The Economy of the Planet of the Apes


I saw this vandalized movie poster the other day, and I tried to be funny on Twitter (something about anti-consumerist primates, about Caesar not wanting his struggle to be commodified by the movie industry).

But this got me thinking. Assuming that the apes do take over our planet, what kind of economy are they likely to create? I’m not happy with the movie answers to this question. The movies – both the original sixties movies and the new rebooted series – depict an unconvincing economic image of ape ascendance. In both movie series the apes become clever enough to acquire human knowledge and to potentially adopt human practices and institutions, including the human economy. But they don’t.

In the rebooted series the apes seem not particularly interested in becoming the new humans, perhaps understandably. They’ve returned to the woods near San Francisco in the second movie, and they’re clearly not going to just continue the human economy based on capitalist production and trade. They seem clever enough to do this, but they either lack the will or the incentives to use their new intelligence to acquire the knowledge, the science, the technology, the institutions and the behaviors necessary to recreate a capitalist economy. In the original movies, the apes have created a primitive, pre-industrial caste-like system based on human slavery.

Either scenario seems unlikely. After all, if the apes have human level intelligence, why not use it in a better way? In the rebooted series the apes seem to have no desire to use their new knowledge and improve their economy. Pre-ascendance, apes had (or should I say “have”) no significant agriculture or other types of economic production, no surplus to trade, and no means of exchange. They were (“are”) essentially hunter-gatherers. Why put up with all the risks inherent in keeping such a fragile economic model if you’ve recently gained enough units of intelligence sufficient to improve it? The apes in the rebooted series resist the temptation of retribution (apart from some skirmishes – these are action-movies after all). They’re not interested in subjugating the humans and creating a human-slave economy as they do in the older movies. They want to stay in the forest and keep the humans out. They want to remain essentially ape-like in their behavior, if not their knowledge.

This extreme case of status quo bias seems an unlikely course of action after a major and sudden shift in levels of intelligence. And the actions of the apes in the original series are just as hard to understand. They have human-like intelligence and yet they decide that they want a vindictive system of pre-industrial slavery. Good for the storylines of the movies, but bad for long-term viability and productivity. And hard to understand given the fact that we are led to assume that they should know better.

There’s an article here starting from Austrian economics to make the not entirely convincing point that apes can be both highly intelligent and still remain hunter-gatherers. The argument goes like this: apes, even or especially intelligent ones, must remain hunter-gatherers for some time because sudden agriculturalization or industrialization of their economy would likely turn out to be immensely harmful and even disastrous in the short term. Everyone would starve. You need capital, time and sufficient stocks of supplies to create the institutions necessary for industrialization. I’m not convinced. If the apes do take over, they can also take over the stocks, tools and other forms of capital created by humans. They don’t have to industrialize from scratch.

If neither the movies nor Austrian economics help us to flesh out the unlikely future economy in a world ruled by apes, can we perhaps turn to primatology? We do know a lot about current ape behavior. Assuming that this behavior doesn’t entirely go away with intelligence enhancement, what can it tell us? One of the things we know, such as primates’ fondness of reciprocity and sharing, their inequity aversion and use of altruistic punishment would suggest a mixed economy with a strong welfare state, or even communism. Other things, however, such as the often strong competitive forces at play in primate groups, would suggest a very unencumbered free market economy. (There have been successful efforts to introduce currency into monkey economies). But then again, maybe the original movies were correct: strong primate group hierarchy points to more traditional economic models. So it would seem that our future of ape dominance is up for grabs. Maybe we will indeed be reduced to human slaves in a strictly hierarchical pre-industrial society. Or maybe the apes will join the WTO.


There Is No Morality, and That’s a Good Thing


Moral philosophy is an infamous mess. However, this mess, which moral philosophers have inadvertently foisted upon us, may in the end do us a favor: by trying in vain to come up with a coherent and convincing system of morality moral philosophers may have shown that there isn’t in fact something called morality.

But let’s take a few steps back first. Why is moral philosophy a mess? After 2000+ years of trying, not even the brightest minds have produced a morality that’s the least bit convincing. There isn’t even a shred of promise that something convincing is somewhere around some distant corner. For example, your theory might require a bit of rethinking if it states that to act morally you have to

  • Tell an inquiring murderer the whereabouts of your targeted friend
  • Engage in infanticide
  • Prefer a society with billions of people living only a marginally worthwhile life to a small society of very happy people
  • Harvest the organs of a perfectly healthy individual in order to save 5 very ill and possible terminal patients
  • Be as greedy as you can be so as to make tons of money that you can then donate to some hypothetical other people who I suppose shouldn’t follow the rule to be greedy
  • Engage in mutually advantageous exploitation
  • Etc.

However, “rethinking” won’t do the job. Moral philosophy has been “rethinking” for ages, and the only thing to show for it are increasingly exotic and outrageous moral systems that refute one another and that can never and shouldn’t ever be the guide to anyone’s daily actions. You have very imaginative constructs like negative utilitarianism or esoteric consequentialism that have had about as much traction as a spider in a bathtub. Or you have hybrid systems such as rule utilitarianism, threshold deontology or luck egalitarianism that look like desperate attempts to bridge contradicting theories and offer a unified and irrefutable system without the unsavory parts of its components. Qua traction they aren’t any better.

Of course, it’s not because a theory lacks traction that it isn’t correct. Lots of unpopular things are correct. But the general persuasional failure of moral philosophy does indicate a deeper level of failure. Maybe moral philosophy fails because it tries to find a good explanation of something that doesn’t exist. And maybe it makes the same mistake as theories about the Martian canals, Aether or other Phlogistons. (Some ominous parallels perhaps to theories about free will or the Mind).

But if there is no morality, then how do we explain the sense of morality? It’s quite common for people to have a sense of right and wrong, to have a distaste of doing wrong, to oppose wrong when they see it done, to avoid harming others etc. The failure of moral philosophy to come with a good system doesn’t change this fact and doesn’t undo the reality of this moral sense. But if it’s true that there is no morality then this moral sense is an illusion, right? Not necessarily. Moral intuitions such as “do no harm” and “do unto others as you’d have done to you” are not necessarily proof of the existence of something called “morality”. These intuitions are perhaps based on mere self-interest rather than being the result of a moral system. We follow these intuitions in our daily actions not because a system of morality (or a God for that matter) demands this of us, but because doing so furthers our interests.

For example, we have an interest in a prosperous life, but in order to have a prosperous life, we need bakers, butchers, shopkeepers and the like to be able to prosper as well. We need peace, but peace is a public good: if we have it, others have it as well, and the only way to have it for ourselves is to try to give it to others. Reciprocity also explains the intuitions against harming others. If we refrain from harming others we may expect others to reciprocate, for different reasons: those others have no reason to retaliate; they make the same calculation as we do; and there is habit-formation in rule respecting behavior. There is a whole field of game theory that is based on similar assumptions. And the scientific inquiry into human evolution also gives support, as it seems that a lot of morality has an evolutionary basis.

So we end up with “values” that are really self-interested rules which happen, by chance alone, to benefit others. And which, because of these benefits, appear to be morally inspired, altruistic and benevolent. This appearance in turn has produced a whole field of philosophy that, in my mind, mistakes the appearance for the underlying reality.

PS: how do human rights fit into this? If I were famous I would be famous for my interest in and promotion of human rights. Isn’t that a moral stance? Aren’t human rights based on a moral theory? Or aren’t they a moral theory themselves, equivalent to utilitarianism and such? Not in my understanding of human rights. Of course, if you believe that human rights are divine commands or a tool to enforce a consequentialist or deontological morality, then the possible non-existence of morality undercuts the system of human rights. But in my view human rights are tools to promote interests. (I have an older post here explaining my interest-based approach to human rights. And another one here about selfish reasons to respect human rights. A more concrete example is this post about the attractiveness of religious liberty to those who hate it, namely those of us who are most ardently religious. There is also a subset of human rights violations that is relevant in this context, namely boomerang human rights violations).

The absence of a link between human rights and morality also explains

More about human rights and morality here.

I found Trump’s long lost sister on the train 


7th Treatise On The Nature of Meaning and Beauty in the World

Screenshot 2017-04-20 18.57.12

No more than a shadow in a mirror; a mirror which is in fact no more than a mere window; a window which is just a collection of moving atoms; atoms which are themselves no more than moving particles. The mere shadow itself was only a photon variation. There’s nothing redeeming about it all. “But look at the beauty of the thing throwing the shadow!” She may be beautiful, this strange illusion of solidity, but it’s only illusion that gives it beauty. Only illusion gives meaning and that’s all that meaning is. We have nothing else. Mock these trivial lines as much as you please, but you’re not mocking me. You’re objecting to pixels and particles.

Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?


Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.


The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

Nothing to Tell, But Something to Show

Sorry for the prolonged silence, but nothing interesting and novel enough to say. Hence, in lieu of thoughts, some images. I still have this picture book to “sell” (it’s for free actually):

Screenshot 2016-05-11 18.23.53

Available here:

and here:

An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

Dullness is the First Principle of Justice


Every theory of justice should be boring and dull. Dullness is what justice is all about. “It depends on”, “it’s complicated”, “it varies”, “it’s very nuanced”, “it’s somewhere in between” should be the phrases populating any philosophical work on justice. Clear and simple principles, even if arrived at through nuanced and complex reasoning, are an injustice to the concept of justice.

Justice is about the boring middle. For instance, justice is not about equality, because “it depends”. Giving all students, no matter what their ability or effort or accomplishment an equal grade offends our conception of justice, even if in general we view equal treatment as fundamental to justice. Neither is justice about rights, or better it’s not only about rights. Rights are important, as is equality, but in primitive or dysfunctional societies without an adequate justice system it may be best from the point of view of justice to hand over a pedophile to the parents of his victim.

Clear, absolute and immediately comprehensible principles that are true no matter the context and that allow for no exceptions are tempting and often propounded as the essence of theories of justice – although not of most sophisticated ones. And yet such principles are always wrong to some extent and in some circumstances. But then what about torture, slavery, murder and rape you may ask. Well, most of us would concede that there can be extreme cases in which torture is acceptable, even if only in theory (think of ticking bomb cases). We condone forced labor on a massive scale in our prison systems. Not only do we condone it – our allowing it could be considered a moral shortcoming – but there may be good reasons, moral reasons, for it: teaching people skills, fostering a sense of community etc. While there’s probably no good reason for capital punishment, other cases of murder can be morally justified: self-defense only being the most commonly accepted. And rape? While I can’t see any good reason to rape anyone in any circumstance, we do accept that there’s rape in our societies. No theory of justice should claim that we have to do everything possible to avoid any and all cases of rape that currently occur in our societies. Trying to do that would mean giving up other important rights such as privacy. We do and must accept some amount of crime. Hence any theory of justice has to be non-ideal. Ideals are useful but only take us so far. It should be considered lazy to limit yourself to an exhortation of utopia, no matter how well you argue for it.

Even theories of justice that do allow for wishy washy nuance and boring contextuality often posit a small set of grand principles as a basic ground of justice. They permit exceptions, but rarify them. The nuance and complexity they allow is in the exceptions or in the build up to the clear and simple principles, not in the principles themselves. Theories such as those of Rawls are typical of this. The voluminous body of criticism that has followed the publication of A Theory of Justice proves my point. Not all of that criticism was justified, but some of it was – notably that of G.A. Cohen but others as well. Nobody today accepts Rawls’ principles of justice as they are stated in A Theory. We all see the complexity that Rawls avoided or ignored, for example regarding incentives.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no audience for dullness – I know what I’m talking about here. So people are tempted to strive towards simplicity and clearness. That’s OK as long as there’s a thriving community that can offer criticism and nuance. The problem is not the producers of theory, but the audience. Producers can and perhaps should offer clear and simple principles, on the condition that they have complex and nuanced justifications, but the audience should be aware that it never stops there. Unfortunately, it always stops there.

Why Your Blog Is a Failure


Of course, I should say “my blog”, but if we assume, unscientifically, that my experience is shared by many other bloggers then some of you may find my answers to the question in the title somewhat useful.

Almost nobody reads my blog these days. I’ve gone from a high point of about 10,000 pageviews a day – a respectable and higher than average number – to 20 or so. (Hi mom!). Whereas failure or success are subjective notions and to some extent in the eye of the beholder, they are fairly objective at the margins. Krugman is an objectively successful blogger, and yours truly is a verifiable suck. (Much of it my own doing, I admit, but I won’t go into the specifics of my personal failure, thank you). Sure, you can call yourself a success with a tiny readership if all you want is to spread the news about your local soccer club, but let’s limit ourselves here to what we could call “serious” blogging, i.e. writing about important topics for a targeted and perhaps sizeable audience in order to change something in the world – or at least in a part of the world.

How can this go wrong, you ask? In many ways, I’m afraid.

It’s the math.

Since it’s so goddamn easy to start a blog – it literally takes only minutes and costs nothing but time – millions of people have done so. Result: there are too many blogs. Which means that you won’t show up on Google and potential readers won’t find you. The only way for googlers to find you is authoritative endorsement: other famous and credible bloggers who write about the same topics and who publish links to or perhaps even favorable comments about your writing. That, of course, is another problem.

It’s the lack of authoritative endorsement.

Even if people do find you in some way or other, they won’t be able to judge the quality of your work compared to that of the thousands of others blogging about the same thing, unless they read you and all the others carefully. Of course they don’t have time for that. They’ll only read you instead of all the others if some authority figure in the field signals to them that that is what they should do. But getting such a figure to give the right signal is hard, for the same mathematical reasons. You can try to identify these people and email them links to your posts in the hope of receiving their endorsement, but here the mathematics will trip you up again. There are very few authority figures, almost by definition, and they receive far too many endorsement requests from far too many bloggers. The chances of getting noticed by authority figures are probably even lower than the chances of spontaneous discovery by a larger public.

Furthermore, endorsement requests can make you look needy, and the need for endorsement is for many readers – including the potential endorsers – a signal that you’re not worth the trouble. People tend to assume that success is self-made and doesn’t require endorsement. If you need endorsement then that’s already a sign that there’s nothing to endorse.

It’s what you write about.

A major factor in determining readership size is the topic you write about. Some topics are more popular than others, and the things you are passionate about may only be interesting to relatively few people even if these things are objectively important to humanity as a whole. That’s OK as long as you redefine success. For instance, if you write about something like human rights – as I do – then you should realistically aim at a relatively small readership. People in general do not want to read about human rights when they can read about celebrities and royalty. You set yourself up for failure if you ignore this fact about humanity. If, on the other hand, you aim at a small readership but one that includes many of the people working in the field of human rights – academics, activists, politicians – then a small but targeted readership can be considered a success. If you can change how academic specialists in the field of human rights think about their subject, and if you can inform activists about how to be more successful in doing their work, then readership size is somewhat less important. This is true for a lot if not all of what we call “serious” blogging. This type of blogging is by definition specialized in the sense that it’s about one topic, and an important topic, and that it tries to go deep within that topic. It’s success for those types of blogs that I care about and success here is more about targeting the right people than the size of the audience.

It’s the metrics.

So it’s important to get over the fetish of readership numbers. They’re not that important for serious blogs, with possible exceptions for wide-ranging fields such as economics. And anyway, they’re notoriously difficult to measure. Pageviews don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the views you get may be just mistakes or people scraping images from your blog. And the rest of the views may last for a few seconds only (although in theory it’s possible to measure time spent on a site). Advertising income, if you have it, is also not a reliable indicator of readership. The only really useful indicator of readership is mentions of and links to you elsewhere on the internet. And especially from authority figures in the field. And that’s by definition anecdotal and impossible to measure. You’ll have to “feel” it.

It’s your style.

Suppose you have a serious blog with some level of specialization – “going deep” – and a targeted and authoritative readership that came to you by way of endorsement. You may still struggle to hold on to your audience. Even a group of specialists in the field of human rights want to have variety in what they read. Hammering on about the same thing over and over again, even if you make sense and develop good arguments, tends to become boring, even to specialists. And it’s not enough to include the occasional funny gif post as a form of comic relief. People can get that anywhere. You’ll have to find a good balance between being short and to the point on the one hand and original and deep on the other. That’s tough. People don’t go to blogs to read thousands of words (I know, I’ll wrap this up in a moment, I promise). Or to read what they already know. And remember, you’re targeting specialists and authority figures, so they know a lot and you’ll have to be original and profound.

An additional stylistic difficulty: you’re forced to write in English. No brainer. But English probably isn’t your mother tongue. Whereas English is relatively easy to learn if all you want is to communicate effectively, it’s incredible hard to write well in English. Trust me, I know. And I guess you can tell. People want to read good writing. So invest some effort in it.

It’s only blogging.

Finally: if you obsess about success or failure as a blogger, you’ve already lowered your ambitions. Try to be successful as a writer, an artist, politician or spouse. You may face some of the same difficulties but the payoff will be bigger.

What to do about the risk of failure?

If you still want to be a successful blogger after all this, then what should you do? Invest in your mastery of the English language. Continue to seek endorsements and get over your squeamishness about it. But don’t spam people. Limit your ambition and get over the pageviews. Try to get quality readers. Persevere: blogging is useful even if literally nobody reads you. You learn things by writing about them. You become a better writer and a smarter person. Also: be regular. People don’t like blogs that aren’t updated regularly (ahem). But don’t spend more than a couple of hours a day on it. Life’s too short, there’s too much good television and food. And your wife and offspring don’t care about your blog. The sun is shining and your body needs a run.

The Refugee Crisis From a Social Choice Perspective

Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing an increase in media coverage of the plight of refugees and migrants trying to make the journey to Western Europe. Here’s a graph from Google Trends:

refugees google trends

It started with events in Calais and then shifted eastwards to Hungary, Greece and other countries around the Mediterranean. Somehow, the focus is now more on refugees than on migrants, perhaps because there are now more refugees coming across from countries such as Syria. Some argue that the reason for the recent spike in media coverage are indeed the larger than ever numbers of people travelling to Europe, but I’m not sure this is correct or that it’s the main reason even if it is correct. Let’s admit that refugees are photogenic, especially when they’re in trouble, and hence easy material for journalists. Increased media coverage could be partially the result of tragic anecdotes captured on film.

Whatever the reasons for the levels of media coverage, I think it’s interesting to try to assess the impact this coverage will have on reality, as opposed to the impact of reality on the coverage.

We can look at this from both the supply side and the demand side. Let me start with the latter. An increase in the numbers of stories about refugees and migrants in Western media will most likely motivate more people to try and make the journey (foster the “demand” for migration). Although a lot of coverage focuses on the risks faced by individuals or families – people drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating in the backs of trucks – potential migrants or refugees are well aware of these risks and increased media coverage of deaths or other negative effects of migration attempts will not change their risk assessment. (It would be different if destination countries were actively trying to increase the risks, by building walls or stopping boats, but this doesn’t seem to be happening, yet. Or at least not more than before. The so-called wall in Hungary, however shameful, is still very leaky). Compared to the risks of staying where they are, potential migrants or refugees make a rational calculation to leave, and they’re probably correct in most cases. They’re even more likely to be correct when they come from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Increased media coverage also shows that lots of people do make it some distance to their destination, and this will further push other potential migrants’ calculations towards a decision to make the journey. In addition: media coverage doesn’t typically include success stories of people making it all the way and having a good life in their new country. Potential travellers know this, and therefore include this in their risk assessment. They know that media coverage is skewed towards bad news and only tends to show journeys that go wrong and to picture people having trouble along the way or facing hostility at their destination. Migrants arriving safely, being welcomed and having a successful new life just don’t make the news, but they exist. We all know this, but we don’t know how common they are. Still, they exist, and knowledge of this factors into the risk calculations of potential migrants.

How about the “supply side”? How will countries that can potentially offer more or less supply of migration opportunities react to the recent media coverage? First of all, we’re now seeing a strong self-shaming effect, especially after events such as the drowning of Aylan. This mitigates pre-existing xenophobia and forces western European governments to allow somewhat larger numbers of arrivals. This is already happening, albeit on a largely symbolic scale. So both the demand and supply sides will go up, at least in the short term.

Feelings of shame tend not to last, however, and tragic images of dead toddlers on beaches fade from memory much faster than the sight of even a relatively small number of new arrivals squatting in squalor in Western parks and train stations. Xenophobic reactions to the new arrivals and the often imaginary burdens these people place on “our” social security systems, housing markets, job markets etc. will probably make a comeback after a few weeks of face-to-face confrontation with third world poverty. As a result, we’re likely to see a rebranding of refugees as “mere” migrants. Migrants in turn will be called “fortune seekers” and other rather more despicable labels.

FT_Econ_Burden_fw_Pre-crisis levels of toleration of migrants were already low in many European countries, and one can imagine that so-called “swarms” of new arrivals can make things worse very quickly. This in turn can have an effect on the demand side as people considering a potential journey decide to do it sooner rather than later in order to beat the clock and travel before the walls go up. These possible new waves of concentrated arrivals in Western countries will further encourage xenophobia. Etcetera etcetera, as one is tempted to say.

If you’re interested, I’ve got more and older posts on migration, refugees and citizenship right here.

What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks


About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.


So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

Which Changes in the Spatial Pattern of Human Rights Are Most Likely?

[The drought of my inspiration continues, I’m afraid, so here’s another golden oldie. Tyler Cowen linked to it on Marginal Revolution at the time I first published it some years ago, so it must be good. Argumentum ad verecundiam, I know.]

One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.

The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.

Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here‘s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern.

Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:

  • bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
  • top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
  • horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.

Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.

Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:

  1. Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
  2. Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.

If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.

More posts in this series are here.

Why On Earth Would Someone Need Human Rights?

[You may have noticed a lack of blog posts recently. At least I hope you have. For personal reasons I’ve been having a hard time writing anything these last weeks, so here’s one from the archive (with a new title). It’s almost 5 years old but I still think it’s one of my best.]

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.

Capital Punishment, What Can We Hope For?

Emile Friant; Capital Punishment; 1908
Emile Friant; Capital Punishment; 1908

The death penalty is going out of style. Many people have many good reasons to be happy about that, and I’m among those who consistently advocate against this inhuman punishment. (Without losing sight of the many other forms of injustice perpetrated against – duly or unduly – convicted criminals).

However, it’s not going away fast enough. One can wonder why it’s still practiced at all, and hasn’t gone the road of slavery, torture, human sacrifice or similar remnants of the Middle Ages which, to the extent that they still exist, are mostly hidden in shame.

Instead of trying to answer this question, I’m going to ponder an easier one: when can we hope the death penalty will be abolished altogether? No way of knowing for sure, of course, but we can extrapolate some data sets. For instance, there’s the hopeful evolution of the numbers of countries that have outlawed the practice. So-called abolitionist countries can be divided into two groups: abolitionist in law or in practice. Depending on the source, there are about 100 countries that have no death penalty in their laws, and about 35 to 40 that still have laws but no longer apply them. That leaves about 60 so-called “retentionist” countries (some would prefer a less flattering qualifier). (Again according to the sources, there are about 195 independent countries in the world today).

Venezuela was the first country still existing in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, doing so by Constitution in 1863. Among the last countries were Russia, Argentina and Latvia (you can find the complete list here). The rate of abolition accelerated quickly over the course of the last 3 decades, as I show in this graph:

death penalty, number of abolitionist countries

As this is a case of exponential growth, we can extrapolate:

death penalty, projected abolition worldwide

If the trend over the last 4 or 5 decades continues, and the most recent flattening of the curve is just a glitch – two big “ifs”, I admit – then the death penalty will be illegal everywhere sometime around 2022.

Another, and probably more relevant set of data are the actual numbers of executions. It’s hard to get your hands on a long time series of reliable numbers for the word as a whole, partly because data on executions in China – by far the biggest killer – are notoriously incomplete. Still, if we graph the available numbers for some of the worst countries, and assume that secrecy isn’t becoming more of a problem over time (again a big “if”), then we get a similarly hopeful evolution for most countries:

numbers of executions China Iran Saudi Arabia United States


Were we to add a trend line as in the graph on abolition, then China would stop executing in 2017, which seems a bit optimistic. Saudi Arabia would stop in 2027. The US only in 2034. This neatly illustrates the limits of statistical analysis, since I’m ready to bet that the order will be exactly the reverse.

Declining popular support is a further indication of the demise of the death penalty:

popular support for the death penalty in the US

And not just in the US. According to some sources, a majority of Chinese think their government executes too many people, although a clear majority still favors the punishment in principle. (Needless to say that public opinion is difficult to measure in authoritarian countries, and may be affected by authoritarian practices and the relative paucity of public debate). Less than half of Britons, French and Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty. On the other hand, 55% of Brazilians and a stunning 85% of Japanese are in favor. (Source).

QTWTAIN: Does the Problem of the Self Undermine Human Rights?

The view that there is no such thing as a personal identity or a self has become commonplace among philosophers. This view is of course counterintuitive, but may very well be correct. Why is it counterintuitive? Well, despite all the changes we go through over the course of our lives – changes that are sometimes “life changing” – we still have a sense of persistence and sameness of our selves over time. (At least, most of us do. There are some mental illnesses that disturb this sense of continuity). It’s “I” who changes, and although I change there is an unchanging entity – me – that goes through the changing process. I or my own self remains the same at a deeper level underneath the changes of some parts of me. I keep my distinct personal identity over time. I don’t have it at birth, but I develop it throughout my early life and keep it until my last second. (Again, conditional upon my mental health, in particular during old age).

At least that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m a different person – at least not literally – compared to the one I was yesterday, even if important parts or aspects of me may have changed today, perhaps as a result of a life-changing experience. I may feel like I’m a different man – figuratively speaking – but it’s “I” who feels like a different man. The same “I” that felt different things yesterday. I’m still Filip, even if I’ve changed somehow, and the people who know me know that I am.

Of course, my sense of continuity does not only resist life changing experiences. Even without such experiences I continually oppose a barrage of more mundane changes throughout my life. Although apparently I look just like I did yesterday, my body is in fact changing every second. I gain and lose matter; my body cells are continually replaced. Over the span of several years, my body matter will be almost completely renewed. (A bit like the parts of the ship of Theseus which somehow remains the ship of Theseus even though every part is replaced one after the other). However, my brain cells typically last a lifetime, so this could be a refuge for the idea of personal continuity. Were it not for the fact that although brain cells don’t die we do make new ones and the combinations and interactions between them change all the time. We learn new things and forget other things. We have new experiences, memories and opinions and lose others. Compared to cellular replacement or life changing experiences, neurological changes such as these should be equally devastating to the notion of persistence of identity over time, a notion which is, apparently at least, a sine qua non for any theory of the self.

So, if it’s true that we can’t assume the same person to exist and persist over time, then what does that imply for that person’s human rights? Human rights typically attach to a human person. If the human person is a myth, then does it still make sense to talk about human rights? The obvious answer would be “no”. Something that doesn’t exist can’t have anything: no attributes, no character and certainly not any enforceable rights.

However, you may have noted the sleight of hand here. It’s not because a person can’t be said to exist over time that he or she does not exist at all. “Synchronic identity” is much more difficult to dispute than “diachronic identity” (although it’s not impossible). We are all persons during that infinitely small period of time that is now. (Even those of us who have multiple personalities or other personality disorders). And that synchronic identity is a sufficient basis of rights, because we need our rights now (we can be harmed, hurt, oppressed and killed now). It follows that if we have rights now, then we always have rights because there will always be a now. The fact that we may be different persons from one now to the next – if that is indeed a fact – is neither here nor there and doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for or justification of our rights. Just as it doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for our physical bodies, at least as long as mind uploading isn’t feasible. The day it becomes feasible we’ll return to the question: is there anything to upload?

When Rights Become Wrongs


Some presumptive rights are in fact making things worse for people. A “right not to be exploited” can condemn the potential victims of exploitation to other kinds of victimhood that are even harder to bear than exploitation. Take for example some kinds of sweatshop laborers and child laborers. Mutually beneficial exploitation is real, and, while it’s definitely immoral it may still be better than the status quo ante. If children aren’t allowed to work or sweatshops are closed under pressure then people’s lives may well turn for the worse. More poverty or worse labor conditions – e.g. prostitution or slavery – can be their lot.

Something similar is the case for the so-called right to cultural identity. This right may very well force some members of cultural communities to endure cultural practices that are harmful to their individual rights, all in the name of preserving the cultural identity of the group. Another example: the “right to land” is often invoked in certain developing countries and is supposed to be a means to undo the unjust distribution of land ownings following a history of white colonialism. Here as well we see that a right may become a wrong: while it may undo one injustice of distribution it creates other injustices (e.g. poverty resulting from ineffective production due to losses of economies of scale and of knowhow).

One last example: immigration restrictions are sometimes justified by the claim that would-be immigrants have a right to flourish in their countries of origin. People don’t want to migrate unless they’re forced by circumstances, it is said. Relaxation of immigration laws is then supposedly a second best option compared to solving the problems in origin countries that create the push for immigration in the first place. So instead of allowing people to migrate we should try to protect their rights where they now live. Needless to say that this approach makes those would-be migrants worse off, and probably not only in the short run. Looser immigration laws have immediate benefits for the migrants, but they can also improve the rights situation in their home countries, for example through remittances and cultural exchange.

What Happens to Human Rights in the Experience Machine?

Stephen Moss sits inside an ‘orgone accumulator’ or ‘orgasmatron’, an orgasm producing machine. Photograph: David Levene
Stephen Moss sits inside an ‘orgone accumulator’ or ‘orgasmatron’, an orgasm producing machine. Photograph: David Levene


Nozick’s “experience machine” is a widely used thought experiment, intended to corroborate many different and often counterintuitive conclusions. But as far as I know, it hasn’t been used to try and understand what such a machine would do to our human rights.

First though a word about the experiment. It’s often intended to show that pleasure or happiness can’t be the ultimate moral good, and therefore to claim that philosophies such as utilitarianism can’t be correct – or at least can’t be complete. Imagine a machine that can simulate pleasure. You go into the machine and it gives you whatever pleasurable experiences that you desire, except of course everything is simulated. The pleasure is the same as that which would come from the actual experiences, but you’re not having the experiences. Think also of Reich’s orgasm machine or “orgasmatron”.

Most people would prefer to have the actual experiences rather than merely the pleasure part of them. So there must be something other than pleasure that is important to us, such as actually doing something or being someone.

Now, if instead of a pleasure machine we could have a machine that eliminates the unpleasurable sensations produced by slavery, silencing, censorship, discrimination and even torture (although what then would be the point of torture?). Would we still need human rights? After all, the things that are bad about slavery, torture etc. are the bad experiences suffered by the victims of these rights violations. However, it doesn’t seem OK to make it this easy on the perpetrators. They continue to reap benefits from their actions, and it’s highly likely that they will be encouraged by the absence of bad consequences of their actions. So there will be more and more extreme rights violations. Again, the experience machine doesn’t seem to make things better and I for one am not sure that I would prefer life in such a machine to actually experiencing my rights being violated.

Also, while the experience machine may be able to neutralise the bad experiences I may have when my rights are violated, it will never be able to produce the more positive experiences that come with respect for rights. And I don’t mean pleasure, because that’s not what rights are about. I mean communicating, learning, improving my thinking, participating in culture and in democratic government etc. Rights aren’t only about avoiding the bad, but also about producing the good.

One may reply that an upgraded experience machine may provide these kinds of experiences on top of pleasurable ones. There are, after all, already machines that provide cultural experiences. Why not the other experiences made possible by human rights? However, the implicit assumption is that such a machine would make rights redundant, since machines are supposedly more reliable than rights.

Here we have to distinguish between simulation and reality. If the experience machine would merely simulate the experience of learning, most of us would prefer an actual learning experience, even if we wouldn’t know that we are being mislead when inside the machine. Same thing for the experience of political participation, of culture etc. Even if the simulation were so good that we couldn’t know that it was a simulation, then we should still prefer the non-simulated reality.

However, if the machine would actually help us to learn, to engage in culture and to participate in democracy, then I think it would be a net positive. Fortunately, non-simulative experience machines are much more common than the simulative one imagined by Nozick.

Moral Philosophy: We Have a Winner

Whether you like it or not, moral philosophy has long been dominated by the struggle between two “schools”: utilitarianism (or consequentialism more generally) versus deontology, with figures such as Singer, Bentham and Mill on one side, and Kant, Nagel, Scanlon, Kamm and others on the other side. Virtue ethicists (such as Aristotle, Foot and MacIntyre) are vocal but marginal.

A quick look at the use of words in the New York Times reveals that utilitarianism is and always has been the most popular school:

utilitarianism vs deontology

(The number for “deontology” are so low that the line isn’t even visible). If we add “virtue” – which is misleading because this word, contrary to the two others, is also used in non-philosophical talk – then we see that it’s becoming steadily less popular:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

Not a good sign for the prospects of virtue ethics. Almost exactly the same trends are visible in Google’s Ngrams:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

The preponderance of utilitarianism is also evident from studies on trolley problems in which most test subjects prefer to sacrifice one in order to save many others (only small minorities prefer an absolute interpretation of the “don’t kill” rule). My guess is that the prominence of economists in public debate has something to do with the good fortune of utilitarianism.

Now, maybe the imbalance between utilitarianism and deontology is less pronounced among “professional” philosophers rather than the general public. I’ve tried to look for studies about the relative popularity of either school among philosophers but couldn’t find anything. Help?

A final, more normative than descriptive question: which type of ethics should people who care about human rights prefer? Not an easy one. I tried some answers here, here, here and here.

Human Rights and Negative Utilitarianism

nuclear explosion
nuclear explosion


Lots of people define human rights – mistakenly as I argue below – in a strictly negative sense: you can’t torture me, you can’t silence me etc. The duty bearers in such a system of human rights have exclusively negative duties: abstain from doing what harms my rights, and omit actions that go against my interests or diminish my dignity. The only positive thing that duty bearers are obliged to do is to protect us against others who fail to abstain or forbear in ways that are required by my rights.

In this view, rights serve to avoid the terrible rather than achieve the best. They put limits on what people can do, rather than allowing them to do things.

Hence the temptation to link human rights to so-called negative utilitarianism. Instead of maximizing overall happiness, pleasure or preference satisfaction as in traditional utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism seeks to minimize pain, harm, suffering and preference negation for all. However, we should avoid linking human rights with negative utilitarianism. While this type of utilitarianism avoids some of the problems of other, more “positive” incarnations of utilitarianism – for example, the problem of accepting the pain of some or inflicting pain on some if that produces a larger quantity of happiness for others – it runs into problems of its own making: e.g. the total destruction of humanity, even if very painful, would no doubt reduce human suffering when this suffering is aggregated over a sufficiently long period of time (very long periods of time when the aggregate suffering is very small). And in any case, negative utilitarianism doesn’t solve other problems inherent in all types of utilitarianism, such as preference adaptation (minimize your suffering or maximize your happiness by being modest and ascetic), objectification and instrumentalization of human beings (kill people that cause some annoyance to others in order to advance the happiness of others or reduce their “suffering”) etc.

Of course, human rights are indeed negative rules of the kind described above. But they’re more than that. They’re not just limits to the depths of evil and inhumanity; they also provide capabilities necessary to reach higher forms of humanity. Free speech rights, for example, counteract censorship and silencing of all kinds, but they also promote the good that comes from liberated discourse and argumentation. (One good being better thinking).

Also from a purely procedural point of view is it wrong to focus only on the negative character of human rights. All rights, even the most “classical” “freedom rights” such as speech, freedom from slavery and torture etc. require both abstention and active assistance. The state not only has to refrain from practicing censorship; it also has to protect its citizens against censorship by other parts of the state or by third parties. And it has to create conditions in which the risk of censorship and of other impediments to speech is minimized. For instance, an educated citizenry is more likely to enjoy its speech rights than one which hasn’t had the benefit of state sponsored education. You need to have things to say in the first place.

This should clear up another misconception in human rights theory, this time about economic human rights. If all rights require both action and forbearance, the supposed distinction between freedom rights and economic rights becomes are lot less clear. More about this here and here.

The Rights’ Stuff

Scene from the movie “The Right Stuff”
Scene from the movie “The Right Stuff”

Suppose you want something to be a right. In other words, you want to make a new right.1 What are the ingredients that you need to “cook” it? What is the stuff that rights are made of? I’ll focus of course on the necessary ingredients only, as well as on the necessary ingredients that aren’t trivial. For example, it’s trivial that rights are universal, otherwise they would be privileges. The same triviality applies to the equality of rights, their priority, their force of obligation, their exceptional nature etc. If anything and everything can be a right, then the force of obligation of those rights and their priority over other moral or legal considerations will vanish.

So, very briefly: in order for something to qualify as a human right, the following ingredients are necessary, and concurrently necessary (though not concurrently sufficient; I’m not offering a complete list of all necessary properties of rights):

  1. We should be dealing with important claims, in some socially agreed sense of “important”. Non-important claims as well as claims that are only idiosyncratically important (for example, the claim that people should have the right to live in a climate where the temperature is consistently between 23 and 26 degrees Celsius, or the claim that a particular person should have the right to recognition as an artist) should not be turned into a right, because that would diminish the importance of rights as such and of rights in general. There’s also a pragmatic reason for allowing only important claims to contend for “rightship”: rights imply duties, and duties should not become overbearing. Too many rights equals too many duties, which in turn equals disrespect for duties.
  2. We should be dealing with claims that are amenable to social help (in the words of Amartya Sen), either through legislation, policy or horizontal help. Some claims may be important and yet impossible for people to achieve through law, governance or mutual assistance. It’s universally agreed that romantic love is an important good and that people have good and non-idiosyncratic reasons to claim that they should be loved and should be able to love. And yet no one to my knowledge has made the case that romantic love can be promoted by the courts, by governments or by beneficence (other types of love, such as agape or philia may be more amenable to social or even legal action).
  3. We should be dealing with interpersonal claims. Rights are claims from one person to another, even when we claim our rights against the state. Rights violations are always committed by human individuals, whatever their official capacity. So claims from God, for example, aren’t good reasons to make a right. We should not respect rights because God claims that we should, although of course we should welcome all motives, however fanciful, that promote the rights which we should value for argued reasons (as opposed to “revealed” reasons). Rights also exclude reasons from nature. We should not respect rights because “human nature” requires that we should. Human nature is a highly dubious concept, and can’t by itself constitute a good enough reason to value rights. Some more argumentation is required to convince us that something is a right, and this argumentation may end up with a notion of human nature but can’t start from it. One caveat: the definition of “persons”, like the definition of “important”, may evolve over time and after social discussion. For example, it may come to include animals, the dead, future persons etc.

I’ve tried before to give a supposedly complete list of the necessary properties of rights, which you can consult here. More posts in this series about the nature of human rights are here.

1 As most thinkers today, I see rights as things that are “made”. They aren’t given by God. They aren’t “natural” in the sense of being “there” just as other things of nature are “there”. People don’t have rights simply because they are natural human beings. They have rights because someone has proposed that they have rights, and that through argumentation and deliberation over a long period of time we have convinced each other that there are good reasons to have rights. Rights are “made” in the sense that we have proposed them and ultimately agreed on them. Which doesn’t mean that those among us who don’t accept this agreement – for whatever philosophical or selfish reasons – are allowed to ignore and violate rights. They should still respect them because there are good reasons why they should respect them. (Rights are part of a “justified morality“). This is a strange double nature of rights: they are both objects of agreement and beyond agreement. Strange, but not much different from any other philosophical or scientific proposition that has been found to possess good reasons for its truth, such as the proposition that free markets are often beneficial. (“Truth” not in any absolute sense, of course; future argumentation can undermine reasons that we now believe are sound, or can unearth reasons for other, conflicting propositions). The double nature of rights as things subject to agreement and yet also above agreement is apparent from the fact that rights are both legal and moral. Legal rights are – or better should be – strictly contractual, whereas moral rights of course exist independently of agreement.

Is Morality Becoming Harder?

In order to get this post off the ground, let’s assume the following: on the level of general principles, what it is to be moral hasn’t changed a lot over the ages. Help the poor, care for your children, avoid doing harm etc. Being a moral person, however, may have become a lot harder, especially during the last few decades. Harder not necessarily in the sense of the dictates of morality having grown more numerous or more demanding – although they may have (new technologies for example may create new moral rules, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) – but in a negative sense: has it become harder to ignore the dictates of morality?

I think it has. It’s now easier than ever to help the poor: there are websites that tell you which charity is most trustworthy and effective; you can wire money with your phone in less than a minute; information propagation technologies tell us where people suffer the most harm at this very moment, and who’s there to help; evildoers are named and ranked; and so on. This means that the usual excuses for inaction in the face of suffering and harm have lost a lot of their pertinence. How do I know that I’ll be doing something effective rather than wasteful? There are so many evils in the world – how do I select the ones that deserve my moral action? Why do people closer by and more able to help not step up first? Even the dodge that sufferers of harm somehow must have deserved what is coming to them is being undercut by neuroscience and social psychology. For example, it has been shown that adversity at a very young age can have an impact on the brain causing self-destructive behavior in adulthood.

So, the combination of science and technology seems to force us towards morality – to the extent of course that we can agree on what it is to be moral, but I assume here that in general we can. However, if people are being forced towards morality, then shouldn’t we fear a backlash? We don’t like to be forced. If it’s harder to ignore morality, morality may become harder. Harder on us, I mean. Maybe we won’t like to live without our usual dodges.

The Ethics of Human Rights (95): Rights Between “Is” And “Ought”

Human rights inhabit the space between humanity as it is and the kind of humanity we can and should be. First in people’s minds when thinking about rights is of course what an awful lot we are. We’re evil, frail, vulnerable and insignificant, and human rights try to do something about that: they counter our frailty when it’s overwhelmed by our tendency to cause harm. (Although they also protect us against the forces of nature, an often neglected or misunderstood aspect of human rights. It’s not just other people who can violate our rights).

Human rights serve to avoid the terrible, but they also aim to achieve the best. They take humanity as it is and try to reduce the pain and oppression we inflict on each other, but they also promise a better humanity, and not just better in the sense of less harmful. They promise to improve our thinking, to allow us to govern ourselves more justly and efficiently etc.

It’s important to stress this middle position of all thinking about human rights. Too much focus on one side of the is-ought divide inevitably results in distortions. Only considering human beings as they are will  lead you to underestimate the power of rights. You’ll see evil as a permanent feature of history and you’ll tend to underestimate the power of moral uplift. Why do we need rights when people are as they are, and as they’ve always been? An exaggerated focus on people as they can and should be will likewise lead to a deflation of the power of rights, because you’ll tend to overestimate people’s ability to better themselves without the need for rights, and you’ll tend to envision a future in which rights will no longer be necessary. I doubt that there will ever be such a future.

More here.

Human Rights FTW

human rights ngram

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Marx and the Arrows of Determination

How do the different parts of the substructure and superstructure determine each other according to Marx?

Marx is usually understood as arguing that the substructure (the material world) determines the superstructure. But that’s only part of his argument. The creation and propagation of ideology is an important activity of the ruling class. The members of this class usually do not work but appropriate the fruits of the labor of other classes, and hence they have the necessary leisure time to engage in intellectual “work” and to construct and promote ideologies that they can use to serve their interests, consciously or unconsciously. Those with material power also have intellectual power. They can influence what others think, and they will be most successful if they themselves believe the ideologies that they want to force on others.

This clearly shows that the substructure does not only determine the legal and political parts of the superstructure, but thinking as well. The prevailing ideas are the ideas of the prevailing class.

[T]he class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. K. Marx, The German Ideology

But there is a kind of feedback action at work here. The substructure determines ideas, but these ideas in turn help to maintain a particular economic substructure. Not everything goes up from the material to the intellectual. Something comes down as well, but only after it went up first.

This can be expressed in the left half of the following drawing:


In this drawing, an arrow means “determination”. All ideas, not only political and legal ones, are both the expression (arrow 2) and the safeguard (arrow 3) of the economic structure of society. (The bottom-left half, arrow 1, represents the previously mentioned relationship between means of production and relations of production).

But there is also a right half in this drawing: the fact that ideas, in a kind of feedback mode, help to determine a particular economic structure, does not always have to be negative or aimed at the status quo. The poor, when they shed their false consciousness imposed by ideology, become conscious of their real situation, and this consciousness will help to start the revolution which will modify class relations and hence the substructure. This is represented by arrow 6.

Ideally, arrow 6 would have to pass through the box containing “politics” since the revolutionary proletariat will take over the state when attempting to modify the relations of production.

However, this awakening is bound to certain material preconditions, in particular the presence of certain very specific forces of production, namely large-scale industrial production with mass labor (arrow 4) and the strain imposed by existing class relations (arrow 5). It cannot, therefore, take place in every setting. Ultimately, all consciousness, real and false, is determined by the substructure. The order of determinations is fixed and follows the numerical order in the drawing.

More about Marx here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (94): Spheres of Life

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 8.58.35 AM

I was never happy with some of the traditional distinctions in political theory such as state-church, state-society, etc. (The same is true for some traditional equations such as public and state). Don’t get me wrong, I think these two distinctions in particular are very important, but they tend to become simplistic in political discussions.

That is why I would like to propose a new model, which contains the distinctions, but also makes the different spheres overlap. Moreover, it includes an important distinction which is seldom made but very useful when discussing the problem of religious politics in a society which at the same time values religion in politics AND wants to hold on to the separation of church and state: namely the distinction between politics and the state. This distinction also makes it possible to accept a high level of citizen engagement in politics (direct democracy for instance) without abandoning the important distinction between state and society (some argue that direct democracy leads to a blurring of this distinction, and hence leads to an infiltration of the state in society, with totalitarianism as a result).

My model is stylized as a figure composed of squares and numbers. The squares represent the spheres of human life. I identify 7 overlapping or encompassing spheres: private and public life, personal and family life, social life, political life, and the state.

The numbers in the figure represent types of human activities: feelings, thoughts, judgments, relationships and actions.

The model is prescriptive, not descriptive: it pretends to describe an ideal situation, not actual human life. I understand that reality is too complicated to be forced into a simple drawing, but simplifications are often useful.

The gray area in the figure represents the scope of legitimate legislation, again ideally speaking. The whole of the state’s activity should be legislated. No state activity should take place outside of the law. This is the concept of the rule of law. All other parts of life can be partially regulated by law, apart from the purely personal, the activities which do not regard other people and which can never inflict harm on other people (for example thoughts, convictions, suicide, euthanasia etc.). This is John Stuart Mill ‘s Harm Principle.

Some examples of the different types of human activity, linked to the numbers in the figure above:

  1. Feelings of loneliness
  2. Marital infidelity or adultery (in some countries, the grey area would extend to this); Raising children in the family, but not the task of educating children, because education is that part of raising children, which is a public activity (education is the transmission of public knowledge) and is part of number 8
  3. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions about family life, for example the division of labor in the family (some feminists or egalitarians demand government intervention and regulation in order to establish a more equal division, and according to them the grey area should extend to this)
  4. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions unrelated to family life, for example convictions about the permissibility of suicide
  5. Gardening
  6. Child abuse
  7. Violence within the family, caused by patriarchy
  8. A sports club
  9. A cultural society, a church, certain political convictions
  10. A school (the government has a right and a duty to regulate education to some extent, hence it is in the grey area)
  11. Political participation outside government institutions, for example electing representatives, voting in a referendum, membership of and activity in a political party, participation in political demonstrations, in pressure groups, in lobbying etc.
  12. Political participation within government institutions, for example participation in local government meetings, in a jury, being an elected representative in parliament
  13. Espionage. Espionage is obviously not a public activity, but it is nevertheless part of public life, because in a democracy, espionage must become public, after the fact. It is a secret activity, not because it should never be known to the public, but because it involves acts that require secrecy, in order to be successful and effective. However, this requirement loses its force a certain time after the performance of the acts, which is why these secret acts can become public after a while.
  14. Administration, government bureaucracy

The Ethics of Human Rights (93): Rights or Duties?

This is a telling result from Google’s Ngram viewer:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 8.48.51 AM

It seems that once upon a time people believed that duties were more important than rights (or, which we assume is the same thing, people wrote more about duties than about rights). This time ended somewhere in the late 1800s. Some would call this the era of morality. The era that followed it would then be the era of “ME”, of individualism, of people’s nascent and by now “overwhelming” urge to claim things for themselves, and to claim them from others, from society and from the state. There is indeed a venerable school of thought that sees rights as amoral or even immoral and as the favorite tool of modern individualists and egoists.

Somewhat surprisingly, one origin of this idea is Marx. Nowadays, however, it’s associated more with conservatism and with so-called collectivist and harmonious “Asian” societies (with or without a history of communism). Or maybe it’s just associated with the self-appointed representatives of those societies, namely the often authoritarian leaders there. Not surprisingly, those leaders are the first beneficiaries of harmony and of a widespread sense of duty.

None of this should be understood as a rejection of the notion of duty. Far from it. One person’s rights are another person’s duties. (See also here). In a sense it is indeed regrettable that duties are apparently going out of fashion.

Human Rights Promotion (24): Forcing People To Be Free

In the case of a people or a nation whose rights are violated and who complain about it, it seems pretty obvious that certain types of foreign intervention aimed at helping them is morally acceptable and maybe even necessary, at least as long as the means we use are also morally acceptable (as long as we don’t cause more problems than we solve, for instance). A much tougher question: can we, irrespective of the risks inherent in any type of foreign intervention, promote human rights abroad if the people in the target country do not want their human rights protected?

It’s evidently paradoxical and self-contradictory to force someone to be free. Rights imply freedom and respect for the choices and the consent of people. That’s what they’re for. Hence imposing them is futile. And yet, freedom isn’t always the result of people’s free choice. Just as peace isn’t always restored with peaceful means. So maybe there are good reasons to force rights on unwilling recipients, but before exploring those reasons I should make it clear that the imposition of rights on unwilling recipients should be the exception. Consent is important. People have a right to reject their rights and outsiders are normally not allowed to impose rights in an authoritarian way.

This general rule is, however, general rather than absolute. I can see at least four reasons why we can sometimes deviate from it.

First, it’s obviously incorrect to reduce rights to a matter of choice, to something that can be chosen or rejected. In a sense, rights are prior to choice: it’s only when people have their rights that they can make an informed choice. That is true for all types of choice, including the choice to reject rights: only after free discussion about the pros and cons of rights can those rights be reasonably rejected. While it’s not impossible that people who have rights may decide to forgo them after such a discussion, I think it’s unlikely. The more common occurrence is opposition from people who have never had rights and have therefore never had the opportunity to make an informed choice about rights. It’s likely that unfamiliarity, the force of habit or tradition, fear, indoctrination or a combination of those plays a part in their rejection. While those social, political or psychological processes are not in themselves sufficient to override people’s choices, they do make those choices suspect. The least one can say is that those choices are not sufficiently informed. And if the status of people’s choices is lowered, then the relative status of intervention is raised (given of course the assumption that intervention doesn’t harm other moral rules besides the requirement of consent).

A second problem: even if we assume that people who have never had the benefits of human rights are able to make an informed choice against human rights, then it’s still the case that those people act in a way that is self-contradicting (not less so than the enforcers of freedom). Rights make choice possible, and rejecting rights therefore means choosing not to choose. Or, better, it’s choosing a system in which it’s hard if not impossible to choose. One can of course do that, but if you’re really opposed to choice, then why exercise a choice in the matter? It’s like a decision not to decide, which is a kind of decision but a pointless one. Making indecision more obvious by loudly proclaiming that you’re deciding not to decide doesn’t add any value to your indecision.

So a nation that chooses against rights contradicts itself and is at odds with its own opinions. By making a choice against rights, this nation acts in a way that is coherent with rights.

And yet, even if we suspect that an expression of lack of consent is insufficiently informed and self-contradictory, we may still want to hold on to the rule that we should avoid intervention because of this expression of a lack of consent. Maybe we should err on the side of consent. But then we face a third problem: how do we determine that this expression truly reflects popular opinion within a nation? Is it the nation that rejects rights, or some vocal and self-interested individuals wrongly presenting themselves as representatives? The members of this nation need rights in order to express their opposition to rights. When they do in effect have these rights, then we’re back at problem #1. But when they don’t, there’s no way to know that a statement “coming from the people” does in fact express widespread popular opinion rather than the voice of a privileged minority that may benefit from rights violations.

A fourth problem: even if there is a way of determining popular opinion in a nation that doesn’t have rights, we are still faced with the predicament of oppressed minorities. This can also justify intervention. Even the views of the majority in such a nation – whether informed or not – should not always trump intervention. In general, however, the rule against intervention in a non-consenting nation is a good one. In the words of J.S. Mill:

[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways … So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people. (source)

Indeed, a lot depends on the specific type of intervention, on the means of intervention. Talking to people and trying to persuade them can also be seen as a form of intervention, but it’s not at all coercive. Other means are more coercive and will therefore violate the rule to respect consent. Which doesn’t mean those means are always forbidden. We may question the value of some expressions of non-consent, as I did above.

There is, however, an error in Mill’s argument, as he pointed out himself. The reason why we do not meddle with the free choice of someone else, is precisely his or her freedom. By choosing to submit to a tyrant, this person alienates his or her freedom. One free choice makes all other free choices impossible.

He therefore defeats … the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself … The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom. (source)

Which is a better way of stating problem #2 above.

Still, if we want to override the general rule that we can only intervene with the consent of the people and that we shouldn’t impose human rights on a presumably unwilling nation, then we should have strong indications that an expression of opposition is manipulated, unrepresentative or grossly misinformed, or that there is a strong undercurrent of unexpressed consent to intervention. And, of course, we should only intervene in ways that don’t violate other moral rules unrelated to the requirement of consent. For example, if we have indications that opposition to intervention is only a matter of national pride, habit, ignorance or a lack of knowledge of the possible alternatives, then intervention aimed at convincing people, showing alternatives etc. can be sufficient. Habit can make many things acceptable. Even more so, it creates a feeling of tradition and when something belongs to a tradition, it also belongs to an identity. And who wants to lose his identity? It can be more frustrating to lose your identity than to suffer rights violations.

By the way, a lot of what I say about consent may be true of consent in general, not just consent to international intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (92): Rights & the Primacy of the Right Over the Good

There’s a longstanding dispute in moral philosophy about the relationship between the right and the good. One can think about ethical matters in two ways: certain actions or types of character are required or recommended

  • either because they achieve some good (defined as a benefit, a valuable goal or an interest)
  • or because they are the right thing to do or the right way to be.

Examples of the good are wellbeing and happiness. An example of the right is promise keeping. What isn’t good may be bad, “suboptimal” or “Pareto inefficient”; and what isn’t right may be wrong or “improper”.

There’s a sense in which the right is obligatory whereas the good is merely desirable. But there may be degrees to this, and an area of overlap. Motivation as well is closer to the right than to the good. One can imagine the good being done without a single person being motivated to do it. In order to do the right thing, however, it’s almost inevitable that one must be motivated to do it. Doing the right thing accidentally or for the wrong reason isn’t a moral act. On the other hand, selfishly increasing your profit and thereby adding to net social wellbeing – through some form of invisible hand or trickle down mechanism – can be morally good.

A focus on the good is more outcome oriented and results in proposals of means deemed necessary in order to achieve valuable goals. A focus of the right is about rules and laws and produces duties and virtues. You can recognize the split between consequentialism and deontology here. This split is present within virtue ethics as well (a goodness virtue would be beneficence, while a rightness virtue would be obedience to the correct rules).

Although the notion of “right” encompasses more than only “rights”, it’s true that rights in general and human rights in particular can be said to be part of the right (other parts are the duty to tell the truth, the duty to show respect etc.). Human rights are not, at first sight, about the good; on the contrary, they trump some considerations of the good. This has been called the primacy of the right. The right constrains the pursuit of the good.

For instance, a utilitarian calculus of the highest good for the highest number of people – whatever the merits of such a calculus in general – should stop being acceptable when it requires a violation of the rights of some. In the classic example: you simply can’t kill one healthy person in order to harvest her organs for the good of 5 terminally ill patients in need of a transplant, even though doing so would achieve the highest good for the highest number of people.

Another way in which rights trump the good: rights are designed in such a way that they create a society in which people are allowed to form and pursue different conceptions of the good life without discrimination or persecution. One can reasonably assume that people have and always will have different conceptions of the good and that they should have the right to freely develop and pursue these conceptions without negative repercussions. Because rights are prior to the good in this sense – they make the creation and pursuit of visions of the good possible – they are also predominant. If the good were to be able to trump the right, we would undermine the good because one conception of the good would then be allowed to override or even destroy other conceptions. That is the inevitable result of allowing rights to be overridden. Only in a world in which we have access to the truth about the good would this be acceptable. But we don’t live in such a world. Hence we need limits on theories of the good (such as the limits on those forms of utilitarianism that allow forced organ transplants; you can come up with more realistic examples yourself).

This is the standard view of the relationship between the right/rights and the good. Even most utilitarians accept this now. I’m not arguing that this view is wrong, merely that it’s incomplete. In one important sense, the good comes before the right. We have rights because we have values that need those rights for their realization. Rights are intended to maximize the good. Of course it’s a minimal kind of good that we’re dealing with here. And because it’s minimal it can be universal. Rights promote values such as peace, prosperity, thinking etc., which – discounting for a negligible degree of dissent – are universally acceptable. Disagreements arise about the specific ways in which rights do or don’t promote these values, about the possibility that some other means are better suited for the goal, or about conflicts between goals and between means. The goals themselves are unquestioned, and one can make a good case that human rights are, in general at least, the best means we have to achieve those goals.

It’s very hard to justify human rights without recourse to prior values. Rights aren’t good in themselves. This priority of the good comes to the fore in discussions about the extent of rights or conflicts between rights. Such conflicts need to be decided on the basis of which conflicting right does most good to the values that are served by rights.

Does my point of view imply that there is a harmony or – as Rawls would say – “congruence” of the right and the good? That they are the same thing or part of a coherent whole? I don’t think so. There will still be things that are right but not good, and vice versa.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (52): Remote Border Controls, Or How to Deal With Poor People On the Move

Many of the poorest people in the world are determined to seek a better life in wealthy countries. The governments and large swats of the populations of those countries react with increasing despair to this stubborn fact, even though the numbers of immigrants aren’t really much higher than they used to be. It’s also not the case that current immigrants create more problems than their predecessors. (On the contrary, welfare consumption, crime rates etc. are lower among immigrants than among natives, and there’s a lot of evidence that natives benefit from immigration).

But then what is causing this despair? I guess it’s got something to do with the perceived failure of Western governments to deal with the “immigration problem”. Whether or not it’s true that there are too many immigrants causing too many problems, many Westerners think it’s true and are dismayed by their governments’ reaction to this supposed fact: people are upset with ineffective policing of the borders (to the extent that some of them have set up private militias to deal with illegal border crossings); they’re upset with the failure of government agencies to send back “illegals” present on the territory; they want but often don’t get harsher immigration laws; they sometimes get but don’t want amnesty etc.

These governments, being democratic, feel the need to respond to popular discontent – even though the actual popularity of the discontent can be questioned. How do they respond? The first thing they do is step up their existing efforts: tightened border security (including walls if necessary), less generous visa and asylum rules etc. Unsurprisingly, this is often unsuccessful if success is defined as a large reduction in the number of illegal – and sometimes also legal – immigrants. Poor people are very determined folks and often find a way around restrictions.

Hence, there’s now a second line of response. Since a few decades now, Western governments have been trying to “externalize” or “extraterritorialize” their immigration restrictions. They also call this policy, somewhat euphemistically, “upstream” or “remote” border control. Western governments have de facto extended their borders. A first step in this second line of response has been the policy of intercepting people on the high sea, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the states that are the supposed destinations of the people who are intercepted. For example, the US has used force against Haitian refugees outside its territorial waters. And of course this is now the common European practice in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US, Europe but also Australia are moving their border enforcement efforts beyond their national borders into the high sea. But that’s only a first step in the extraterritorialization of immigration control. Immigration restrictions are now being implemented in the territories of countries wherefrom migrants try to reach the West.The policy is to have agreements with the countries of origin and important transit countries. These countries agree to control people departing from or transiting through their territories.

The word “control” can mean different things here: for example police patrols carried out in cooperation with the authorities of Western countries; no-go buffer-zones if the origin or transit countries share a border with the destination countries; destination countries funding detention facilities abroad etc. Cooperation agreements like these aren’t always mutually voluntary. In some cases, Western countries make development funding, visa-allotment and other goodies conditional upon acceptance of said agreements.

Here’s a visual representation of the increasing importance of remote border controls.

This is the outsourcing of immigration control, and I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of it. In truly Orwellian style, Western governments use the supposed wellbeing of (potential) migrants as a justification of remote border controls. Better to stop them before they depart for the West than to allow them to put themselves at risk during an often dangerous journey. Better also to stop them than to send them back on the same dangerous journey. As if it’s not the immigration restrictions that make the journey dangerous and that force a good deal of successful immigrants to make the same journey back.

If you believe that immigration restrictions are morally acceptable, then I guess remote borders controls are OK. This type of immigration restriction isn’t necessarily more harmful to potential migrant than more traditional restrictions at the border or in the territory of destination countries. It can indeed be less harmful, sparing a lot of people a lot of trouble and risk. But my point is of course that immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable. If I’m correct, then more restrictions mean more immorality. Why do I think immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable? Because I believe there are good reasons based on human rights to allow people to move across borders, even people who want to move for purely “economic” reasons (meaning that they want to move in order to escape starvation and crippling poverty). I’ve set out these reasons here and won’t repeat them now.

I do realize that I’m occupying a minority position here. Much less controversial is the right of refugees and asylum seekers to move across borders. The Refugee Convention is very clear about the rights of people migrating in order to escape persecution. One of these rights is non-refoulement. This is a principle of international law that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.

Article 33 of the Convention states:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if you think it’s OK to have remote border controls for economic migrants, the same controls will unavoidably trap some refugees in the countries that want to kill or imprison them. It’s only abroad that they can get a fair hearing of their asylum claims, but this is made impossible by remote border controls. So let’s get rid of it, and not only for the sake of refugees.

More posts in this series here.

Beyond the Hand-Wavy Version of the Rule of Law

The rule of law, as opposed to the rule of men, is believed to be the best way to avoid oppression and rights violations, and rightly so. However, the rule of law, in a superficial definition of the concept, can be just as bad as lawless oppression, because a law can allow or even force people to violate rights and to harm people in such a way that they are no longer free. Governments can and often do use laws for the purpose of domination.

So, the rule of law may be no more than a cover for and an expression of the rule of man over man. Many a dictatorship tries to give the impression of respecting the rule of law by functioning according to laws and by using laws to oppress people. In fact, this isn’t completely foreign to democracies either. Think of anti-terrorism legislation and other oppressive laws that often have wide popular support (anti-same-sex marriage laws). Respect for the law is clearly not enough. The rule of law must be something more than that if it’s not to be an empty phrase.

But what should it be then? To start with, the rule of law can’t exist without a separation of powers. That seems to be a prerequisite. Laws need to be enforced against those who abuse power, and for this reason we need a locus within power strong enough to correct power.  But a separation of powers – no matter how well it functions – it’s not enough either. If there is no higher law that protects human rights, then judicial courts can’t invalidate oppressive laws or laws that violate human rights.

There is only one solution to this problem. The rule of law has to be more than a merely formal or procedural concept. Some requirements on the level of the content of the laws that are supposed to rule are necessary. We have to define the words “law” and “rule of law” in a very specific way and enforce respect for this definition by way of judicial verdicts, otherwise the rule of law will be no more than the rule of men disguised as the rule of law.

What should this definition be? Laws must be compatible with human rights – in the sense of neither allowing nor creating rights violations – and they must be equal for all. Certain more formal or procedural rules will indeed be helpful to increase the probability that we end up with laws like that, but they won’t be enough. It’s probably best, although not absolutely necessary, to have laws voted by the people or by representatives of the people (it’s unlikely that the people will accept laws that violate their rights). And laws must be reviewed by independent judges on the basis of the human rights contained in the constitution. A second legislative chamber confirming or, as the case may be, vetoing acts of legislation, may also be helpful. These are procedural rules instituting the separation of powers.

In a democracy, a law is voted by the representatives of the people and the people can always elect other legislators if they believe that their current legislators vote laws that harm their rights. This is not, of course, a solution for the minority. The majority can still vote or approve laws that oppress the minority. That is why a law must also be compatible with human rights as they are included in the constitution. The law, even if it is accepted or voted by the majority of the people, can’t be everything this majority may desire. In order to enforce the conformity between laws and the rights of the constitution, we need a separation of powers. Minorities should be able to use judicial review, and in addition could be given some kind of privileged representation in a second parliamentary chamber.

A system that enforces rules and prohibitions by way of laws, but lacks one or several of the requirements I’ve listed above, will have a hard time respecting the rule of law. The rule of law is not the rule of any law, but the rule of a certain type of law. Any other definition is devoid of meaning.

What is Freedom? (19): Social Freedom

If you ask people what freedom is, then they tend to go with the “ability to do what you want” definition. And it’s equally likely that they immediately add a qualifier: this ability should not be absolute but instead limited by the same freedom of others and by the things that can harm others.

Sounds very reasonable, until you dig a little deeper. Freedom understood like this only pretends to give our fellow human beings their due. Other people in fact become the border of my freedom and are therefore something negative. I can only protect my freedom or my ability to do as I like by avoiding other people as much as possible, by withdrawing from society and by becoming self-sufficient. Freedom is isolation. As long as there are other people around, my freedom is restricted by others; it’s restricted both by the rule that I should not harm other people’s freedom, and by other people’s lack of respect for the same rule with regard to me (since rules are never fully respected).

The more I avoid other people, the less restricted are my actions, and my freedom increases. If I avoid people, then no one stands in my way, no one interferes with my life, no one obstructs my actions or prevents me from doing something, and no one’s freedom limits my own freedom. It seems I can only do this when I leave the community because then my actions are no longer limited by other people’s actions or by other people’s freedom.

I’m not being original here. Marx already formulated this problem in On the Jewish Question 170 years ago:

The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. … [This kind of freedom] is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

Fellow man is merely a limitation or a restriction – the only legitimate restriction of my freedom – and not harming him is the only thing I do for him. This kind of freedom is not incompatible with positive relationships and cooperation, but it doesn’t help either. It’s extremely individualistic even if legitimate interests of others are taken into account. It’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with another understanding of freedom in which freedom requires the company of others and in which other people are the realization instead of the limitation of freedom.

What would such a conception of freedom look like? It would see other people as necessary conditions rather than restrictions, as the beginning rather than the end of freedom. Freedom would not retreat into a space – and inner space or a physical space away from others – in which we can escape the coercion and the rules of the outside world. I think it’s necessary to accept the reality that the world of appearances and of other people is of the utmost importance to freedom. Freedom is more than a withdrawal from the world, from the threatening world of other people who do not allow us to be free and whose freedom limits our actions, either voluntary as a consequence of their own actions, or involuntary as a consequence of our respect for their freedom.

But why is interaction with other people important for freedom? I need the company of other people in a formalized and structured public space protected by rights if I want to take my life in my hands, if I want to examine my opinions and preferences in order to be sure that what I want to do – with respect for other people’s freedom – is really what I want. “Really” means that what I want is something more than unreflective preference. I wish to be able to choose from a wide range of objectives, as many as possible, without discrimination, obstruction and punishment (with the exception of those objectives that impede the objectives of others), but that implies more than freedom from interference. I need to hear others defend certain objectives with the best arguments they can present in an inclusive and accessible place of debate protected by human rights. Without this public place, my ability to do what I want – with respect for the same ability of others – is an empty phrase. If I can do what I want without interference, but what I want is impossible for me to determine in a rational way on the basis of good arguments – or is perhaps even decided for me in some conscious or unconscious way – then I can’t do what I want.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (56): Protection Against the State, and Something More

In our current, non-anarchist world, human rights depend on the state for their protection. Judicial courts, the police force and political institutions such as the welfare state and democratic governance are requirements for rights realization. Perhaps in some future state of affairs that will no longer be the case, but presently it is. Which means that human rights are more than just protective tools directed against the power of the state. They are part of the state. Or better they should be. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” says the Declaration of Independence of 1776. The state should protect its citizens against its own abuses of power (and of course also against the exercise of illegitimate power by fellow citizens, but that’s a topic for another time).

Many if not most violations of human rights are caused by state actions, even when the state in question is relatively benevolent. Power corrupts, and that is why we need rights to limit power. However, without power, rights are useless. Human rights limit the actions of the state, determine what a state is not allowed to do or should refrain from doing, and define those areas where the state is not allowed to interfere. But human rights also, and positively, determine what the state should do. They demand positive action and interference from the state.

For example: the state should not only avoid torturing its citizens, it should also actively protect and help those citizens who are tortured, most commonly by some part of the state but perhaps also by fellow citizens. This means that abstention and forbearance on the part of the state, no matter how important, are not enough. The state also has a duty to act in order to protect rights. And if human rights require that the state abstains, then the state should be actively engaged in enforcing its own abstention. (Needless to say that this implies a separation of powers).

This active engagement can even go one step further. Human rights sometimes require more than actively enforced abstention. What is true for torture is also true for economic rights: the state should not only avoid creating or maintaining poverty but also try to create a minimum amount of prosperity for all. A right not to suffer poverty is an example of a right that requires the obtention of something (although it can also require abstention as in the case of Mao’s Great Leap Forward). Here we’re dealing with so-called positive rights as opposed to negative rights. (In French they call it ”le droit à l’obtention et à l’exigence” as opposed to “le droit à la résistance et à la défense”).Whether you like it or not, the state is often one of the parties that should assist people in obtaining what they have a right to, at least on the condition that there’s no other, less invasive means of obtention.

But let’s not put too much emphasis on this distinction between abstention and obtention, or between negative and positive rights. Every human right, including those rights that seem to demand only the absence of state action, require state action, for example action in the form of a judgement of a court of justice concerning an illegal state action, and the police measures enforcing this kind of judgement. The state should commit, as well as omit; prevent, provide, protect and engender, as well as forbear; and it’s not at all obvious that particular types of human rights systematically need more of one or the other type of state conduct.

Something merely negative, such as abstention, forbearance or a limited state, can never constitute a state, as Hannah Arendt has rightly stressed in “On Revolution”. There is a reason for having a state.

Human rights, particularly in the early stages of their historical development, were considered as primarily directed against the state. This was also the main cause of their initial success. The theory of anti-state rights was inherent in the idea of human rights as natural rights. Natural rights, as opposed to legal rights, are not given by the state and can be used by citizens as an instrument of defense against the state.

However, none of this should make us forget that there is something inherently positive in the state and that rights can’t be entirely “natural”, whatever that means, at least not if we want them to be real and enforceable. As things are in our day and age, it’s often the state and its legal rights that protect us against violations of our human rights, at least ideally and more commonly when the state is a democracy. It does this, not only by passively abstaining, but also by actively doing something.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (55): Universal, Not Uniform

Universality doesn’t equal uniformity. If we insist on uniformity, then we will probably not achieve universality. We will convince more people of the desirability of human rights if we take local circumstances into consideration than if we simply copy things coming from the outside. And that’s not just a tactical surrender: we don’t need uniformity.

Regional differences are possible both at the level of the laws that protect human rights, and at the level of the ways in which these laws are applied, and all this without impairing the universality of human rights. We can frame laws in a flexible way and we can apply them in a flexible way.


Laws are necessary (although not sufficient) for the effective protection of human rights. However, it’s obviously impossible and undesirable to have the same laws in all countries, even the same basic laws. We have to translate the general, morality based language of treaties and declarations into specific and operable legal wordings, and those can differ from country to country, as well as from period to period. Effective laws and rights can’t be formulated in a globally uniform way or in a way that does not take the concrete circumstances in which they have to function into consideration. As these circumstances differ from country to country, the laws have to be different as well. Laws have to correspond to specific needs. A certain social or political context can make it necessary to focus attention on one particular right, on one particular group of rights or on one particular aspect of a right.

A “Bill of Rights” is always a “Bill of Wrongs”. Rights begin with the experience of an injustice. According to the nature of the injustices or “wrongs” in a particular society, some rights have to be especially accentuated or elaborated. Sometimes, elements of rights have to be specified in one country but not another because the problem in question is present only in one country. For example, we can imagine that in post-Soviet Russia, for example, there is a need for a right establishing the freedom to criticize the works of Marx and Engels, or a need for a particular emphasis on the right to private property of the means of economic production. In the constitutions of other countries there may be no need for such an emphasis because the things one wants to protect are never threatened.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that circumstances or “cultures” should be given priority over rights. It only means that the need for certain rights or for certain emphases can be different in different cultures or countries. Human rights have to be integrated in concrete legal systems and concrete societies, each with their own history and their own problems, but this contextuality does not imply ethical relativism or “anything goes”.

Insisting on global uniformity also means disregarding the fact that rights evolve. The body of rights as it exists now is not fixed for all times. New rights or new and wider definitions of existing rights can be established when new wrongs are identified, for example as a consequence of technological or scientific developments (think of the internet, which may require a new right to internet access). It can also happen that we need new rights because we have only now become aware of certain wrongs that have existed for ages, but have been neglected. This was the case for women’s rights, although some of those rights – such as universal suffrage – are a different emphasis rather than an innovation.

Similarly, we may one day have to eliminate rights that become superfluous. Maybe food shortages can become a thing of the past, given the right technology and political will. If so, then the right to food will sound as strange as the right to air does today (although the same future may remove the strangeness of the latter).


Not only the legal formulation of rights should allow flexibility; the same is true for the ways in which given formulations are applied by judges. In order to take into account certain specific needs, laws can be applied in a flexible or different way according to the context. Most human rights are not absolute. They can be limited when limits are required in order to protect other rights or the rights of others. Someone’s right to property, for example, can be limited if this is necessary to realize the economic rights of other people. We have a right to property but not at the expense of the rights of people who do not have enough property to survive. Rights can contradict each other or can be used or misused to harm people, and when this happens, priority has to be given to one right or another, or to the rights of one person or another. The protection of one right may require limits on other rights.

This does not contradict the claim that rights are interdependent. In many cases, rights are dependent on other rights. In other cases, rights require limits on other rights.

How do judges decide which right has priority? Normally this is the right that in the given circumstances best protects the different goals and values of rights. Take for example the conflict between the right to freedom of expression of a journalist and the right to privacy of a public figure. What value is served by the publication of the sexual habits of a politician? None, I believe, except, of course, when these habits influence his or her public role. Normally, the right to privacy should prevail in such a case. A publication describing the sexual habits of someone does not contribute to any of the values that rights are supposed to serve, such as prosperity, peace etc. On the other hand, the right to privacy of the politician obviously does contribute.

The flexibility of human rights is expressed in the way in which these rights are limited. A country with a serious problem of violence, crime or terrorism needs a strong police force. Certain rights will then have to give way to the so-called integrity rights (life, physical integrity, security etc.) and will have to give way to a larger extent than in other states. States that face a persistent and widespread problem of racism can be forced to impose more severe limits on the freedom rights of some, in order to protect the equality of others. Maybe Germany does have to be less forgiving towards neo-Nazis and their right to speech and to associate – maybe it even needs a law against them.

It’s true that circumstances can be used as an excuse to violate rights. But that’s not an argument in favor of uniformity.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (54): The Scope and Coverage of Rights, As Exemplified by Free Speech

It’s important to know what exactly is covered by a certain human right, otherwise we can’t be sure that we have a right to do what we do and we can’t properly protect others against violations of their rights. Maybe we think that a right protects a certain thing that we do but in reality this thing is outside the scope of the right. Or maybe we want to protect other people engaging in an activity but none of their rights covers this activity.

So you see the importance of the question of coverage or scope. Having a right means knowing how far this right goes. Answering this question requires an answer to at least three further questions:

  1. Who’s protected by a right? And whose activities are restricted by it?
  2. What types of actions are protected by a right, and to what extent? Where is the line between protected actions and legitimate restrictions on actions?
  3. Which obligations does a right impose on whom?

Let’s try to answer these questions by way of the example of the right to free speech.

1. Who’s protected by the right to free speech? And whose activities are restricted by it?

1.1. Who’s protected?

Both speakers and audiences are protected. A cursory look at the language – “a right to free speech” – would lead us to assume that only speakers are protected, but that’s wrong: the right to free speech includes the right of audiences to receive the free speech of others. The interests of both speakers and audiences are protected by the right to free speech. This is evident when one takes a closer look at the exact formulation of this right in legal texts.

One reason for this is a purely logical one: speech without an audience doesn’t make sense. Another, more substantive reason why the right to free speech also protects the interests of audiences has to do with the role this right plays in the search for truth. In a nutshell: audiences are necessary for the refinement of arguments. Read the post I just linked to for the full story.

Other groups that can legitimately claim protection of their speech are

  • foreigners: there’s no good reason to assume that foreigners residing within a country’s jurisdiction should not enjoy the same speech rights as citizens (the same isn’t necessarily the case for all human rights)
  • future generations: current generations shouldn’t act in ways that restrict the freedom of speech of future generations
  • companies, etc.

1.2. Whose activities are restricted?

A list of protected actors only tells us a tiny bit about how far a right goes. Defining the agents or institutions whose actions are bound by the right is equally important. Traditionally, it’s assumed that the right to free speech – like all other rights – limits the power of governments. Of course it does, but it also does a lot more. If it would only restrict a government’s power to prohibit and sanction forms of speech, then the scope of the right to free speech would be rather limited because private persons would be at liberty to restrict it as they see fit. Theoretically, although not always legally, the right also restricts private individuals, companies, churches etc. None of those agents or institutions has a right to prohibit people from exercising their right to free speech.

2. What types of actions are protected by the right to free speech, and to what extent? And which are legitimate restrictions on actions?

The scope of a right depends on decisions about who is allowed to claim it and about who is bound by this claim, but it also depends on the types of actions it protects or fails to protect. In our example, we have to define “speech”. On the one hand, it can’t just be the spoken or written word since we express ourselves in ways that don’t involve speaking or writing. Audiences also want to receive information in forms different from ordinary language. For example art, data and speech acts such as flag burning should also be covered by the right to free speech.

On the other hand, not all forms of expression or information gathering should be covered, because then everything would be covered and legislation would be impossible: every act including murder can be conceived as an expressive act, and people can find information anywhere. Not all expressive acts or information gathering can or should be legally protected. Hence, one has to draw a line somewhere.

The exact location of the line, and hence the exact scope of the right to free speech, varies from case to case and depends on the impact of language and speech acts on other rights and the rights of others. For example, if hate speech violates other people’s rights (such as their freedom of residence or movement), then this form of speech falls outside the scope of freedom of speech. Mere derogatory speech on the other hand may not result in rights violations and then falls within the scope. Speech acts such as cross burning may also, depending on their impact on the rights of others, fall either within or outside the scope (cross burning during a private party is different from burning a cross in the front lawn of a lone black family living in a racist neighborhood).

Another way of putting this is that the scope of one right is determined by the scope of other rights, or that the scope of the rights of some is determined by the scope of the rights of others. Both scopes need to balanced against each other. This balancing is usually the business of judges and there’s no way to fix the outcome by way of strict rules. It all depends on a personal judgment by a judge about the harm done by including an action in the scope of a right compared to the harm done by excluding it. Hence, the scope of a right can never be completely fixed. We can never tell exactly how far a right goes.

The same logic holds for so-called place and space restrictions and fairness restrictions. A right to free speech doesn’t imply a right to free speech in any chosen space or place: not everyone as a right to publish in the New York Times or to speak in Congress; and you can’t insist that you have a right to speak in someone else’s house or private property, unless proper balancing has resulted in a judgment that in a specific case the right to private property should give way. (The latter may be the case when private restaurant and shop owners band together to discriminate black customers and when those customers stage protests). Place and space restrictions can be justified either by the necessity to respect the scope of other rights (property for instance) or by the fact that sufficient alternative speaking channels are available (the NYT isn’t the only newspaper).

Examples of fairness restrictions are the prohibition of the heckler’s veto and the fairness doctrine. In both examples, the right to free speech of some is restricted in order to guarantee the right to free speech of others (proper balancing is again required; methods of balancing are discussed here).

Obviously, the actual as opposed to the theoretical scope of the right to free speech isn’t just determined by legitimate restrictions. In real life, as opposed to ideal theory, governments and (groups of) individuals impose illegitimate restrictions. And other, more creeping restrictions such as chilling effects, psychological biases, self-censorship and political correctness, exist as well.

3. Which obligations are imposed on whom?

A final way of measuring the scope of the right to free speech is by having a look at the nature of the obligations it creates. More wide ranging obligations make for a wider scope, and limited obligations for a limited scope. And here as well we find a common misunderstanding. (A first misunderstanding was that the right only protects speakers; another was that it only limits the power of governments). It’s not true that the right to free speech only imposes a negative duty not to restrict speech. This negative duty is important but it’s also meaningless when it’s not accompanied by more positive duties. For example, a person’s speech may not be restricted by anyone and yet her lack of education, leisure time or other resources make it impossible for her to engage in meaningful speech. Hence, the government and others have certain duties to provide resources: education, internet access etc. And let’s not forget that a negative duty to refrain from speech restrictions requires a positive duty to provide mechanisms such as courts, a police force and other means to undo or prevent speech restrictions.

Similar arguments can be made for most other rights.

PS: here are some useful links that I’ve recovered from a previous post and that are relevant to the question at hand:

A related post on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

Actions are motivated by beliefs, at least to some extent. (I’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s safe to say that many actions are driven mainly by beliefs, beliefs both about the nature of facts and about how we should act – factual and moral beliefs in other words. Unsurprisingly therefore, many actions that result in rights violations are also caused by beliefs. Certain beliefs are harmful to human rights because they result in actions that violate those rights. I’ll focus here not on harmful beliefs that are self-interested – I find those rather boring – but rather on harmful moral beliefs: rights are often violated because of the view that other people should be forced to do what the coercers believe is the “right thing”. (FGM is an example that comes to mind.)

Beliefs about how we should act are often based on beliefs about “facts” (for example the supposedly detrimental facts that result from failure to perform FGM, such as female promiscuity and bad hygiene). “Facts”, in turn, are seen through a thick interpretative layer of beliefs about morality, which is why I use the scare quotes. For example, if you oppose homosexuality for moral reasons (because “it’s wrong”), then you may tend to see homosexuality as “unnatural”, and this view is often proposed as factual. 

One way to undermine harmful moral beliefs is to attack their factual basis. We can point out the real facts (for example, that the Koran does not require FGM, or that women’s sexual morality and health do not require it). Of course, people who are for some reason intimately attached to certain beliefs will “find” other “facts” to support them. In some cases, however, challenging people’s factual beliefs can make them reject their harmful moral beliefs. At least that’s my belief.

We can also attack harmful moral beliefs directly and try to persuade people to change those beliefs irrespective of their factual basis. For example, we can stress inconsistencies or logical fallacies in ethical beliefs. We can say to racist Christians that the teachings of their God include statements about human equality and rules about neighborly love. And the naturalistic fallacy is abundant (“homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural”; “we should not care about distant strangers because evolution has programmed us to take care of our own”, etc.). 

In short, there’s a whole lot we can say in order to undermine harmful moral beliefs and promote support and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, this will only work in some cases. Ask yourself how often you’ve modified your own moral beliefs. I myself can only come up with two examples: my views about criminal punishment and immigration. (To the extent that I’m quite ashamed of some of the older posts on this blog, to which I won’t link). When we do change our moral beliefs, it’s because we’ve become convinced that the facts on which we’ve based our moral beliefs aren’t what we thought they were (immigration isn’t harmful, capital punishment doesn’t deter, gay marriage doesn’t undermine traditional marriage etc.). When we change our moral beliefs, this is why we do it, not because we now see the moral truth of something (the truth of the rule that strangers have as many rights as we have, that criminal shouldn’t be treated as means to scare future criminals, that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine rights etc.).

So, the best means to change harmful moral beliefs is to attack the supposedly factual basis of those beliefs. However, as I’ve said, this won’t work every time or even a lot of the time, because we constantly try to marshal new facts as a basis of our moral beliefs when the old facts become discredited. If necessary we fabricate the facts. That we do this points towards a deeper problem. Maybe what really motivates us are primordial emotional reactions such as disgust, cleverly dressed up and rationalized by way of beliefs and “facts”.

There’s a great scene at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds about how we can’t justify our disgust of rats on the basis of facts that wouldn’t also justify disgust of pretty squirrels:

If indeed we’re not motivated by moral beliefs or facts, then no amount of moral reasoning or factual discussion can help us avoid rights violations resulting from post hoc rationalizations of our disgust. A more emotional kind of persuasion may be more promising. Telling people stories about the suffering of those who are seen as disgusting can conceivably remove their disgust and hence their need for harmful beliefs and biased selection or creation of “facts”. The chances of something like this succeeding have to be balanced against the “primordial” nature of a lot of our emotional reactions. “Primordial” in the sense of “very old” and “resulting from early human evolution”. That’s a steep climb. 

All this has implications for the legalistic approach to human rights promotion. To the extent that rights violations are actions that have a deep foundation in our emotions – and not all rights violations are like that – legislating them away won’t work. Other strategies have to be employed. 

There’s a good podcast about the same topic by the VeryBadWizards guys here. More about persuasion here and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Proponents of human rights are often cast as moral realists, and opponents as moral subjectivists. Let’s start with the latter. Opponents of universal human rights tend to be cultural relativists who believe that moral standards and values derive from – “are relative to” – different cultures. When those standards and values are incompatible with human rights, then human rights should give way. Giving priority to human rights would mean imposing the standards and values developed in and by one particular culture onto another. And that would be cultural imperialism and disrespect for human diversity.

My use of the word “developed” is intentional: it indicates that most relativists are also constructivists who argue that moral values are constructed and transmitted, rather than discovered. Not necessarily consciously constructed – more often unconsciously and without planning or intent. Relativists/constructivists argue that cultures refine throughout the ages what is best for them. It’s probably best to call this meta-ethical view a form of subjectivism in the sense that moral standards and values are

  1. rules of conduct specific to a particular subject – a culture in this case – rather than universal and objective, and
  2. subjective in the cognitive sense, meaning created by human subjects rather than a fact that can be discovered in the world.

I personally conform to the standard representation of a human rights proponent since I have my quarrels with cultural relativism as a form of moral subjectivism. I believe in universal rights that should override certain cultural norms. Human sacrifice for instance is wrong. Culturally sanctioned gender discrimination is wrong. And so on. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to reject moral subjectivism tout court and adopt moral realism. I don’t want to claim that statements such as “human sacrifice is wrong” are true in an objective sense, even though I have strong beliefs about such statements. Most moral realists do make that claim. Let’s have a closer look at moral realism and then try to loosen the link between moral realism and human rights theory.

Moral realism is a cognitivist and objectivist theory about morality: some ethical propositions are objectively true, independent of subjective opinion, like some propositions about the world are objectively true. And we can know and discover these objective moral truths. The implication is that true ethical propositions are true independently of culture. “Honesty is good” and “slavery is bad” are moral facts according to moral realists. If some – or all – cultures were to reject these facts and adopt contrary moral values, then that wouldn’t change the true nature of those moral facts. Morality is “out there”, but individuals or cultures can decide to ignore it. A moral realist who is also a rights proponent will say that human rights are true and that opponents of rights are simply mistaken about what is objectively right (or lying about what is right).

I don’t have a very strong conviction about the relative merits of different meta-ethical theories (it’s a tough problem), but I do have my suspicions. I tend to believe that moral realism is wrong. Maybe it’s not, in which case it would be perfectly OK to be both a proponent of human rights and a moral realist. Moral realism certainly isn’t incompatible with human rights. I want to argue against the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to be a moral realist in order to believe strongly in human rights. It’s not. And it’s good that it’s not because it may turn out that moral relativism is wrong, as I suspect.

I defend a position which we could call universalist intersubjectivism (and I’m terribly sorry for the ugly term; I’m sure it’s as catchy as everything else I write). Intersubjectivism means that morality is about opinions, but not about subjective opinions, unfounded opinions or opinions that evolve more or less unconsciously and automatically throughout the life of a culture or a nation. Moral opinions can be good or bad. They are good when they are tested in common deliberation and exchange of arguments between rational subjects – hence intersubjectivism. The goal is to come to some form of agreement – hence universalist intersubjectivism. Intersubjectivism is universal rather than relative, and it’s also a weak rather than a strong cognitivism: we can distinguish good from bad opinions because we have the test of the marketplace of ideas, but the good opinions will probably not ascend to the level of truths. Morality is not (only) the product of cultural development, traditions or evolutionary psychology, but also of reasoning and argumentation. Reasoning, however, that will – most likely – fall short of truth claims.

So I don’t believe in the realism of moral realism. There’s only intersubjective agreement about justified opinions, no objective moral truth. Moral claims such as human rights or the foundational values that require human rights for their realization (e.g. “peace is good”) are not objective moral truths or moral facts but justified opinions that have withstood the test of argumentation in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it doesn’t have to be true that individuals should be treated as moral agents with a right to think for themselves. All we need is that this view about individuals is reasonable, justified and able to survive deliberation and argumentation. It need not even be a very common view, since argumentation may not be close to what it can ideally be. The intersubjective agreement that we aim at is limited to what rational actors can decide to agree to in a setting that is favorable to argumentation. In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.

When that is the case, intersubjective agreement on the importance of human rights may be a minority point of view. I believe, however, that we can improve social argumentation and extend intersubjective agreement as long as we make the effort of designing and protecting the marketplace of ideas. And as long as we depart somewhat from the moral realist position. The moral realist who maintains that moral truths are “out there” waiting to be discovered, is unlikely to view argumentation as very important. Those, on the other hand, who claim that morality is about argued opinions that can withstand the test of controversy will be more favorable to fostering institutions for argumentation. Moral realists are also more likely to be dismissive of people with the “wrong” views, and dismissiveness has never convinced anyone.

More on the same topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

Let’s Get Rid of Wage Labor

I’m serious: make it illegal. But not before we have a universal basic income. A UBI will encourage self-employed or cooperative ventures freely chosen by those who engage in it. In the absence of a UBI, many of us have a job not because the activities associated with the job allow us to pursue our goals, but because the job comes with a salary and because this salary can buy the necessities of life. We then either pursue our goals during our leisure time, or convince ourselves that the goals of our jobs are somehow also our own goals (the burger-flipper telling himself that “making kids happy is all I want”).

A UBI has to cover the costs of the necessities of life: a decent place to live, sufficient food, clothing, basic healthcare (catastrophic healthcare costs would be paid for by a fund for which people are forced to buy insurance), transportation and some appliances, machines or utilities (a car, a washing machine, a fridge, a cell phone etc.). Because it covers the costs of necessities, a UBI liberates us to pursue the goals we set for our lives, goals which all too often get pushed aside by the urgencies of the daily struggle to survive, to have a decent house and to have some savings for when times get bad.

Would a UBI not be sufficient to allow people to pursue their goals? Why also prohibit wage labor? A UBI indeed loosens us from the system of wage labor – it provides a financial cushion that removes the risks inherent in abandoning a job and pursuing our “true destiny” – but it doesn’t go far enough. It gives us the freedom to turn down unattractive work but the pursuit of life’s goals often requires cooperation. Only the prohibition on wage labor makes cooperative ventures more common. A UBI by itself only pushes us towards more satisfying jobs and leaves some of the drawbacks of wage labor intact:

  • Wage labor means that the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of a minority. It’s this minority that determines the goals of labor, and they hire workers to achieve these goals. The workers themselves have no say in this and end up pursuing other people’s goals. Control is a distant dream for most if not all wage laborers. The owners have few incentives to organize production on a cooperative basis because cooperative labor would mean that they lose their right to unilaterally decide the goals of their organization; it would also mean sharing the proceeds of the organization with the workers.
  • Wage labor is inherently authoritarian rather than cooperative, not only with regard to the ultimate goals but also on the level of the means. People who generally detest authoritarian political structures nevertheless submit every morning of every working day to the authoritarian rules of their employers.

A prohibition of wage labor might look like a revolutionary proposal. What are some of the risks we take?

  • Do we have to expropriate the owners of the means of production? After all, it’s no use setting people free to engage in cooperative ventures if they can’t freely use the means of production. However, there’s little dispute about the undesirability of large scale expropriation. So what do we do? To some extent, cooperative ventures will produce their own means of production, and in an economy that is increasingly focused on services and the internet, the category of means of production loses some of its meaning. We can also look at how taxes on means of production would set some of them free for communal use.
  • The biggest risk, I think, is a reduction of economic activity. If that happens, we’re not going to have an economic basis large enough for the required level of taxation necessary to fund the UBI. However, I’m tempted to assume that people will want to be economically active and that the UBI combined with the end of wage income will set loose a lot of initiative and ambition, but all that is hard to predict. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. The “entrepreneurial” spirit in the common man may be lacking, or may have been destroyed by ages of wage dependence. Maybe most people just want to work for an income, no matter which kind of work, as long as they don’t have to take responsibility for their own freedom. Or maybe many of us will use the opportunity to do what we always wanted to do when we can no longer work for a wage and when we have the cushion of a UBI. The additional advantage that we can share the proceeds of cooperative ventures – proceeds which now go to the owners of the means of production – will make it even more exciting to do something.
  • If people can’t work for a wage, many of the “dirty jobs” may not get done anymore. I can list many activities – toilet cleaning, waste disposal, mining etc. – which probably won’t be organized in voluntary cooperative ventures if there’s no longer a possibility to pay people a wage to do them. But then perhaps we’ll be forced to clean up after ourselves. And perhaps automation will help as well. In any case, every rule has exceptions.

Indeed, we may have to settle for policies that discourage rather than prohibit wage labor, one sector at a time. However, if even this is deemed unrealistic or undesirable, then at least let us agree to make work more democratic. If privately owned large corporations continue to exist and dominate the market, and if therefore wage labor persists, then the employees should be given a larger say in how these corporations are run and what their ultimate purposes should be. Corporate democracy, combined with a UBI that allows people to change jobs easily, can make it more likely that people are able to pursue their goals. Which is what all this is about, after all.

More here.

What is Freedom? (18): Freedom is a Happiness Pump

Several studies have shown a correlation between happiness and freedom. How can we explain this relationship? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.

The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.

However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.

Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.

On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.

There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.

In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.

More posts in this series are here.

Poverty and Sadness

I know poor people and I know rich people. There are sad and happy ones in both groups. However, in general and on average, higher levels of self-reported happiness correlate with higher income and wealth. This also corresponds to intuition. Poverty is a burden – both financially and psychologically. Being poor means being anxious about the future, about your children and about your self-worth. This anxiety is a form of unhappiness. Money can buy happiness, not in the sense that having money causes you to be happy, but because having money means that poverty related anxiety is mitigated, if not completely eliminated (although of course your feelings of apprehension, self-doubt and vulnerability may have reasons unrelated to poverty). Money also allows you to “buy away” some of the more specific causes of unhappiness associated with poverty, such as ill health, vulnerability to crime, a bad job etc.

A look at the data confirms all this. For example, it seems to be the case that people living in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries.

We establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries, and find no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in subjective well-being. We show that the estimated relationship is similar to the relationship between subject well-being and income observed within countries. Those enjoying materially better circumstances also enjoy greater subjective well-being and ongoing rises in living standards have delivered higher subjective well-being. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (source)

This study, based on two cross-country happiness surveys (one by Pew and another by Gallup in which people report their own levels of happiness), found that richer countries are happier than poorer ones, and that this is reflected internally in countries (rich people are happier than their poor compatriots).

This is confirmed by another study by Lane Kenworthy, based on the Penn World Tables (for cross country analysis) and the General Social Survey (for U.S. data). Additional confirmation by Angus Deaton.

If you look carefully at some of these data, then they seem to contradict the Stevenson/Wolfers quote given above. It looks like there is a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries or individuals have no further or slower increases in subjective well-being: higher income is positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction but the association may be curvilinear in the sense that more income means greater happiness but less so at high levels of income than at low levels. This has been called the Easterlin paradox, but Wolfers and Stevenson argue against it (somewhat technically: a lot hinges on the type of scale used, namely a logarithmic one).

A Would-Be Philosopher-King Offers His Optimal Tax Policy

If I had any real power I would tax you all in the following manner:

First, I’d impose a consumption tax such as a VAT on traded goods and services. The consumption tax will have to be progressive, for example by way of a 0% tax on food and other basic necessities and a rate close to 100% for luxuries. A consumption tax encourages savings and investment and does away with the disincentives of income and payroll taxes which it will replace (disincentives to work, earn and hire). It also puts a stop to wasteful conspicuous consumption and status competition, at least at the top end. The sharply decreasing marginal utility at high levels of consumption means that the tax can indeed be strongly progressive, with close to 100% rates at very high levels of consumption. Such a strongly progressive consumption tax will leave incentives in place: a $1 million dollar home motivates just as well as a $200 million home, because people mostly care about how they are doing relative to similar others and all similar others will be subject to the same taxes.

Second: add an inheritance or estate tax because the wealthy, who will save more as a consequence of the consumption tax, will die with larger estates than before. Inheritance is inherently unfair because undeserved. A tax on inheritance not only reduces this unfairness, but does so without distorting incentives. Most other types of taxes have disincentive effects: when an activity such as consumption, investment, employment or pollution is taxed, the activity becomes more expensive. Hence, people will to some extent disengage from the activity (consume less, hire less employees, invest less, pollute less) or find ways to reduce their tax burden (offshore profits or assets, fail to declare income etc.). Disengagement is good in the case of pollution and consumption, but not for investment and employment. An inheritance tax is one that doesn’t have disincentive effects. People will not die less when wealth and assets are taxed after death. This tax is therefore sustainable, in addition to being moral.

It’s a kind of wealth tax. Wealth taxes, including an inheritance tax, promote consumption and are in conflict with the stated aims of a consumption tax (see above). But in the case of inheritance tax that’s a reasonable price to pay. Other wealth taxes – with one exception (see below) – will have to go, precisely for this reason, as well as other reasons: wealth taxes are difficult (they are a percentage of the taxpayer’s calculated net worth – total assets including cash deposits, real estate holdings, investments, trusts and shares in businesses, minus debt – and this net worth is difficult to valuate and easy to offshore); and they raise liquidity problems (the taxpayer may have to sell part of her assets in order to pay the tax, which will increase the supply of assets and drive down their prices, making wealth creation less attractive and possibly undermining the wealth tax). So, although a wealth tax is perhaps a fair tax – wealth is more concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, compared to income – it’s not necessarily a good idea.

Third: add a land value tax. This is a wealth tax, but not really a real estate tax, because the largest part of the value of real estate is the value of the land, not the value of the buildings. It doesn’t cost much more to build a house in Manhattan than to build an identical one in the Midwest. The house in Manhattan is much more expensive because it’s on Manhattan land. A land tax is similar to an inheritance tax: no one built the land, so people will not have less land when it’s taxed. And because no one built it, no one can be said to deserve it. So no incentives arguments against a land tax, and a strong moral argument in favor of it. Just as with inheritance.

Fourth: add some pigovian taxes (taxes on carbon and other externalities such as pollution, congestion etc.).

Fifth: abolish all other taxes, including taxes on investment income or normal income, on corporate profits, on labor/employment etc.

This system yields our tax revenues. A tax system can be justified on different grounds, and I’ve already mentioned a few, namely fairness, incentives (incentives to consume less, to save and invest more, to avoid pollution…) and efficiency (ease of tax collection and tax calculation). But an important justification of a tax system is its general purpose. What do we want to do with the tax revenue? Apart from the obvious goals – public goods such as a police force, a judiciary, a national defense, infrastructure, some regulatory agencies, public education, healthcare etc. – my main concern is welfare, or social security as they say in Europe. And like an increasing number of people I want to propose that we use our tax revenues to fund a universal basic income system which will replace all or most of the existing government support measures such as unemployment benefits, pensions, food stamps etc. I’ve defended the UBI in more detail before so I won’t burden this already longish post any more than necessary.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.

Children’s Rights (15): What’s Wrong With Child Marriage?

Child marriage is common. In many parts of the world, a high percentage of girls get married before adulthood – boys seemed to be spared from this particular type of injustice. But why is it an injustice? Us western intellectual folk tend to assume without much consideration that it is, and that arguments in favor of the practice – often based on culture and cultural relativism – are criminally wrong. Here I want to offer a few reasons for calling it an injustice, reasons that go somewhat beyond a mere reflexive rejection.

But before I do that, some numbers:

  • Although the practice is in decline, the numbers are still very high: in the whole of the developing world, more than 1/3 of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age (2/3 in some countries, such as Niger). 1 in 9 are married before age 15.
  • In absolute numbers, India has most child brides (women aged 20 to 24 who were married before age 18): more than 10 million. That’s 1/6 of the world total.
  • Each year, more than 10 million children are forced into marriage.
  • The practice is indeed highly coercive. Not only on the girls who hardly ever have a say in the matter – these are often arranged marriages – but also on the parents of the girls. One indication of this is the fact that child marriage is more prevalent among the poorer sections of societies: households in the poorest quintiles are 3 to 4 times more likely to marry off their daughters than households in the richest quintiles. The rural rate is double the urban rate. It’s not unlikely that money is an incentive here.
  • The practice not only has economic causes but also cultural ones. Some families sell off their daughters as a way of settling debts; others as a means to assuage disputes and to forge communal relationships. Cultural beliefs about purity and dishonor are important drivers as well. A symptom of the cultural origins is the fact that in 50 countries the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females than for men.

Now, apart from the coercion involved in the practice, what else is wrong with it?

  • If we don’t want to call it pedophilia, let’s at least accept that the risk of sexual abuse is a lot higher than in your typical adult marriage. Add to that the physical harm resulting from pregnancies. When girls have babies before their bodies are mature enough, they are at risk of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.
  • Child brides, whether mother or not, are typically excluded from education. So countries with a high prevalence of child marriages and child mothers also tend to have low literacy and schooling rates for young women:
  • Low schooling rates for girls have of course a knock-on effect on gender equality in later life. This then becomes a vicious circle. When girls and women aren’t allowed to become educated and independently prosperous, parents are quick to conclude that the best option for their daughters is an early marriage.

More on child marriage – including some fascinating images – is here. More on children’s rights is here.

What is Democracy? (73): A Summary Definition

I’ve now written 72 posts in this series, and so it’s time for a summary. Most of those posts focused on one or the other characteristic of democracy – including characteristics it shouldn’t have – but the big picture is still missing. That’s why I’ll now try to offer my own, undoubtedly controversial definition of democracy.

What is a democracy, or better, what should it be, ideally? The short version: democracy is a form of government – government of a state or of any other group of people – in which all of the main positions of power are filled by way of elections, and in which decisions on important public issues are taken by vote (a vote either among those previously elected, or among the population at large; preferably a mix of both systems).

This core definition comes with a series of prerequisites. Elected holders of power should not be subordinate to other, unelected holders of power, such as the military or religious bodies. In addition, elections, popular votes on issues (e.g. referenda) and votes among groups of elected representatives should be inclusive, competitive, free and fair, and their results should represent the will of the people. Let’s break that down a bit.

  1. “Inclusive” means that all or most adult residents should have a right to vote, and that most of these people actually vote. The word “residents” covers of course citizens, but some non-citizens should probably also get the right to vote. The same is true for ex-felons.
  2. “Competitive” means that there is a real choice between candidates and policies. Also, when there is a real choice, the available options to choose from are not set by a minority or by some authority. Everyone has the right to become a candidate and to put an issue up for a vote. (Some restrictions may be acceptable in order to avoid very large numbers of candidates or issues: for example, candidates or ballot initiatives only pass when there’s a large number of signed approvals). Term limits are also a means to improve competitiveness and to counteract any advantage that incumbents may have over challengers (see below). An election can only be competitive when the merits of each candidate can be clearly established. Government transparency and accountability, including free and equal access to government information, are therefore required. For the same reason, we should try to limit the influence of money on politics.
  3. “Free and fair” means that the choice between candidates and policies should not be  artificially driven towards one candidate or policy, for example by incumbents monopolizing the media or the resources of the state, by efforts to discourage or intimidate certain voters, etc. Media neutrality or media balance may have to be enforced. Vote counting should be correct and independently monitored. The ballot must be secret when voter intimidation is a risk.
  4. “Representative of the will of the people” means that the elections and votes should respect the rule that one person has only one vote. (Representation is, however, not unidirectional: the will of the people may be shaped by the representatives. The latter can present points of view which are then internalized and expressed by the people). The requirement of representativity may entail a need to circumscribe the voting population: local decisions should be decided locally. Having too many people who can vote – including people who do not have a stake in the matter up for a vote –  can be just as harmful as having too few. Federalism, devolution etc. are therefore required by democracy. However, federalism may lead to gerrymandering, which should be prohibited because it reduces representativity.

The inclusive, competitive, free, fair and representative nature of elections and votes is a prerequisite for a democracy, but it also has its own prerequisites. We need political freedom and equality – which means the equal freedom to try to influence the outcomes of elections and votes. All individuals should be free to express their will equally and in peace, to discuss it with others, to persuade and be persuaded, to join forces in free organizations, and to have their preferences weighed equally in collective and peaceful elections and votes. Candidates as well should have this freedom and equality.

Political freedom and equality in turn depend on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial enforcement and the regulation of the role of money in politics. Candidates should have physical security, freedom of speech and association, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The same is true for the voting population. If necessary, these rights should be enforced by a judiciary that is independent from the elected legislature and executive (and that is therefore not subject to election itself). Equal influence depends on equal suffrage rights and other rights, on the enforcement of these rights within a judicial system that is protected by the principle of the separation of powers, but also on the regulation of party financing, campaign financing and lobbying.

All these arrangements – rights, separation of powers and the regulation of money – create upper and lower levels of resources and capabilities, and hence create political freedom that is more or less equal (it can never be completely equal for a variety of reasons that can’t be remedied: differences in talent and motivation, social networks etc.).

Why do we need these arrangements? Equal political freedom means equal influence, but some people may lack the rights, resources or capabilities to exercise their influence. People can’t exercise their civil and political rights if they suffer arbitrary arrest, violence or poverty, if they don’t have a minimum of education, lack proper healthcare, or have to spend their time struggling to survive whereas others can spend a fortune to influence politicians. Just as insufficient rights, resources or capabilities undermine the equality of influence that is typical of a democracy, so can large excesses of resources. Hence we need regulations aimed at limiting the political advantage and influence of the wealthy (e.g. limits on the size of individual donations, limits on election expenditure, transparency in party funding etc.).

There are also other, less precise prerequisites. How much confidence do people have in the fairness of elections, in the impartiality of the judicial process, or in each other? How do they perceive corruption? Do they experience the government as a representative institution? And so on. These subjective perceptions of institutional arrangements are just as important as the institutional arrangements themselves.

All the things I’ve listed here are necessary for a full democracy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call something a democracy when some of these things are missing. There wouldn’t be a single democracy if that were the case. But it does mean that democracy is a work in progress and a sometimes elusive ideal. It also means that it’s wrong to say that a country is either a democracy or something else. The concept of democracy is continuous. A country can be more or less democratic and can evolve up or down the scale.

Given this description of an ideal democracy and the acknowledgment of the fact that countries can be more or less democratic (as well as not democratic at all, of course), the question is whether there’s room for the idea that democracy can be many different and equally valuable things. I think there is. Different circumstances require different institutions, and different institutions may realize certain norms equally well. Conversely, the same institutions in different countries and contexts will yield a very unequal quality of democracy. For example, a very small country may not require a federal structure.

The characteristics of an ideal democracy that I have given here should therefore be viewed as applicable to the average country only. However, while it’s unwise to demand that all countries adopt or strive towards an identical political construction, it’s equally unwise to give every country the freedom to define democracy according to its own wishes. There’s a limit to the flexibility of concepts. A democracy should, ideally, have certain characteristics or attributes, and not others. Over to you.

A Primer on Poverty and Economic Growth

Both China and India have seen their economies grow at breakneck speeds over the last decades. At the same time, the number of poor people residing in these two countries has been reduced substantially, although somewhat less sourcespectacularly in India compared to China.

Other indicators of wellbeing point in the same direction. Life expectancy in India is now 65 years as opposed to 42 in 1960; in China the numbers are 73 and 42 respectively. The number of Indian children dying before they reach the age of 5 is now about 60 for every 1000, compared to almost 200 in 1970. In China: about 20 for every 1000 now versus more than 100 in 1970.

It’s not outlandish therefore to assume that there’s a link between good economic growth and large reductions in poverty rates. Given the fact that some other potential causes of poverty reduction – such as foreign aid and good governance – have not been prominent in those two countries (to put it mildly), the growth hypothesis is even more persuasive.

Here are number of correlations for a larger set of countries. Here‘s the example of Africa, where growth and poverty are almost absolute mirror images.

However, does this mean that economic growth is a sufficient condition of poverty reduction? I don’t think so. A growing level of GDP per capita in an economy means that the average person is better off, financially as well as on some other dimensions given the strong correlations between GDP and other indicators of wellbeing. But improvements for the average person can go hand in hand with stagnating or even worsening poverty rates. A lot depends how the proceeds of high growth are distributed among the citizens of a country; distributed either

  • intentionally by government policy: through taxation and welfare policies that can be more generous in a richer economy
  • or automatically by some form of trickle down effect: more aggregate national income or production means more jobs, better paid jobs etc., at least in theory.

Trickle down economics has been somewhat discredited of late, so perhaps the causal effect of growth on poverty reduction must pass through government redistribution, at least in part. The anti-poverty efforts of India’s successive governments are well-known. Less well-known is the fact that in China as well governments have implemented a strong although probably insufficient social security system. (Insufficient because inequality has risen dramatically in China, and somewhat in India. Greater inequality dampens the poverty reducing effect of growth).

The crucial role of government led redistribution has been confirmed by this paper in which Lane Kenworthy compared growth and income data for 17 developed countries. Specifically, he looked at the ways in which the incomes of people in low to middle income groups benefit from economic growth. The nature of government transfer systems is the reason why the effect of growth on the incomes of the poor is not the same in all countries.

[W]hen households on low incomes got better off, it was due most often to a rise in net government transfers. Where net transfers increased, incomes tended to increase in concert with economic growth. Norway, the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark illustrate this pattern. Where net transfers were stagnant, income trends were decoupled from growth of the economy. We observe this in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. This is an important finding. It means that, as a general rule, growth has not trickled down to low income households through wages or employment. And it means that, when government transfers haven’t grown, wages and employment haven’t stepped in to take their place. (source)

So we can conclude that economic growth, although important, is probably not a sufficient condition for poverty reduction, at least not in all cases.

A final remark: it’s interesting to note that poverty reduction is one of the drivers of growth. So the causation goes both ways, as is often the case in correlations.

Policies that are effective in increasing the incomes of the poor–such as investments in primary education, rural infrastructure, health, and nutrition–are also policies that enhance the productive capacity of the economy in aggregate. (source)

Some other interesting studies on the topic are cited here.

Human Rights Promotion (20): Exposing Criminals

There are a number of private initiatives aimed at publishing personal information about convicted criminals. Websites such as,, and so on publish information about criminals’ place of residence after they’ve left prison, or even their contact information. Newspapers as well seem to make it a point of honor to mention personal details in their crime reporting. Sometimes the “criminals” are people who are merely suspected of a crime.

This kind of thing is said to be justified as a form of privatized human rights enforcement. If people know where criminals live or work, they can steer clear of danger and increase their physical safety or the security of their property. Public knowledge about ex-cons also serves to “shame” them – including some potential criminals – and that again is something which may reduce the risk of future crimes. In any case, the overall justification seems to be enhanced protection of the rights of possible victims through private crime prevention.

Purveyors of personal information about criminals claim that what they do is protected by free speech rights – including the right to access information. Maybe it is, but in that case we seem to have a conflict between rights. Criminals have a right to privacy, and information about their past convictions may well be part of their private lives. Publication of this information could sometimes also endanger some of their other rights, such as their right to work, to choose a residence etc. -given what we know about public harassment and discrimination of people known to have a criminal past.

What to do about this conflict of rights? Perhaps violations of the rights of criminals are an acceptable price to pay for the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of possible victims. Even violations of criminals’ right to physical security – given the possibility of violent retaliation by past victims or vigilante hotheads – may be viewed as an acceptable risk. Some even want to argue that exposing criminals is a matter of justice: too lenient court sentences can be corrected by private retaliation made possible by published information.

I guess most of us would agree that this goes too far. Even if we believe that sentences are too lenient, we shouldn’t view private retaliation as an acceptable justification or byproduct of public exposure of convicted criminals. I don’t think there’s a large constituency against the right to physical security for criminals who have served their time (or for those still serving their time). A reasonably well-functioning criminal justice system should take care of punishment. And when we don’t have a well-functioning criminal justice system, the obvious goal is to improve it, not privatize it.

The best case in favor of private efforts to expose criminals is based not on retaliation but on the rights of the exposers and of possible victims. You can make the case that criminals’ general right to privacy can sometimes be overruled in favor of the right to free speech of the exposers and the right to physical safety and property of potential victims.

On the face of it, that’s not a ridiculous claim. Different rights often contradict each other, and it’s quite common that some rights should give way to some other rights in certain specific cases. Neither is it ridiculous to claim that private initiative has in general a role to play in human rights promotion. However, I don’t think we’re dealing here with a good example of a helpful private initiative. For two reasons.

  1. Balancing acts between rights are treacherous and best left to professional judges. Convicted criminals – or anyone else for that matter – have no right to be free from shame or public humiliation but they do have a right to privacy and to be free from harassment and vigilante justice. We should take these rights seriously, even if – and perhaps because – we are dealing with the rights of criminals. These criminals have already paid the price for their crimes and should be protected against violations of their rights. An attack on their privacy should therefore be avoided if at all possible, especially if such an attack can invite further violations of their rights such as vigilante justice, work problems, family problems etc. It’s unlikely that a balancing act between the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of the criminals would be decided against the latter. A balancing exercise between the exposers’ right to free speech and the criminals’ right to privacy would almost always favor the latter. The harm done to the rights of criminals when favoring free speech rights is more important than the harm done to the rights of the exposers when favoring privacy rights.
  2. If you’re not convinced by this and you still want to make the case that criminals’ right to privacy should be limited for the sake of someone else’s free speech right, then you still face another problem. It doesn’t seem right that criminals’ privacy should give way because there’s a risk of future violations of property or security rights of others. There has to be more than a mere risk, and typically there isn’t in these cases. People engage in the exposure of criminals because of the supposed risk of having criminals close by, not because these criminals are actually engaged in crime.

More about this here and here. More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (53): Have Human Rights Lost Their Meaning?

Human rights have started to look somewhat like a substance spread so far and wide that it has lost its depth. Some use rights to promote peace, while others take them to war against oppressive dictators. Some say that abortion is a right of the mother, while pro-lifers say that it’s about the right of the baby. Religious believers are urged to respect the rights of those they view as morally depraved, but the former answer that the way they treat the latter is a matter of religious liberty. Putin intervenes in Ukraine for the sake of the rights of Russians, while Ukraine counteracts because of the rights of Ukrainians. Almost every political or moral debate is now essentially two groups of people throwing rights at each other. And as with all things that are used for anything and everything, rights have lost their meaning. At best, their meaning has become very thin.

Part of the reason for this “thinness” is overinterpretation; another part is rights inflation. We should of course interpret rights. Their meaning isn’t obvious. The only thing that is more or less undisputed are a few lists with rights described in one or two sentences. As is clear from the examples given above, what these sentences imply for specific cases is hotly contested. We can try to give some substance to the meaning of different individual rights, as well as to the idea of rights in general. This is in fact what I try to do in this blog series, and what many others try as well. But success is far from guaranteed, if it’s even clear what success would mean in this case. At a minimum, some form of widely shared agreement, I guess, such that for instance religious believers accept that their rights do not warrant violations of the rights of non-believers.

Likewise, while we should allow rights to evolve – new wrongs may require new rights – we should also try to agree on some outer boundaries and perhaps make a division within the set of rights between fundamental or basic rights on the one hand and aspirational rights on the other. It would harm the practical effectiveness of rights if we can’t set limits on interpretation and evolution. We wouldn’t want to deal in empty promises.

But is there really a “thinness” to human rights? There is certainly overinterpretation and inflation, but the “spread substance” metaphor is somewhat misleading. Perhaps rights haven’t really lost their meaning. As with all fundamental philosophical concepts, there wasn’t an a priori meaning to begin with and hence no original content that has been squandered. Political and moral disputes, because they are increasingly framed in a language of rights – as opposed to the language of duty, honor and virtue – have made the concept of rights more complex and contested than it needs to be, and perhaps even murky and vague. But that is because there’s too much meaning rather than too little. Taking again the same example: the claim that religious liberty should include the freedom to discriminate is a claim to unwarranted “thickness”. We need to be clearer on the content and extent of human rights, but perhaps it’s wrong to say that rights are “lost”.

More on the causes of the increase in human rights talk is here. More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (17): Human Rights and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an interesting concept because it’s related to the interdependence of human rights. (Sorry for the alliteration). Kimberlé Crenshaw was the first to propose the term for the purpose of describing interacting forms of discrimination. Some examples. A black woman may have relatively worse life outcomes compared to a white woman who is similar to her in most respects, even though both suffer gender discrimination. The combination of racism and sexism makes it much harder for the black woman to find a job. She will have to overcome anti-female prejudice as well as racism on the job market. An immigrant woman may have a hard time escaping sexual violence because her irregular status makes it difficult for her to go to the police. And so on.

Victims of discrimination and oppression are sometimes very different from each other, depending on the various types of discrimination that combine in order to make their lives difficult. A white upper-class able-bodied female citizen may be discriminated in some ways, but her fate is unlike the one suffered by a poor black illegal immigrant mother. Intersectionality makes for more intense discrimination.

And there’s an additional claim: people’s outcomes are made worse because of the ways in which different forms of discrimination combine (the sum being larger than the addition of the parts). Two or three types of discrimination can be mutually reinforcing. They do not act independently of one another but instead shape one another. Racial stereotypes for example need to be broken down by gender in order to see how different gender representations combine with racial stereotypes in order form an overall discriminatory ideology.

Take for example the Jezebel character. A Jezebel is a loose, sex-craved woman who is often depicted as stereotypically black, i.e. with big lips and funny hair. It’s racist prejudice about sexual morals of black people combined with a gender stereotype. (The idea that it’s men who want more sex is a relatively recent one; and “the sex-mad negro” representation is still around). It’s also no surprise that Reagan’s “welfare queen” was black. Being both poor and a “lazy and untrustworthy black person”, the welfare queen encapsulated a toxic mix used to criticize poor blacks until this day.

The concept of intersectionality “grew up” in the context of feminism. Feminists at some point in the 60s or 70s realized that although the focus on gender as a cause of discrimination is necessary, gender isn’t the sole factor determining the fate of women. A white middle class woman suffers a different form of oppression compared to a poor black women or a disabled woman. Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) became the effort to understand how gender, race and class combine to limit women’s life prospects. Since then, the word has transcended the realm of feminist theory and is now applied to all people who suffer a combination of different forms of oppression. 

All this has practical implications. For example, if you want to take a stand on more female CEO’s or quota for women in parliament you may inadvertently leave existing class structures intact, even if you include race in your quota demands (black women can have class privilege too). On the other hand, if you focus only on racism you may be blind to the specific suffering of black women. Intersectionality is therefore kind of a call for solidarity across victimized groups. 

Time to get back to human rights, I hear you say. The notion of interdependency in rights theory can be likened to intersectionality. If both your right to a decent standard of living and your political rights are violated, then these violations affect each other. For a poor person it’s much harder to reclaim her political rights because her struggle to survive takes precedence over other concerns. However, without her political rights, it’s much more difficult to escape poverty. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. I think it’s fair to say that this interdependence of rights is similar to the notion of intersectionality.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (32): How Inheritance Not Only Perpetuates But Also Aggravates Inequality

Inherited wealth – the value of all assets (real estate + financial assets – financial liabilities) transmitted at death or through inter-vivos gifts – has become more important over time. Thomas Piketty estimates that

the annual inheritance flow was about 20%-25% of national income around 1900-1910. It then gradually fell to less than 10% in the 1920s-1930s, and to less than 5% in the 1950s. It has been rising regularly since then, with an acceleration of the trend during the past 20 years, and according to the latest data point (2008), it is now close to 15%. (source, source)

The drop between the 1920s and 1950s was caused by the Great Depression and WWII, two events that destroyed a lot of wealth.

Inheritance has always been an important cause of the persistence of wealth inequality. I guess that goes without saying. Capital is unevenly distributed in most populations, and will remain so to the extent that it can stay in the same families. It’s more interesting to look at the mechanisms through which inheritance could, under some circumstances, aggravate inequality. What are those circumstances? Here are some:

  1. Birth rates. People in developed countries have fewer children than they used to, and the children they have survive into adulthood at higher rates. As a result, those children inherit a larger part of their parents wealth. If numerous siblings no longer have to split their inheritance among themselves, the effect of inheritance on wealth inequality becomes stronger. Piketty as well has made this point in a recent talk.
  2. Higher house prices. Housing has become more expensive. This incites people to save more so as to allow their children to buy a house, which has a ripple effect across generations: the biggest savers are those who enjoyed an inheritance because if you’ve inherited a house or the money to buy one it’s easier to save than when you have to rent or pay a mortgage. And if you can save, your children will inherit. And so on.
  3. Inheritance taxes have been reduced in most countries.
  4. Slow economic growth in most developed countries means that the wealth produced in those countries is smaller compared to the wealth inherited.

Not all of these circumstances can be brought under human control. Perhaps an inheritance tax – the dreaded death tax – is a realistic option. I mean, if even Nozick could get behind that, you would need to be an outright fundamentalist about property rights  in order to oppose it.

For increases in the inheritance tax to happen, however, we will need to start thinking differently. When David Cameron, for instance, promised to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m he did so because he believes that people who work hard, save money, and bequeath it to their offspring are somehow doing the noble thing. But while it may be noble to work hard and save, it’s far from noble to live off of an inheritance and its often huge returns. Hard work for one results in an unproductive lifestyle for its beneficiaries. If you want to promote work and productivity, by all means impose a death tax. And if you want the best for your children, it may be tempting to give them cash or other assets, but beware that this will be self-defeating beyond a certain amount.

More posts in this series are here.