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.


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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Place of Human Rights in Morality

Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]

The Ethics of Human Rights (90): Rights and Virtue Ethics

At first sight, virtue ethics seems irrelevant to human rights. Rights are about what people do to each other and what the state does to people. They’re about rules and consequences, not about people’s good character or virtuous dispositions. Deontological or consequential ethics look like they’re more adequate from a rights perspective. Whether or not people possess the right virtues can of course make a difference with regard to the level of respect for rights. Courageous people will sometimes use their courage to help others in need and help them protect their rights. Honest people will not steal from each other. Compassionate people will assist the poor. Judges and police officers with a sense of duty will help to right wrongs.

However, it’s risky to depend on virtues. Virtues are a rare commodity, and if we need virtues in order to have rights then rights as well will be rare. That’s why some who call themselves realists about human nature argue that we should economize on virtue. Better, they say, to mobilize people’s self-interest as a means to enhance overall respect for rights. For example, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be in their self-interest to cherish the rights of others as well, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. It’s also the case that most rights don’t make a lot of sense if they’re not widely spread. It’s quite useless, for instance, to be the only person on earth having the right to speak. We speak with each other. So if it’s in our self-interest to have a right to speak, our self-interest will automatically favor the same right for others.

Opponents of a strong focus on virtues do not only turn towards enlightened self-interest but also insist that we can do a lot by trying to improve institutions rather than individual dispositions. Good institutions do not only protect people’s rights but also promote virtues. Examples of institutional solutions are courts that reliably protect people’s property rights and personal security rights. Or trade agreements and immigration rules that don’t aggravate global poverty. Once these institutions are in place people will recognize their benefits and develop the virtues necessary to keep them in place. Virtue ethics, according to this view, has things backwards.

However, I do think virtue ethics has something interesting to say about human rights. Virtue ethics focuses on character, not on the rules we should follow or on the good consequences of some rules or some ways of acting. And the advantage of focusing on character is that we introduce a sense of reliability. If human rights depend on frivolous self-interest and fragile institutions – the same self-interest and institutions that so often destroy rights – then they are precarious. If, on the other hand, we argue with virtue ethicists that the consequences of acting in a certain way or of following a certain rule have in themselves no ethical content unless our actions or obedience to rules are preceded and caused by virtuous dispositions and good character (similar to Kant’s “good will” for example), then we can build rights on a firmer ground. Virtues, by definition, are reliable and permanent. Our character doesn’t depend on who we are today, but on who we are predictably. (Although one can of course cultivate one’s virtues and become more virtuous over time).

Maybe human rights activists have a tendency to promote rules over motivations and good outcomes over good intentions. While we can have good outcomes and rules that are respected without also having people acting on good intentions, perhaps it’s true that we’ll have more secure outcomes and rules when we find a way to promote virtues and good intentions. A virtue ethicist will of course claim that we need our virtues for their own sake and not for their instrumental role in rights protection, but he or she will not object to that role. Of course, everything I’ve said here depends on the controversial claim that we are indeed able to promote virtue.

By the way, there’s an interesting parallel between virtue ethics and confucianism.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (89): Anti-Consequentialist Consequentialism

There are two words in “human rights”. “Rights” are claims that override the claims, wishes or welfare of a government, a majority, or even the totality of a population minus one. In other words, they are claims that need to be respected whatever other claims are present, such as the claims of law, morality, welfare, religion etc. Rights should be respected irrespective of the law of the land, of someone’s legal status, of someone’s religion, race, gender, citizenship, country of residence or moral conduct. That’s where the other word comes in: all “human” beings have rights and these rights should be respected simply because human beings are human. No other reason is required. No law, no conduct, no welfare consequences. These two words – “rights” and “human” – are connected: both are about priority, overriding importance and lack of conditionality.

This would seem to imply that human rights are the ultimate anti-consequentialist morality. We are not to enslave, torture or murder one person even if that would increase total welfare. Forcibly removing one eye from a series of two-eyed people in order to give blind people one eye would clearly increase overall welfare since the gains for the blind are greater than the losses for the others. And yet human rights prohibit coercive organ transplantations. However, it’s not entirely correct to view human rights as anti-consequentialist. Human rights are also, and somewhat paradoxically, consequentialist. In two ways:

  • First, the welfare of the majority or of the “society” can to some extent be defined as respect for human rights. Torturing one terrorist in order to discover and defuse a ticking time bomb would allow us to safeguard the right to life and bodily integrity of a large number of other people or even of society as a whole. Rights need to be balanced against each other, and when more rights or more important rights for a large number of people can be safeguarded by way of a violation of the rights of one, then that’s the result or the “consequence” we should favor over the alternative, which is protecting the rights of one to the detriment of the rights of many. The balance is clearly in favor of the many, and that’s a consequentialist calculus. (I have to say here that these are not, in practice, the only alternatives and ticking time bomb arguments are often very misleading. But as a theoretical example it will do. I have a separate discussion of the limits of this kind of calculus here).
  • Second, human rights are means to achieve some goods or values. We don’t have rights because it’s good to have rights. We have them because they have good consequences. I need a right to free speech because having free speech results in certain things that are good for me: knowledge, self-development etc.

There’s considerable tension between the consequentialist and anti-consequentialist strains in human rights. It’s a tough problem. I’ve tried to come up with ways to relieve this tension in some older posts.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (88): Justice and Proportionality

The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:

  • the criminal should receive punishment that is proportional to the crime;
  • in war and law enforcement, the army or the police should not use disproportionate amounts of force;
  • people’s economic rewards should be proportional to what they deserve and to the amounts of personal effort, skill or whatever you believe is a basis of desert;
  • the people’s representatives in democratic institutions should represent equal proportions of the population;
  • people should pay taxes in proportion to their income;
  • etc.

But why should “things” be proportional? Perhaps it’s some kind of esthetic ideal: a beautiful body is a proportional one; a tasty dish is one with the right proportions of ingredients. So maybe justice is merely about beauty and taste. The world is just if things are not out of proportion, because if they were that would insult our esthetic taste. The word “fair” in “fairness” – often a synonym for justice – also means beautiful.

But I find that hard to believe. People want justice for other reasons than a desire for beauty, and demands of proportionality are about something more than esthetics. But whatever the reasons, proportionality has it’s place in theories of justice, and it would be illusory to try and get rid of it. The notion seems deeply engrained in moral intuitions.

However, while we should in general accept that proportionality plays a role in justice, we should also criticize some uses of proportionality. It’s hard to deny that more serious crimes should be met with more serious punishments, but it’s equally hard to deny that there should be an upper limit to this (you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times) and that criminal punishment should also serve other goals than people’s desire to have things in proportion. Punishment is used in order to protect the public against the criminal, and if a non-proportional punishment serves this goal then maybe we shouldn’t insist on proportionality for proportionality’s sake.

It’s also possible to criticize the use of proportionality in discussions about economic rewards, redistribution, poverty relief etc. If you want to argue that people who are more deserving have a claim to more compensation – and that undeserving people should receive less or nothing – then you need a good account of desert. However, such an account is elusive if not outright impossible. Effort and skill may not be signs of desert but rather the product of undeserved genetic inheritance. Difficult to know, and very intrusive if you want to find out. Proportional distribution as a method of realizing an idea of justice based on desert depends on desert being a good basis of justice. If it isn’t, proportionality may lead to injustice rather than justice because it may leave the poor to starve.

There’s a third case in which proportionality can undermine justice instead of promoting it. Governments may want to limit certain rights because they believe that this is necessary for a public good such as protection against terrorism, in which case they often make claims about proportionality. The possible consequences of terrorism are supposedly so severe that limitations of people’s right to privacy or right not to be tortured are proportional responses, even if these limitations are far-reaching. You can’t lift a heavy rock with an elastic band. The tool should be proportional to the end you want to achieve, and a world without terrorism requires some heavy tools. But again, proportionality as a method to achieve justice – a just world is a world without terrorists killing innocent people – may achieve the opposite. The harm caused by limitations of rights is often greater than the harm of terrorism.

A final example of the way in which proportionality can lead us astray when thinking about justice. Many of us tend to believe that we owe more to those close to us and that justice is in the first instance something between members of the nation state. And it is indeed common to see concerns about human rights violations diminish in proportion to the distance between those who are concerned and those whose rights are violated. However, if ideas about closeness are overemphasized in thinking about justice – and they often are since patriotism, nationalism, racism and other forms of in-group bias are quite common – then proportionality will again cause injustice rather than justice.

The point of all this is not to criticize proportionality as such but the manner in which it is used. Proportionality is one method to achieve justice, and can, given some prerequisites, help us to achieve justice. You can’t fight terrorism with good will alone. You shouldn’t impose life sentences for traffic violations. And you shouldn’t give everyone equal economic rewards. But let’s not overemphasize one very peculiar method to achieve justice, a method moreover that is often based on shaky assumptions such as desert, the moral relevance of closeness or the effectiveness and necessity of certain policies.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (87): General and Special Moral Obligations

People have two kinds of moral obligations:

  • Some of our duties are duties to all people. We have those duties simply because people are human beings. These are general moral duties that apply regardless of specific relationships.
  • Other duties are duties that we owe to a subset of people. These are special obligations we have to those with whom we have some sort of special relationship.

An example of the former are the duties generated by human rights or the duty not to lie; an example of the latter are our duties as parents, friends and citizens.

Both types of duties have a basis in moral intuition. Most of us believe that we should try to save a child drowning before our eyes, any drowning child, whatever our relationship or lack of relationship with it. But most of us would also allow a parent to save his own child first if it was drowning together with an unknown child and if he had to make a choice. Some special obligations are the same as general obligations, just with an added urgency (as in the case of the drowning child). Other special obligations are totally different from general obligations (we have a duty to raise our children, but we don’t have a similar duty towards the children of others, not even a less urgent duty).

This is all boilerplate. What’s interesting to me is the double nature of human rights duties. These are obviously general duties, but I do believe that in some cases we should prioritize the rights of those with whom we have a special relationship. Human rights create special duties in the sense of general duties that are more urgent in the case of some people. The right to life of our drowning children does indeed create a more urgent obligation than the right to life of the millions of extremely poor and starving children elsewhere in the world. Part of the explanation is that we often can do more to save our own child. We are normally close by, we know the risks and we know exactly what to do when things go wrong. The same isn’t always true in the case of distant strangers. Can implies ought. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of our special obligation, I think. It’s the relationship that generates the special duty, not just the fact that we can offer more immediate and effective help. After all, as Peter Singer has pointed out, immediate and effective help is sometimes also an option for distant strangers.

The problem is that special obligations tend to take over. There’s a lot of in-group bias and the rights of those close to us receive an overdose of attention, sometimes to the detriment of the rights of strangers (“strangers” not always in the literal sense of the word, because most fellow-citizens are literally strangers and yet they often enjoy more rights than foreign strangers). A lot of people only see special obligations and ignore general obligations.

Hence, it’s understandable and commendable that the focus in human rights talk is on the impersonal and general obligations that they yield. This focus, however, should not obscure the very real special obligations that also result from human rights. A lot of immediate good can be done when we admit that human rights create special obligations. There’s often a very tricky balancing act to perform here, but few of us admit it. Many tend to favor special obligations, while others react by speaking only of general obligations. Very rarely do we see people working through the difficulties of when to decide in favor of one or the other type of duty; for example, the difficulties of knowing when it is right to save your own child when you can save hundreds of distant children with the same amount of effort. When do we simply follow in-group bias, and when do we have a good reason to favor the in-group members? When are we real humanitarians and when are we heartlessly blind to the justified demands of those who are close to us? I think we should admit that the choice between partiality and impartiality is often a difficult one, and that those of us who systematically favor one or the other point of view are wrong most of the time.

More on partiality/impartiality here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (86): The Rights of the Dead, Ctd.

Most of you will have heard the story by now: a brain-dead pregnant woman is forced to stay on life support in Texas:

[T]he Munoz family … are being forced to keep Marlise Munoz alive even though she was declared brain dead before Thanksgiving when she was 14 weeks pregnant and despite her clearly expressed wishes to her husband, Erick Munoz, that she did not want this to happen. … [A]s her parents and her husband prepared to say their final goodbyes in the intensive care unit at John Peter Smith Hospital here and to honor her wish not to be left on life support, they were stunned when a doctor told them the hospital was not going to comply with their instructions. Mrs. Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant, the doctor said, and Texas is one of more than two dozen states that prohibit, with varying degrees of strictness, medical officials from cutting off life support to a pregnant patient. (source)

More than a month later, Mrs. Munoz remains connected to life-support machines on the third floor of the I.C.U., where a medical team monitors the heartbeat of the fetus, now in its 20th week of development.

I’m guessing many of us are horrified by this. But what is it exactly that puts us off? Perhaps it’s the fact that the mother is used as a mere means for the fetus and that the doctors ignore her wishes. We find it disrespectful and we think she has a right to be respected and to be treated as a human being rather than just a means without a will, even after death. However, the mother is indeed dead and therefore can’t be harmed in any meaningful way. Perhaps there’s a solution if we recognize that rights aren’t just about the avoidance of harm.

More on the rights of the dead herehere and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (85): What is Tolerance?

Tolerance is another word for respect for human rights. You are tolerant when you’re confronted with people who exercise their rights in a way you don’t like and when you nevertheless allow or permit them to exercise their rights. The word “permit” implies that you could intervene with people exercising their rights if you wanted to – that, in other words, intervention is an option that is relatively costless to yourself and that is likely to succeed – but you refrain from intervention anyway. You are tolerant when you let people exercise their rights, not because you fear that intervention is costly or futile, but because you choose to let them exercise their rights.

That is also why tolerance of human rights violations is impossible and why tolerance is limited. We should tolerate people who exercise their rights but not those who violate the rights of others, and neither should we tolerate those who violate the rights of others while exercising their own rights. If tolerance is respect for human rights then tolerance of rights violations is by definition impossible. Hence, it’s more correct to say that tolerance is respect for human rights as long as those rights do not lead to violations of the rights of others.

People often view tolerance as no more than a convenient way to keep the peace, to co-exist with others and to avoid the possibly very high costs of trying to change the behavior or the beliefs of others. Making other people more like us would perhaps be better but it’s dangerous, especially if it requires the use of force. And when it does, it’s not just dangerous but also futile: forcing people to believe the right thing is impossible (correct beliefs come voluntarily from the inside). Hence the common view that tolerance is a fallback option when better things are impossible or too dangerous. When you can’t force people to change or when it’s too dangerous to try to change them, you have no choice but to tolerate them. Tolerance becomes a necessary evil.

However we could also view tolerance as an active and positive disposition rather than a passive declaration of defeat when faced with danger or an impossible goal. It can be seen as an active kind of respect for the rights of others. We are not really tolerant when we passively respect the rights of others simply because we have to, because violating those rights would be dangerous or because we can’t bring about the desired result anyway. We are tolerant when we actively choose to respect the rights of others even if we could easily and costlessly violate them. When you’re forced to be tolerant, when you have no better option and when you haven’t chosen to be tolerant you can hardly be called tolerant. In other words, tolerant people are those who believe they have a good reason to violate the rights of others (for example because they view other people’s exercise of their rights as immoral) but who decide not to violate them anyway for the simple reason that they don’t want to violate them. People who don’t violate the rights of the intolerable because they have no choice, because the risks are too great or because they can’t achieve what they want are not really tolerant.

The Ethics of Human Rights (84): Aggregation Across Persons

Is aggregation across persons – making a decision that some people should bear losses so that others might gain more – ever permissible?

On the one hand, studies have shown that people faced with trolley problems would often sacrifice one person in order to save several others. Ticking bomb arguments – in which a single terrorist is tortured so that millions can be saved from an impending explosion – can also count on the agreement of large majorities.

On the other hand, an exchange like this one leaves most of us shocked:

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created [in the USSR], the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm: Yes.

The thinking in both cases is plainly utilitarian – that it’s acceptable to trade off the lives of some so that others can benefit. And yet our reactions to the two cases are polar opposites.

What can account for this difference? In the former examples, the good is more obvious, namely the saving of lives. The good that could – perhaps – have come from communist tyranny is rather more vague, more uncertain and less immediate. Trolley problems and the ticking time bomb scenario also present a balance between the good and the harm that supposedly needs to be done in order to achieve the good that is more clearly in favor of the good: it’s typically just one person that has to be sacrificed or tortured, not millions as in the case of communism.

So there’s a clear, immediate and widespread good that is supposed to come from the trolley sacrifice and the ticking time bomb torture (I say “supposed” because the hypotheticals don’t tend to occur in reality), and the harm that needs to be done to achieve the good is limited. This suggests that we favor threshold deontology: things which we normally aren’t supposed to do are allowed when the consequences of doing it are overwhelmingly good (or the consequences of not doing it are overwhelmingly bad). This theory is different from plain Hobsbawmian utilitarianism in the sense that it’s not a simple aggregation of good and bad across persons resulting in a choice for the best balance, no matter how small the margin of the good relative to the bad. A crude utilitarianism such as this does not agree with most people’s moral intuitions. Neither does dogmatic deontologism which imposes rules that have to be respected no matter the consequences.

However, threshold deontology creates its own problems, not the least of which are the determination of the exact threshold level and the Sorites paradox (suppose you have a heap of sand from which you individually remove grains: when is it no longer a heap, assuming that removing a single grain never turns a heap into a non-heap?).

The moral problems described here are relevant to the topic of this blog because the harm or the good that needs to be balanced is often a harm done to or a good done for human rights.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity

Like social mobility, equality of opportunity is one of those vague political ideals favored by those who want to offer a “vision of the future” but don’t really know what they’re talking about. I agree that it sounds nice, and no one would want to be against it. But the concept of equality of opportunity is highly problematic, at least for those willing to think it through to its logical conclusions. What you get is an initially modest sounding goal – modest compared to, let’s say, equality of outcomes – which then rapidly snowballs into something huge and, in the end, something highly undesirable. Here’s how this snowballing can occur in 7 steps (I personally gave up at around the third step):

  1. Equality of opportunity, in a basic sense, just means that careers, jobs and positions are open to all applicants and that applicants are judged only on their merit and qualifications. Their social class, family connections, friendships etc. don’t matter. Equality of opportunity (henceforth EO) is therefore a condition for meritocracy.
  2. But then people should also have an equal opportunity to acquire merit and to become qualified. In other words, they should have EO in education as well. Slots in school – or perhaps even slots in the best schools – should be open to all applicants, or at least to all those who are willing and able to study. And not just formally “open”, but accessible: poor students or people belonging to historically disadvantaged groups should get scholarships, grants, subsidies, preferential admission etc.
  3. However, all this is useless if people don’t have an equal opportunity to become willing and able to study. Children, especially poor children, should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment that fosters an ethic favoring work and study. That may imply abolishing poverty and other circumstances that sometimes inhibit a good ethic, since we want all people to have an equal opportunity to raise children. We don’t want EO by way of forced sterilization of the poors or the redistribution of their children.
  4. It’s not just deprivation that undermines EO. What about those born with disabilities or without native talents? Does not EO require that we also remedy or offset these kinds of disadvantages? After all, even if the severely disabled or the talentless have (acquired) the right ethic, have managed to get into a good school, have studied hard, and aren’t discriminated against by prejudiced employers, it often doesn’t make economic sense to hire them. So, EO may require that they are either compensated in some way, or that people like that aren’t born in the first place. Genetic engineering, designer babies and so on may then enhance EO.
  5. What about ugly people? There’s clearly a bias against them. They are often treated as if they have no talents, or as if they are disabled. And extreme ugliness can just as well be seen as a disability in the world we live in. Again, genetic engineering may help. Or maybe legislation against discrimination in employment should include rules against lookism. And if such legislation isn’t effective, then compensation should be an option. Or perhaps even subsidized plastic surgery. How else could one guarantee EO for the ugly among us?
  6. EO can also be undermined by persistent differences in early socialization. For example, if girls are successfully socialized into domestic roles, then no amount of schooling, anti-discrimination legislation or employer benevolence will give girls and women EO.
  7. Imagine now that we have solved all those problems and successfully broadened EO to include groups that don’t have it automatically. People will be qualified and meritorious, but in different fields because they have different preferences and different talents. This leads to a final problem for EO: EO is only a fact if we have solved the previous 6 problems and if all human capacities are encouraged and rewarded. Imagine someone has a talent only for classical music, but all consumers have an aversion for classical music. She obviously doesn’t have EO. It doesn’t matter that she is free to apply to all positions, that employers do not have a bias against her, that she received a subsidized education in music, that she has the right ethic and that she hasn’t been socialized into an unchosen role. If people aren’t interested she won’t be able to be a classical musician, except as a hobby for which she may or may not have time. So maybe she should be compensated. In general, EO depends on customers of the goods and services produced and marketed by people free and able to act on the opportunities that they have. Customers may be reluctant to buy goods or services that they don’t care about or that are produced by blacks, poors, gays etc. EO may then require anti-discrimination laws imposed on customers.

I guess I’ve lost most of you a few steps back. And rightly so. EO does have a tendency to become a reductio ad absurdum. This doesn’t mean that disability, lookism, socialization, the lottery of birth, customer prejudice etc. aren’t important problems. On the contrary. The thing is that these problems should perhaps not be framed in terms of EO. And legislation, compensation, subsidies and so on are perhaps not the best solutions.

However, EO should remain a worthy ideal – if we give it up we’ll only have nepotism and discrimination as an alternative – but we’ll have to find a way to limit its scope and stop the risk of snowballing. I’ve already offered a possible limit in earlier posts. You won’t be surprised to hear that human rights should be the outer limits of EO.

More on EO here and here.

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (81): Changing Morality

Morality is a moving field. Its scope changes over time. Things which used to be considered an appropriate object of moral approval or disapproval are no longer, and vice versa. It’s difficult to say if the field is becoming larger or smaller. I would guess smaller, but that’s a very uninformed guess. It’s based on my impression that we tend to become more tolerant of each other’s behavior, especially when this behavior is strictly self-regarding and doesn’t involve the risk of harm to others. For centuries, mutually agreed divorce, homosexuality, masturbation, suicide and a large set of other types of behavior were not deemed morally neutral. Many of those could even land you in jail or in hell. Today, in a lot of societies around the world, these things are considered private choices that should not be interfered with and should not even be judged by others. Perhaps some of those behaviors should also be viewed as “rights”.

But even some types of other-regarding behavior that used to be seen as immoral have become acceptable over time. For instance, many types of speech were once considered harm producing – blasphemy, pornography, lèse majesté etc. – but are now believed by many to be less harmful or not harmful at all.

And yet, the reverse movement has also occurred. Slavery used to be morally neutral or even morally required (see Ephesians 6:5) and is now considered one of the worst evils. Cruel and unusual punishment used to be completely acceptable and even enjoyable. The proper treatment of animals, women and indigenous people has also become part of morality, or has shifted place within morality.

So instead of claiming that the field of morality is shrinking, it’s safer to say that it’s moving. Moving where? I guess morality has been moving away from private and self-regarding behavior and towards social behavior. I think this movement is on the whole salutary. Moral progress? To some extent, and certainly not in all domains. On the other hand, the movement of morality can convince some that all morality is just subjective and relative and that everyone can do as they please. If opinions about morality change, then morality is perhaps no more than subjective opinion. That wouldn’t be progress at all, of course, since it would destroy morality completely. Morality can never be completely subjective since it implies a judgment about how others should act and what others should believe.

More here. Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (80): The Limits of Justice, Non-Discrimination and Equality of Opportunity

Here are 3 fake and somewhat ridiculous news stories. I’m asking you to suspend your disbelief for a moment – all this has a serious purpose which will become clear afterwards:


Social activists have collaborated with one of the largest chemical companies in the country in order to produce a vitamin supplement for dogs. This supplement will modify dogs’ metabolism so as to produce dog feces that has a consistency similar to rabbit feces: granular and dry, as opposed to lumpy and greasy. The effect will be that when dogs defecate on sidewalks and when pedestrians step into the feces, the harm done to pedestrians will be less. More pedestrians will step into feces because of the granular type of the modified feces, but the damage to each individual pedestrian will be relatively small compared to the damage done by traditional dog feces. Think of it as a redistribution of feces damage. and a small but important improvement in the overall justice of our society. After all, there is no good reason why some of us should bear the full brunt. No one deserves dog shit on their shoes.


Since High School, X has been almost universally mocked because of his appearance. Social scientist as well have confirmed that he lacks facial traits and bodily features typically associated with “beautiful” people. As a results, X has spent the first 20 years of his adult life fruitlessly looking for a female mate. Not only did he fail to find a willing female of his choice; he in fact failed to find anyone at all who was willing to marry him. Given that there are a considerable number of people in the same position as X, legislators have now proposed a subsidy for these people so that they can afford plastic surgery and improve their chances on the marriage market. Naturally, strict rules will be included in the proposed legislation so as to target the subsidies towards those who really need them. After all, if society pays for the equal opportunity to receive a good education, why not also for the equal opportunity to lead a happily married life?


Mr. Smith (a pseudonym) is not a special case. He is not gay, black, female, indigenous, foreign or disabled. Nor does he belong to a minority religion. And yet, he is suing the Vatican for discrimination. Why? Well, it turns out he is in the habit of wearing short trousers and sleeveless shirts during warm days. Dressed like this, he attempted to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica and was refused entry by the guards. His lawsuit has received considerable support from US tourist organizations and tour operators. Some even suggest that Smith’s discrimination is indicative of the treatment of many US tourists by Vatican authorities. Smith’s lawyers argue that the groups of people protected by current laws against discrimination have been chosen arbitrarily or on the basis of past patterns of discrimination. If new patterns of discrimination occur – as may be the case here – then legislation should evolve.

These somewhat silly stories have the merit of bringing into focus a serious question: what are the limits of justice, non-discrimination and equality of opportunity? It’s clear from the stories that there are and should be limits. There are events that may seem unjust but shouldn’t be labelled as such. Perhaps those events – such as for example the unequal and undeserved infliction of dog shit on people’s shoes – look like they are unjust because the circumstances and structures of the events are very similar to real injustices. But then what are “real” injustices and why are some events not “real” injustices?

The same is true for equality of opportunity: we want to help people achieve an equal opportunity to do or have certain things, but not other things. Education but not a happy marriage. Why this difference?

And again the same in the case of discrimination: we want to help people avoid certain kinds of discrimination but not other. And again the question is why. How do we make the difference?

For me, the answer is clear: all considerations of justice, equality and opportunity are limited by human rights. If an injustice is also a human rights violation then it is a true case of injustice. If not, then not. If someone’s unequal treatment is also a violation of that person’s human rights, then we have a case of discrimination. If not, then not. Is someone unable to have the same opportunities as everyone else to do or have something? That’s a legitimate area of concern if that something is a right. If not, then not. (More here and here).

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (79): A Right to Do X ≠ X is the Right Thing to Do

I’ve argued before that human rights and morality are at best two partially overlapping domains. Many human rights imply a right to do wrong: free speech includes the right to insult and to break promises, two things which most reasonable accounts of morality would consider wrong. A lot of what is prohibited by morality is protected by human rights. Most would consider systematic lying – as opposed to lies of convenience – a breach of elementary moral rules, and yet the liar is protected by his or her free speech rights.

The other side of the coin: zealous pursuits of moral goals – even universally accepted moral goals such as justice and fairness – often lead to violations, sometimes gross violations of human rights. Think communism. Strong convictions about good and evil can lead to violent coercion of others who don’t conform to these convictions. FGM is another example: one of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality and will likely act immorally.

People often think as follows: given that they are convinced that X is the right thing to do (morally speaking) they conclude that they have a right to force others to do X. Needless to say that this conclusion is not acceptable. Life would be a hell of permanent coercion if it were.

However, it’s not impossible to imagine cases in which the morally right thing to do should be done even if it leads to rights violations: the ticking time bomb case comes to mind.

Of course, rights and morality do overlap in a lot of cases: murder is morally wrong, and there is a right to life that should be respected. I could cite literally hundreds of examples. Many things are morally wrong and at the same time violations of rights. If you have a right to do something, often you’ll also do the right thing; or better: if someone has a right to do X or a right to X, then others will be forced to do the right thing, which means acting in ways that respect that X.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (78): Our Duties to People in Other Countries

If we leave aside the minority view that we don’t have any moral duties to other people, as well as the somewhat more common view that we only have duties to a very limited group of people (our tribe, family or nation for example), then we end up accepting that we owe something to the rest of humanity. But what exactly? I don’t want to discuss whether we owe human beings in general the same as what we owe the people we know or the people we are associated with. What I’m interested in here is simply the nature of our obligations to “distant” people, and the basis or reasons of those obligations. Whether they’re stronger, weaker or just as strong as the obligations to “those nearer and dearer” is not the topic of this post (I have an older post about that).

1. What should we do? What are our obligations?

I think there are basically three types of obligations to distant others:

  • we have a duty to protect their human rights; this implies both abstaining from violating their rights and assisting them in the protection of their rights when those are violated (this is a legal duty)
  • we have a duty to create a more just global order (a duty of justice)
  • and we have a duty to act benevolently (a duty of beneficence).

1.1. Protect rights

This duty is in fact a set of different sub-duties:

  • A negative duty to stop violating rights ourselves. For example, if we apply a strict policy of closed borders, we violate certain rights of people in other countries (their freedom of movement, their right not to suffer poverty etc.). Our duties demand that we stop this policy.
  • A negative duty to stop assisting others who violate human rights. For example, the oppressive government of another country violates the rights of its citizens by means of weapons supplied by us (or by firms established in our country and exporting with our approval). Our duties demand that we stop assisting this government in this way.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to stop human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when the Rwandan genocide was in progress.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to prevent human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when it became clear that a genocide was about to occur in Rwanda.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to create the preconditions for human rights. For example, when the institutions in other countries are dysfunctional or absent (in the case of failed or weak states) we have a duty to assist these countries’ efforts in institution building, so that they end up with institutions capable of protecting the rights of their citizens.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to assist people’s efforts to overcome their poverty. Since poverty is a human rights violation, this is not really a separate duty: we shouldn’t create or aggravate poverty in other countries, we shouldn’t assist when others (e.g. foreign governments) create or aggravate poverty, and we have a duty to end and prevent poverty, and to create the institutions that make it possible to end and prevent poverty. However, I mention it separately because some of the specific means of intervention are peculiar to poverty, and don’t apply to other human rights (take for example development aid).

Our duties to intervene can cover

  • either only gross violations of some human rights (crimes against humanity, emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters or other humanitarian crises) – also called r2p
  • or violations of human rights in general.

Gross violations may warrant specific types of intervention that are not allowed for violations in general, for example military intervention. More mundane violations require other types of intervention, such as aid, conditional aid, diplomatic intervention, economic boycotts, universal jurisdiction etc. Intervention can also be either multilateral through the UN, or unilateral. Preferably it’s a legal form of intervention, but if necessary it can also be illegal – morality trumps law.

1.2. Create a just global order

Perhaps we should do more than just rid the world of human rights violations and extreme poverty. The world is a very unequal place, and will continue to be so even when all human rights are protected and poverty has been eliminated (given a certain definition of poverty). So maybe we also have a duty to create a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, resources and/or opportunities across countries.

However, this duty is much more controversial than the previous one (1.1). Contrary to human rights violations, there is also no legal standard prohibiting an unjust and grossly unequal global order. Hence, given the uncertainty about this second type of duty, it’s safe to argue that we should take it to be a negative duty at most. In other words, we should not make the world more unequal and more unjust than it already is, and we should try to remove or improve institutions that make the world order unequal and unjust. More specifically, we have to

  • remove unfair trade agreements or trade restrictions
  • remove the current system of national border restrictions and allow freedom of movement
  • pay reparations or otherwise correct the lingering effects of a violent and exploitative history
  • improve economic regimes that make it impossible to have equal and fair access to natural resources
  • improve international institutions, shaped by the wealthy countries to their advantage
  • etc.

Obviously, many of these actions also remove human rights violations and are therefore covered by the first type of duty. However, even when they don’t they may be required by morality.

1.3. Act benevolently

The classic description of this duty is Peter Singer’s. He gives the example of a child drowning in a pool. We all believe that there’s a strong duty to save this child, even if there’s a certain cost to ourselves – e.g. it’ll ruin our expensive suit. The equivalent of the drowning child happens all the time in distant places, and there are systems in place that allow us to save people all over the world, at a cost that isn’t much higher than the price of a suit. In many cases, all we have to do is donate some money.

This duty to act benevolently can be interpreted more widely. It can involve more than the requirement to save people from disaster. Singer claims that it implies a radically egalitarian obligation: we ought to help others until the next increment of aid would do more good spent on ourselves than transferred to others. Practically, this means helping others until we are ourselves barely better off than the rest. This is extremely demanding, and very controversial, but the narrow interpretation of the duty of benevolence is widely shared.

Again, these three different duties are not always clearly different. There are overlaps. The duty to act benevolently is partly justified by the rights of the beneficiaries: a drowning child and a starving Ethiopian have a right to life. Creating a more just global order will improve respect for people’s rights, and improving respect for people’s rights will make the global order more just. Still, there are differences between these duties and it’s interesting for human rights activists to consider the possibility that people can appeal to moral obligations that go beyond respect for their human rights.

2. Why should we do what we should do? What is the basis of our obligations?

So, now that we stated what we should do, how can we explain why we should do those things? There may be different reasons why we have obligations to help other and distant people:

  • We may be responsible ourselves for their predicament (or at least partially): we may have violated their rights, helped others to violate their rights, or established and maintained an unjust international order (for example because we have been colonizers or because the international trade system that we have imposed is biased in our favor).
  • People have rights, and these rights by themselves create a duty for everyone else to respect and to promote respect for those rights. The duty to protect other people’s rights is not a duty only for those who are responsible for violating these rights. And neither is it a duty limited to those who have a special relationship with victims of rights violations or to those whose social duty it is to promote respect for rights (e.g. judges or police officers). We all have this duty, and we have it simply because others have rights. Hence, we pay taxes that fund the legal institutions that protect citizens against others who violate their rights, that fund schools and hospitals etc. There’s no reason to think that this does not apply globally as well.
  • We may have an obligation to help other and distant people not because their rights create a moral duty to assist, but because other moral values such as justice and/or benevolence or beneficence create such such a duty. If it is in our power to do something about suffering, injustice and inequality without too much of a sacrifice of our own interests and without violating some deontological demands (e.g. do not kill), then justice and/or benevolence may require that we do it.
  • Duties to help others can also be based on enlightened self-interest: national governments have a duty to protect the rights, security and prosperity of their own citizens, and in some cases this means protecting the rights, security and prosperity of people in other nations. The poor and oppressed may become refugees; civil wars may spread to other countries or may foster international terrorism; unstable economies may harm the global economic system and the environment etc. Conversely, free and prosperous nations benefit the rest of the world because of the gains of trade, cooperation in science and culture etc.

The Ethics of Human Rights (77): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs, Ctd.

Take a look at the following conflicting facts:


There are currently 113,198 [U.S.] patients on the United Network for Organ Sharing wait list for organ transplants. With only 28,535 transplant surgeries performed in the United States last year, it is clear that actions need to be taken to increase the supply of available organs. Around 7,000 Americans die each year while waiting for a suitable transplant (source).


In a study of India’s kidney market, 86 percent of donors had major health issues after their surgery. … The same study of kidney sales in India revealed that 79 percent of sellers regretted their decision to donate an organ and a shocking 71 percent of sellers were married women. Because poor women in India have little power, they can be easily forced by their husbands to sell their organs. (source).

Good health and survival are human rights. Those of us who have objections to unregulated markets in human organs have to show that markets fail, on balance, to further human rights protection and that alternative systems of organ provision perform at least as well as organ markets in terms of human health and survival. It’s important to note here that the comparison of the cases for and against organ sales will have to take the human rights of all – buyers as well as sellers – into consideration, and will also have to factor in all human rights and not just the rights to health and survival if the case against organ markets can show that other human rights may suffer if markets are implemented.

The typical argument against organ sales – and, by extension, against other types of commodification and other instances of the “imperialism” of the market – consists of three parts:

  • some “things” are degraded or corrupted if turned into commodities
  • if some “things” are traded for money then the profit motive may crowd out other types of motivation, and those other types of motivation are often morally valuable
  • organ markets are typically coercive given the fact that poor people will be coerced by economic necessity to sell their organs.

The first point has been stated most clearly by Michael Sandel:

[M]arkets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. … We don’t allow children to be bought and sold, no matter how difficult the process of adoption can be or how willing impatient prospective parents might be. Even if the prospective buyers would treat the child responsibly, we worry that a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are properly regarded not as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. Or consider the rights and obligations of citizenship. If you are called to jury duty, you can’t hire a substitute to take your place. Nor do we allow citizens to sell their votes, even though others might be eager to buy them. Why not? Because we believe that civic duties are not private property but public responsibilities. To outsource them is to demean them, to value them in the wrong way. (source)

Market values can indeed change how we look at things. If a human body is viewed as an organ mine, then ultimately this can destroy the dignity of the body, of the human person and of life itself. There is an inescapable incompatibility between the view that something has a financial exchange value and that the same thing has dignity. The horror of slavery wasn’t merely defined by the pain, the oppression and the lack of freedom suffered by slaves, but also by the fact that slaves were viewed as commodities rather than human beings. And although it’s unfair to compare organ trade to slavery, the same commodification and financial market logic underlies both. Commodification of the human person, whether as a whole or in part, is a failure to treat human beings with dignity and respect. Human beings shouldn’t be used as tools, instruments or resources.

Not even if it means saving people’s lives? Yes, not even if it means saving people’s lives, on the condition that there are other feasible ways of saving people’s lives. And there are. The fact that current rates of donation are not always and everywhere sufficient to meet the growing demand does not imply that all possible donation schemes are insufficient. Rather than giving up completely on donation just because current schemes don’t always work well we should focus on improving it, especially given the serious drawbacks of the market system that is hastily and sometimes lazily proposed by some.

I do understand the tendency of some to look for market solutions, especially given the success of markets in other areas of life. But there’s no good reason to assume that all social relationships should be financial ones.

The second objection to organ sales is that market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about such as altruism and solidarity. Not only is this intuitively persuasive – if people get money for things it’s likely that they’ll stop giving it away for free, and that giving in general will become rare when market values invade every part of life – but there’s also some evidence. This paper argues that donation rates would decline in a market, with detrimental consequences for social relationships. And this paper also finds evidence of crowding out.

I’ve dealt with the third objection – the coercion objection – in an older post.

The Ethics of Human Rights (76): Human Rights and Desert

James Nickel has written a highly interesting paper (draft) in which he attempts to broaden the moral base of human rights. As he points out, the notion of desert doesn’t figure prominently in discussions about human rights and he may be able to open a promising line of inquiry. However, at this point I remain unconvinced by his arguments. He briefly mentions two problems with his attempt, an ontological and a political one, but seems to give them less weight than I would. Both problems deserve more attention and may prove to be fatal to his approach.

Regarding the ontological problem, I think desert is similar to love: we’ll never know for sure if there is such a thing, both in the abstract and in particular human beings. And if we want to limit the rights of undeserving people, we’d better be as sure as possible that they are really undeserving. At one point, Nickel argues that negative deserts are the reason why we put criminals in prison and restrict their freedoms. Not so long ago, a majority believed that certain people deserved to be slaves. Why should our current beliefs about desert be necessarily a lot better than theirs? Prudence is required when judging people’s deserts, especially given the likelihood that future advances in genetics, psychology and sociology will show that what we now call bad behavior or lack of virtue is in fact caused by things outside an individual’s power.

The political problem is linked to the ontological one: given the difficulty of finding and judging desert and the importance of getting it more or less right we’ll need lifetime monitoring of individuals’ private lives, possibly even their thoughts and motivations if one day that will be possible. I don’t have to spell out the possible consequences for human rights.

Furthermore, we don’t really need desert. Limitations of the rights of prisoners for example don’t need to be based on desert; the fact that these limitations are necessary in order to protect the rights of others is a sufficient justification. Rights are constantly in conflict with each other and the normal way of dealing with this is to determine the lesser evil: limiting some rights of convicted criminals is acceptable if that is necessary to preserve important rights of potential victims. The same is true for privacy and speech, speech and physical security etc. If you insist on using desert as a justification for incarceration, you’ll also have to deal with the thorny problems of retribution and proportionality. And I think that’s a dead end. (See here and here for instance).

Similarly, using desert as a positive justification for human rights is not necessary, given the many types of justification that are available (see here). Not only is it unnecessary, it may also be dangerous given the risks I cited above. For example, the right of the innocent not to be punished can be based on the fact that they don’t deserve punishment (although, as I’ve argued, the fact-status of this claim may (turn out to) be dubious). But it can just as well be based on their other human rights. Taking the latter option allows us to avoid the ontological and political problems linked to desert.

In short, I have no visceral dislike of the attempt to use desert as a basis for human rights – the more justifications for rights the better. I see some problems, but I’m open to the possibility that I overstate them.

More posts in this series are here. This post is a rewrite of an email I sent to James some time ago, replying to his mail offering me a draft of his paper.

The Ethics of Human Rights (75): Should We Economize on Virtue?

There’s a lot we can do to raise levels of respect for human rights without appealing to people’s sense of altruism, benevolence and humanity. Since virtues like these are often in short supply, this is a good thing. We can get somewhere even if we can’t make people more virtuous. For example, we can reduce global poverty by removing trade restrictions. That’s a lot easier than asking people in wealthy countries to pay higher taxes for higher levels of development aid. More examples like this are here.

We can sometimes even use people’s vices in order to further the cause of human rights. For instance, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. Selfishness can then lead them to involuntary benevolence (much like in other “invisible hand theories). Other examples of selfish reasons to respect human rights are here.

This strategy has been called “economizing on virtue“. It has a special appeal to economists because it means getting done more with less. Realists about human nature – often conservatives – are also fond of it, for obvious reasons. And perhaps it is indeed all we can hope for at the moment. The obvious risk, however, is that people will start to believe that we don’t need virtue at all. Maybe we can go a long way without virtue, but I don’t believe we can go all the way. After all, if automatic mechanisms and undemanding policies would allow us to protect all human rights of all people all of the time, how come we’re not there yet? Also, let’s not forget that virtue is also intrinsically valuable, apart from its possible role in raising levels of respect for human rights. Hence, we have two good reasons to try to foster not only beneficial self-interest but also virtuous behavior.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (73): The Link Between Corporate Social Responsibility and Reparations for Slavery

Daimler-Benz … avidly supported Nazism and in return received arms contracts and tax breaks that enabled it to become one of the world’s leading industrial concerns. (Between 1932 and 1940 production grew by 830 percent.) During the war the company used thousands of slaves and forced laborers including Jews, foreigners, and POWs. (source)

Can companies violate human rights and should they be held morally and legally responsible if they do? Or are companies just legal fictions that can’t do anything? In the latter case, if a company seems to be engaged in wrongdoing, then it’s really just the employees, the bosses or the shareholders – or all of them – that have done wrong. It’s therefore always the individuals who should be held responsible and not the company as such. This latter view is expressed in the following quote:

[C]orporate action and corporate responsibility is something of a metaphor. Corporations don’t misbehave, speak, think, and so on. People acting on behalf of corporations do. I support applying the First Amendment to the “speech of corporations” because I think the restrictions on such speech end up interfering with the rights of people, both as listeners and as people who associate in order to create an enterprise in which some of the employees speak on the enterprise’s behalf. “Corporations have First Amendment rights” is useful shorthand for conveying that, but we have to recognize that it’s just shorthand.

And because this is just shorthand, I find it hard to fault the Mercedes-Benz of today for the actions of the Mercedes-Benz of the Nazi era. Whatever Mercedes-Benz officers and employees did then is their responsibility — not the responsibility of the very different people who run the company today. And that action during the Nazi era strikes me as not really relevant to Mercedes-Benz’s current actions, or to what should be our attitudes with regard to the company and its products today. (source)

That sounds persuasive, until you start to think about the transtemporal aspect of things. Indeed, current Mercedes employees or bosses are not the same as those of the Nazi era, but the company is. It’s Mercedes now and it was Mercedes then. It’s not absurd to suggest that the company profited from its Nazi era wrongdoing – or from the wrongdoing of its people back then – and that this advantage extends to our current time.

I’ll explain. Suppose that the Nazis liked company X and its people, and that this liking led to the government backed discrimination or even elimination of competitors Y and Z. Y and Z never recovered after the end of the Nazi era, and hence company X continues to this day to profit from the absence of competitors Y and Z. And I could suggest numerous other examples of ongoing advantages resulting from actions taken decades ago (e.g. continuing returns on savings which accumulated while the wrongdoing took place and which resulted from the wrongdoing; continuing returns on expropriated goods, etc.).

This discussion is similar to the one about reparations for slavery. None of the current white citizens of the US are responsible for the slavery that ended more than a century ago, and yet they do still profit – as a group – from the defunct institution, even those whites who don’t have forefathers directly implicated in slavery or who came to the US after the end of slavery. Of course, those who do have implicated forefathers profit directly from the wealth their forefathers accumulated through slavery and subsequently transferred across generations. But whites in general profit from the fact that slavery has imposed disadvantages on blacks even after its demise (lack of education, lack of certain skills, segregation, forced migration etc.). These disadvantages were and still are benefits to whites. For example, they make it easier for whites on the job market and elsewhere.

However, the guy quoted above may insist that the “group of currently living whites” is a lot like Mercedes: the group is a social fiction in the sense that it can’t act and hence can’t be responsible. Only individual whites can act. And what they do today can’t have effects on the past. Hence they can’t be responsible for what happened in the past. A fortiori, the group of whites can’t be responsible either. I agree that all of this is correct, but it doesn’t follow that the group shouldn’t be forced to pay reparations. Just as Mercedes today, it continues to profit from wrongdoing done in its name in the past, and that is unjust. Hence they should pay compensation for the unjust profit they reap.

More on corporate social responsibility here and here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (72): Who’s Responsible for Helping the Poor?

If you’re a heartless cynic, you’ll reply “no one” or “that they help themselves” when asked who should help the poor. If not, you’ll probably offer one of three answers:

  1. Those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. The main champion of this line of thought is Thomas Pogge who we’ve mentioned before on this blog.
  2. Those who can end poverty are responsible for ending it. Who caused poverty and how is really not important. Here it’s Peter Singer who is the main proponent. (I also mentioned him before).
  3. Those who are in a special relationship with poor people are responsible for helping them. The best known representative of this view is David Miller.

The problem is that all three answers sound appealing and yet they are mutually incompatible in some respects. At the same time they seem incomplete without each other. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each answer before dealing with the relationships between them.

Answer 1 focuses on causation: those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. And Pogge has argued very successfully that all poverty as it currently exists in the world is to a large degree if not entirely caused by the actions of people and institutions:

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (source)

Pogge also claims, convincingly, that focusing on the causes of poverty delivers a stronger account of duty. The negative duty to right a wrong for which you are responsible is stronger than the positive duty to help irrespective of whether you’re responsible for the predicament of those you have to help. It does seem to be a widespread moral intuition that the negative duty not to harm, to prevent harm and to rectify harm once you’ve done it is at least more urgent and perhaps also more important than the positive duty to do good. The latter duty is central in answer 2. The idea that we should help because we caused harm seems to carry more weight than the idea that we should help simply because we can.

And yet, there’s a competing intuition that we should help because others have needs, whether or not we are responsible for those needs. So answer 1 doesn’t seem obviously superior to answer 2. In defense of answer 2, Singer gave the example of the drowning child in a famous 1972 paper. Nobody would condone your failure to help a drowning child because you weren’t the one who threw her in the pond. The simple fact that you pass by and that you can help at a minimal cost to yourself is sufficient to ground a duty to help. Poverty, according to Singer, is the same, even if it is poverty far away: the minority of wealthy people in the word can end poverty at a small cost to themselves. We should help people if we can and it doesn’t matter why people need help or who caused the problem in the first place.

If you wish, you can listen to his argument here:

He obviously explains it better than I can.

So we have two strong and seemingly incompatible intuitions here. The advantage of answer 1 is that it appeals to our understanding that negative duties are more urgent. Hence, focusing on causation and personal responsibility can, in theory, accelerate the struggle against poverty. We are more likely to act if we are convinced that we did something wrong.

The advantage of answer 2, on the other hand, is that it renders discussions about the facts of responsibility moot. Indeed, Pogge’s case about the West’s responsibility for poverty in the world is strong but not watertight. One can argue that people are partly responsible for their own poverty, or that local governments and natural conditions are also to blame. Hence, paradoxically, answer 1 can delay effective action because responsibilities first need to be attributed, and that is inherently controversial. Answer 2 then suddenly seems the more effective approach. Furthermore, answer 2 is able to deal with poverty that has no human causes: answer 1 seems unable to force action against poverty caused by natural forces.

And then there’s answer 3 making things even more complex. Answer 1 and 2 also accept that some people have greater duties than others – those who are responsible and those who can help respectively – but answer 3 takes this notion a step further. Those who are in a special relationship to the poor have greater duties to help. Part of the reason for this claim is that a relationship often yields a larger remedial capacity. Parents are better able than strangers to help their children because they have a special relationship with their children: they know them, care more for them, are closer and understand them better. The same can be said for national, linguistic or ethnic communities, according to David Miller. He speaks about “solidaristic communities” where people identify themselves as fellow members sharing a culture or beliefs with other members. This makes distributions easier and more effective.

It’s now the turn of answer 3 to claim to be the more effective one. And indeed, distance does play a role, not only in the effectiveness of actions but also in the willingness to help. Even Singer accepts the latter fact. We may want to change the facts but that takes time. In the meantime, it may be better to count on solidarity within groups than on the duties defended by answers 1 and 2.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that we can give extra weight to the interests of those close to us. This does not imply that we are allowed to neglect the world’s poor, but it does mean that our efforts to help them should not be at the expense of those close to us, including ourselves. If we have a duty to give, then this duty is limited by what we need for ourselves and for those close to us.

So, this concludes the description of different answers to the question in the title of the blog post. The relationship between these answers is a difficult one. They seem incompatible: either we look for those responsible for harm and force them to remedy; or we look for those who can offer a remedy and force them to act; or we look inside solidaristic communities. The duty bearers will sometimes be the same according to all three answers, and then there’s no problem if one, two or three justifications of their duties are successful in forcing them to act. But it can happen that the duty bearers are different people in the three different answers, and then there’s a problem. And we shouldn’t underestimate the probability of this. I personally tend to favor answer 2, but I don’t really have a good argument for this.

The Ethics of Human Rights (71): The Rights of the Dead

Can the living violate the rights of the dead? Assuming that the dead are gone, they can’t be harmed. So the obvious answer would be “no”. And yet, I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable about cases such as the death of Whitney Houston some time ago: certain very intimate and private details about her and her death were leaked to the press. So in some sense we believe that the dead deserve privacy.

Also some time ago, there was an uproar about Mormons posthumously baptizing people. Maybe this is harmless: the dead, again, can’t be harmed. If you believe in an afterlife, then things are different of course. For non-Mormon believers, posthumous baptism harms the dead because their wishes and agency are intact after death and are not respected by posthumous baptizers; for Mormons, on the other hand, a lot of good is done because it saves the dead from eternal damnation. But again, it seems like a belief in an afterlife isn’t a requirement for having a feeling of unease about the practice. Even the dead deserve respect of their agency and their choices in life. Posthumous baptism implies a negative judgment about people’s lives. Unintentionally, it also implies a negative judgment of the religion that engages in the practice: if you can’t convince the living to join your church and feel the need to co-opt them after death, then that says a lot about your appeal.

I could cite many other cases: there was this one about funeral disturbances; there’s of course the rule against necrophilia; and the argument against presumed consent for organ donation also relies on the rights of the dead (“my dead body belongs to me and the state can’t just confiscate it for organ donations if I haven’t explicitly consented to this”). Personally, I find this latter invocation of the rights of the dead much less appealing than the other ones I’ve cited: if the right to speech and the right to vote die with us, why not the right to control our bodies? Still, I mention the case because it’s testimony to a widespread belief that the dead have at least some rights.

Many of these discussions are “contaminated” by the effects of certain practices on the living. For example, it can be seen as offensive to living Jews if dead Jews are systematically baptized posthumously. We want to ignore those effects for argument’s sake and in order to determine whether the dead have certain rights. I now think they do.

If I’m right, this supports my previously stated view that human rights are about more than protection against harm – if the dead can’t be harmed and have rights nonetheless, then rights aren’t just about harm.

More on the rights of the dead here and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Ethics of Human Rights (69): Democratic Transition Caught Between the Rights of Past and Future Generations

Here are some general observations inspired by the recent talk of a possible amnesty for Assad as a means to convince him to give up power in Syria.

Imagine a country in which roughly 20% of the population ruled the other 80% during several decades or even centuries. The members of the ruling class owned the land and controlled much of the economy, are of a different social class (perhaps even race) and made sure that the rest of the population lived in constant poverty, oppression and discrimination.

The combination of an internal uprising and external intervention produced a successful transition to a fully democratic form of government. A strong and independent judiciary is now in place, able to effectively enforce a constitution that includes a wide array of human rights.

How should this new democracy deal with the horrors of the past and the rights violations of the now defunct regime? There are two seemingly incompatible needs: victims of rights violations in the past now demand justice, but the society as a whole may be better off without justice, at least in the short run immediately after the democratic transition (and later it may be too late to bring the perpetrators to justice because they’re all dead). Justice can make it more difficult to integrate the old ruling class into the new state. Given that most of the members of that class were heavily implicated in the horrors of the past, justice can’t be a simple matter of punishing a few key perpetrators. And punishing large groups of people will alienate those people, with potentially fatal consequences for the stability of the new state. It may even be the case that one can identify a few key perpetrators, but that those are still quite important for stability even though they’re not very numerous. For example, it’s likely that the military was implicated in past injustices, but the military – especially the top brass – is very important for stability and the new state can’t risk alienating this group, even if it’s not very large. An internally divided society is not at peace with itself and risks upheaval.

However, failure to pursue justice will also divide society. Failure to do something about past injustices will result in impunity and will undermine the moral authority of the new state. Also, what would that imply for future respect for human rights? Why respect rights when past disrespect was without consequences? And if only new rights violations are prosecuted, then there will be a feeling of injustice because of double standards.

A solution to this dilemma can perhaps be found in the fact that there are degrees and different kinds of justice. Justice doesn’t have to be penal or focused on retribution or revenge. Better perhaps to emphasize truth, also a traditional element of justice. Truth, as in the so-called truth commissions, can foster repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Judicial prosecutions can still play a part, but their potential divisiveness can be softened by measures such as amnesty, pardon or limited punishments, on the condition that the defendants cooperate in truth commissions. It’s often the case that truth is more important to victims than retribution.

Of course, some major perpetrators may still have to be punished and perhaps even severely punished. Some types of responsibility are simply to heavy to warrant amnesty. It may be impossible for a society to exist given the presence of monsters continuing their lives as if nothing happened. It’s not necessary to “buy” the allegiance of every single individual in society, not even individuals who still have a broad base of support. In addition, we have to avoid coerced amnesty: perpetrators can blackmail the new state by threatening large-scale unrest or upheaval.

So we need to balance the needs of the past and the future. Both needs should be acknowledged and neither should be sacrificed for the other. Of course, that’s easy to say and very hard to do.

More on the rights of past and future generations here, here, here and here. More on transitional justice here. More on the prerequisites for a transition to democracy is here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (68): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs

Or, better, a case against it. I believe that trade in human organs is morally wrong, at least if this trade is free and unregulated (but perhaps also when it’s regulated in some way). I don’t think the same case can be made against the sale of body products such as blood, hair etc., although some of the arguments against the sale of organs may also apply to the sale in body products. I will bracket this problem for now and concentrate on organs.

I make the argument against organ sales knowing full well that there’s a huge problem of organ shortages and that some people will benefit from free organ trade, and may even lose their lives if free trade is not allowed. Hence, if I claim that free organ trade is morally wrong, then I’m not necessarily making the claim that it should be forbidden in all circumstances. If there are other wrongs, such as people avoidably losing their lives, that overwhelm the wrongs resulting from organ trade, then the former wrongs may be preferable all things considered. However, I believe that the latter wrongs are commonly underestimated by those defending the legality of organ sales. I also believe that there’s a blind spot common among those who claim that the wrongs resulting from a ban on sales typically outweigh the wrongs resulting from a free organ market: it’s not as if the only choice is the one between the status quo – which is in most cases a ban on sales resulting in organ shortages – and a free organ market. There are other and perhaps better solutions to the shortage problem, even in the short term.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe a free organ markets causes serious wrongs:

1. Coercion by poverty

Not a single wealthy person will ever need or want to sell his or her organs. In a system of free organ trade, it’s the poor who will sell their organs to the rich. Maybe a legalized market will reduce the wealth disparity between buyers and sellers to some extent, given the fact that the number of potential sellers will be higher in a free market and that the number of potential buyers will not. This increase in supply compared to demand, following legalization, will reduce prices somewhat, making it feasible for more people to buy organs. Still, it will almost always be the relatively rich buying from the relatively poor, especially if the market is a global one (and I find it hard to understand arguments in favor of a free market limited to national borders).

Many of these poor will be desperately poor, particularly if the market is globally free. A decision to sell an organ isn’t made lightly, and requires some level of financial desperation. The extraction of an organ still carries a substantial risk (e.g. 1 in 3000 die from a kidney extraction even in the best medical circumstances), and few will be willing to take this risk from a baseline situation of wellbeing or happiness that is moderately high and that can not or need not be substantially improved by financial means.

Hence, if organ trade is allowed, many sellers will be desperately poor people, and there will be more of those in a legalized market than in a black market. Now it’s clear that desperation can be coercive: it forces people to do things that they would not otherwise do, that entail risks that they would avoid at higher levels of wellbeing, that may be harmful for them, and that go against their better judgment. If coercion is wrong, then free organ trade is wrong because free organ trade multiplies the number of desperately poor people that feel coerced to sell their organs.

2. Trade instead of justice

It’s reasonable to assume that rich people are responsible for the poverty that exists in the world, if not directly through their actions (trade policy, colonization etc.) then through their failure to prevent or remedy poverty. It will almost invariably be the same rich people who will want to buy organs from poor people. Now, if you first create poverty (or fail to do something about it, which in my mind is equivalent) and then tell poor people that you’ll give them money but only if they give you their organs in return, then you add insult to injury: you have a moral duty to give them your money unconditionally. Insisting on the possibility of trade while neglecting the necessity of justice is wrong.

3. Objectification and instrumentalization

There are some other good reasons why it’s wrong to buy an organ from someone, even if this person willingly agrees to the sale on the basis of informed consent, and even if he or she isn’t coerced into the sale by his or her poverty and isn’t someone who has a moral and unconditional right to the money he or she would get from a sale. For instance, buying an organ from someone means treating this person as an object and a means. It’s a failure to respect the person’s dignity as a being that should be treated as an end in itself rather than as a shop or an organ factory. It’s not outrageous to view organ trade as a new form of cannibalism.

4. Unjust distribution

The previous 3 arguments against organ trade focused on the wrongs it imposes on the sellers. But even the buyers are treated unjustly in a system of free organ sales. If the distribution of organs is regulated solely by way of free trade, then the patients who are most in need of an organ are not the ones who will get the organs. It will instead be those patients able to pay most who will get them.

5. Crowding out altruism

There’s even an argument that points to possible harm to society as a whole. If more and more human relationships are brought within the cash nexus, then giving and altruism will be crowded out. It’s obviously the case that when people can get money for something, they will stop giving it for free. Human nature is what it is. But given what it is, we shouldn’t encourage its darker sides. It’s reasonable to assume that free donation of organs will all but disappear when people can get cash for them. And it’s also reasonable to assume that this reduction in altruism can have a ripple effect throughout society and in many other fields of life, especially when we take account of the fact that more and more activities have already been brought within the cash nexus: sex, reproduction, politics

No one assumes that everything should be tradable. Even the most outspoken proponents of organ trade draw the line somewhere: they won’t allow people to sell parts of their brains, I guess, or their children and wives, or the parts of aborted fetuses (perhaps fetuses specially conceived and harvested for their parts). So we have to stop somewhere and disallow the trade of some things. Why should it be evident that organs are not one step too far?


If organ sales do have harmful consequences, then what are the alternatives? If we don’t want to allow those willing to sell to go about and legally sell their organs to those capable of buying them, then how do we solve the shortage problem and save the lives of those in need of organs? We can do several things:

  • We can try to increase the number of free cadaveric donations, by improving the way we approach bereaved relatives, by introducing a system of presumed consent, by promoting explicit consent (for example through the introduction of regulations that allay fears that doctors will stop life support when they need organs, or through some sort of priority system in which those who have pledged cadaveric donation can jump the queue when they themselves need organs) etc.
  • We can try to increase living donation, by way of awareness campaigns.
  • We can hope for scientific breakthroughs that make cadaveric recovery of organs easier or live donations less risky, or that make it possible to grow organ in vitro.

Organ sale is certainly not the only solution to the shortage problem.

A final remark: given the fact that proponents of organ trade often rely on the right to self-ownership – the right to do with your body as you please – we may have to tone down the importance of that right. Which is something we’ll have to do anyway: for instance, there’s no welfare state if the right to self-ownership is absolute.

The Ethics of Human Rights (67): What Kind of Redistribution Does Luck Egalitarianism Require?

Luck egalitarianism is the theory of justice according to which bad luck that falls on people through no fault or choice of their own, is an injustice that has to be remedied. Whatever the merits of this theory, it does broadly correspond to certain widely shared moral intuitions. When you lose a limb in an accident, or contract a terminal illness, you probably feel like “why me?” and ask yourself: “what did I do to deserve this?”, “why should I of all people suffer this fate”, and “why should I be worse off than others through no fault of my own?”. You’ll have the same feelings when you happen to be born in a poor country, with a disability, in a dysfunctional family or in a discriminated cast or class. Such instances of bad luck lead to vastly unequal opportunities. And it does seem to be the case that inequality that is attributable to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities is less acceptable – morally speaking – than inequality that is wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make.

Of course, bad luck is unavoidable, but we can do something about the unequal opportunities it creates. This will inevitably lead to some kind of redistribution. The redistribution required by luck egalitarianism means that the lucky among us should transfer to those less fortunate some of the advantages that have come to us through luck. For example, we should pay taxes that are used to make life easier for the disabled. We can’t redistribute luck (for example, we can’t redistribute disease, accidents etc.). Hence we have to redistribute the consequences of luck. We should make the consequences of bad luck less severe or a bit easier to carry, and we should do so by skimming some of the beneficial consequences of good luck.

The redistribution required by luck egalitarianism is asymmetric: something must be done to help the unlucky, and that means taking something from the lucky; but it’s not the case that something must be done to make the lucky less lucky. It’s bad when people are worse off because of bad luck, but it’s not equally bad when people are better off because of good luck. Merit is important in life, and we admire people who are better off not because of good luck but because of what they did and who they are. But this admiration doesn’t imply condemnation of those who are better off simply because of good luck. The latter shouldn’t be condemned but they should part with some of their advantages in order to help those who are worse off because of bad luck. Bad luck is objectionable, and good luck is unobjectionable. But unobjectionable doesn’t mean that we are not allowed to confiscate part of the benefits of good luck in order to do something about objectionable bad luck.

And here we encounter one possible objection to luck egalitarianism: it seems like the theory doesn’t allow taxation of those who have acquired their wealth without any good luck (that is, if there are such people). Normally, most of us would want to impose a duty to help also on those who are better off not because of luck but because of what they did.

Other objections are here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (66): Human Rights and “Spontaneous Order”

Hayek has famously argued that market economies create a spontaneous order, a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any intentional design or planning could achieve. This spontaneous order is superior to any order the human mind can design due to the specifics of the information requirements. Planners will never have enough information to carry out the allocation of resources reliably. Only individual economic actors can create an efficient and productive economy by engaging in free exchanges and by using as their information source the spontaneously developing price system. They can do so because they act on the basis of information with greater detail and accuracy – namely the price system – than the information available to any centralized authority.

Whatever the general merits of such invisible hand theories for the whole of society (I think those merits are real but often vastly overstated), it’s useful to ask if they also apply in the field of human rights. To what extent and in which circumstances can there be an equivalent of “spontaneous order” for human rights? Can it happen that people’s unintended and selfish actions promote respect for human rights? Or do human rights always require intentional and (centrally) planned policy?

First, this question has to be distinguished from a similar one: it’s true that people do have selfish reasons to promote human rights and often act on those reasons, as I’ve argued here. But in that case their human rights efforts are quite intentional. What I’m asking here is whether there are equally selfish but unintentional processes that promote human rights. And I think there are. Before listing some of them, however, let me make clear that those processes, although they are obviously beneficial and to be encouraged, will not make a huge difference, and that they certainly won’t be sufficient to bring about human rights utopia.

After some superficial thinking about this, I came up with three examples:

  • Trickle down economics is by now thoroughly discredited, especially when it’s used to justify tax cuts for the wealthy. Not all boats have risen on the rising tide, and the tide itself has recently come crashing down on all of us, the rich included. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s never any trickling down in an economy. When the government’s tax system allows the wealthy to retain a reasonable part of their wealth (let’s assume we know what “reasonable” means here), then some of their wealth does indeed flow down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, through either consumption or investment, thereby creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and higher income for the less well-off. If that’s the case, then the right to a certain standard of living is promoted through the selfish and unintentional actions of the wealthy. Of course, this will never be enough to secure that right for everyone all of the time.
  • As Becker has argued, free competition between firms reduces discrimination. A racially biased firm will want to hire whites, even if they are more expensive and less qualified than some non-whites. But a firm will only do so if it’s not under pressure from competitors. In a competitive market, other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the cheaper/better black person. The biased firm will then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.
  • There’s a strong tendency towards urbanization in developing countries. Large cities offer more economic opportunities, and jobs in factories, shops or trade offer some advantages compared to agriculture (e.g. weather independence, stable income etc.). When women move to cities and work in factories, they usually have less children – they don’t need children to work the land – and they become more independent of traditional patriarchal structures that are more common in the countryside. This does not only improve the wellbeing of women. Having less children means that the remaining children are more likely to attend school, because school is expensive. Female children in particular benefit from this education. Hence, rights such as education and non-discrimination are automatically advanced by urbanization.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (65): The Deserving Poor and the Spectacle of Libertarianism Eating Itself

It’s a common right-wing complaint, especially among right-libertarians, that the welfare state helps the poor whether or not they have only themselves to blame for their poverty. If there should be a duty to help the poor, it should be limited to the deserving poor (although some libertarians think that even this goes too far since it implies a form of slavery for those who have a duty to help). All the others should suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions – their teen pregnancy, their lack of effort at school, their alcohol problem etc.

One could reply that people’s bad decisions aren’t always their own decisions, in the sense that making good decisions is something you have to learn, and this learning may be difficult in an environment of poverty, especially during childhood. However, let’s bracket this objection, for the sake of argument, and assume that there are indeed some people who only have themselves to blame. They may not be as numerous as those on the right tend to believe, but even if there are only a few we should decide what to do with them – help them or not.

The criticism that our current systems of social security don’t differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor is sometimes illustrated with an analogy. If we assume that governments fund their welfare system through taxation, and that taxation is a kind of involuntary charity or enforced charity – the government steps in in order to take the money which we don’t give voluntarily to charity – then it’s only right that the government takes every effort to make sure that our money goes only to the deserving poor. If we voluntarily give money to charity, we also want to be sure that it goes to a good cause, and those collecting our money have a duty to spend it well and not waste in on people that aren’t going to use it constructively. Given the libertarian view that taxation is a form of stealing it’s all the more important that the tax money is spent well; you can perhaps argue in favor of stealing if the harm done by stealing is compensated by the greater good that is done with the stolen money, but you certainly can’t if there is no greater good and if the money goes to undeserving poor who are rewarded for their bad behavior.

Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support? (source)

Now, it’s here that the problem begins and that libertarians who follow this reasoning tend to undermine their own libertarianism. If you want to help only the deserving poor, and if you want to be very strict about helping only those people, then you’ll have to accept systematic and wide ranging intrusions into people’s privacy. How else would you be able to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving? You’ll need detailed biographies of all potential welfare or charity beneficiaries, records of their decisions and behavior, of their job applications, their diet, their sexual mores, etc.

You’ll have to accept these intrusions whether or not you believe that charity is the perfect and only solution. If you believe, correctly I think, that charity will never suffice, then you have all the more reason to be worried, since it’s the state who will have to monitor deservingness. Either scenario is anathema to libertarians.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor isn’t only difficult in practice. It’s also theoretically fraught with problems. For example, if you assume that you have a system to find out which poor person is an alcoholic and which one isn’t, then you still have to answer the question whether an alcoholic is an undeserving poor person or not. This answer depends on the causes of her alcoholism: maybe the cause is a series of misfortunes combined with a weak character, in which case her alcoholism is obviously not deserved. Perhaps she deserves blame for her weak character was, or perhaps not. One can easily make the case that a strong character and a good amount of effort and discipline depend on our upbringing and the social circumstances in which we are born. And no one deserve those circumstances.

And finally, even if we can identify the deserving both in theory and in practice, and even if we accept the anti-libertarian consequences of this work of identification, then we can still argue against the claim that we should not help the undeserving poor. Perhaps it’s a sign of decency and civilization that we help even the undeserving poor. Maybe the claims of the undeserving aren’t as strong as the claims of the deserving, and maybe we shouldn’t help them as much or as quickly as the deserving. But that doesn’t mean we should let them starve.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (64): Value Pluralism Supports Human Rights

The justification of human rights – the quest for reasons why they are important and why we need them – is probably the most important topic of this blog (some previous posts are here, here, here, here and here). One element of justification is their compatibility with an important tenet of moral theory, namely value pluralism. Value pluralism is, in my opinion, a principle of morality that comes very close to being a “moral fact“.

In short, the principle says the following. There are many different moral values – or different moral “goods” if you want – such as happiness, liberty, equality, loyalty etc. Those values differ qualitatively from each other and don’t seem to be reducible to one super value. And neither is there a clear ranking of importance so that conflicts between values can be easily decided. Different values can’t be compared to each other. Friendship is not clearly more important or a higher value than loyalty; freedom is not prior to equality; being happy is not better than developing your capacities etc. When two values seem to be incompatible, it’s hardly ever certain which of the two should be favored. And neither is it easy to say that a decrease of x in value v is acceptable if it results in an increase of x or y in value w; it’s often even impossible to determine the x and y in this equation because values are quantitatively and not just qualitatively incomparable. An increase of x in friendship is not comparable to an increase of x in loyalty. What does an increase of x in friendship even mean? Furthermore, there are problems in cases that don’t involve incompatible values: in general, is it better to strive towards increases in value v rather than increases in value w? For example, some say a society and a government should promote equality as the prime value; others prefer to maximize liberty. It’s difficult if not impossible to decide if either of these goals is the most important.

And yet, even if value pluralism is true and moral theory can’t therefore offer guidance in cases of incompatible values or in the choice of the single value to pursue in life, people have to solve conflicts between values on an almost daily basis, and they have to decide which value or values should guide their lives. If moral theory is useless in those everyday decisions, then it’s better to let people decide for themselves about what is good and right. People should be left free to live their own lives according to the guiding values they choose independently, and they should be allowed to decide conflicts between values according to their own conscience. If value pluralism is true, then there is no single way of life that is the highest and the best for all, and then it’s also true that people should be given the freedom to decide for themselves.

This is where human rights enter the scene. Human rights support this freedom in two ways, a direct and an indirect way. They allow people to choose a type of good life independently from the pressures of government or society: minority religions are free, people are free to associate, expression is free, they can use their property the way they like etc. In addition, there’s is nothing in the system of human rights that prohibits self-chosen and self-regarding value decisions, as long as the rights of others aren’t harmed (for example, drug use that doesn’t harm others cannot be prohibited on the basis of human rights).

Indirectly, human rights oppose authoritarian governments which favor and enforce one value or one way of life as the only desirable way of life: communist societies that promote equality at the expense of all other values, Catholic dictatorships that prohibit other religions, Muslim theocracies etc. If value pluralism is true, then there is no basis for coercive policies intended to systematically favor one value or one way of life. (Of course, in specific cases of incompatible values, it may be necessary for coercive government intervention in favor of one value or the other, especially when government inaction would cause more overall harm to certain values than government action; but that is the exception to the general rule that people should be free to solve those issues themselves – a rule that is based on morality’s inability to find good general reasons to favor one value over another. An example of such an action would be a government prohibition on religious child sacrifice).

One problem with the line of reasoning that I set out here is that the opposite can also be true: value pluralism can support authoritarian government. Not the type of authoritarian government that is paternalistic and that favors the realization of one value above all others, but the type that presents itself as a bulwark against anarchy, instability and factionalization. Governments which take the latter approach start with the presumed fragility of the bonds of community. These bonds, it is said, can only be maintained if society is inspired by a single purpose and a single good. The freedom to let people decide for themselves what type of life they want to pursue can undo the necessary sense of community because it erodes the single purpose, but also because groups of people will turn away from each other in disgust over the other groups’ lifestyles. Conflict and a lack of solidarity will destroy society. One purpose should therefore be enforced, not because this purpose is generally superior to all others, but because otherwise society will fall apart. I’ve argued here against this justification of authoritarianism. The crux of my argument is that you can’t enforce a common purpose; this has to come voluntarily and “from within”, and enforcing it merely encourages violent dissent on the side of those who see their own purposes suppressed. If this is correct, then value pluralism doesn’t support authoritarianism.

More on value pluralism here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (63): Human Rights and Moral Subjectivism

Human rights seem to be vulnerable to a common argument in morality: how can we objectively determine that some action is morally wrong? I may think it’s wrong, but you may think something else. Which one of us is correct? There seems to be no way of knowing. Morality is therefore subjective: if something is wrong, it’s wrong for me, for my religious group, my culture etc. If you, your church or your culture thinks it’s OK, then go ahead and do it.

This subjectivism and relativism seem inevitable in our age of moral and cultural pluralism. Western societies are no longer characterized by a quasi-general agreement on the precepts of the Bible, and our colonial hangover has made us weary of supposedly objective morality. There’s no more “true or false” about moral norms, just “ours” and “theirs”. This coexistence of different and often incompatible and contradictory norms or moral systems should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance, and should even be celebrated as part of the richness of human life.

It’s not clear what if anything is left of human rights once we’re done with this. Since these rights are also moral norms, it seems as if they too should be demoted to the rank of personal or group preferences, with no moral force over people holding other preferences. If human rights aren’t true and objective norms, but merely our norms, and if these norms lack any backing more sophisticated than our subjective preference for them or the fact that they are in our holy book, then there’s no point in talking about human rights at all. Drop the “human” part and replace it with “ours” or “mine”. The only good that human rights can possibly do is symbolic affirmation of group membership (“Free speech is a right!” – “Ah, yes indeed, you must be a liberal! Welcome!”). They’ll offer no protection at all, since all violators obviously have different subjective norms, and have an equally valid justification for those norms, namely that they are theirs or that they are in their books.

Fortunately, none of this is inevitable. We may never be able to say that it is objectively “true” that people have this or that human right, or that it is “true” that a particular human right is an important moral norm. However, there’s considerable space between such objective truth claims on the one hand and merely personal, subjective, cultural and relative claims on the other. We may produce good arguments and make a reasonably convincing case that rights claims are good claims. Not true claims, but good claims in the sense that they are strong and difficult to argue against. Rights claims will then perhaps be accepted by people who initially held anti-rights preferences, not because they are forced by the objective truth of those claims – as they may be forced to accept the laws of gravity when the truth of those is demonstrated to them – but because they have allowed themselves to be convinced by the force of our arguments.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (62): Human Rights Consequentialism

A few additional remarks following this previous post.

A really crude simplification would divide moral theories into two groups: deontological and consequentialist theories; or, in other words, theories that focus on duties and rights and theories that focus on good consequences. At first glance, human rights activists should adopt deontology. We have rights independently of the consequences that follow if they are upheld or not. Rights are strong claims by individuals against society and the state, claims that can’t just be put aside if doing so would yield better overall consequences. You can’t torture one individual if this torture would cure millions of chronic headache.

Consequentialist theories, as opposed to deontological ones, usually do accept the sacrifice of a few – including their rights – for the benefit of many, or they accept a small sacrifice for a larger good even if only one individual profits from this larger good. A larger good can justify a smaller harm. And indeed, there are many circumstances in which violating the rights of some would deliver greater goods for many.

For example, closing down the Westboro Baptist Church would give many people some or even a lot of satisfaction while imposing serious harm on only a few (it’s a small band of crazies). The consequentialist calculus is likely to show that in this case the sum of satisfactions outweighs the sum of harm. The fact that the harm we’re talking about here means a violation of rights (free speech,  freedom of association and freedom of religion for the church members) doesn’t count in the consequentialist calculus. A harm is a harm and it’s the intensity not the nature of the harm that is important.

It’s not surprising that proponents of human rights have problems with this: human rights are important for everyone, but especially for minorities who risk being crushed by the interests of the majority.

It seems, therefore, that consequentialist reasoning is inimical to human rights. And yet, almost all if not all theories about human rights allow for some consequentialism. For example, there’s the case of catastrophic consequences. When faced with the possibility of catastrophic consequences it seems stupid and contrary to moral intuition to hold on to rights, no matter how dear these rights are to you in normal circumstances. The archetypical case is the ticking bomb.

Some proponents of human rights – and I’m one of them – go even further and justify rights on a consequentialist basis: rights are necessary because we need them to realize certain fundamental human values. And, in order to limit the consequentialist logic that would allow violations of rights for every tiny marginal good, we do four things:

  1. We claim that it is an empirically verifiable fact that human rights are among the best, if not the best means to realize the values in question. This is true on average and, especially, in the long run. Hence, sacrificing rights in order to realize those values isn’t the best short term or long term strategy.
  2. Even if there are isolated cases in which the values in question are better served by other means – other means than human rights and other means that require setting aside or violating human rights – then it’s still better to ignore those other means. If not, we will leave human rights with less authority and less force to produce good consequences in the future. Part of the force of human rights lies in their imperative and rule-like character. Setting them aside, even occasionally, because we think that’s necessary for certain goals, destroys their future power. They are not like antibiotics whose power depends on their limited use. On the contrary: the more we use human rights, the more power they have, and hence the more effective they are in doing what they usually do best.
  3. We claim that the values protected and realized by human rights are among the most fundamental human values, if not the most fundamental. Hence, consequentialist reasoning will have a hard time coming up with more fundamental values that justify sacrificing human rights or the values protected by human rights.
  4. We claim that consequentialist reasoning has some theoretical limitations: for example, we may know in general what consequences tend to follow from certain principles such as human rights, but it’s much more difficult if not impossible to know the precise consequences of specific actions (especially the long term consequences). This is also true for actions that imply human rights violations. Hence, even if there are, in theory, better ways to realize the values normally realized by human rights, and even if there are, in theory, more fundamental values than those realized by human rights, we don’t know if our specific actions aimed at the realization of values do in fact produce those values. Hence, we have reasons not to engage in consequentialist calculations that imply violations of human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (61): Human Rights and Rule Consequentialism

In a previous post, I’ve argued that deontology, when compared to consequentialism, seems to be more amenable to human rights because consequentialism – or at least some forms of it, such as act consequentialism and utilitarianism – tends to focus on the maximization of good consequences (be it welfare, utility or whatever) at the expense of rules, including rules on human rights. Rules, according to consequentialism, are useful only when they maximize the good, and can be put aside when they don’t. Hence they aren’t really rules at all. Conversely, human rights – which really are rules – tell us that we should not do certain things to indviduals, not even if doing those things would maximize overall social utility.

However, in that older post I also pointed to some elements of deontology that are problematic from a human rights perspective. An example: many but not all deontological theories tend towards moral absolutism. Human rights are not absolute rules, for different reasons but mainly because different rights are often incompatible and need to be balanced against each other. This absolutism is a problem that can be overcome by threshold deontology. However, this modified form of deontology creates other problems.

And yet, I forgot to mention the main argument against a marriage of human rights and deontology, namely the fact that human rights are typically justified in a consequentialist manner and that deontological justifications of human rights are extremely unconvincing. When we want to sell human rights to those among us who believe that they are superfluous or perhaps even nefarious we usually cite the good consequences that follow from (or would follow from) respect for human rights. I myself am heavily invested in this effort (see previous posts here).

If you want to justify human rights without reference to their good consequences – if, in other words, you’re looking for a deontological justification – then you’ll have an extremely hard time coming up with something interesting and non-tautological. The claim that humans have human rights simply because of their humanity is true enough (in the sense that humans don’t have to deserve their human rights and don’t have these rights bestowed upon them by their benevolent rulers) but it won’t get you very far persuasion-wise.

Take, for example, the right to free expression. You might argue that free expression is good in itself – whatever the possible consequences (such as epistemological progress) – because humans are essentially expressive beings. However,

Self-expression can take an indefinite number of forms beside speaking, and a deontological right to do whatever we want as a matter of self-expression is ridiculous. The basic reason it is so is because our acts of self-expression can affect others, and often deleteriously. (source)

Consequences are hard to ignore. They tend to creep into all efforts at justification. So, the conclusion of all this seems to be that human require or are a form of rule consequentialism. This is a modification of the original form of consequentialism, also called act consequentialism. Rather than regarding morality as a matter of selecting acts that produce the best overall consequences (good consequences minus bad consequences), rule consequentialism is about selecting rules in terms of the goodness of their consequences. It’s those rules that determine whether acts are morally right or wrong, not the consequences of acts. Of course, the conjecture is that the chosen rules will generally promote acts that produce good consequences. And yet, even if they don’t or won’t in certain cases (or if we think they don’t or won’t), we better stick to the rules anyway because violating them for the purpose of a small benefit can lead to greater long term disadvantage.

Rule consequentialism avoids some of the pitfalls of act consequentialism and simple utilitarianism, such as the tendency to dump rules when a small benefit can be produced by dumping them (e.g. torturing one to save two others from torture); the calculation problem (consequences are hard to assess and compare, especially when the time frame isn’t limited, and it shouldn’t be); the information problem (consequences are difficult to predict, especially for people who lack knowledge of a certain area or who are in a hurry); etc.

I won’t claim that rule consequentialism is without problems (there’s an overview of criticisms here), but compared to act consequentialism, utilitarianism and deontology it sure looks promising from a human rights perspective,

Note that I’m revising here my older opinion on rule consequentialism as I have expressed it in this post.

More posts in this series here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (60): Absolute Human Rights and Threshold Deontology

There’s this difficult contradiction between two moral intuitions about human rights. On the one hand, we tend to feel very strongly about the extreme importance of a particular subset of human rights. Especially the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to be enslaved are among those human rights which are so fundamental that their abrogation or limitation seems outrageous. Other rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to privacy, are hardly ever considered to be absolute in this sense – which doesn’t mean they are unimportant (something can be a very important value without being a moral absolute). Some restrictions on those rights are commonly accepted.

On the other hand, the horror that is provoked by the mere thought of limiting the right to life or the right not to suffer torture and slavery doesn’t preclude the fact that there are few consistent pacifists. Most of us would decide not to submit to a Nazi invasion and to fight back. Hence, the horrific thought of abrogating the right to life does not stop us from conceiving and actively engaging in killing. There’s also the Trolley Problem: experiments have shown that most people would sacrifice one to save many. The same is the case in ticking bomb scenarios.

True, there are some consistent pacifists, as well as some who oppose torture under all circumstances, whatever the consequences of failing to kill or torture. But I’m pretty sure they are a small minority (which doesn’t mean they are wrong). The more common response to the conflicting intuitions described here is what has been called threshold deontology: faced with the possibility of catastrophic moral harm that would be the consequence of sticking to certain rules and rights (catastrophic meaning beyond a certain threshold of harm) people decide that those rules and rights should give way as a means to avoid the catastrophe.

Threshold deontology means that there are very strong and near-absolute moral rules, which should nevertheless give way when the consequences of sticking to them bring too much harm. Threshold deontology can also be called limited consequentialism: rules may not be broken whenever there’s a supposedly good reason to do so or whenever doing so would maximize or increase overall wellbeing; but consequentialism is the only viable meta-ethical rule to follow when consequences are catastrophically bad or astronomically good.

If this is correct, then why not simply adopt a plain form of consequentialism? Do whatever brings the most benefit, and screw moral absolutes – or, better, screw all moral rules apart from the rule that tells us to maximize good consequences. This solution, however, is just as unpopular as strict absolutism. We don’t torture someone in order to save two other people from torture; and we certainly don’t torture someone if doing so could bring a very small benefit to an extremely large number of people (so that the aggregate benefit from torture outweighs the harm done to the tortured individual).

Unfortunately, threshold deontology is not as easy an answer to the conflict of intuitions as the preceding outline may have suggested. The main problem of course is: where do we put the threshold. How many people should be saved in order to allow torture or killing? It turns out that there’s no non-arbitrary way of setting a threshold of bad consequences that unequivocally renders absolute rights non-absolute. At any point in the continuum of harm, there’s always a way to say that one point further on the continuum is also not enough to render absolute rights non-absolute. If we agree that killing or torturing 5 for the sake of saving one is not allowed, then it’s hard to claim that 6 is a better number. And so on until infinity.

We can also think of the threshold in threshold deontology not in terms of harm that would result from sticking to absolute principles, but in terms of harm done by not sticking to them. The threshold then decides when we can no longer use bad actions in order to stop even worse consequences. For instance, we may verbally abuse the ticking bomb terrorist. Perhaps we can make him stand up for a certain time, of deprive him of sleep. At what moment should our near-absolute rules or rights against torture kick in? At the moment of waterboarding?

However, the same problem occurs here: a small increase in harm done to the terrorist can always be seen as justifiable, as long as it is very small. Again no way of setting a threshold because of the infinite regress that this provokes. Also, how should we evaluate the following case, imagined by Derek Parfit: a large number of people inflicts a small amount of harm on the terrorist, who is in immense pain as a result, and it’s impossible to tell whose infliction of harm has resulted in the pain threshold being passed. His absolute right not to be tortured is violated, but no one is responsible. This also sucks the power out of our moral absolutes.

Still, the problem of setting the threshold in marginal cases doesn’t mean that there are no clear-cut cases in which harmful consequences have clearly passed a catastrophic threshold. Nuclear annihilation caused by a ticking bomb is such a case I guess. That’s a catastrophe that may be important enough to abrogate the near-absolute rights of one individual terrorist.

However, this means that threshold deontology is useful only in a handful of extreme cases, most of which will fortunately never occur. In the real world, beyond the philosophical hypothetical, most cases of harmful consequences don’t reach the “catastrophe” level. Hence, in the case of a number of rights simple deontology is often the best system, at least compared to threshold deontology – which is most often irrelevant – and plain consequentialism – which would make a mockery of all rights and sacrifice them for the tiniest increment in wellbeing (see here). If we want to protect the right to life and the freedom from torture and slavery in day to day life, we might just as well pretend that they are absolute rights and forget about the catastrophic hypotheticals.

I should also note that although I rely here in part on the ticking bomb case in order to make some which I believe to be important points, the case in question is a very dangerous one: it has been abused as a justification for all sorts of torture with or without a “ticking bomb”. (After all, once you can establish that torture is not an absolute prohibition in catastrophic cases, why would it then be a prohibition in less than catastrophic cases? See the difficulties described above related to the threshold in threshold deontology). And not only has it been abused: one can question the practical relevance of the extremely unrealistic assumptions required to make the case work theoretically.

More about threshold deontology here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (59): Human Rights and Theories of Justice

First of all, my apologies for the ridiculous length of this post, but I wanted to offer a systematic overview of some of the most common theories of justice and to try to figure out which one is best from a human rights perspective. Given the variety of theories of justice this can’t be anything but long.

You could say that this is all wrong and that it’s better to argue the other way around: first establish which theory of justice is best and then see if and to what extent it leaves room for or requires human rights. And indeed, you would have some good reasons for this approach: human rights are

  • very specific instructions without an obvious moral justification
  • more like a list than a coherent theory, with clear contradictions between the items on the list
  • contested with regard to their applicability (some rights may or may not be absolute, basic, universal etc.).

A theory of justice, on the other hand, is

  • general, abstract, coherent and internally justified (at least down to a basic level at which morality can’t be justified by even more deep moral values)
  • clear about its scope
  • and uncontroversially applicable, ideally at least.

However, the latter point just begs the question. Actual as opposed to ideal theories of justice are much more controversial than human rights. There are many of them, and they are more incompatible with each other than the different elements of the system of human rights. So, the more fruitful approach is to start with the system of human rights and see which theory of justice it requires – or which theory is most amenable to it. If we find such a theory, its compatibility with human rights will speak for it, whereas theories of justice that are on important points at loggerheads with human rights are prima facie less attractive.

Theories of Justice

OK, so let me start with a very brief and admittedly superficial ad crude description of some common theories of justice:

  1. Theories of justice can stress the importance of the consequences of actions: just actions are those that produce or maximize good consequences and avoid or minimize bad consequences. These are called consequentialist theories.
  2. Other theories claim that acting in a just way requires respect for rules. Those are deontological systems of justice.
  3. And then there are theories that stress people’s virtues: people act in a just way if they act virtuously.
  4. Of course, mixed theories are also common.

These four groups contain a variety of subgroups.

(1) Consequentialist theories differ about the type of goodness that is to be maximized or produced.

(1.1) Hedonist theories say we must maximize pleasure and minimize pain (or, alternatively, happiness and misery respectively).

(1.2) Welfare theories argue for preference satisfaction claiming that people’s preferences can’t always be framed in hedonistic terms.

(1.3) Qualitative theories select a list of admirable or strong preferences (as in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism), or “an objective list of goods” that have to be maximized. Instead of treating all forms of good or all types of preferences as equally valuable and equally deserving of maximization (as in 1.1. or 1.2.), qualitative consequentialism selects some goods as more valuable than others and more deserving of maximization: better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied in the words of Mill, because Socrates may have achieved a high level of good in some non-happiness related dimension. Hedonist or welfare theories (1.1. and 1.2) would agree with Bentham: quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.

(1.4) Other theories want to maximize opportunities, or yet another version of the good (power, resources, beauty, freedom, advantage, capabilities etc.), or a combination of goods.

(1.5) Negative consequentialism focuses not on promoting some type of good consequences (as in types 1.1 to 1.4) but rather on minimizing bad consequences. Of course, the maximization of good consequences also involves the minimization of bad consequences, but negative consequentialism sees negative consequences as the priority. One major difference between positive and negative consequentialism is the agent’s responsibility: positive consequentialism demands that we bring about good states of affairs, whereas negative consequentialism may only require that we avoid bad ones. Negative consequentialism can be subdivided according to the type of badness that is to be minimized, and so we would get negative forms of 1.1 to 1.4.

Consequentialist theories differ not only about the type of goodness that is to be maximized (or badness that is to be minimized), but also about the proper level at which to maximize (or minimize).

(1.6) Ethical egoism claims that only the consequences for the individual matter. It prescribes actions that may be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral to the good of others as long as they maximize the good of those individuals  performing them. Ethical egoism – as well as the other types of consequentialism cited below – may be hedonistic (1.1) but may also consider other types of good (1.2, 1.3 or 1.4 above).

(1.7) Ethical altruism requires that individuals sacrifice their own good for the good of others and may even claim that this is the only way to achieve the best overall consequences.

(1.8) Classical utilitarianism claims that we should only be concerned about the aggregate good: if certain persons suffer a reduction of some chosen good, then this can be acceptable if another group of persons gains more in the chosen good (or even in some unrelated good: if killing one can cure millions of chronic headaches, then this harm may be justified if it is outweighed by the good of curing many headaches). Some forms of ethical egoism (1.6) argue that egoism promotes the general or aggregate welfare of a society and that there is therefore no difference between the goals of 1.6 and 1.8, merely in the methods used to achieve those goals: there may be an individual hand guiding self-interested people toward the common or aggregate good, or individuals in general know best how to please themselves and no central effort at maximization is necessary.

(1.9) Distributional consequentialism is opposed to classical utilitarianism because it is concerned about the distributional aspects of the maximization of some goods and about the impact of maximization efforts on individuals. This concern may be expressed in different ways:

(1.9.1) For instance, the aggregate good isn’t all that counts and imposing a high cost on some individuals in order to produce a small benefit for a large number of other individuals means imposing an injustice on the former. Hence, rather than focusing solely on the aggregate good one should take into account the actual consequences for individuals of this aggregate good.

(1.9.2) One may also have to look at other ways of differentiating between costs and benefits imposed on individuals. For example, perhaps we should abandon the aggregate good altogether and maximize the good for the worst off (which can sometimes imply that the aggregate good or at least the good of the best off may have to be brought down). Call this approach prioritarian.

(1.9.3) Other types of distributional consequentialism are egalitarian rather than prioritarian (as in 1.9.2): every individual has an equal right to have his or her good maximized up to a point that is equal to the level of everyone else (and again, the good here may be different things: resources, opportunities, preference satisfaction etc.).

(1.10) Desert based consequentialism incorporates concerns about people’s choices: if those choices pull them below some level of good, then justice may not require that we help them, even if doing so would maximize the aggregate good, would help the worst off or would guarantee equality. If, on the other hand, their misfortune is purely a matter of chance or bad luck, then justice may give them a right to assistance, even if helping them would bring down the aggregate good and even if they aren’t the worst off.

(2) Deontological theories state that moral and just behavior requires following certain rules. Justice is respect for rules even if the good consequences of disrespect are better than the good consequences of respect. Acts themselves are inherently good or evil, regardless of their consequences.

(2.1) Divine command theory is one form of deontology: an action is right and just if God has decreed that it is right. The rightness or justice of an action depends on that action being performed because it is a divine duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action. The rightness or justice of an action holds even when the consequences are bad. God knows what he’s doing.

(2.2) Motivational deontology claims that an action is right if its motivation is good. Kant for instance has famously argued that it’s not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action. He begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification. He then claims that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence and pleasure, are neither intrinsically good nor good without qualification. Pleasure is not good without qualification, because people can take pleasure in other people’s suffering. He therefore concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good: nothing can be called good without qualification except a good will. A good will is the will to do good, it’s a self-imposed choice or intention, based on the moral law discovered by reason, to do what is right simply because it is right, not because of the consequences or because God tells us so or because we feel we are under a duty to do so. We are under a duty, but it’s a reasoned and self-imposed duty, not one backed up by the threat of force or damnation. Good consequences can arise by chance or even as a result of bad will, and so they can’t by themselves be called morally good. They are only morally good if they are also the result of good will. And yet, this result need not be a good consequence.

(2.3) Anti-instrumentalist deontology claims that there is one basic moral rule which we should never violate, and that when this rule does not apply common sense consequentialism applies. The rule in question is the one against the use of other people. Larry Alexander has illustrated this with three well-known moral dilemmas: “Trolley”, “Fat Man” and “Surgeon”. In “Trolley”, people usually deem it acceptable to turn a switch which diverts a runaway trolley away from a track where 5 people are standing and towards a track where one person will get hit by the trolley and will die. In “Fat Man”, there’s no switch but you can save 5 people by throwing a fat man in front of the runaway trolley, thereby stopping it in its tracks. In “Surgeon”, a doctor kills one person and uses his organs in order to save 5 other lives. Both “Fat Man” and “Surgeon” are commonly rejected, and the reason, according to Alexander, is that people are being used to save others, whereas in “Trolley” no one is used – turning the switch would do what is needed to be done even if there’s no one on the fatal track. The organ donor and the fat man are used, and this use is what makes the cases immoral. So, as long as there is no use of other people, consequentialist reasoning applies, as in “Trolley”. Another, similar case is the “German Airplane”.

There are of course numerous other types of deontology, but these three will suffice to make my point.

(3) A virtue theory focuses not on rules or acts, and neither on the consequences of rules or acts. It tries to ascertain what respect for a rule or engagement in a certain act says about one’s character. For example, virtue ethicists may claim that consequences in themselves have no ethical content unless they have been produced by a virtue such as benevolence. Ditto for rules: if good rules are followed that is not in itself a sign of morality or justice; the rule follower must follow the rule because of his or her moral character. A better world will result from the improvement of our characters, our virtues and our personal excellence.

In a sense, virtue ethics isn’t opposed to deontology or consequentialism but frames itself as a prerequisite. Instead of focusing on rules, actions or consequences, we should develop morally desirable virtues for their own sake, and then, when the time comes to act morally – either to follow a moral rule or to do what brings the best consequences – those virtues will help direct and complete our actions.

This theory of justice is similar to motivational deontology of the Kantian kind (2.2), but different nonetheless. Kantian good will depends not on personal virtues or excellence, but on reason and the use of reason to discover the moral law. Here’s an example that will illustrate the difference. Suppose you’re visiting a friend who’s in hospital. You may do so because you’ve discovered, through reason, the moral law that tells you to be nice to friends, and because your good will tells you to respect this law and do what is your moral duty. Or you may do so because of the good consequences that will result from doing so: he’s happy when you visit, or he’ll visit you next time you’re in hospital; and even if you’ll never be in hospital it’s good for both of you to remain friends – not visiting him is incompatible with you remaining friends. All these justifications seem to miss something, namely the virtue of caring for friends, of being good to friends etc.

(4) Some mixed theories:

(4.1) Robert Nozick, for example, argues for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates a certain set of minimal inviolable rules called “side-constraints” which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do.

(4.2) Rule consequentialism claims that following certain rules in general produces the best consequences, given the calculation and information problems inherent in the assessment of consequences (especially long term consequences). We can’t ask people to calculate the consequences every time they want to do something. We just settle for the second best: experience has shown that some rules generally produce good results, and we stick to those rules even if in some cases it will turn out afterwards that perhaps we shouldn’t have. Rule consequentialism is a modification of act consequentialism (or act utilitarianism).

(4.2.1) Esoteric consequentialism is often a form of rule consequentialism because it claims that the “common man” should follow rules given his inability to judge consequences and that a caste of philosopher kings able to assess consequences should frame the rules for the common man in such a way that the chosen set of rules produces the best possible consequences compared to other possible sets of rules (not compared to all possible consequences; ideally, given high average intelligence and the absence of calculation and information problems, simple non-rule based consequentialism would perhaps produce an even better world). Sidgwick is famous for his esoteric consequentialism.

(4.3) Threshold deontology wants to avoid the conclusion that it’s justified to kill someone if doing so allows us to cure millions of chronic headaches (a conclusion often accepted by 1.8). It states that, although in general rules (such as “do not kill”) have to be respected even if better (aggregate) results would obtain by violating them, these rules can and must be violated if the level of bad consequences resulting from rule observance passes some catastrophic level (“do kill one if you thereby can save thousands of other lives”).

Human Rights

Now that we have this typology of theories of justice, let’s examine their usefulness from the point of view of human rights.

(1) Consequentialism

Although one can take a consequentialist approach to human rights and see them as something to be maximized – perhaps with a priority for those whose rights are least respected – consequentialism in general doesn’t really fit with the main concerns of human rights. These rights are constraints upon what we can morally do to other people, and these constraints are so strong that it’s difficult to imagine that one can sacrifice the rights of some in order to maximize the rights of others, let alone sacrifice rights in order to maximize some other good such as pleasure or welfare. This doesn’t mean that rights can never be sacrificed – when rights come into conflict a choice has to be made, and that usually is a consequentialist choice: which sacrifice does the least harm to different people’s rights? (E.g. the journalist attempting to divulge private, career ending but politically and legally irrelevant information about a politician). But that’s an unfortunate and probably inevitable shortcoming in the system of human rights, not it’s central logic. It would have been much better were there no such conflicts.

Obviously, among the different types of consequentialism, qualitative consequentialism (1.3) is more attractive than hedonistic consequentialism (1.1), because we want to make a difference between harm done to those interests that are protected by human rights and harm done to someone’s interest in pleasure and happiness. Furthermore, human rights are more focused on turning us into a dissatisfied Socrates than on producing a multitude satisfied fools, although ideally we would want a multitude of satisfied Socrateses. The reason for this focus is that a fool doesn’t necessarily need freedom of speech, political rights etc.

The same is true for welfare consequentialism (1.2): people can have preferences for rights violations and we don’t want to maximize those. We also don’t want to treat expensive preferences with the same respect as inexpensive ones because human rights attach more importance to poverty alleviation than to luxury maximization. On the other hand, qualitative theories (1.3) can be paternalistic and paternalism can be an affront to liberty and hence indirectly also to human rights.

Of all types of consequentialism, negative consequentialism (1.5) is perhaps the most amenable to human rights. Human rights protection should start with the attempt to avoid engaging in rights violations. But even if this attempt is universally successful, that won’t result in perfect respect for human rights. People need the resources and capabilities to make use of their rights, and giving them those resources and capabilities requires more than the avoidance of harm. Type 1.4 tries to deliver those resources and capabilities.

Ethical egoism (1.6) is very unattractive from the point of view of human rights, although I don’t deny that selfish and self-interested actions can promote respect for human rights. However, they only do so accidentally, and the good they do is easily swamped by the bad. The opposite, ethical altruism (1.7), looks more attractive, but really is not: usually, there is no need to sacrifice one’s own rights in order to defend the rights of others. And when it is necessary, it is also pointless: rights are inherently relational – we want rights together, we want to practice religion together, to talk and express ourselves together, to govern ourselves together etc.

The focus of classical utilitarianism (1.8) on aggregate welfare is obviously detrimental to the rights of many. People have rights, even if the outcome of those rights is suboptimal on an aggregate level and even if more overall utility could be achieved when some rights are violated in some cases. Distributional consequentialism (1.9) avoids this problem and is therefore more amenable to human rights. Desert based consequentialism (1.10), on the other hand, turns back the clock: people have rights whether or not they deserve them. That doesn’t rule out limitations of rights following deserved punishment for wrongdoing. However, when the rights of convicted criminals are limited, the reason is not that they deserve this limitation. The reason is the defense of other people’s rights.

(2) Deontology

Compared to utilitarianism, deontology seems to be a theory that is much more amenable and receptive to human rights. Deontology, after all, focuses not on the consequences of actions but on the duties we have; and one man’s rights are another man’s duties. However, the moral absolutism inherent in many types of deontology is a difficulty from the point of view of human rights. It seems to rule out the inevitable balancing between conflicting human rights. That is why threshold deontology (4.3) is better, and yet that theory isn’t without problems either, notably the arbitrariness of the thresholds, the problems posed by cases just above or below the threshold, and the fact that even with thresholds some duties and rules will still be strong enough to produce, in some cases, violations of human rights.

Divine command theory (2.1) is to be rejected since it doesn’t provide space for religious freedom. Motivational deontology (2.2) is attractive precisely because of its focus on motivation: real respect for human rights can’t come from the threat of law; it has to come from within. However, the inner moral law, the motivating element, can also make us too rigid: it forces us to accept catastrophic consequences and makes it impossible to solve conflicts between rights – unless we see the moral law as overcoming value pluralism, which I think is illusory.

Anti-instrumentalist deontology (2.3) is the best form of deontology from the point of view of human rights. Think for instance of the anti-instrumentalization argument against capital punishment.

(3) Virtue theories

These are attractive for the same reason as motivational deontology: respect for human rights ultimately depends on people’s mentalities, attitudes and virtues. However, these theories are completely useless when we have to decide what to do with conflicts between rights, catastrophic consequences etc.

(4) Mixed systems

What can we say about the mixed systems? Nozick’s side constraints look promising, but they are notoriously unhelpful when rights require positive action and assistance rather than mere forbearance. And they often do, as stated above. Rule consequentialism looks inherently unstable, and a bit like a desperate attempt to combine what can’t be combined. Esoteric consequentialism reeks of authoritarianism.

Related posts are here, here and here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (57): Human Rights and Conscientious Objection

A conscientious objection is an objection to engage in conduct that you perceive as being incompatible with your religious or secular beliefs about morality, or, in other words, as being incompatible with your conscience. The conduct in question may be government imposed conduct, such as participation in a war, but may just as well be any other type of conduct like the termination of life support at the request of a patient.

The problem as I see it is the following. Conscientious objection can be necessary for the full protection of human rights in certain cases, and yet detrimental to human rights in other cases.

No doubt this ambiguity is the reason why conscientious objection has no formal basis in human rights law, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Not only is there no recognized right to conscientious objection; it’s also very difficult to derive such a right from other, existing human rights.

There is of course the right to freedom of conscience and thought (art. 18 of the Universal Declaration). However, conscientious objectors don’t claim the right to freedom of thought or to freedom of conscience; they want to be free not to do things that they believe violate their most basic beliefs and their conscience. They claim a right to act in accordance with their thought and conscience, not a right to be free in their thoughts and conscience.

If I’m a pacifist and I’m forced to fight in a war, neither my beliefs nor my conscience are violated. I’ll continue to believe that war is always wrong, and I can tell my conscience that I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m forced to do it. I need not have a bad conscience as a result. My freedom of thought and conscience is intact. My thoughts are still independent from others’ thoughts or actions. I can still make up my mind about the wrongness of war and my personal integrity – the coherence of my beliefs and actions – is not harmed in any way. If I’m forced to do something that I believe is wrong, that shouldn’t weigh on my conscience. Hence, the right to freedom of conscience and thought can’t be the source of an implicit right to conscientious objection.

Perhaps freedom of religion can be a more promising source, but only in extreme cases and for some people, as I’ll argue below. This means that a right to conscientious objection derived from religious liberty won’t cover most of the existing claims that are expressed in the language of conscientious objection: no non-religious claims are covered by such a right to conscientious objection, and only some religious claims are covered.

Take the example of the religious pharmacist refusing to sell the morning after pill. Imagine that we want to force her to do so because we believe that the rights and equal treatment of women require easy access to the morning after pill. Imagine also that we are able to force the pharmacist to sell. It’s not obvious that forcing someone to do something that is against her religious rules violates her religious freedom. Few would be willing to argue that forcing a Catholic pharmacist to sell the morning after pill makes it impossible for her to be a Catholic. She can still attend church unhindered and she can defend the integrity of her faith to her fellow Catholics by pointing out the forced nature of her actions. So, like in the case of freedom of conscience, the fact that we force someone to do something does not necessarily destroy her pre-existing right to freedom of religion. This right therefore is not a good basis of a right to conscientious objection.

However, the words “not necessarily” do a lot of work here. Imagine that the pharmacist, on being forced to sell the morning after pill, genuinely believes that she will face either severe divine punishment in the afterlife or ostracism from her church in this life. In both cases, her freedom of religion may be at stake. Hence, she may reasonably claim that her freedom of religion requires a derivative right to conscientious objection, and that she shouldn’t be forced to sell the morning after pill.

Not so fast, says the opponent of the right to conscientious objection: she can just decide to seek another profession, problem solved. Even if her freedom of religion is endangered by our insistence that she sells the morning after pill, that in itself does not create a right to conscientious objection. It merely creates a religious duty to stop being a pharmacist.

Maybe so, but only in examples such as these. Take another case of conscientious objection: refusing to enlist in the army. Conscription, especially in times of war, can’t be avoided as easily as the legal duties of a pharmacist. Hence, in this case, the argument for a right to conscientious objection based on religious freedom is pretty strong. Unfortunately, this argument only produces a right to conscientious objection in some cases, namely those cases in which a religious claim is involved and in which other means of preserving religious freedom – other means short of conscientious objection – are not available. Atheists can also have strong reasons to refuse conscription or the forced participation in certain transactions, but they won’t have a right to conscientious objection if we derive this right from freedom of religion.

Of course, the fact that a right to conscientious objection can’t be derived from existing rights – or only for some cases of objection – doesn’t mean that there are no good independent grounds for such a right. If we want to examine those independent grounds, we’ll also need to look at the other side of the coin, the side of those who are harmed by the conscientious objections of others.

Some argue that a supposed right to conscientious objection would be detrimental to other rights or the rights of others. Take again the example of the pharmacist: it’s not unreasonable to claim that a pharmacist refusing to sell the morning after pill can thereby violate the rights of her customers. Maybe her customers can simply go to the next pharmacy to get their stuff and secure their rights, but this just argues against a general right to conscientious objection. Such a general right would possibly make it very hard to find a willing pharmacist. The same is true for the military draft: your refusal to assist in the defense of your country can adversely impact the rights of your fellow citizens. Furthermore, granting exceptions to conscientious objectors imposes other costs: it can undo equality before the law, propagate a sense of unfairness etc.

However, possible negative effects of a right do not necessarily invalidate a right, just as the difficulty of deriving a right from other rights doesn’t necessarily invalidate it. All rights have negative effects and can possibly even lead to violations of other rights or the rights of others (free speech can violate privacy for example). These negative effects have to be balanced against the positive effects. And a right to conscientious objection would have some positive effects beyond those benefiting the claimant. I said before that conscientious objection can be necessary for the full protection of human rights. It can be a powerful tool against unjust laws or laws that violate human rights. And the alternative burdens that are usually imposed on conscientious objectors (e.g. community service as an alternative to the draft) can offer society a lot of benefits. These alternative burdens do not only weed out insincere cases of conscientious objection; they also restore a sense of justice and fairness in society and if they are correctly designed they can assist victims of rights violations (community service can mean going to work in a safe house for victims of domestic violence for instance).

So, the conclusion would be that even though it’s hard to derive a right to conscientious objection from other rights, there are some good independent reasons to grant such a right. One condition, however, is that there are alternative burdens imposed on objectors, and that these alternative burdens are designed to further the cause of human rights in general.

The Ethics of Human Rights (56): What’s Wrong With Exploitation?

There is no human right to be free from exploitation, but some rights prohibit practices that we normally call exploitative: child labor, unfair wages etc. However, what exactly is exploitation and what is it that makes it wrong? According to Hillel Steiner, exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged. Or, in other words, exploitation is the voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value.

Now, what exactly is this unfair price that causes the values of the exchanged things to be unequal? Again according to Steiner, the party transferring the good or service gets a an unfair price when that price is below what she could have had in a fair auction. That’s a convincing argument since you can hardly claim that a fair price is the intrinsic price of something. Nothing has an intrinsic price or value. It’s also convincing because it avoids the extreme and implausible free market position that all voluntarily agreed prices are fair.

I think that this model does indeed cover part of what we usually call exploitation. The voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value is a case of exploitation, but in my view the Steiner model doesn’t really capture the essence of exploitation. But let’s first examine what’s convincing about Steiner’s position:

  • It focuses on voluntary transfers. An involuntary exchange would be theft or slavery rather than exploitation. And we want to keep these concepts separate. Hence we limit exploitation to voluntary exchanges. Involuntary exchanges like theft or slavery are not exploitation. They are different from exploitation even if, like exploitation, an unfair price is involved. (Leaving a $10 dollar bill after having stolen an expensive car is still theft; paying my slave with meals and housing still makes her a slave). And they are, a fortiori, different from exploitation if the price is fair. (Paying my slave a fair wage still makes her a slave. If I employ someone against her will, I’m enslaving her, even if I pay her a wage, fair or unfair. Leaving a check for $50,000 after having stolen a car still makes it theft. But neither slavery nor theft are exploitation).
  • It focuses on relationships where exchanges of goods or services occur. If we’re dealing with relationships where no such exchanges are involved, it’s counterintuitive to talk about exploitation. Take a relationship where no goods or services are exchanged, but where nevertheless some harm is done. The harm done is then better labeled as oppression, abuse, discrimination, rights violations etc., depending on what actually happens. It’s not because there is harm that there is necessarily also exploitation.
  • It focuses on unfairness, specifically unfairness of the price of the goods or services exchanged. That’s coherent with the way we usually talk about exploitation, namely as a case of unfairness or injustice.

In Steiner’s model, these are the three necessary conditions that have to be jointly fulfilled in order to have a case of exploitation. And indeed, the model covers many cases which we normally call exploitative, such as unfair wages, some commodity markets where poor farmers sell their goods at very low prices compared to what they fetch later in the supply chain, child labor etc. However, there’s something missing from the model. It doesn’t describe exploitation in a sufficiently precise way. I’ll argue that there’s a fourth necessary condition missing.

What if someone gets a price that’s merely 20% below the fair price? We wouldn’t necessarily call that exploitation. What about a billionaire not getting a fair price for one of his goods? We don’t call that exploitation either (yet Steiner does; he has to, given his limited model). What about someone not very interested in getting a fair price? Is she exploited?

These questions suggest that the following condition is missing: exploitation only occurs when the party in the exchange that doesn’t get a fair price is already, before the exchange takes place, in a disadvantaged position. Take the example of a family selling its house for an unfair price. Maybe the price is just a tiny bit below the fair price. Maybe the family is very wealthy (the house being just one of many in their possession). Or maybe the family doesn’t care about a fair price (and has decided to go and live in the African jungle and doesn’t need the money). In none of these cases is the sale exploitative.

But maybe the motive for the sale of the house is debt coverage. The urgent need to repay some debts has convinced the family that the best thing to do is to sell the house, even if the price they can get under the circumstances is less than fair. The three elements of Steiner’s model are still present: it’s a voluntary exchange for an unfair price. It’s voluntary since no one is forcing the family to sell and there are some other options left (e.g. sending the kids to public school). Still, the family has decided that selling at an unfair price is better than doing nothing or than any of the other available options. But the exchange is only exploitative if the family comes into the exchange from a disadvantaged position and if someone else takes advantage of – or exploits – their disadvantaged position. And it’s because of this disadvantage that they can’t manage to get a fair price: their disadvantage convinces buyers that they can make a “good deal” since the sellers are in no position to insist on a fair price.

The exploitative sale does make the family better off, and it’s likely that exploitation always makes both parties better off. That could be a fifth necessary condition. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceptualize exploitation where one party is worse off after the exchange; such cases are more likely to be similar to theft, slavery, abuse, oppression etc. and therefore different from exploitation.

A similar example is the case of workers in poor countries accepting to sell their goods or labor power at very low prices (for example to a multinational company). These prices are unfair because the people happen to live in a poor country, which means that they are not able to sell their goods or labor power in a fair auction with different companies bidding. It’s an exchange, and a voluntary one. However, it’s only exploitation because the sellers are in a disadvantaged position, similar to the people selling their house at an unfair price in order to cover their debts, and because this position makes the price unfair and makes the fair auction impossible.

Let’s take a third example that features regularly in writings about exploitation: there’s a sudden blizzard and people scramble to the only hardware shop in town to buy shovels. The owner of the shop reacts in a typical way and decides to charge three times the normal price for the shovels. Is he exploiting his fellow townspeople? No. The price is not even unfair because in an auction, that’s probably the price that people would accept to pay. And in reality as well they do probably accept to pay it. If you want to call this exploitation, all supply and demand pricing is exploitation.

Once you accept all this, you will agree that some of the common definitions of exploitation are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Exploitation can’t simply be the unfair use of others for your own benefit. That would cover slavery, theft and other relationships that are morally wrong but not exploitative. And exploitation can’t simply mean taking unfair advantage of someone, because we don’t want to call taking advantage of a millionaire a case of exploitation.

Are there some types of voluntary exchange that are inherently exploitative, whatever the price, fair or unfair? For example organ sales, or sex work? No, such transactions are exploitative only when the price is unfair and when the further condition of disadvantaged starting positions is also met (people who decide to sell their organs or their sexual services will often be in disadvantaged starting positions, but the price is often not unfair). Of course, it’s not because these exchanges are not exploitative that they can’t be immoral for other reasons (e.g instrumentalization).

This account of exploitation is different from the well-known Marxist account. According to Marxism, workers are exploited because they are forced into employment status (given that they themselves don’t have any means of production and that the capitalists have monopolized those means). Hence, the Marxist notion of exploitation collapses into the notion of slavery, something which I want to avoid.

More on exploitation is here and here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (55): The Widening Circle of Equality

Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:

  • During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, with the formation of the nation state in Europe and the development of the virtue of patriotism, citizens of those new states – and their copies elsewhere in the world – stopped acting as if members of neighboring tribes were somehow subhuman. Human equality, equal concern and equal rights were extended from the tribe to the nation.
  • After the end of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual acceptance of religious liberty, adherents of other religions were no longer viewed as sinners who had to be destroyed, but rather as equal citizens enjoying the same rights.
  • From the middle of the 19th century (with the abolition of slavery) to the middle of the 20th (with the Civil Rights movement), non-whites gradually won equal rights.
  • During roughly the same period, workers and the workers’ movement convinced the other social classes that someone who has to sell his or her labor power for a living isn’t destined to an animal-like life in filth and misery.
  • From the beginning of the 20th century (with the suffragette movement) until the end of that century, women gradually won their equal place in many areas of society: politics, the labor market, etc. This movement, like all the previous ones, isn’t complete, but at least nowadays it’s rare to encounter the view that women are lesser men and should be relegated to the home.
  • The Holocaust, ironically, resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the emancipation of Jews.
  • The end of colonialism in the mid-20th century was the culmination of a long process during which westerners convinced themselves that the people they had colonized were not animals or subhumans but rather human beings like themselves.
  • The latest step forward in the history of human equality can be witnessed in our own time: gays and lesbians are now in the process of achieving what other outgroups have achieved before them.

So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.

There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:

  • Our current treatment of criminals may come to be seen as unacceptable. There’s already a strong movement for the abolition of capital punishment, but I’m convinced that our whole system of criminal punishment is without justification. And I’m not just talking about overcrowding, prison rape, excessively long sentences etc. Read more here.
  • Migrants as well may become more accepted, to the point that an open borders policy will be generalized. Currently, we still condemn people to misery for no other reason than the fact that they are born in the wrong place, like older generations condemned people to slavery for no other reason than their skin color. The causes of this exclusion are an insufficient awareness of the benefits of immigration and lingering prejudices against outgroups.
  • And, finally, the inclusionary movement may one day lead to better treatment of animals: our current system of industrial meat production will then be considered barbaric.

Do I forget something?

The Ethics of Human Rights (54): Torture, Consequentialism and Tainted Goods

Those who defend torture normally do so on consequentialist grounds. They posit cases such as the “ticking time bomb” in which the harm done by torture is insignificant compared to the good it does. The consequences of torture are clearly beneficial, overall: OK, it does some harm to an individual terrorist who has hidden the bomb but at the same time it saves thousands or millions of lives. When so many lives are at stake, a utilitarian calculus will clearly show that the good that will follow from torture outweighs the good that will follow from the refusal to torture.

Usually, we see a kind of threshold consequentialism rather than a pure consequentialism at work in such arguments: if torture can produce one more unit of “utility” (wellbeing, life, etc.) than the refusal to torture, most consequentialists wouldn’t allow torture. The good consequences of torture must far outweigh rather than marginally outweigh the harm it clearly does. Hence the hypotheticals in examples such as the ticking bomb, in which it’s posited that very many lives are at stake. We are allowed to supersede the deontological rule that one shouldn’t torture only beyond a certain threshold of harmful consequences that would result from sticking to the rule. As someone has said, lost lives hurt a lot more than bent principles. Strict moral absolutism, whatever the possible consequences, can indeed land you in all sorts of problems.

However, let’s look a bit closer at this seemingly convincing argument. We can overlook some of the possible difficulties and still conclude that the argument is unsatisfactory. Let’s not dwell on the likelihood that in real cases, the numbers of possible terrorist victims is rather small, while the number of people who have to be tortured is probably higher than one: you may need to torture some people before you find the one who has the necessary information about the location of the bomb; then you may need to torture his friends and family because he’s trained to resist torture and because he knows that if he resists for a short time, the bomb will go off. So let’s forget that the utilitarian calculus will most likely be less unequivocal than assumed in the argument above: we’ll never or only very rarely have cases in which torture produces a very small harm and at the same time a very large benefit. The harm and benefit will be much closer to each other.

Let’s also not dwell on the fact that the greater good thinking of the argument puts the torturer on the same footing as the terrorist. The latter also assumes that he fights for a greater good and that the harm he does is small compared to the benefits this harm will produce. The similarity between torturer and terrorist is all the more striking if the torturer has convinced himself that it’s necessary to torture the innocent (when the terrorist himself doesn’t speak fast enough). Putting ourselves on the same level as terrorists means giving up our identity to save ourselves, which really is pointless. If that is correct then we have to remodel the utilitarian calculus: the harm done by self-destruction is probably greater than the suffering caused by exceptional terrorists attacks. So even the utilitarianism of the greater good doesn’t justify torture.

But let’s assume that none of this speaks against the standard consequentialist justification of torture and that we manage to use torture in a way that saves many many lives, that doesn’t impose a high cost, and that doesn’t put us on the same level as the terrorists. So we can save ourselves, our identity and the lives of many of our fellow citizens. Still, the “good” that we achieve through torture is tainted by the methods necessary to achieve it. The notion, inherent in the consequentialist justification of torture, that certain goods can be attainted by problematic means, is itself problematic. We can save ourselves, but once we are saved we believe that our success has been tainted by the immoral methods used to achieve it. We may not be willing to enjoy this success and the goods we have if they have been secured by way of torture.

Jeremy Waldron has interesting things to say about tainted goods. Read this for example.

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (52): Human Rights, Transhumanism and the Singularity

The word “transhumanism” covers a lot of different things, but it’s fair to say that it expresses the belief that in the (near) future, the human condition will fundamentally change and we will be able to overcome human limitations such as aging, dying, moving etc. Technology, science, medicine and psychology will allow us to become posthumans, “Humanity+”, “H+” or “>H”. Biotechnology, brain science, computer technology, robotics, nanotechnology etc. will make a “controlled and assisted evolution” of humanity possible. The word “singularity” marks – somewhat pompously – the hypothetical event occurring when technological progress has reached the stage after which the future will be qualitatively different, and humanity will become something else – perhaps even an immaterial species, uploadable unto computers.

Whether or not transhumanism is more than techno-utopia, science fiction or a pseudo-religion, it’s worthwhile to ask what the possible implications are for human rights. Will posthumans still need human rights? One can indeed view human rights as solutions to human shortcomings, and when these shortcomings disappear, then so will human rights – an immaterial human will not need a right against torture or against poverty.

Of course, a lot will depend on the specific nature of the posthuman or transhuman future, and that’s where transhumanists have widely different opinions. The implications for human rights are enormous when you believe that in the posthuman future, human minds or human consciousness can be transferred to a computer (“mind uploading“). The uploaded mind can then reside in a computer or “internet”, inside (or connected to) a humanoid or non-humanoid robot, or even inserted into another biological body, replacing its brain (perhaps through cloning). If people no longer need their physical bodies, they obviously also no longer need certain rights that serve the requirements or correct the deficiencies of the physical body: the right to food or shelter, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to physical security and bodily integrity become meaningless.

If that is true (a big “if”), then transhumanism can be seen as a technological solution to human rights problems. Compared to human rights, transhumanism is then a far better way to solve certain problems of the human condition.

However, even if this is the future, it’s not certain that posthumans won’t need any human rights. Not even the extreme vision of posthumanity in which humans become totally free of their biological bodies and live “inside computers” will make human rights totally superfluous, although maybe these rights will have to be framed in another way. The right to life would then have to become something like “the right not to be deleted”. A right not to suffer poverty would become a right to basic usage of the network or CPU. A right to non-discrimination would be rephrased as a right to equal access to and equal usage of human enhancement technologies. Etc.

And finally, it’s also possible to view transhumanism as intrinsically hostile to human rights and as the playground for the already privileged. The narcissistic self-improvement of transhumanism can shift attention away from social justice. A lot of transhumanism is about the improvement of human bodies at the individual level, not the improvement of social, political or economic structures. The focus is also on technology rather than politics or law, and a love of technology shouldn’t obscure the real effectiveness of politics and law when it comes to protecting people’s human rights, and neither should it obscure the dangers inherent in technology (technology can be a tool for oppression and inequality; technological body modifications can be an expression and solidification of oppressive body ideals; and there are environmental concerns about technological development).

More posts in this series are here.