A Killer Argument Against the Quantitative Approach to Human Rights?

Joseph Stalin wasn’t a very nice man. Among his lesser sins was his disdain for statistics: “kill a man and it’s a tragedy, kill a million and it’s a statistic”. What he meant of course was not just that it’s a statistic, but also that it’s not very important. Who cares if Stalin or anyone else killed one million, 10 million or 6,321,012? People care about actual persons, not numbers. (Actually, it’s a misquote; he never really said it).

Regular readers of this blog immediately recognize this as a frontal attack on our main project, the quantitative approach to human rights. I believe that it’s very important to have statistics and other quantitative data on human rights violations if we want to measure progress on human rights. In other words, I do care about numbers. We need to know how many people die of hunger, how many live in poverty etc. so that we can assess the quality and impact of our policies.

Now, I have to admit that Stalin was on to something. Numbers don’t carry a lot of meaning and don’t engender empathy. Powerful anecdotes about the fate of individual persons, testimonies and other narratives about concrete cases make it more likely that people start to care. If you tell school children for example that an estimated 850,000 people died during the Rwandan genocide or that less than 20% of China’s citizens now live on less than $1 a day compared to 80% 30 years ago, they will probably register this information, but they will only really start to care about genocide or poverty when they read about the stories of individuals. If you focus on human rights violations as quantities you may end up viewing human beings as quantities as well, and then you lose the motivating power of the individual story. There’s no room for differences between cases if you focus on numbers, and there are no individual and motivating stories without differences between cases.

The same argument against the abstraction and lack of meaning in numbers can be used against human rights talk in general, and not just quantitative talk. Human rights talk, like number talk, is abstract, devoid of specific personal stories. It’s talk about a biological species and the rights that it has, not about persons. The lists of human rights in treaties and declarations are very general and abstract sentences separated from specific circumstances and people, as they have to be. Human rights make differences between people morally irrelevant, and they have to do so otherwise you end up with privileges instead of human rights. However, we may end up not with the desired equality of rights but with sameness and interchangeable specimens of a biological species. And then we lose the motivating power of very specific and personal stories about suffering and oppression.

The answer to this challenge against number talk and rights talk is obvious, however: one approach doesn’t exclude the other. Numbers and abstractions may not be very motivating but they can help to assess the success of people who are otherwise motivated. And some of us may be motivated by numbers after all.

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