The Ethics of Human Rights (82): The Link Between Human Rights and Social Mobility

Most of us think about social mobility as some kind of political ideal or even as a necessary feature of a just society. Many theories of justice make space for social mobility, as they do for equality of opportunity, fairness, the wellbeing of the worst off etc. And indeed, it’s hard to be against social mobility. Cynics might say that politicians extol the virtues of social mobility in order to camouflage or even justify actual inequalities (“if people can be socially mobile, then the resulting inequalities are deserved”, or “inequalities aren’t bad because people can be mobile and escape their class”). However, it’s not because a concept is misused for political reasons that it loses it’s theoretical or even practical value. If democracy is used as a cover to invade Iraq, then that doesn’t mean democracy is bad.

Hence, we should embrace social mobility. Human rights as well are often seen as a political ideal or a requirement of justice. How do social mobility and human rights relate to each other? At first sight, there’s no relationship at all, except that both are part of a lot of theories of justice. Social mobility is about the possibility to enter another – usually higher – income class than the one you were born in (the one of your parents). Human rights, on the other hand, are generally silent about income, except in rare cases such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right to unemployment insurance. And those cases are about minimum levels of income, not about the equal opportunity to achieve any level of income. Most human rights aren’t about income at all, let alone changes in income. Hence, social mobility is not required by human rights.

Does that mean that a society without social mobility can be one where all human rights are perfectly respected? It depends. Let’s imagine a kind of Dickensian society in which everyone knows their place. Poor people have poor children. Those poor children also have poor children. And all poor people die poor. Same thing for the rich. At first sight, such a society, or even one closely resembling it, is free of rights violations, and yet it clearly does not value human equality. And if you look more closely, it doesn’t really value human rights either. For instance, it’s likely that this society does not offer equal rights to education, for if it did some poor people would break ranks. Neither does such a society respect non-discrimination rules at work. Companies and government employers are probably very classist in their employment decisions, otherwise one would tend to see some poor again breaking ranks. Non-discrimination rules are human rights, and this is therefore another example of the way in which human rights are violated in a society lacking social mobility.

In short, a Dickensian society like the one described here has to be extremely classist and has to marshal extensive means in order to keep people in their place. It can only do so by way of massive violations of some human rights.

While a society like this is the exception in our modern world, there are many societies that resemble it. As a rule, we can say that societies with less than average social mobility will have more than average rights violations, all else being equal. Hence, social mobility is relevant to human rights in the sense that an effort to suppress social mobility almost always has an impact on the level of respect for human rights.

I guess this means that a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected. One can imagine a society in which there’s no discrimination, equal rights, no poverty and equal opportunity, but in which people are still socially mobile. A child of middle class parents can turn out to be a genius and enter the top earning class. Even in human rights utopia, one doesn’t want to enforce equal pay for everyone because incentives are good (in general). Vice versa, the children of genius parents can turn out to be average and end up in a lower income class. If this doesn’t happen, one can assume discrimination and favoritism.

The opposite isn’t the case: a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected, but a society with social mobility can be a brutal dictatorship:

Imagine a dictator who imprisons his subjects, but gives wealth and power to some chosen at random. There’ll be a lot of social mobility, but no justice or liberty. (source)

This shows that social mobility, although difficult to dismiss, is not enough because it does not require freedom and rights. It can even hide and justify deeper injustices. It’s also not enough because it removes attention away from the conditions of life in the lowest income strata. Instead of making it easier for people to enter higher income strata, it’s often better to improve their lives where they are: make their jobs better and more pleasant; give them a say in their companies; focus on the content of their jobs etc. Often, that is what they want rather than a higher station in life.

More on social mobility is here. Other posts in this series are here.


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