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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

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Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (20): Exposing Criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

The interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (18): To What Extent Can We Count on the Free Market?

Why not use the free market to promote human rights? The free market – or the market for short – is the name of the institution, protected by government rules, which allows individual or collective agents such as firms to freely exchange goods and services. Agents exchange things in the market for self-interested reasons and they tend to use money as the medium of exchange, but that doesn’t mean we’ll only see greed and accumulation of wealth resulting from the operation of the market. I’ll show that we can, to some extent, count on the market to further the cause of human rights.

But let’s start by complicating things a bit:

  • The market can either benefit or harm human rights.
  • And human rights can either benefit or harm the operations of the market.

Hence, the relationship between market and rights is difficult, to say the least. Here are a few examples:

Some human rights are a direct benefit to the market. Take for example the right to private property. This is a human right and it’s one that is generally conceived to be essential for the efficient operation of a market (some even argue that this right justifies free markets, but I want to sidestep issues of justification here and focus on consequences). You can construct a similar argument in the case of other rights such as the right to free movement, to assembly etc. At other times, however, human rights can hinder the market: privacy is a human right but privacy can cause asymmetrical information which in turn causes market dysfunctions.

Markets can have a similar two-sided effect on human rights. Conventional wisdom says that the market is the institution that delivers the highest possible level of prosperity, compared to other ways of organizing the economy. Higher prosperity may benefit certain specific human rights such as the right not to suffer poverty, the right to work etc. This benefit may occur because additional wealth “trickles down” or because additional wealth means additional redistribution. In general, it’s the case that rights cost money, so increased prosperity should, all else being equal, lead to increased rights protection across the board.

A more indirect way in which the market benefits rights is through it’s focus on individualism: the market – as opposed to a centrally planned economy – allows individuals to choose when and what to trade. Individual freedom is also at the heart of human rights. Some have also argued that the rational self-interest that is typical of people engaging in market transactions counters some dangerous and often violent passions such as xenophobia, nationalism and racism. If people trade with one another, they may become more tolerant of one another, if only because trade requires contact, respect, trust and peace. Tolerance and peace are of course also beneficial to human rights. And, finally, both the market and human rights requires the rule of law. If markets foster the rule of law, then that will benefit rights as well.

However, other aspects of markets can harm human rights. A strict interpretation of property rights – something we often hear from defenders of the market – may make redistribution difficult if not impossible, and some rights depend sometimes on redistribution. Think again of the right not to suffer poverty. More generally, markets can have two types of effects that may harm human rights indirectly:

  • Markets tend to “colonize” areas of life where an exchange of things for money is perhaps not the best way to proceed. Some goods can only be valued when they are shared rather than exchanged (e.g. art). In other cases, exchanging goods can destroy their value (e.g. political votes), just as pricing goods can destroy their value (e.g. gifts). I can also mention some types of commodification of the body such as prostitution or organ trade. While commodification of the body is not necessarily a rights violation in itself, it does devalue the dignity of human life. People are treated as means rather than ends, and a devaluation of human beings makes human rights violations more likely.
  • In some sense, this instrumentalization of the other is inherent in all market transactions, not just those in which bodies or body parts are traded. Market transactions are by definition self-interested and impersonal. We only buy or sell when that makes us better off and we don’t need to get to know our buyers or sellers. We use them simply to satisfy our needs. While self-interest and lack of personal relationships in one area of life do not necessarily harm relationships, communities, caring and common deliberation on the public interest in other areas, they can do so when markets “colonize” those other areas.

And, finally, there’s the risk of exploitation in market transactions, which I have discussed here.

I’m more interested in the effects of the market on human rights than in the effects of human rights on the market. Human rights are the ultimate good, and markets are generally a means (at best, markets are one form of exercise of certain human rights). Since the effects of the market on rights can go either way, the question becomes one of limits. If the market harms human rights, or if it expands into areas where market-transactions can indirectly harm human rights, then we have good reasons to limit the operations of the market. However, when doing so we must take care not to go too far and undo the positive effects of markets.

These limitations don’t always have to be of a legal nature. A good public education system can create a culture that helps to keep markets in their place. Governments can acquire art collections and thus remove them from the market. Or they can promote organ donation in various ways (e.g. reciprocity and presumed consent) so that organ shortages don’t force people into markets (legal or illegal markets). Welfare can help poor people avoid exploitative market transactions. And so on. However, legislation is often unavoidable if we want to protect rights against the market.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (17): Human Rights For All? Nobody Has the Slightest Idea How

I’ve noticed this a number of times: human rights defenders’ passionate commitment to the cause isn’t matched by a concomitant knowledge of the best means available to promote the cause. In fact, no one has a f***ing clue and there’s a lot of groping in the dark.

For example, human rights activism frequently takes the legal route: vote laws, enact constitutions, sign treaties and let the courts do their work. That’s quite understandable in theory. If you want to force people, the law is often the right way to go. However, we see that the effect of human rights law on the acts of rights violators is usually very limited, if not counterproductive. This should be obvious when you understand that some of the worst rights violators are tyrannical states which have no interest in the rule of law. Enacting laws when there’s no rule of law is transparently futile (with one caveat: law can create its own culture). Even legislation in countries that do respect the rule of law is often ineffective. Case in point: there is now something called the New Jim Crow in the US right.

There’s also a lot of talk about education. If only we could educate people about human rights then the next generations would be better off. It’s a similar problem: education can only be successful in a wider environment that is stable and well willing. The invocation of appeals to honor (Appiah style) and storytelling (Rorty style) have a whiff of desperation about them. And I guess I don’t have to discuss the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council, economic boycotts, sanctions or diplomacy (although it does seem as if sanctions had a small positive effect in Apartheid South Africa).

Given this lack of understanding about the effectiveness of human rights promotion, it’s quite surprising that there is progress at all, and somewhat less surprising that most progress is a surprise. Poverty has sharply declined, but a lot of the decline is despite intentional efforts rather than because of them (development aid doesn’t seem to do the trick according to Easterly). Communism has disappeared, and although there are many who want to take the credit, it’s better to admit that 1989 took all of us by surprise.

So, some of the progress we see is unintentional in the sense that we intend it to happen and yet it happens despite of our intentional actions. That’s good as far as it goes: better to have unintentional progress than no progress at all. But of course it would be even better if our intentional actions were successful and if things happen because of our actions rather than in spite of them, if only because then we would be able to be more intentionally effective in the future.

It would also be better if some of our intentional efforts would stop making things worse: the US wages a war on terror but only seems to make it worse, in at least these two manners: first, the war on terror creates resentment which in turn becomes a breeding ground for future terrorists; and second, it has become increasingly clear that the war on terror leads to rights violations, and not just in the target countries.

And then there’s a type of actions situated between ineffective intentional efforts and counter-effective intentional efforts, namely those actions which are effective but which also carry a heavy cost. Slavery has been abolished in the US, but no one wanted it to be a war that did it. Bombing Serbian civilians in order to protect those in Kosovo is another example. Here we enter the difficult domain of weighing the lives of some against the lives of others.

All of this confirms how clueless we are when it comes to effectively protecting people’s rights. That’s a shame, given the importance of the cause.

More on human rights progress here and here.

Human Rights Promotion (16): Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure?

Let’s start with another, related question: are human rights an ideology? There is indeed an ideology of human rights, at least as long as we use a value-free meaning of the word “ideology”. (Some argue that human rights are an ideology in the value-laden sense of the word, but that’s not what I want to talk about now). Human rights are an ideology because they form a widely shared system of ideas, and these ideas form a comprehensive vision of the world (see here for a definition of the word “ideology”).

Now, some have argued that the ideology of human rights, when compared to some other ideologies, has been a complete failure. Christianity, nationalism and Marxism for instance (one can perhaps add other ideologies such as Islam) have done much better over the course of history (although the role of Marxism is now finished, it seems). Over the course of decades and even centuries, those ideologies have been exported and implemented throughout the world. They have created mass movements, mass mobilization, political institutions, churches, political parties and rituals. They have inspired art, feverish devotion and legal codes. Moreover, they have proven to be able to adapt to local circumstances.

Human rights have achieved nothing of the kind. True, there are some international human rights courts and certain human rights have made their way into treaties and national constitutions, but those courts, treaties and constitutions are terribly ineffective in most parts of the world. No political party anywhere has human rights as its central goal. There are the occasional mass protests when some rights of some people are violated, but there’s always a distinctively ad hoc feeling about those protests and mobilization of this kind pales when compared to the movements inspired by Christianity, nationalism and (until a few decades ago) Marxism.

It’s true that Christianity, Marxism and nationalism were “successful” in one sense of the word. They were popular ideas, popular enough to have real life effects, but one can argue that they were not successful tools for human betterment, at least not overall. The contrary may be the case (see here for examples). And, in the end, human betterment is the only success that counts.

Furthermore, the success of ideologies such as Christianity, nationalism or Marxism was based on the fact that they were adopted by rulers. They became in some sense or other “official” ideologies and could therefore be imposed. Again, that’s not really the kind of “success” that counts. Human rights, although they also can, theoretically, be adopted by rulers, have seldom been an official ideology, and this fact may be indicative of their failure. However, the success of human rights should not be judged by the degree of their official adoption. After all, rulers don’t have an incentive to adopt human rights. They have an incentive to destroy them. The success of human rights should be judged on the basis of real improvements in the lives of real individuals. And in this sense of success, human rights have been anything but a failure, especially when compared to other supposedly more successful ideologies. This doesn’t mean that the success of human rights has been profound or conclusive. We’re not there yet.

More about progress in the field of human rights is here, here and here.

Human Rights Promotion (15): Adventures in Human Rights Signaling

Malawi plans to use the $15 million (£9.6 million) it gained from selling its presidential jet to feed the more than one million people suffering chronic food shortages, the Treasury has said. Malawi angered Western donors, whose aid typically accounted for about 40 per cent of the budget, when the government of late President Bingu wan Mutharika bought the 14-passenger Dassault Falcon 900EX aircraft in 2009.

President Joyce Banda, who took over after Mutharika died of a heart attack in April 2012, made selling the plane a priority as she sought to repair the damage left by the previous president (source).

So, that’s about $15 per person. Given the fact that half the population of Malawi lives on less than $1 a day, $15 is the equivalent of about two weeks of income and therefore not to be scoffed at. However, because of their poverty, Malawians will most likely spend the money in a day or two, if not less. That’s not what I call “feeding” anyone.

Now, of course I’m against presidential jets and other private perks for dictators in poor countries (or elsewhere for that matter), but how about investing the 15 million in a productive activity? Doesn’t sound as good as giving money to the people, and probably won’t make the news, but in the long run it’s probably much more helpful. This story smells like signaling: “look how correct we are, and how concerned for the poor!” And, yes, I’m aware of the benefits of direct cash transfers, but this is not the way to do it.

More on human rights signaling here.

Human Rights Promotion (14): Aggregating Rights (A Social Welfare Function Based on Human Rights)

A social welfare function (henceforth SWF) ranks conceivable or possible worlds – also called  “social states” – according to the aggregate levels of welfare they produce. Each social state is given a numerical value by the SWF allowing it to be ranked. This should help policy makers and individuals to achieve the social state with the highest – or maximum – aggregate welfare. Subject of course to whatever constraints there are: technological or resource constraints, human capital or behavioral constraints etc. A “higher” rather than the “highest” welfare may be the only realistic option.

A SWF therefore describes society as a whole, but the whole is an aggregate of individual welfare scores, also called individual “utilities”, “interests” or whatever. Individuals should first order possible social states from their own point of view and their own sense of utility or preference, and then these individual orderings of social states are aggregated in some way by a SWF so as to achieve maximum aggregate welfare.

A SWF typically looks like this:

W(x) = F (U1(x), U2(x), ... , Un(x))
where:
W(x) is a real number social utility value for a possible world x
U1(x) is a cardinal or ordinal utility value that is interpersonally comparable and that is yielded by some policy or procedure for individual 1 in world x
F is a function that yields a real number; F can be different things: the sum of all U's, the average of all U's, the product (multiplication) of all U's etc.1
n is the total number of individuals.

SWFs are hotly contested. What should count as individual “welfare” or “utility”? And how do we measure, rank or score it? And if we have an uncontested definition of individual welfare that can be measured and ranked, then how do we compare and aggregate it across individuals? In other words: what is U and what is F?

Let’s start with the first problem. Income or wealth (counted cardinally in $) is often cited as a good proxy for welfare. When people have more money, they can pay for more goods, services or activities which give them some amount of utility in some form and which therefore enhance their welfare. Income or wealth is also measurable and interpersonally comparable. Aggregating it into a SWF should be relatively easy. Of course, F is this case should probably not be the simple sum of all income levels. Some special focus on the income of the least well off and redistribution of income from those better off would, given the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, increase total welfare utility (“W”) in a society: one extra unit of utility (income in this case) for a starving person is of greater value than an extra unit of utility for a millionaire.2

However, income and wealth aren’t really very good proxies for welfare. Welfare is clearly more than money, even though money can buy welfare. In addition, different people need different levels of income or wealth because they have different consumption requirements (think of a blind person or a paraplegic). So income looks like it’s an interpersonally comparable form of welfare when in fact it’s not: equal income may yield vastly unequal levels of welfare when welfare is understood as something more than mere income. Well-being may then have to take the place of income (well-being could account for the lower welfare of the blind and the paraplegic given equal income levels). But well-being is notoriously difficult to define, let alone measure.3

So we’re back where we came from. Perhaps a more subjective approach to welfare could do the trick. Welfare is then not what is objectively good for individuals – such as income or well-being – but rather what individuals themselves subjectively prefer. This means moving away from what Kenneth Arrow has called the Platonism or paternalism that is often part of welfare economics.4 The social good is not derived from philosophical reflection about the nature of welfare, but is instead the composite of individual preferences, whatever they are. Hence, the welfare that is to be aggregated into a SWF is abstract preference satisfaction.

The use of abstract preference satisfaction as a measure of individual welfare allows us to sidestep the problem of interpersonal comparability of more specific preferences or of other possible definitions of welfare such as income. There is no way to compare satisfaction of a preference for alcohol with satisfaction of a preference for a long life. Of course, even if we try to compare abstract preference satisfaction across individual, we’ll still have problems because

[t]here is no means of testing the magnitude of A’s satisfaction as compared with B’s.5

Hence the need to use ordinal rather than cardinal rankings for individual preference rankings. One takes individuals’ ordinal preference rankings and aggregates those, irrespective of the nature or intensity of the preferences. However, we then may have to pay the price of running afoul of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which suggest that individual ordinal rankings can’t produce a SWF.

Moreover, the interpersonal comparability of abstract preference satisfaction is only apparent. Let’s say you have a world with three individual, each with a set of preferences that they rank. Two of them have a high preference for the consumption of porn and rank that first. The other one has no preference for porn and instead ranks the consumption of art first. When abstracting these preferences, most SWFs would result in a ranking of possible social states where the social state in which porn consumption yields the highest total welfare is the best possible state. That is not intuitively appealing. While many of us would give priority to people’s preferences even if these preferences are not our own and even if we deem them base, most would stop at evil preferences.6

Hence a SWF based on abstract preference satisfaction is not acceptable. Perhaps we should therefore reconsider the Platonism scolded by Arrow7 (but without the paternalism). I propose to do just that and more specifically to use human rights as the Platonic good. I have good reasons for choosing this good, and I’ve defended those elsewhere. You may or may not agree with these reasons, and the reasons will inevitably be controversial. Introducing controversial elements into a SWF may make it useless, and may result in as many SWF as there are people. However, the controversial elements have always been there. The advantage of human rights is that there is widespread agreement on them – at least on the list of rights, not so much on the reasons why we need them.

Another advantage of the use of human rights as a proxy of welfare is interpersonally comparability. Thomas Scanlon, although not talking about human rights, says it better:

Giving up the idea that value judgments can be avoided altogether allows us to make, within moral argument, the kind of interpersonal comparison mentioned earlier. We can still pursue the aim of Neutrality by basing our moral arguments on a conception of the elements that are important in making a life good that is at least widely shared.8

Measurement of human rights is also less of a problem compared to alternative measures of welfare. People’s rights are respected or not. To some extent, this can be objectively ascertained, at least in theory. There are, of course, practical obstacles to human rights measurement, especially in oppressive environments, but a reasonable way out of this would be to assume that impossibility of measurement equals absence of respect. Indeed, when rights are not respected, they may be violated in degrees. A SWF based on rights should therefore be able to include measurement of measurable degrees of respect/violation of rights. Again, there is no real obstacle to do this kind of measurement of degrees, at least in the case of most human rights. Free speech for instance is already measured by degrees.10

In order to convince traditional welfare economists of the usefulness of this approach to SWFs, it’s probably best to point to the fact that human rights also encompass a notion of welfare. Traditional welfare needs such as food, shelter, rest, preservation of life, security and a basic standard of living are all codified as human rights.11 Human rights take a sufficientarian approach to these issues, meaning that the focus should be on the welfare needs of those members of society who do not yet have the means to satisfy them. Improving the standard of living of those who already have an above threshold level is not required by human rights.

This sufficientarianism of human rights suggests that the SWF should be Rawlsian, focusing on the welfare of the least well-off individual member of society. That is true for the welfare element of human rights, but not for the more traditional human rights. The members of society whose rights – welfare and other rights – are most precarious should of course receive priority as to their rights protection, but at least in the case of non-welfare rights this is only an intermediate goal. The SWF should allow us to advance the rights of all members up to a level of equal protection.

Sen’s social welfare function is even less useful in this context because it focuses too much on income and income inequality and doesn’t capture the full range of human rights. Completely useless are the Benthamite/classical utilitarian SWF: both the sum and the average are more or less indifferent to the distribution of utility among individuals (with the exception of diminishing marginal utility). Human rights are equal rights, hence their distribution is of crucial importance. Perhaps a Bernoulli-Nash SWF in which F is the product? Maybe, but that will only be the start. A complete SWF based on rights requires a lot more work than I can possibly accomplish here. For example, one element of complexity is geography: normally, SWFs are made for a single country, whereas a rights based SWF should of course encompass the whole of humanity. Human rights are rights of all human beings, and there are substantial cross-border effects on rights. I hope to flesh out this proposal another time.

A sum could be a Benthamite or classical utilitarian SWF; the product a Bernoulli-Nash SWF.
A Rawlsian SWF would then perhaps be an option. A Benthamite or classical utilitarian SWF, even though it would allow redistribution if justified by diminishing marginal utility, does not give special attention to the income of the least well off. A Rawlsian SWF allows redistribution even without diminishing marginal utility.
The capabilities approach - which argues that freedom (what people are free to do or be) should be included in welfare assessments - is one interesting formulation of well-being, but it's inevitably controversial.
K. J. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values; 2012, Yale University Press, p. 23.
L. Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 1932, MacMillan, p. 124.
There are numerous other problems with preference satisfaction as a definition of welfare, e.g. preference manipulation, people having preferences about other people's preferences (as in Sen's Liberal Paradox, etc.).
See note 4 above. One can argue that welfare economics is always and inherently normative. Disagreement about F is indicative of the ethical choices inherent in SWF thinking. See notes 1 and 2 above. In addition, the focus on individual welfare as the only source of social welfare also marks an ethical choice, namely the choice against collectivism.
T.M. Scanlon, The Moral Basis of Interpersonal Comparisons, in Elster & Roemer, Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 44.
10 Freedom House and others are known for this.
11 Although there is opposition to the inclusion of these rights in the corpus of human rights, especially in the U.S. See here.

Human Rights Promotion (13): Human Rights, Pareto Improvements, and a Difference Principle

Human rights activism is rarely zero-sum, in the sense that we can only improve the rights protection of some through the imposition of an equal loss on others. More commonly we selectively improve protection for some without reducing protection for others. For example, if a judge protects a journalist’s free speech rights against government censorship, no one else’s rights protection is proportionally reduced. (This is zero-sum in the sense that more free speech means less censorship, but it’s not zero-sum on the level of different rights).

Zero-sum rights activism does occur, but only in the case of conflicting rights. For example, the journalist’s free speech rights may require restrictions on the right to privacy of public figures (or vice versa). However, most violations or restrictions of rights are not the result of conflicts between rights but rather the result of the non-rights motivated actions of governments or private agents.

We can rephrase this in economic terms. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made (source).

This is common in human rights activism. We regularly intervene very selectively to improve the rights of some while leaving others unaffected. This is because there’s always a lack of resources and a lack of power to intervene non-selectively.

However, even if Pareto improvements can be a way forward for rights protection, they are not the ultimate goal of human rights activism. This ultimate goal is equal rights, and that’s not something you can reach with Pareto improvements. Inherent in Pareto is that you don’t leave anyone worse off, but equal rights may require that some people give up something: an equal right to private property may imply redistribution for example.

Another reason why Pareto improvements aren’t really compatible with human rights is the lack of urgency, priority or fairness in Pareto terms. Pareto improvements can make those who are already better off even better off. If you make the richest person in society better off or improve the rights protection of the best protected person in society, this can be a Pareto improvement, but that’s hardly the best way forward for human rights. Human rights would require making first the worst placed person better off, even if this means making the best placed person a bit worse off (which, however, is often not even necessary).

Pareto efficient is therefore not the best way to achieve a society with full respect for human rights, although a society that is not Pareto efficient – in the sense that some Pareto improvements with respect to rights protection are still possible and some people may be made better off without anyone else being made worse off – obviously does not fully respect human rights.

If we first need to make the worst off better off, then a better principle for human rights may be a variation of Rawls’ difference principle:

enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is already better is only justifiable if it also leads to enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is relatively worse.

For example, one could argue that a very bright person has a right to more education if it turns out that her enhanced education ultimately benefits others who are less educated (perhaps because this person will become a rights activist or because she will transmit her knowledge). Or one can argue that a higher standard of living for someone already well off will increase economic productivity which in turn benefits the poorer members of society. However, this difference principle will not, by definition, make everyone equally well off or guarantee everyone’s equal rights. But perhaps it will do a better job than Pareto efficiency.

More about human rights and zero-sum games here. More about the original difference principle here.

Human Rights Promotion (12): What Makes People Care About Human Rights?

Human rights are not like music or love, things people care about for their own sake or for the pleasure or happiness they provide. If people care about human rights they do so because they view those rights as means to achieve some other goals or purpose. I personally see the following reasons why people care about human rights.

Signaling

Human rights function as signaling tools (see also here). People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but perhaps only want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that. They may of course improve respect for human rights along the way, sometimes unwittingly (for example because their talk contributes to a culture of human rights), but human rights are valuable to them primarily because they allow them to communicate certain things about themselves. For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. This kind of reason to care about human rights is not by definition useless for the promotion of human rights – it can advance the cause of human rights – but it’s obviously not the best possible reason.

Self-interest

Human rights promote people’s self-interest. That’s obviously true for their own rights, but also for the rights of others. I’ve written here about the ways in which people may view the promotion of the rights of others as a means to protect their own self-interest. This reason to care about human rights is more beneficial to the cause of human rights than the signaling reason, but it’s still not the best possible reason. People’s self-interest does not advance all human rights of all other people.

Values

People may believe that human rights promote some of their cherished values or ideals, such as freedom or equality, for themselves and for humanity in general. Like the previous two reasons for caring about human rights, this reason will only advance the cause of human rights contingently: if freedom is what you care about, you will only promote human rights to the extent that they enhance freedom, and only those rights that enhance freedom.

It’s not true that freedom is served by all human rights all of the time, at least not if you adopt a restrictive definition of freedom. For example, those human rights that guarantee a basic standard of living are not clearly meant to enhance the freedom of poor people – within the bounds of a certain definition of freedom – and they may even limit the freedom of those who have to contribute the means necessary to guarantee a basic standard of living for others. Conversely, if you’re an egalitarian and equality rather than freedom is what you care about, then you may not feel especially attached to the right to property for example.

Humanity

People may cherish rights because they believe human beings are uniquely valuable creatures who should be treated in a certain way. For example, you may believe that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Or that they deserve to have their autonomy protected. Or that people have been created by God in His image and that this requires a certain treatment. Human rights are then viewed as means to achieve this treatment. Compared to the previous reasons to care about human rights, this reason is potentially more inclusive and wide-ranging and less contingent on facts about personal motivation. However, it depends on a substantive and inherently controversial philosophy about human nature, dignity or religion.

Evil

Conversely, people may cherish human rights, not because of their views about the inherent worth of human beings, but because of the evil inherent in humanity. Human rights are necessary not because they protect the good in people but because they protect people from the evil in others.

Human Rights Promotion (11): Intentionality Bias Causing the Surge in Human Rights Talk

First, there has indeed been a surge in human rights talk over the past decades and even centuries. This is particularly obvious for the period since the end of WWII. Human rights have become the lingua franca among the oppressed, the persecuted and the bleeding hearts worldwide, effectively replacing language based on benevolence, honor etc. (No insult intended, I’m a bleeding heart myself). There’s something about the notion of a human right that captures the strength of demands for freedom and equality like nothing else. It makes a claim sound very strong and difficult to ignore.

Other reasons for the popularity of human rights – or better the fascination with human rights – are their clarity and simplicity, their obvious universality and the fact that they cover most if not all areas of human suffering, depravity and failing, including persecution, violence, lack of freedom, discrimination, poverty, work and the family.

A further, and as yet unexplored reason is the so-called intentionality bias. The intentionality bias is a psychological bias where actions are viewed as intentional even when they’re not.

Three studies tested the idea that our analyses of human behavior are guided by an ‘‘intentionality bias,” an implicit bias where all actions are judged to be intentional by default. In Study 1 participants read a series of sentences describing actions that can be done either on purpose or by accident (e.g., ‘‘He set the house on fire”) and had to decide which interpretation best characterized the action. To tap people’s initial interpretation, half the participants made their judgments under speeded conditions; this group judged significantly more sentences to be intentional. Study 2 found that when asked for spontaneous descriptions of the ambiguous actions used in Study 1 (and thus not explicitly reminded of the accidental interpretation), participants provided significantly more intentional interpretations, even with prototypically accidental actions (e.g., ‘‘She broke the vase”). Study 3 examined whether more processing is involved in deciding that something is unintentional (and thus overriding an initial intentional interpretation) than in deciding that something is unpleasant (where there is presumably no initial ‘‘pleasant” interpretation). Participants were asked to judge a series of 12 sentences on one of two dimensions: intentional/unintentional (experimental group) or pleasant/unpleasant (control group). People in the experimental group remembered more unintentional sentences than people in the control group. Findings across the three studies suggest that adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior. This research has important implications both in terms of theory (e.g., dual-process model for intentional reasoning), and practice (e.g., treating aggression, legal judgments). (source)

If there is indeed a tendency to view actions as intentional, then there will also be a tendency to frame problems in terms of human rights. For example, if the intentional actions of an oppressive majority assisted by prejudiced legislators and law enforcers are believed to be the main cause of discrimination of a racial minority, then holding those intentional actors legally and judicially responsible for rights violations makes sense and may be effective. When, on the other hand, a lot of this discrimination is in fact the result of unconscious bias, or when it is statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination, then judicial action based on human rights is much less effective.

And it’s my opinion that a lot of human rights violations are unintentional, unconscious and statistical. That doesn’t mean we should stop framing the underlying problems in human rights terms, but it does mean that our efforts to do something about them should be non-legal and non-judicial. Story telling, making people aware of their unconscious biases against certain groups of people, incentivizing people and other strategies can then be more successful in stopping rights violations.

The intentionality bias can be understood as an example of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. A simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

More on human rights and intentionality is here, here and here. More on biases is here.

Human Rights Promotion (10): Human Rights For Machines?

People of color, women, slaves, Jews, children and other human beings have been regarded, at some point in history, as legal nonpersons. Nowadays they are equal to all other human beings, at least according to the law. It’s not uncommon to hear the argument that certain species of animals, such as primates or dolphins, should also have rights similar to those of humans (at least some of the rights of humans).

Is it not time to do the same for machines? Why should the expanding circle of moral concern stop at living creatures? And what is life anyway? Are not intelligence, self-awareness (or “consciousness” whatever that means) and some form of agency more important in the attribution of rights? If so, then some machines at least should have rights, since they are intelligent, self-aware and capable of agency. And then we should stop treating machines are mere tools used for human ends, just as we – or at least some of us – have now stopped treating slaves, women and animals as mere tools. Otherwise we run the risk of presenting ourselves to future generations much like our bigoted, racist, speciesist, classist and sexist forefathers have presented themselves to us.

However, can we really make the case that the most sophisticated machines that we currently have are “creatures” with artificial intelligence able to make autonomous and self-aware choices? (Notice the use of the word “that” instead of “who”). Is it not more correct to say that, no matter how sophisticated they are, they simply execute instructions given to them by human engineers or programmers and choose whatever their designers have told them to choose? That they are mere extensions of our arms and brains like all machines before them, only more complex?

There are now machines that speak, or seem to speak. Should they have the right to free speech? A Google search result may be deemed protected speech, but not because machines – in this case a computer program that searches the internet – have the right to free speech but because the search result can be considered a form of human speech, in this case speech by a computer programmer. Google is a mouthpiece.

If we refuse the notion of machine rights because machines are not self-aware, autonomous and intelligent agents, then we immediately run into a serious problem. Certain human beings who have lost a significant part of their brainpower – or all of it – and who are no longer self-aware or capable of agency – or who never had those features – are still accorded rights. We don’t systematically euthanize the severely mentally handicapped or patients in a coma.

Maybe then this whole line of thinking is fruitless. Attributes such as intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness and agency shouldn’t be used to accord or deny rights because doing so leads to unacceptable conclusions. And even in the absence of such conclusion would we face a problem. We can’t clearly define those attributes, and even if we could then it would still be practically impossible to decide “who” or “what” has or doesn’t have them. It’s difficult enough with a human being in a coma, let alone with animals or machines. Even if someone or something looks like a thinking, conscious actor, that may be an optical illusion: perhaps it was programmed to look that way. A Turing test may help, but it may not be foolproof, or at least not able to convince us that it is foolproof.

The reason is the inaccessible of the mind. In the words of Daniel Dennett, there is no way to be sure that something that seems to have an inner life does in fact have one. We normally assume that our fellow human beings have an inner life like our own, but that is just an assumption necessary to make everyday life bearable. And it’s even more of an assumption in the case of animals or machines. At least in the case of fellow human beings we can convince ourselves of the proposition that because they look like us on the exterior they must also look like us on the interior.

Hence, we shouldn’t decide whether someone or something has rights on the basis of the presence of attributes such as consciousness and agency. In my own thinking about rights I’ve always avoided this line of thinking. Rights for me are things that we need to realize certain values. They are tools – legal and policy tools – rather than attributes of moral creatures. Hence, we should ask whether animals or machines requires rights for the realization of states that are important to them. Animals value a life without pain and without restrictions to their freedom of movement. Rights that help them to achieve these values would therefore be imaginable. However, it seems more difficult to make the same case for machines. It’s not clear that machines value anything, at least not in the same way that it is clear that human beings and animals value some things.

“Clear” should be understood not in the sense of “factual” or “true”. Like in the case of consciousness, intelligence or agency, the presence of the ability to value something can’t be easily determined: like any other state of mind it can’t be seen, verified or experienced by anyone else. For instance, if an animal seems to value the absence of pain, we may in fact be dealing with a machine that is programmed to impersonate an animal that doesn’t like pain. We can’t know for certain, not even with regard to our fellow human beings. But again, the general similarity between humans and between humans and some types of animals gives us reason to believe that other humans or animals value some of the same things we value. There is no such general similarity between human and machines.

One could argue that there are moral limits on the things we can do to machines – not torture robots or robotic toys for instance – not because those machines have rights but because what our actions do to ourselves. But that’s no reason to conclude that machines have rights. Our own rights are at stake here.

Human Rights Promotion (9): Most Urgent Human Rights Policies

If you’re a political leader, a church leader or anyone else with the ability and willingness to change some people’s behavior and promote respect for human rights – to some extent that includes all of us – what should be your policy priorities? On which human rights violations should you focus? Ideally, you would like to be told something more specific than “reduce suffering and violence and enhance liberty and equality”. So here’s my attempt at something specific.

I’ll list a few domains that require urgent action. Not all of these domains are equally amenable to action, because there may be strong resistance in some quarters. Nevertheless, I consider all these domains to be equally important. I’ll list them first (and include links to older posts arguing why action is important) and afterwards distinguish between those domains where immediate progress is realistic and where it’s not. Of course, it’s not because progress isn’t realistic that we should remain passive.

  1. Promote free trade. Standard arguments for protectionism sound a lot like the Count complaining that there are beggars at the door. Protectionism may even harm citizens of the protecting country. It certainly harms producers in poorer countries. More here.
  2. Abolish capital punishment and reduce incarceration rates. Capital punishment doesn’t deliver on its promises, and even if it did it wouldn’t be acceptable. “Tough on crime” policies go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims.
  3. One way to reduce incarceration rates is to end the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs will also reduce racial discrimination because it leads to strong imbalances in incarceration rates by race, impoverishing and even destroying many black families.
  4. Abolish existing laws and practices that lead to discrimination of all types. Some laws, however, may be necessary to combat discrimination.
  5. Guarantee social safety nets through a fair and efficient system of benefits and progressive taxation – perhaps including a basic income guarantee – but also encourage private charity. Design the taxation system in such a way that it reduces income inequality.
  6. Help the poor by way of Conditional Cash Transfers.
  7. Rethink development aid.
  8. Combat malnourishment and hunger and improve the water supply.
  9. Reduce immigration restrictions. The supposed negative consequences of increased immigration are largely fictitious, and the benefits for migrants are huge. Also relax asylum rules for refugees.
  10. Improve education and healthcare.
  11. Enhance the scope of humanitarian intervention in order to avoid Rwanda style atrocities.
  12. Promote democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and the separation of church and state, and improve those institutions where they already exist. Human rights are typically safer in democracies and obviously require the rule of law.
  13. Declare victory in the war on terror, but continue the capture terrorist and subject them to fair criminal trials. Abandon torture, targeted killings if alternatives are available, and extrajudicial incarceration, and limit invasions of privacy to those strictly necessary to capture terrorists.
  14. Abolish freedom-restricting laws such as those prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia. Relax abortion laws where necessary.
  15. Guarantee the freedom of the internet.

Now, which of these actions are realistic in the short term, and which are not? The latter part of the list, namely actions 9 to 15, seems to be the most difficult. Substantial progress is already under way for 1, 2, 4 (take the case of same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT), 6, 7 and 8. Also, 3 may be heading in the right direction. 5 depends to some extent on the general economic climate.

It’s obviously a long list of often very difficult policies, even when we limit ourselves to those areas where progress is relatively easy. Also, in some countries, progress may be easier in some areas than in others. That’s why this list is still too general and different actors may have to choose a subset.

More on progress in the field of human rights here.

Human Rights Promotion (8): Human Rights in the U.S.A.

The United States is far from the worst violator of human rights, but neither is it the Shining City on the Hill that many take it to be. See what you make if this:

  • America, where people get into a frenzy about personal freedom when someone wants to limit the maximum size of soda cups, and yet consistently accept world record incarceration rates.
  • America, where felons can more quickly recover their right to bear arms than their right to vote.
  • America, where white people with a criminal record are more likely to get a callback after a job interview than black people without a criminal record.
  • America, where the depiction of naked people making love is less a matter of free speech than the depiction of people killing each other.
  • America, where the right to life of the unborn is more important than the right to life of the living.
  • America, where the courts express themselves on issues such as the appropriate hotness of coffee but remain strangely silent about the extra-judicial execution or torture of U.S. citizens.
  • America, the “land of opportunity”, has less social mobility than many of the so-called “socialist” countries of Europe.
  • America, where the Supreme Court has decided that anyone can be strip-searched upon arrest for any offence whatsoever – this is the same Supreme Court that doesn’t allow its proceedings to be televized.
  • Etc.

And then remember that a large majority of countries is even worse than this. Have a nice day.

Human Rights Promotion (7): The Human Rights of Adolf Hitler

Suppose Hitler didn’t kill himself and was captured alive by the Russians in Berlin, or by Israeli commandos in South America. What would we be morally allowed to do to him if we had managed to capture him? Does a person like him have human rights that we have to respect? Of course. Whatever dehumanizing name you wish to call him, he was a human being like the rest of us, and we have to deal with that fact. Every human being has rights and those rights are not conditional upon good behavior. No one has less or more rights than the next person. It’s not because someone has committed horrible crimes that we are allowed to take away his or her rights.

Hitler’s rights include a right to life. This right is quasi-absolute and can only be limited if that’s the only way to save other lives. So for instance, we are allowed to shoot him on the spot if he resists arrest and threatens to kill us or others (such as hostages). But suppose Hitler is captured alive and is no longer a threat to the lives of others. Shooting him is then not allowed because that would be an extrajudicial execution.

Are we allowed to execute him after a proper trial? Maybe a living Hitler who’s kept in prison would still be able to encourage his followers to continue their murderous rampage and maybe that’s a sound argument for executing rather than imprisoning him. But I think that’s a far-fetched scenario. Only in the unlikely case that there is a real risk of an imprisoned Hitler ordering murder and that executing him is the only means to remove a threat to the lives of others, would his execution be allowed. This is equivalent to the case in which Hitler is holding hostages. However, even in this case, going after Hitler’s followers would be more effective.

So capital punishment is not an option. Remember also that other justifications of capital punishment aren’t available: we are not allowed to deter future criminals by killing present criminals, not even if it works, since that would be an instrumentalization of a human being. Going down that road ultimately leads to the devaluation of all human life. Life imprisonment without parole then? Not an option either because even Hitler can be rehabilitated. The problem with rehabilitation is that you never know who can do it until they do it. You can’t say in advance that some people are beyond rehabilitation.

Some form of criminal punishment is obviously warranted since Hitler acted with intent, knew the consequences of his actions, caused the consequences of his actions, wasn’t forced to act, was aware of alternative courses of action, violated existing law and was found guilty of such violations after a fair trial (ex hypothesi). Given the unavailability of capital punishment and life without parole, some fixed term prison sentence seems to be the only remaining option. And I know that’s a huge anticlimax for most of us.

But what do we want to achieve with that sentence? Retribution? Even if retribution is a justified end of punishment – which it isn’t since we should in general try to be better than criminals – a fixed term sentence is hardly retribution for Hitler: on any account, this is less than what he deserves. And more than this is ruled out (see above). Not only aren’t we morally allowed to execute him, but even executing him doesn’t seem enough. If anything, he deserves to be executed millions of times over, which we obviously can’t do even if we were morally allowed to do it.

Perhaps we want to achieve incapacitation. That’s reasonable enough in this case. You can hardly allow Hitler to walk the streets. But again, this is truly anti-climactic. It leaves us with our anger and sadness. But I guess there’s no way to leave our anger and sadness behind in this case. The morale of this story is that the same is true in many other, less extreme cases as well. We tend to be too ambitious when punishing criminals.

Human Rights Promotion (6): A Fatal Paradox for Human Rights Proponents?

Like the opponents of human rights, the proponents also face a paradox. Imagine human rights utopia: the world has managed to get rid of oppression, domination, exploitation, discrimination, injustice and suffering. Or perhaps human rights violations haven’t disappeared completely but people have managed to make them a rare occurrence. People find it easy to be moral and to respect the rights of others, and there’s hardly ever a slip-up.

However, we could argue that this world has lost something important. It’s undoubtedly better in one sense of the word, but at the same time it’s worse: people have lost the opportunity to show solidarity, to be charitable, to help each other and to strive towards moral heroism.

Because of the risk that a successful struggle against human rights violations results in this loss (only a potential risk at this moment in time), we should perhaps value the struggle itself, and not just the successful outcome. But then we value the struggle and at the same time we are upset about it. We are upset because we obviously believe it is a struggle that we should end victoriously as quickly as possible, but at the same time we value it because we believe that it’s generally a good thing for people to be working towards a moral goal and to act benevolently (we may also value the struggle because it allows us to signal our own personal moral worth, but that’s another point).

So, paradoxically, we want to win the struggle for human rights as quickly as possible because rights violations are evil; but at the same time we want to cherish and perhaps even prolong the struggle because of the moral value inherent in it. But that means that the struggle against human rights violations confers a certain value to these violations and makes them a bit less evil, which surely isn’t the purpose. If people are morally enriched and ennobled by the struggle against human rights violations, then it’s also these violations that enrich and ennoble. But of course we cannot acknowledge this because we want to abolish those violations; we can’t desire to abolish them and at the same time claim that they have value. If you start to see good in evil, you endanger your mental health.

More on human rights and utopia here, and on human rights and paradoxes here and here.

Human Rights Promotion (5): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth, Ctd.

Following up on a previous post, here’s one additional example of things human rights defenders normally reject but still feel forced to accept as the better one of two terrible options: in some cases, life in prison seems to be better than freedom.

Life goes on for inmates … They adapt to prison. They are able to acquire privileges through good behavior. They enjoy recreational opportunities, a social life, and family visits. They receive food, shelter, and medical care at state expense. By contrast, research on life after even relatively short stays in prison suggests that ex-inmates typically face extraordinary, long-term challenges to reintegration and a return to the level of well-being they enjoyed before prison. … [A] study [finds] that black men survive longer inside prison than outside it. (source, source, source)

None of this means that it’s good to keep people in prison – and yet, given our failure to guarantee human rights for minorities, ex-inmates and poor people, being in prison does have certain advantages. This should go some way to explaining this bizarre story:

Unemployed and without health insurance, [a] man in North Carolina has himself arrested in order to receive treatment. … It was not perhaps the most obvious way of getting a bad back, arthritis and a dodgy foot seen to. But if you’re unemployed in North Carolina with no health insurance, there is no obvious way.

So on 9 June James Verone left his Gastonia home, took a ride to a bank and carried out a robbery. Well, sort of.

What he did was hand the clerk a note that said: “This is a bank robbery, please only give me one dollar.” Then, as he later told the local NBC news station, he calmly sat in the corner of the bank having told the clerk: “I’ll be sitting right over there in the chair waiting for the police.” …

He told the paper he had lost his job after 17 years as a Coca-Cola delivery man, and with it his health insurance. He was in increasing pain from slipped discs, arthritic joints, a gammy foot and a growth on his chest.

Since being in the jail he has attained his goal: he has been seen by nurses and an appointment with a doctor is booked. (source)

It’s a sorry state of affairs that people want to be in prison because being in prison is better than their life outside.

Human Rights Promotion (3): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Take for instance capital punishment. Human rights defenders normally reject it. And indeed, if you use your head and look at the data, and if you refine your moral compass, you can’t possibly reach any other conclusion. And yet, most of us, even the most ardent rights defenders, know cases in which they would like to see people die – perhaps even administer the lethal drug themselves. Emotions are hard to reason with. We swallow the logic of human rights, the data and the moral precepts, and yet in doing so they leave a bad taste in our mouths.

There are other cases. Take child labor. We know that it’s detrimental to a child’s education and hence her future prosperity, intellectual development and flourishing. It’s probably also harmful to her health. And yet, we accept it in certain cases because the alternative is even worse. In some place, there may be no education provision worthy of the name, and forcing a child away from work may aggravate the poverty of her family without doing much for the child’s education. Acquiescing in a child’s rights violations is better for her rights than doing nothing.

The same is true with sweatshop labor or the exploitation of poor migrants:

In Lant Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. (source)

In all these cases we’re faced with awful situations, but the alternatives are even worse; or, better, the realistic alternatives. If we could eliminate poverty overnight, open our borders, provide decent education and labor standards to all, and inject a conscience in all employers, we wouldn’t need to swallow dirt and leave a bad taste. But we can’t, not now at least.

Another example is the veil. We should allow Muslim women to dress modestly because we want to respect freedom of religion and because we don’t want to treat those women as lesser human beings who don’t have the agency to stand up against patriarchy and who need to be liberated by us enlightened folk. And yet, at the same time we know that we may be endorsing and promoting a symbol of oppression and thereby oppression itself. We also know that there are women who are forced to hide themselves, but we don’t know which. And finally, we know that dressing modestly renders some activities difficult, and that women as a result may not be able to fully develop themselves. And yet we swallow, because the alternative – forcing all veiled women to uncover – would be worse.

Human Rights Promotion (2): Who Does Most Harm to Human Rights? The Left or the Right?

I can simplify this question a bit and focus on those rights violations that are caused by government action. Moreover, I’ll focus on governments in developed countries and say that those are generally democracies dominated either by left-wing or right-wing political movements, alternating. Now, if I want to judge whether it’s the left or the right that is most harmful to human rights, I need to define left and right. And that’s tricky. But let’s simplify some more and say that

  • the right is generally conservative, concerned about respect for religion and religious rules/morality, in favor of capitalism and free markets, against taxation and government intervention in markets, not very interested in equality or equal rights in some areas (as a consequence of religious morality for instance), suspicious of immigration, in favor of a strong national defense, and focused on law and order;
  • the left is worried about capitalism and free markets, in favor of government regulation and intervention in markets, suspicious of free trade, willing to tax and redistribute, and politically correct.

I know, highly simplistic, but I’ll try to make it useful. So bear with me. If we focus on present-day developed nations, which of these two political ideologies is most likely to lead to government policies and legislation that cause human rights violations?

If you look at national defense, you could claim that right-wing governments are most harmful. Although the left is often very supportive of the war on terror, especially in the US (but less elsewhere), it’s the right that is most enthusiastic and most eager to adopt extreme measures. In the name of this war, the US tortured, invaded, murdered civilians, eavesdropped, rendered, and arbitrarily arrested. After every new terror-scare, right-wing spokespeople are quick to demand more rights sacrifices (Miranda rights should be suspended, citizenship revoked etc.). On the other hand, it was a left-wing government in Britain that eagerly supported this war, and Obama seems to be continuing the work of Bush.

If we look at markets, the left is clearly more skeptical about it’s benefits. However, economists – also left leaning economists – generally agree that free trade is good and that many interventions in markets, such as trade restrictions, quotas, subsidies etc. aggravate poverty. And poverty is a human rights violation. Of course, right-wing governments also impose or maintain such restrictions, but arguably left-wing governments are more prone to such vices since they often depend on support of labor unions and other protectionist forces.

On the other hand, the trust in markets expressed by the right can result in a kind of blindness: the right often doesn’t notice market failures and the harm that a slap of the invisible hand can do. As a result, the poor are blamed for their poverty, which is why government assistance in the struggle against poverty is deemed unnecessary, unhelpful and even damaging. The right’s focus on private philanthropy is good but it’s naive to think that philanthropy alone will solve the problem of poverty.

Taxation is a difficult one. Very high levels of taxation are obviously economically inefficient and may lower living standards rather than equalize them. On the other hand, very low rates make it impossible to fund the welfare state, with the same result. Both right wing and left wing fiscal policy can be harmful from a human rights point of view. And there’s a problem of actions vs words here: it’s not obvious that right-wing governments impose low tax rates and left-wing governments high tax rates, despite the respective rhetoric.

If we accept that the right is more enamored of religion, then it’s clear where we should lay the blame for a host of rights violations, such as attempts to undo the separation of state and church, discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation and invasions of privacy. Take the example of 0gay marriage. A focus on religion can also lead to a lack of respect for the sexual privacy of consenting adults, not just homosexuals, but also adulterers, people consuming obscene or pornographic material, or engaging in sodomy. Laws against homosexuality, adultery, sodomy and obscenity usually come from the right. Moreover, the right can show a lack of respect for religious minorities, a result of the incompatibility of different religious claims (“there is only one God”). Opposition to Muslim headscarves for instance is often more prevalent among the right (although there’s also anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the feminist or atheist left).

Moving on to another topic. The right’s focus on law and order has led to high incarceration rates, especially in the U.S. These rates have also been inflated by a misguided war on drugs, apparently inspired by a puritan religious morality. Capital punishment is also more popular on the right.

Regarding the left, we can mention some of the harmful consequences of political correctness. PC can lead to exaggerated limits on free speech. Hate speech, for example, is in certain cases a justifiable reason for speech limits, but it seems like some of the limits go too far. An innocent use of a particular word can get you fired, for instance.

Of course, I did simplify. The left-right dichotomy as I have defined it here doesn’t accurately reflect all nuances of political ideology. Some on the left are more pro-free-market than some on the right. Moreover, the dichotomy doesn’t capture all ideologies (libertarianism in a sense is neither left nor right). Also, many governments are left-right coalitions. And, finally, many human rights violations are not caused by governments but by fellow citizens. And when they are caused by governments, they may not be caused by those parts of government that are made up of elected politicians of the left or the right. Bureaucracies or judges can also violate rights. Some violations are not based on left or right leaning ideologies, but on other things such as an extreme desire to regulate etc.

Still, I think that the overview given above is useful. It’s not useful in the sense that it allows us to quantify or compute the respective levels of (dis)respect and to conclude that either the right or the left is better for human rights. It doesn’t. In that sense the question in the title of this post is meaningless. However, the overview above highlights the fact that everyone can violate human rights and that human rights activists should be careful when affiliating themselves with a particular ideology. Neutrality, objectivity, fairness and a lack of double standards are crucial in the struggle for human rights.

Human Rights Promotion (1): Are “Social Media” and the Internet in General Good or Bad for Human Rights?

Well, it depends, as they say. “Both” is of course the only correct answer. If you’re an optimist, you would say that:

  • Social media make it easier for people to mobilize and coordinate their activities in the event of anti-authoritarian protests; to publish alerts in case of police attacks etc. They are a useful tool in strengthening resolve and confidence, given the fact that people will only turn up at potentially dangerous protest marches when they feel confident that a very large group will turn up (see here).
  • Free speech is of course greatly enhanced by the internet, including the right to information (the passive side of free speech).
  • The internet improves the marketplace of ideas; see here.

On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you would say that:

  • The internet and social media allow governments to monitor dissidents. For example, an authoritarian government can track dissident groups through Facebook profiles and friend networks, through Twitter communications and email etc.
  • Those governments can also use the internet to distribute propaganda, while stifling dissenting voices (they have the hardware, the software and the access to providers necessary to censor the internet).
  • Terrorist groups also have been successful users of the internet, particularly through video messages and videotaped atrocities.
  • There are the obvious privacy concerns. Etc.

The question therefore isn’t “good v. bad” but how to promote the good effects while minimizing the bad ones. In any case, internet euphoria about “twitter revolutions” and such seems very simplistic.