair price. Maybe the price is just a tiny bit below the fair price. Maybe the family is very wealthy (the house being just one of many in their possession). Or maybe the family doesn’t care about a fair price (and has decided to go and live in the African jungle and doesn’t need the money). In none of these cases is the sale exploitative.
But maybe the motive for the sale of the house is debt coverage. The urgent need to repay some debts has convinced the family that the best thing to do is to sell the house, even if the price they can get under the circumstances is less than fair. The three elements of Steiner’s model are still present: it’s a voluntary exchange for an unfair price. It’s voluntary since no one is forcing the family to sell and there are some other options left (e.g. sending the kids to public school). Still, the family has decided that selling at an unfair price is better than doing nothing or than any of the other available options. But the exchange is only exploitative if the family comes into the exchange from a disadvantaged position and if someone else takes advantage of – or exploits – their disadvantaged position. And it’s because of this disadvantage that they can’t manage to get a fair price: their disadvantage convinces buyers that they can make a “good deal” since the sellers are in no position to insist on a fair price.
The exploitative sale does make the family better off, and it’s likely that exploitation always makes both parties better off. That could be a fifth necessary condition. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceptualize exploitation where one party is worse off after the exchange; such cases are more likely to be similar to theft, slavery, abuse, oppression etc. and therefore different from exploitation.
A similar example is the case of workers in poor countries accepting to sell their goods or labor power at very low prices (for example to a multinational company). These prices are unfair because the people happen to live in a poor country, which means that they are not able to sell their goods or labor power in a fair auction with different companies bidding. It’s an exchange, and a voluntary one. However, it’s only exploitation because the sellers are in a disadvantaged position, similar to the people selling their house at an unfair price in order to cover their debts, and because this position makes the price unfair and makes the fair auction impossible.
Let’s take a third example that features regularly in writings about exploitation: there’s a sudden blizzard and people scramble to the only hardware shop in town to buy shovels. The owner of the shop reacts in a typical way and decides to charge three times the normal price for the shovels. Is he exploiting his fellow townspeople? No. The price is not even unfair because in an auction, that’s probably the price that people would accept to pay. And in reality as well they do probably accept to pay it. If you want to call this exploitation, all supply and demand pricing is exploitation.
Once you accept all this, you will agree that some of the common definitions of exploitation are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Exploitation can’t simply be the unfair use of others for your own benefit. That would cover slavery, theft and other relationships that are morally wrong but not exploitative. And exploitation can’t simply mean taking unfair advantage of someone, because we don’t want to call taking advantage of a millionaire a case of exploitation.
Are there some types of voluntary exchange that are inherently exploitative, whatever the price, fair or unfair? For example organ sales, or sex work? No, such transactions are exploitative only when the price is unfair and when the further condition of disadvantaged starting positions is also met (people who decide to sell their organs or their sexual services will often be in disadvantaged starting positions, but the price is often not unfair). Of course, it’s not because these exchanges are not exploitative that they can’t be immoral for other reasons (e.g instrumentalization).
This account of exploitation is different from the well-known Marxist account. According to Marxism, workers are exploited because they are forced into employment status (given that they themselves don’t have any means of production and that the capitalists have monopolized those means). Hence, the Marxist notion of exploitation collapses into the notion of slavery, something which I want to avoid.
I tried to present all this in a drawing, which may help to make things clearer (click the drawing to enlarge):
Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:
So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.
There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:
Do I forget something?
Self-ownership, or the property of your own person, is a metaphor for the right to exclusive control of your own body and life. It captures some important intuitions: for example, that you should have a right to end your life as they see fit, that no one should be enslaved and that you generally have a right to decide what to do with your own life. As such it supports the idea of personal autonomy. For some, it also supports the right to abortion and it invalidates taxation.
Others even believe that self-ownership implies a right to sell your own body and life, just as you have a right to sell your other property. If that’s the case, then you have a right to sell yourself into slavery.
However, if self-ownership is understood as merely a metaphor for autonomy then there can’t be a right to sell yourself into slavery. Autonomy, or any other value for that matter, can’t be made to include the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, autonomy can’t include the right to autonomously abdicate your autonomy. Take this quote from Mill:
The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. … [B]y selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He, therefore, defeats in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. (source)
If you insist that values or rights should be made to include their own negation, you’ll end up in Absurdistan. Democracies, for example, should then include the possibility to vote democracy away. Freedom should include the freedom to create totalitarian government. Tolerance should include tolerance of intolerance and of the forces intent on destroying tolerance. I don’t think we want to go there.
So, autonomy must include certain limits if it’s not to collapse under its own weight. This means that it’s legitimate to deny the moral value of – and perhaps even to forbid – autonomous actions that forfeit autonomy. Just like democracy is limited and suppresses anti-democratic movements and votes, and just like tolerance is limited and excludes tolerance of intolerance.
More on self-ownership here.
Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:
Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.
However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.
It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.
If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.
There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.
As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.
So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).
However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.
Men should be allowed sex slaves and female prisoners could do the job – and all this from a WOMAN politician from Kuwait. … A Kuwaiti woman who once ran for parliament has called for sex slavery to be legalized – and suggested that non-Muslim prisoners from war-torn countries would make suitable concubines.
Salwa al Mutairi argued buying a sex-slave would protect decent, devout and “virile” Kuwaiti men from adultery because buying an imported sex partner would be tantamount to marriage.
The political activist and TV host even suggested that it would be a better life for women in warring countries as the might die of starvation.
Mutairi claimed: “There was no shame in it and it is not haram (forbidden) under Islamic Sharia law.” …
In an attempt to consider the woman’s feelings in the arrangement, Mutari conceded that the enslaved women, however, should be at least 15. (source)
More in the annals of heartlessness here.
At least in Africa, part of the explanation of poverty is the enduring effect of slavery:
Slavery, according to historical accounts, played an important role in Africa’s underdevelopment. It fostered ethnic fractionalisation and undermined effective states. The largest numbers of slaves were taken from areas that were the most underdeveloped politically at the end of the 19th century and are the most ethnically fragmented today. Recent research suggests that without the slave trades, 72% of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today. … The countries from which the most slaves were taken (taking into account differences in country size) are today the poorest in Africa. …
An alternative explanation for the relationship is that the parts of Africa from which the largest number of slaves were taken were initially the most underdeveloped. Today, because these characteristics persist, these parts of Africa continue to be underdeveloped and poor. My research examines this alternative hypothesis by testing whether it was in fact the initially least developed parts of Africa that engaged most heavily in the slave trades. I find that the data and the historical evidence suggest that, if anything, it was the parts of Africa that were initially the most developed, not least developed, that supplied the largest number of slaves. (source)
It’s not difficult to imagine how large scale “extraction” of able bodied young people can harm an economy, even centuries after the event. The huge importance of the effect of slavery (“if the slave trades had not occurred, then … 99% of the income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world would not exist”) should lay to rest frivolous speculation about cultural or racial causes of Africa’s predicament.
You’ve probably already heard about Google’s Ngram tool, a tool that allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use of a word at a certain time. (I’ve mentioned Ngrams before on this blog, namely here and here).
This is what you get when you type the words “slavery” and “slave” (blue and red lines respectively):
If we assume that Google books has a bias towards books published in the U.S., and if we simplify U.S. history a bit, then we can see a clear pattern in this time line. The increasing frequency of the use of the words “slave” and “slavery in the first half of the 19th century reflects the growing importance of the Abolitionist movement. The high point is obviously 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, a modification of the U.S. Constitution abolishing and prohibiting slavery and liberating approximately 4 million black slaves. After that, the topic of slavery understandably became a lot less interesting.
However, the end of slavery didn’t imply a substantial improvement in race relations in the U.S. Segregation, discrimination and violence continued. Those “relics” of slavery probably explain the fact that interest in slavery rose again in the late 19th century. (This period is often called the nadir of American race relations).
During the first half of the 20th century, the topic became gradually less important, perhaps because African Americans fled the South to resettle in the North (the Great Migration). The Civil Rights movement caused an uptick in the sixties, because this movement can be understood as an effort to undo the last relics of slavery. The most recent uptick is perhaps due to the fact that even the Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights legislation, affirmative action etc. haven’t been able to guarantee racial equality in the U.S. Calls for reparations are becoming louder, and this may be visible in the graph. Or perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there.
One of the great puzzles in human rights theory is the possible existence of absolute rights. It’s commonly accepted that most if not all human rights are “relative” in the sense that they can be limited if their exercise results in harm done to other rights or to the rights of others. Freedom of speech for example doesn’t offer “absolute” protection for all kinds or instances of speech (see here).
If there are any human rights that do offer absolute protection without exception, the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to suffer slavery would be good candidates. Whereas it seems quite reasonable to silence someone when he or she incites violence or hatred, it’s much harder to imagine cases in which it’s reasonable to kill, torture or enslave someone. I’ll focus here on the right to life.
How would you go about justifying the absolute nature of that right? First, you could claim that life is the supreme value. Life is indeed supreme in one sense of the word: it’s lexically prior as they say. It comes first. You can have life without freedom or equality, but not vice versa. (Of course, there are also other more or less promising ways to argue for life’s supremacy in the universe of moral values. I won’t go there now, and neither will I point to the fact that people often sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the lexical priority of life suffices, in general, to ground life’s supremacy in the system of values).
If life is the supreme value, that means that no life can be sacrificed for an inferior value. You can’t go about killing poor or handicapped people for the sake of aggregate wellbeing. And neither can you execute criminals in an effort to deter future attacks on people’s security rights.
So life is then the supreme value in the sense that it can’t simply be traded against another inferior value. That already makes a lot of potential limitations of the right to life unacceptable, and the right to life therefore moves a significant distance towards absoluteness. However, if life is the supreme value, it’s still theoretically possible to trade the lives of a few for the lives of many others. So not life as such, as an aggregate or abstract concept needs to be the supreme value, but individual life. If individual life is the supreme value, the lives of some can’t be put on a scale to see if their sacrifice could protect a higher number of other lives. Robert Nozick gives the following example to make this point salient:
A mob rampaging through a part of town killing and burning will violate the rights of those living there. Therefore, someone might try to justify his punishing [i.e. killing] another he knows to be innocent of a crime that enraged a mob, on the grounds that punishing this innocent person would help to avoid even greater violations of rights by others, and so would lead to a minimum weighted score for rights violations in the society. Robert Nozick
So, if you accept the argument made so far, does this mean that you have established the absolute nature of the right to life and that this right therefore can never be limited? It would seem so. If life is the supreme value, it’s hard to find a reason to limit it, since this reason would then have to be a superior value. And if individual life is the supreme value, you can’t play a numbers game to conclude that the sacrifice of some is necessary in order to save a higher number of other lives. (See also, for example, the trolley problem, the organ transplant case, or the ticking bomb case).
However, categorical claims like this always seem to me to make things too easy. Something else is necessary. Take four cases in which lives are commonly sacrificed without universal or often even widespread condemnation:
In all these cases, the lives of some are sacrificed for the lives of others (assuming that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, which is probably not the case). If the right to life is really absolute, none of these actions would be morally or legally acceptable. In order to make them acceptable, there has to be something more than a mere quantitative benefit in terms of numbers of lives saved. I believe the sacrifice of life is acceptable if in doing so one doesn’t violate these three rules:
In the case of one of the four actions cited above, namely capital punishment, we do treat other people as means and we diminish the value of life. Murderers are used as instruments to frighten future murderers. Capital punishment is supposedly intended to further respect for life, but in fact normalizes murder. (See here for a more detailed treatment of this issue). In the three other cases, we don’t necessarily use people as means or diminish the value of life. Hence these case can be acceptable limitations of the right to life.
So the right to life is only quasi-absolute: limitations are possible but extremely rare because a number of very demanding conditions have to be met:
Income inequality doesn’t have the same causes everywhere, as is evident from this study which points to the fact that slavery in the U.S., which was abolished almost 150 years ago, still has nefarious effects today.
Within the US, the institution of slavery has historically been associated more heavily with specific areas – primarily the South. This geographic differentiation allows us to identify the link between past slavery and current outcomes. We start by reviewing, over a cross section of counties, the effect of the intensity of slavery in 1870 on the current level of income per capita. For the year 2000, we find no evidence that those counties that employed slave labour more heavily are poorer than those that did so to a lesser extent or not at all (even though a negative relationship between slavery and income was still present until 1970).
Next we turn to the impact of slavery on current income disparities and we find that it is indeed associated with a higher degree of income inequality. In other words, former slave counties are more unequal in the present day. They also show a higher poverty rate and a higher degree of racial inequality. Moreover, the data say that the impact of slavery on economic inequality and poverty runs through its impact on racial inequality, and not vice versa. (source)
How exactly does slavery lead to long turn income inequality? If slavery is seen as a symptom of feelings of racial superiority, then it’s not far-fetched to assume that those feelings didn’t die with slavery and continued to affect blacks by way of discriminatory policies and practices, including in wage determination and other areas that influence economic inequality, such as the provision of education.
Between the 15th century and the end of the 19th, the transatlantic slave trade – also called the Middle Passage – moved millions of slaves from West Africa, West Central Africa, and Eastern Africa to the European colonies in the New World. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, although the actual number of people taken from their homes is considerably higher (an estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships). The main traders were the Portuguese and the British. Below are some maps showing numbers and flows:
Slave trade from Africa to the Americas, 1650-1860:
Here’s another version:
Origins of slaves:
Number of slaves in the US in 1860:
Another version of this map, showing some of the differences between regions across slave states, is here.
And in 1820:
This is an animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1861:
One of the most commonly cited characteristics of human rights is their inalienability. Human rights aren’t granted to people by a sovereign, a law or a tradition, and hence can’t be taken away. They can of course be violated, but violating rights doesn’t mean taking them away. If you’re tortured you still have a right not to be tortured. In a sense, you only have rights – or, in other words, your rights are only real – when they are violated. When rights aren’t violated they move to the background, as self-evident facts not even worthy of being mentioned.
The question here is not whether rights can or cannot be taken away, but whether people can give them away. I think people can’t give away their rights – people are human and hence they have certain rights – but what they can do is waive their rights, meaning that they insist that they don’t want others or the state to intervene in order to enforce respect for their rights. If someone wants to sell herself into slavery, submit herself to cruel treatment, sell her organs, let herself be cannibalized or used in a dwarf-throwing competition, then that person should be free to do so, even if it means that her rights are violated. If those rights violations are her free, conscious and informed choice, we’ll have to respect that choice. She still has her rights but chooses to allow violations of her rights.
Rights are important because they are important to people. They aren’t important as such. If certain people no longer deem them important, then they are no longer important for them. We can’t force people to have their rights respected. That would be a lack of respect for people’s moral autonomy, their dignity and freedom, even if their choices imply giving up their dignity and freedom.
The assumption here is of course that people have a real choice in the matter. If they are forced in some way to renounce their rights, then society and the state still have a duty and a right to intervene in order to enforce respect for people’s rights, even if these people explicitly state that they don’t want this intervention. A masochist who freely chooses to be a masochist – and isn’t suffering from a mental illness or from sadistic pressure – should be free to have her rights violated. A dwarf or a prostitute who has no other means of income than dwarf-throwing or commercial sex respectively is clearly forced and didn’t freely choose to have her rights violated, in which case society has a right to intervene, even if that person opposes such intervention. But of course she will only oppose the intervention if it is merely a prohibition: if the state merely prohibits dwarf-throwing or commercial sex it will make things worse. The person in question loses her income on top of her rights and dignity. Hence, intervention should also mean the provision of an alternative income not implying rights violations. Lack of income is also a rights violation, and you can’t solve one rights violation by violating another right. You can’t free someone from sexual slavery by taking away her income.
The obvious difficulty here is to ascertain whether people’s renunciation of their rights is a free choice.
What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?
I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.
We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).
An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.
The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.
So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.
Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.
Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.
Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.
An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.
The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).
The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?
There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)
Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.
Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.
If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.
However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.
1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.
2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.
However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.
3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:
why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)
4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?
5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.
From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.
Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.
The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated the harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.
Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.
This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.
However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.
The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.
So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.
One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.
That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).
Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.
What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.
Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.
This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.
I am a Negro, by Langston Hughes
I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
I’ve been a slave:
Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean.
I brushed the boots of Washington.
I’ve been a worker:
Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth Building.
I’ve been a singer:
All the way from Africa to Georgia
I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime.
I’ve been a victim:
The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me still in Mississippi.
I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
To what extent should anti-discrimination laws apply to private associations, to voluntary employment contracts and in private property? Let’s have a look at a number of recent news stories:
A similar but different case – because not based on prejudice or discrimination (except if you count PC as discriminating between views) – was the firing/quitting of journalist Helen Thomas following a politically incorrect and possibly antisemitic comment on Israel.
We can, of course, imagine an infinite number of similar cases:
What all such real and imaginary cases have in common (even the Thomas case, which I’ll exclude from the current discussion because it’s slightly different and doesn’t – necessarily – involve discrimination) is that different values clash. Equality, equal treatment and the absence of discrimination on the one hand clashes with the freedom of association, the right to property and the freedom of contract on the other hand. (In the Thomas case, free speech clashes with freedom of employment contract).
If you’re a value pluralist – as I am – then these are hard cases. Property rights, freedom of association, freedom of contract (including in employment), equality and non-discrimination are all important values. It’s a right to hire or fire employees, accept or reject members of associations and serve or fail to serve customers on whatever basis you wish, even if this means discriminating certain employees, members or customers. But it’s also a right not to suffer discrimination. None of these values is by definition or a priori more important than the others. (If you think only freedom and property count, then you can wrap this up in a minute. Likewise if you think equality does count but is the automatic result of freedom. Don’t laugh, some actually think like that. Remember trickle down and the invisible hand).
All those rights are important, and when they clash, as in our examples, we’ll have to make a hard choice: which right in which case will receive priority? That will be, by definition, a case by case trade-off. You can’t use a general rule, since all these rights are – in the abstract – equally important. You can’t use a rule that says, for example, “property rights are equally important as equal treatment, except for bigots”. It’s not because you’re a bigot that you lose your property rights, your freedom of association or your freedom of contract. Those rights are human rights and intrinsically valuable.
So let’s assume that we will find many cases in which equal treatment is more important than property, contract or association rights. Pre-Civil-Rights-Act-America would be such a case. We will then engage in some justified anti-discrimination efforts that limit these other rights. And we will acknowledge that there is a limitation of rights going on. That there is a trade-off between rights and that the limitations of certain rights don’t mean that those rights are no longer important. It’s a necessary evil and an unfortunate consequence of clashing rights.
We’ll also find numerous cases in which property, contract or association rights will outweigh discrimination concerns. The example of the fitness teacher given above (who doesn’t have a right to employment in the business of his choice), or the gay retirement home (non-gay pensioners have ample opportunities elsewhere) would be cases like this. The same goes for the case of the guy protesting ladies’ night. Not all consequences of discrimination are equally harmful.
Consequently, anti-discrimination efforts can’t be an absolute concern and can’t become the only preoccupation. Otherwise, other rights would suffer needlessly. A balance has to be found. We have to decide how far our anti-discrimination measures can go without weighing too heavily on other rights, and how far bigots can be allowed to use their rights without harming the targets of their bigotry. (Or how far non-bigots can discriminate for non-bigoted reasons).
And when attempting to make this balance, we have to look at the specific circumstances and the relative harm that we can do on both sides. Small scale bigotry against a single individual who has numerous outside options – another employer, another restaurant, another organization etc. – won’t initiate anti-discrimination action, certainly not by the government. Jim Crow, on the other hand, inflicted enormous harm on large groups of people during many decades. And it would not have been abolished by a few activists, boycotts or sit-ins. Nor, for that matter, by the government ending its own discrimination. Active government action against private – and public – discrimination was required. And did happen in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later decisions which banned private actors from withholding services or denying employment on the basis of race (or of religion, sex, or national origin). Those anti-discrimination efforts did harm property and other rights but it’s clear that a failure to intervene would have meant perpetuating the greater harm of Jim Crow. I’ll come back to the topic of government vs private intervention against discrimination in a moment.
A parenthesis: some cases fall outside the current discussion. Government mandated discrimination in public places – trains, buses, public schools etc. – is completely and utterly unacceptable in all cases since the government can never be allowed to discriminate. Government discrimination also doesn’t cause a conflict of rights. The topic here is strictly private discrimination.
Take a look at this quote:
Wasn’t racial discrimination basically a private affair? Did we really have to enact federal laws and regulations to end it? Many of these laws dictate how people run their businesses and associations, and these restrictions are problematic to say the least. Even if we do find discrimination wrong, isn’t it a private wrong? (source)
In fairness to the author, he doesn’t seem to answer completely in the affirmative. And yet, why would you even ask those questions? Well, you should if you’re a libertarian and if liberty – including the liberty to do with your private property as you like and to freely engage in contracts and associations as you please without limitations – is the supreme value in life. However, if we accept the logic of this quote, then domestic violence and a whole bunch of other crimes are “private affairs” that shouldn’t be governed by “problematic” laws. And yet they are governed by laws, and hence we have laws “dictating how people run their associations”, and that’s a “problematic restriction”. We may think domestic violence or marital rape is wrong, but it’s a “private wrong” and hence none of our business. Domestic violence or marital rape take place within “private property” and can be seen, with a stretch of the imagination, as part of the freedom of contract (if a wife doesn’t want to be beaten or raped she should cancel the marriage contract, just like a pre-1964 African American who didn’t want to be discriminated by a restaurant owner should have gone elsewhere).
Of course, no one in his right mind would view domestic violence or marital rape like this, and no libertarian does. But the fact that libertarians – as well as many conservatives for that matter – never spill a drop of ink defending these crimes and yet fill libraries with defenses of private discrimination (and have even run a presidential campaign on the basis of this defense) just goes to show that equality and non-discrimination aren’t very important concerns for them, or at least not as important as violence and rape.
Do we really need government intervention to harmonize the two legitimate concerns? The concern for private freedom to discriminate within your property or associations, and the fight against discrimination? Some say that the fight against discrimination shouldn’t necessarily entail government coercion against private discrimination and should focus on private activism. That’s possible of course. Boycotts may help, just as minority organization, lobbying, education etc. (Another proof that free association is an important right. Minorities often depend on freedom of association and on strong property rights for their activism, and free commerce and freedom of contract tend to lower prejudice). There are also market mechanisms that counteract discrimination and fostering those mechanism might reduce discrimination without government coercion.
But that effort is certainly naive in many settings, especially when discrimination is widespread and group conformity counteracts market incentives (for example when customers are willing to pay a premium to visit segregated businesses, in which case the business owners will not be pressured by the profit motive to accept all customers; or when businesses are threatened into respect for segregation). Likewise when discrimination is government mandated. Hence the need, in many cases, for government coercion to break widespread patterns of discrimination that seriously reduce the options and opportunities of those who are discriminated against.
Why specifically state intervention? Racist business restaurant owners or bigoted employers or organizations can perhaps, sometimes, be persuaded to accept non-whites customers, employees or members through boycotts, social ostracism or the pressures of the market, but state intervention is often necessary in order to force them to do so. And they should be forced when the targets of their discrimination are seriously harmed by this discrimination, don’t have options elsewhere and can’t wait for the slow process of the market and of mentality changes. For example, a black person failing to get hired because of his or her race, after many attempts, suffers more harm than a black person failing to get served in a restaurant but having many more restaurant options close by.
It can be, in some settings, immoral to say that government shouldn’t intervene and that only social activists should struggle against racism and discrimination. In many cases, such as the southern parts of the US under Jim Crow, a struggle that isn’t backed by government often means risking life and limb. Discrimination in the US was underpinned by private terrorism (KKK) and actively supported or condoned by government law enforcement officers. Insisting that discrimination should be combated solely by private actors means exposing them to serious risks.
A final consideration: what if property is the direct result of discrimination? Can the descendants of slave owners really claim that their property rights should be a justification of their discriminatory actions? Or is their property illegitimate given the fact that it wouldn’t have existed without slavery? That would be an additional reason to favor equal treatment over property rights, when these two values clash.
How should we deal with the violations of the human rights of past generations? This question is similar to one I already discussed here and here, namely the rights of future generations. The difference, however, is that our current actions can influence the well-being of future generations, but cannot mean anything for past generations since the people in questions are already dead. However, many people favor reparations for past rights violations that benefit the descendants of the deceased victims of those rights violations. It can be argued that these descendants still suffer the consequences of the violations inflicted on their deceased relatives.
Such reparations – also called restitutions – can take different forms:
This kind of intergenerational justice is – just like but even more so than the forward looking kind – fraught with difficulties. I’ll describe some of those problems below, but if you want a more systematic treatment there are two good papers by Tyler Cowen here and here.
Since we have to deal, necessarily, with the descendants of the victims rather than the victims themselves, we have to take into account the time element. The claim that the descendants should be compensated somehow, at least in the case of gross violations with lasting effects such as slavery, quickly faces the difficult question of “how much?”. How much did the descendants exactly lose as a result of the ancient theft, and how much should be given back? That’s extremely difficult to determine. First you have to calculate the initial loss for the original victims. In the case of slavery for example, how much did slavery represent in financial terms: how much value did slaves produce for instance. That’s already very difficult.
But then you have to calculate the loss over generations: imagine the counterfactual that slaves could have kept the proceeds of their work, weren’t deprived of education opportunities etc., then how much would their capital have grown over time, given investments, savings etc., and how much would they have profited from their education had they received it? It’s clear that the descendants of the original victims have lost more than the initial sum of the theft that was caused by slavery. They have forgone investment opportunities, educational opportunities that can also be translated in loss of income, etc. But how much? If you take all the lost opportunities – investments, education and many others – into account, and if you deal with an original crime that is relatively far in the past, you can arrive at huge sums, perhaps even sums that are larger than the current wealth of a society.
Likewise, the descendants of the thieves – the slave owners in this case – have gained more than the amount of the initial theft, since this theft has allowed them to invest, and their better education has allowed them to compete inequitably with the descendants of the slaves. And so on. But how can you possible calculate all this? Also, how can you ever know what the descendants of the slaves would have done with the capital – financial and human – if it hadn’t been stolen from their forefathers? Can you just assume that they would have done the same thing as anyone else and use market interest rates? No, I don’t think you can. There is an infinite number of possible counterfactuals.
And that’s just one problem. You also have to make some dubious assumptions. First, you have to assume that you can unequivocally identify the original victims and their descendants, and the original perpetrators and their descendants. How else can you redistribute? If you just assume that all whites in the U.S. are to blame for slavery and all blacks are to benefit from reparations for slavery, you’ll be punishing and rewarding people who don’t deserve it. Some whites fought against slavery and some blacks collaborated. The descendants of those whites don’t deserve to pay restitutions. Also, you have to assume that there hasn’t been any genetic exchange between the victims and the thieves, and that’s demonstrably wrong. How will you treat the descendants of a child born from a slave and her owner? As a victim or a perpetrator, or both? That doesn’t make any sense.
There’s also the point, made by Derek Parfit, that the exact individuals who comprise the descendant generations would not have been born had the initial violation not occurred. A state of slavery for instance has enormous consequences for marriage, intercourse etc. In other words, since the descendants would not have been born without the initial violation, in a sense they can be said to have benefited from the violation. They now exist, where otherwise they wouldn’t have existed. To exist is obviously better than not to exist. In another counterfactual you can claim that the descendants of slaves for instance don’t actually benefit from slavery, but that the negative consequences they suffer from the slavery of their forefathers don’t grow worse over time (see above) but tend to fade away. Their current predicament is caused by more recent events rather than old history.
And there are numerous other problems (for example, if you go back sufficiently far in time, all of us have ancestors who were oppressed; should we all receive restitutions?). So, given all this, does justice require some form of reparation for the most serious and widespread human rights violations of the past? We may not know exactly how much we have to pay or what exactly we should do to right the wrong. We also don’t know exactly who should benefit or pay. And maybe there are conflicting movements: for some reasons, the injury grows over time, but perhaps for other reasons it diminishes (genetic exchange, diminishing rates of return on capital etc.). Nevertheless, it may be good public policy to admit the mistakes of the past and also to put your money where your mouth is, especially when it’s obvious that current generations continue to suffer to some extent (as is the case for African-Americans for instance).
However, personally I feel that the focus should be, not on restitutions for violations of the past but on protection for violations of the present. If African-Americans in the U.S. are currently in a disadvantaged position (which is often the case), then their current rights are violated and we should do something about that, whatever the causes of those violations. These causes are in part the violations of the rights of their ancestors, which still have an effect today and produce violations of the rights of descendants. If these descendants suffer from poverty and poor education, it can be helpful to know the causes, even if some of these are far back in time, but ultimately these causes don’t change the nature of the current violations, or the nature of current obligations. These people have a right to assistance and education, just as much, not more or less, as other people who suffer the same violations but who are not descendants of people who suffered centuries ago. So in a sense we don’t need restitutions to do something. Current rights violations are sufficient reasons to act.
The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Carlos wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Time magazine wrote
“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the motto of the Olympic Games. “Angrier, nastier, uglier” better describes the scene in Mexico City last week. (source)
Carlos and Smith were stripped of their medals, ejected from the Olympic Village, and returned to an unfriendly welcome in the U.S.
Uncle Silas was near bout a hundred, I reckon–too feeble to do no work, but always got strength to hobble to church when the slave-service gonna be. Ole Preacher was Reverend Johnson–forget the rest of his name. He was preaching and the slaves was sitting there sleeping and fanning theyselves with oak branches, and Uncle Silas got up in the front row of the slaves pew and halted Reverend Johnson.
“Is us slaves gonna be free in heaven?” Uncle Silas asked.
The preacher stopped and looked at Uncle Silas like he wanted to kill him, cause no one ain’t supposed to say nothing except “Amen” whilst he was preaching. Waited a minute he did, looking hard at Uncle Silas standing there but didn’t give no answer.
“Is God gonna free us slaves when we get to Heaven?” Uncle Silas yelled.
Old white preacher pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face–”Jesus says come unto Me ye who are free from sin and I will give you salvation.”
“Gonna give us freedom along with salvation,” ask Uncle Silas.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, he that is without sin is gonna have life everlasting,” preached the preacher. Then he went ahead preaching, fast-like without no attention to Uncle Silas.
But Uncle Silas wouldn’t sit down; stood there the rest of the service, he did, and that was the last time he come to church. Uncle Silas died for another preaching come around. Guess he found out whether he gonna be free sooner than he calculated to.
Another case in which the language of human rights is shockingly abused:
Markus [is] America’s first legal male prostitute. [He] is the newest hire at the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in Tonopah Nevada, a business that recently got the go-ahead to hire a few good men. He likened his decision to rise up and become a gigolo to the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. “It’s just the same as when Rosa Parks decided to sit at the front instead of the back. She was proclaiming her rights as a disadvantaged, African-American older woman. And I’m doing the same. I’m actually standing up now, and hopefully I can be supported by the male community and be understood as a person. This actually isn’t about selling my body. This is about changing social norms.” (source)
Indeed, the struggle of African Americans against centuries of slavery, lynchings, racism, segregation and discrimination is very much like the problems of male prostitutes who can only now practice their trade in full respect of the law…
Richard Rorty has an interesting take on human rights. If we want universal acceptance of and respect for human rights, we shouldn’t try to argue about it. We shouldn’t attempt to work out rational justifications of human rights, or arguments that will convince people that human rights are a good thing. Instead, according to Rorty, we would achieve better results if we try to influence people’s feelings instead of their minds. And the best way to do that is by telling sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc., or by making political art. Such stories and art make the reader sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience or the reader to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position. The victim, who may be of another class, race or nationality and who seems so very different that he or she initially isn’t even considered to be of the same species and therefore cannot possibly claim to enjoy the same rights, is transformed by the story into a living human being. The sympathy engendered by the story gives the victim a human face. This person also grieves for the loss of children, also has an opinion and a moral sense. He’s or she not a barbarian. As a consequence, the victim can be given human rights.
This approach to human rights doesn’t justifying human rights in an abstract and philosophical way – something which according to Rorty isn’t possible anyway (Rorty’s a post-modern anti-foundationalist highly sceptical of the power of reason or rationality). Instead it motivates specific individuals to respect the rights of other specific individuals. So motivation instead of justification. And the focus isn’t so much on human rights themselves, but on humanity. When human rights are violated, it’s often not because people object to human rights, but because they consider the targets of rights violations as somehow outside the realm of humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very eloquent about human rights, but was a slave holder at the same time. Undoubtedly because he had convinced himself that negroes were more akin to animals than humans.
The big advantage of the sentimental approach is that is can convince people to accept others into the realm of humanity. Sympathy means after all the recognition that someone else’s suffering is akin to your own. Rorty harked back to David Hume for this insight:
Hume held that corrected (sometimes rule-corrected) sympathy, not law-discerning reason, is the fundamental moral capacity. Richard Rorty (source)
This approach, or “sentimental education” as Rorty called it, can indeed be very useful, and I regularly use it on this blog (for example, there’s a blog series called “human rights stories“, and there’s also a lot of imagery used here). However, I think we should and can use both strategies, the emotional and the rational one. (I outlined the latter one here. In the field of morality, Immanuel Kant is of course the main exponent of the rational approach).
The emotional approach isn’t without a downside. Human rights violations do not always occur because of a lack of sympathy or because of dehumanization. They are often the result of power structures, cultural practices, legal rules, institutions, international relations etc. Just engendering sympathy won’t do much good there. (Thomas Pogge is known for his work in this field). Moreover, sentimental education implies a willingness to listen – not a notable characteristic of many of the worst human rights violators, i.e. Taliban c.s. – and a certain standard of living that allows people to relax long enough to be able to listen. These are problems which Rorty recognized (source) and which indicate that his approach cannot be exclusive.
More posts in this series are here.
Here’s the complete text of article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
I now believe that one of my previous posts on the subject of universal jurisdiction was somewhat onesided and too critical of the concept. Hence, here are some of the reasons why universal jurisdiction might not be such a bad idea.
But first, a reminder. Universal jurisdiction, according to Wikipedia, is:
a principle in international law whereby states claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country. The state backs its claim on the grounds that the crime committed is considered a crime against all, which any state is authorized to punish. (source)
Universal jurisdiction departs from the standard principle that there should be some kind of connection between an act and the state asserting jurisdiction over it. In other words, the normal rule is that states exercise justice in relation to crimes committed on their territory or crimes committed by their nationals abroad. Indeed, this departure is the main criticism of universal jurisdiction: by allowing a state to prosecute individuals who are not its citizens, and who have committed crimes in other states, against people who are citizens of other states, we in fact allow this state to violate the right to self-determination of other states.
However, universal jurisdiction is nothing new, and most countries accept some kinds of universal jurisdiction. For example, few now oppose the right of Israel to judge Adolph Eichmann. The discussion, therefore, centers on the proper extent of universal jurisdiction. Human rights activists claim that states should be able to exercise universal jurisdiction in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, war crimes and slavery.
The reason behind this list is also the main justification of universal jurisdiction. These crimes affect all of us, the whole of humanity, and not just the immediate victims. Those who commit these offenses are hostis humani generis, enemies of humanity. And this has to be taken literally: these crimes are attacks on humanity, not just on individual human beings. The torturer dehumanizes his victim, but also himself. And he infects the society in which he operates. A society that allows torturers in its midst, can no longer be called a society. The same can be said of genocide and the other crimes in the list.
Universal jurisdiction is the act of reclaiming humanity. It is a statement by different parts of the world community, claiming that humanity does not accept such crimes. It is, therefore, an expression of humanity against those who attack humanity. And it’s a powerful expression of humanity precisely because it emerges from different parts of humanity, different countries and nations which all have an interest in the preservation of humanity.
I can imagine that some would object to all of this and would insist that crimes are committed against individuals, and not against an abstract entity such as “humanity”. But then I would invite those people to explain how they differentiate between a single anti-semitic murder and the holocaust. Or between a single case of an individual torturing another individual, and a case of state organized torture. I do believe that the concept of “crimes against humanity” makes sense, and that universal jurisdiction is a good way to respond to those crimes, maybe not from a purely legal point of view (universal jurisdiction isn’t the most effective jurisdiction) but from a human point of view.
Excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (abbreviated):
[Mr. Hugh Auld, Douglass' slave master] said that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy”…
I know understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom [i.e. education, FS] …
Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost or trouble, to learn how to read…
The more I read [about slavery], the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I withered under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. … In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. … It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. … Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.
Excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography:
I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four of five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary – a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of the day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us.
Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
More on slavery.
Slavery was officially abolished worldwide at the 1927 Slavery Convention. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.
Slavery is illegal everywhere and yet it still exists everywhere. Experts estimate that today there are 27 million people enslaved around the world (source). Outright “plantation slavery” doesn’t exist anymore. Slavery today is hidden and has taken on many different and subtler forms like sex trafficking, bonded labor or debt bondage, forced domestic labor, forced agricultural labor etc. It takes place outside of the public’s view, in brothels, homes, fields, restaurants… There is still a strong racist element in modern slavery, but it’s not exclusively racist. Sex slavery for example is not. Domestic slavery also is not necessarily racist.
1. Bonded labor or debt bondage
Poverty … forces many parents to offer themselves or their own children as collateral against a loan. Though they are promised they will work only until their debt is paid off, the reality is much grimmer. Thanks to inflated interest rates and fresh debts incurred while being fed and housed, the debt becomes impossible to pay off. As a result, it is often inherited by the bonded laborer’s children, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can claim several generations. (source)
2. Sex slavery
Women and girls are promised jobs and income abroad but on arrival their passports are taken away and they are forced to work in the sex industry in order to pay off the debt they owe the “transporters”. Outright kidnapping also occurs. Not all human trafficking is linked to or ends up in slavery, but some does.
Sex slavery is not necessarily an international problem or a problem linked to migration. Fathers, husbands or brothers can also force the women in the family to prostitute themselves locally, sometimes as a means to service debt. Girls are often even sold by their families.
3. Forced labor
This is also linked to human trafficking. People pay “transporters” to take them to another country where they hope to find a job and a better life. Instead, they are forced to work in order to pay their debt. Needless to say that they often work in harsh and hazardous conditions. Organized crime plays an important role in this an in other types of modern slavery.
Another type of forced labor are the labor camps for “criminals” that exist in some countries, such as China (where they are called Loagai).
4. Child labor
Here’s a separate post on child labor. Child labor is forced labor and hence slavery because children do not choose to work but are forced to because of the poverty of their parents.
5. Domestic slavery
This often occurs in rich countries, and especially in the upper classes of rich countries. Diplomats also sometimes harbor unpaid domestic workers because they find it relatively easy to by-pass immigration checks.
“Slave redemption” is an effort to buy the freedom of slaves. But it’s controversial.
When you have people running around buying up slaves, you help create a market demand for more slaves… It’s like paying the burglar for the television set he just stole. … The slave traders end up with more money, buying more guns and hiring more thugs to go out and take more slaves. (source).
Moreover, you end up with people picking up other people who are not slaves and presenting them as slaves in order to receive some money for their “freedom”.
The Slave’s Lament, Robert Burns
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
For the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more,
And alas! I am weary, weary O!
Torn from &c.
All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O!
There streams &c.
The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And Alas! I am weary, weary O!
And I think &c.
Here’s a small catalogue of examples of dehumanization, of the ways in which humans try to exclude others from humanity, to deny them equality, to ridicule them, to render them objects in their plan, instruments for their advancement or pleasure. It ranges from the harmless national stereotypes and political humor, to the incitement of genocide. It has been said that the only way to violate people’s human rights is to deny that they are human.
The Jews, of course, have a long experience of exclusion and dehumanization. Here’s a cartoon from Der Sturmer, Nazi newspaper:
The cartoon suggests that Jews are sucking the economic life from Gentiles. The newspaper is infamous for comparing Jews to inhuman and unpleasant creatures.
Much of contemporary anti-jewish propaganda in Arab media often refers to the old anti-semite tradition of depicting Jews as animals:
There’s the human pyramid in Abu Ghraib; treating people like toys to be played with:
Oddly reminiscent of the way in which women are often treated as sex-objects:
You can find more on the dehumanization of women in pornography here.
And there’s the racist view that whites are somehow the end of evolution, and blacks still closer to apes:
This perception of the Negro has undoubtedly contributed to slavery since slavery is the commodification of the human. If the Negro is less than the white person, then he can be considered as a commodity which one can buy, sell and use in slavery.
The man-monkey analogy has also been used for non-racist, political purposes:
The Rwandan radio station “Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM)” played a major role in the Rwandan genocide:
And then there are the relatively harmless national stereotypes (although one can claim that all dehumanization starts with this):
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (two excerpts, abbreviated)
1. Two brothers debate the possible slave revolt in the South after witnessing the young Henrique beat the slave Dodo:
” ‘All men are born free and equal!’ Poh! one of Tom Jefferson’s pieces of French sentiment and humbug. It’s perfectly ridiculous to have that going the rounds among us, to this day.”
“I think it is.”
“Because we can see plainly enough that all men are not born free, nor born equal; they are born anything else. For my part, I think half this republican talk sheer humbug. It is the educated, the intelligent, the wealthy, the refined, who ought to have equal rights and not the canaille.”
“If you can keep the canaille of that opinion. They took their turn once, in France.”
“Of course, they must be kept down, consistently, steadily.”
“It makes a terrible slip when they get up.”
“Poh! we’ll take care of that, in this country. We must set our face against all this educating, elevating talk, that is getting about now; the lower class must not be educated.”
“That is past praying for, educated they will be, and we have only to say how. Our system is educating them in barbarism and brutality. We are breaking all humanizing ties, and making them brute beasts; and, if they get the upper hand, such we shall find them.”
“They shall never get the upper hand!”
“They will govern you, when their time comes, and they will be just such rulers as you make them.”
2. The writer urges white Northerners to welcome escaped slaves and treat them with respect:
“On the shores of our free states are emerging the poor, shattered, broken remnants of families,–men and women, escaped, by miraculous providences, from the surges of slavery,–feeble in knowledge, and, in many cases, infirm in moral constitution, from a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality. They come to seek a refuge among you; they come to seek education, knowledge, Christianity.
What do you owe to these poor, unfortunates, O Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut down upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out? Shall the Church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out, and shrink away from the courage the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle. If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that fate of nations is in the hand of the One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion.”
Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the main human rights treaty, creates the possibility for states to declare a so-called “state of emergency“, a temporary suspension of mechanisms for the protection of some human rights when this is required by a national crisis:
1. In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, color, sex, language, religion or social origin.
2. No derogation from articles 6, 7, 8 (paragraphs 1 and 2), 11, 15, 16 and 18 may be made under this provision.
3. Any State Party to the present Covenant availing itself of the right of derogation shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the present Covenant, through the intermediary of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, of the provisions from which it has derogated and of the reasons by which it was actuated. A further communication shall be made, through the same intermediary, on the date on which it terminates such derogation.
Paragraph 2 states that the emergency can never warrant the violation of the right to life, the right not to be tortured or held in slavery, the right to due process, or the freedom of thought and religion.
This provision seems to be very reasonable. It is the case that human rights can be misused for the destruction of a human rights protecting community. And the democratic mechanisms can be misused for the abolition of democracy. (This is the famous theory of the suicide of democracy, the best example of which is the Nazi take-over in Weimar Germany). When this misuse develops to a certain scale, one can indeed speak of a regime crisis and a state of emergency suspending certain human rights protections may be the only alternative left to save the community.
For example, in times of war or civil war it is impossible to insist that all human rights and democratic principles be fully applied. The enemy should no be allowed to use human rights for the destruction of a democratic and human rights supporting community. Furthermore, a war, because of the urgency it creates, makes it very difficult to respect certain democratic habits, such as the consultation of large parts of the population, the thorough examination of all alternatives etc. A strong, individual leadership seems better adapted to the urgencies of war. On top of that, the war effort and the war industry require a unity of vision and a high level of cooperation without dissent. Dissent can harm the struggle for survival. It weakens the effectiveness of common actions and it can be exploited by the enemy. In a state of war, society and politics take over many of the undemocratic habits of the military, such as discipline, secrecy, strong leadership, the absence of criticism, uniformity instead of diversity and so on. The war industry as well can harm human rights, for example the rights concerning free choice of labor, good working conditions etc.
Perhaps there are also non-war situations, or warlike situations which do not resemble traditional warfare (such as the “war on terror” if there is such a thing), which may warrant temporary suspension of human rights protection. However, the goal of this post is not to disentangle this notoriously difficult question.
Democracy is a Greek invention, created by some of the ancient Greek city states, in particular Athens. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens – not including women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, i.e. the majority of the population – gathered together to discuss and decide on the policies of the state. Within this minority (the proportion of which is difficult to estimate but some put it at 10% of the total population), participation, equality and freedom was unrivaled. The quintessential description is given in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, still today one of the basic texts in democratic theory.
The word “democracy” combines the elements demos (which means “people”) and kratos (“force, power”). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy”. Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats. People in the ancient times wondered if the Athens could ever survive this devastating lifestyle. (Wikipedia)
Indeed, Athenian direct democracy required much personal effort of those participating. The meetings were long, frequent and intensive. It has been said that without the slave-economy and the imperial subjugation of other cities, this experiment would not have been possible. More on direct democracy.
Athenian democracy had some of the characteristics of representative democracy. Some decisions were taken by chosen representatives, such as judicial decisions. However, the choice of officials was not by election but by lot.
One of the historical origins of the representative system is the principle that prohibits taxation not based on laws approved by the people who pay the taxes (“no taxation without representation”). At the time when this principle came into force, the taxpayers were mainly the wealthy members of the new middle class or bourgeoisie.
These people demanded representation in return for their money and used this representation to control the expenditures of the government. If the government wished to spend a lot of money on a stupid and unnecessary war for example, then the representatives would refuse to vote in the laws required to spend this money. Still today, budgetary control as a means for the people to check if government spending is worth paying for is an important function of parliaments.
Parliaments and representation owe their existence to taxation. The increasing costs of warfare, administration and infrastructure made the kings of the late Middle Ages dependent on the money of the wealthiest class of the moment, which happened to be the new middle class. Now and again, these kings were forced to organize meetings (for example the so-called “States-General”) where the representatives of the cities and the middle class could or could not agree to finance certain government projects. If they agreed, they did so because their interests would be served by the project. They always agreed by way of covenants, contracts or laws, whereby they not only authorized spending but also received certain rights and privileges in return. Because they paid, they were able to enforce certain reforms, at first only local and specific privileges, but later also more abstract rights, which had the advantage of being applicable in very different situations.
These meetings were gradually institutionalized into what we now call parliaments. Parliaments therefore existed before modern democracy. Starting out as an instrument for budgetary control in the hands of a part of the population, they gradually acquired more power compared to the executive (in most cases compared to the king) and they gradually engaged in legislation.
The most important evolution in modern times was the extension of the franchise. In the early period of the modern state, democracy implied the right to vote only for a small portion of the make upper class population. Gradually, more and more groups gained equal political rights: workers, women, and in some contemporary democracy, even resident aliens. This has been called universal suffrage.
The two world wars and the end of the cold war were considered victories of the democratic states over dictatorial ones. The end of colonization, however, although theoretically a victory for democracy, was in reality a mixed blessing for many new third world states, with the notable exception of India.
An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. (Wikipedia)
Also important and promising is the advance of corporate democracy.
Throughout history, and in many different countries and circumstances, small groups of people organized themselves democratically. Examples are the workers in the Paris Communes in the 19th century, the Swiss Cantons, the New England towns, the Italian medieval cities, the Early Bolsjewik Soviets etc.
The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In the dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight
And heard at times a horse’s trams
and a bloodhound’s distant bay.
Where will-o’-the wisps and glowworms
In Bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the
and the cedar grows, and the poisenous
Is spotted like the snake;
Where hardly a human foot could
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green
He crouched in the rank and tangled
Like a wild beast in his lair.
A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand
And the rags, that hid his mangled
Were the livery of disgrace.
All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing
With songs of Liberty.
On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth,
On him alone the Curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered
and struck him to the earth.
“The poor are getting poorer, but with the rich getting richer it all averages out in the long run.”
Private property often does not have a good press. It’s unequal distribution has often been criticized, also on this blog. However, there is a recognized human right to private property (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely) and this right is important for different reasons.
First of all, private property is a means to protect of the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.
Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore, also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.
Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again.
Furthermore, property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.
Finally, it is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.
The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).
The right to private property is, just as most of the other human rights, a limited right. There can and should be redistribution of private property from the rich to the poor, if other human rights of the poor suffer as a consequence of insufficient private property (for example, the economic rights of the poor). Taxation and expropriation, however, should be used carefully, in view of the numerous important functions of private property. The more property a state acquires, the weaker the citizen becomes. Weaker not only compared to the state, but also compared to fellow citizens. His fellow citizens will find themselves in a position whereby they can control and intervene in his weakened private space.
You also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.
The property of your body can justify private property of material goods. The power of your body and your labor is incorporated in the goods you produce. By working on an object, you mix your labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from you, he also takes away your labour, which means that he takes away the power of your body. He therefore uses your body, which is incompatible with your right to possess your own body. See John Locke for a more elaborate exposition of this argument, for example here or here. If man owns his body, he also owns the power of his body and the objects in which this power is incorporated, to the extent that he has not stolen the objects. This can also be used as an argument in favor of some form of communism.
The right not to be a slave is the negative version of the right to possess your own body. Those who commit slavery (but also those who steal) act as if the bodies of other people are their property, a property that can be bought and sold. Considering other people as your property diminishes the value and dignity of these other people. Other people should not be considered as a means.
Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. Abraham Lincoln
Fortunately, few people do, these days. Thanks in part to Abe. But although almost no-one argues for slavery, slavery still exists. Outright slavery, but also “grey slavery”, people officially receiving a wage and officially having the freedom to leave, but in practice being in a quasi-slavery position.
Article 4 of the Universal Declaration:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
The right not to be a slave is the negative version of the right to possess your own body. Those who commit slavery (but also those who steal) act as if the bodies of other people are their property, a property which can be bought and sold. Considering other people as your property diminishes the value and dignity of these other people. Other people should not be considered as a means. As a consequence, we have to give every person the right to be considered as a person before the law (slaves are not considered as persons, they are goods that can be traded).