One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)
Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.
This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.
Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.
Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.
However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.
It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.
More on the possible causes of rights violations here.