Why Do We Need Human Rights? (43): Positionality and Transpositionality

Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.

But our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.

Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.

Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.

The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

Murky Yet Suggestive Evidence That Democracy Promotes Economic Growth

Cross-country analysis often shows only a weakly positive correlation between democracy and economic growth. The correlation is weak because there are some authoritarian countries that have strong growth figures. Most notably China of course. The impressive growth rates of a few oppressive regimes has successfully undermined the once popular theory about democracy’s positive effect on growth, and has even fostered the opposite belief: that authoritarian government is necessary for growth. (The story goes somewhat like this: authoritarian rule means longterm planning, discipline in production and consumption, national harmony and popular respect for often difficult decisions, which in turn means efficiency and productivity, and hence growth).

However, those non-democratic countries that do indeed show high growth rates shouldn’t be viewed as typical: there are just as many authoritarian countries with very weak growth figures. It’s a bit silly therefore to derive a general law about authoritarian economic success when that supposed law can be so easily falsified.

The success of China and a few other authoritarian countries doesn’t warrant a general conclusion about the beneficial effects of autocracy on growth. Bill Easterly in his “Tyranny of Experts” has argued that the prosperity of successful autocracies may not be due to a lack of freedom. Most of those countries experienced a recent move towards relatively more freedom and democracy. It was only after China started to soften its horrific totalitarian rule that prosperity began to rise. It’s not crazy, therefore, to assume that a more rapid liberalization would have resulted in even higher growth rates. Furthermore, most autocracies start from nowhere. It’s relatively easy to produce good growth figures when baseline prosperity is very low, as was China’s some decades ago (not in the least because of authoritarian rule). It’s relatively easy, even – one is tempted to say – for fools and autocrats.

The low baseline from which most autocracies start shows up when we compare not the growth rates but the level of GDP between countries. The correlation between democracy and GDP is stronger when we look at the level rather than the growth of GDP. Richer countries (with the exception of most wealthy Muslim countries) tend to be or become democracies. The data linked to in the previous sentence plot income in 1971 against democracy scores in the following decades, you can see that the causation seems to go from income to democracy. A high level of GDP predicts a flourishing (or at least continuation) of democracy. However, this could again be used by the authoritarian growth crowd. They can use this to argue that poor countries need autocracy in order to kick-start growth, because democracy can only come when the level of GDP is sufficiently high (the “democracy as luxury” argument). It’s probably true that prosperity fosters democracy (for the obvious reasons: democracy requires money, leisure, education etc.). But it’s good to see some evidence of causation in the opposite direction, from democracy to growth – if only to undermine self-congratulatory autocrats. For example, here‘s a study plotting current income against older democracy scores, suggesting that democracy also promotes growth. And here are some more correlations between the levels of GDP and of democracy. (More here).

If we accept that there is indeed a causal effect of democracy on the level of GDP, how exactly does that effect occur? Perhaps transparency, the rule of law, accountability, property rights and other characteristics of democracy are good for growth.

If we want further evidence of a causal effect of democracy on growth, we can do an in-country analysis. This paper examines the effect of democratic transitions on economic growth. The encouraging conclusion is that countries which have experienced a transition to democracy experience higher average growth after the transition.

The paper plots the evolution of real per capita GDP growth in the years surrounding a successful democratization (the year of the democratization being T), compared to the global growth rates in each year. It shows that the transition itself may imply economic costs, but in the longer term democracy pays off.

I should also mention a recent paper by Acemoglu et al that points in the same direction.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (42): Agency

A human being is an “agent” in the sense of a person able to act in the world. The words “agent”, “act” and “agency” all come from the Latin “agere”, “to set in motion, drive, lead, conduct etc.” Human agents have goals in life and pursue them through their purposeful actions.

Now, if a human being is an agent or has agency, then we should give her rights because we have to define the range of activities that she is allowed to engage in. We have to decide what she can do without obstruction and defend her against obstruction if necessary. Otherwise her agency will be largely ineffective. It’s constitutive of human beings to pursue goals and hence we owe it to them to create a framework in which they can reliably do so. Whether or not they actually realize their goals is another matter, dependent upon lots of things – circumstances, luck, resources, ambition etc. We can’t and shouldn’t promise people that they’ll get what they’re after, but making it impossible for them to try is a denial of their humanity. The point is that we can only make it possible for them to try if we give them rights. Of course, people without rights or people suffering rights violations can sometimes act purposefully. But they’ll always be precarious agents. A predictable and reliable form of agency depends on respect for rights.

This kind of justification of human rights is by definition a limited one. It isn’t complete. There are people who have no agency in the relevant sense of the word – for example babies or the severely handicapped – but who still have rights. So we’ll have to look for additional justifications, which is what I’ve tried to do in the other posts in this series.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (41): Our Interests or Our Autonomy?

Two competing answers to a fundamental question about rights are doing the rounds: why do we need rights anyway? There’s an interest theory of rights which gives one answer, and then there’s a will theory of rights which gives another, incompatible answer. (There are other theories but most of the discussion is between these two). Very, very simplistically, the answers are these:

  • Will theory (WT), otherwise known as choice theory, argues that the purpose of rights is to protect and foster individual autonomy. An individual who has rights is a small-scale sovereign. WT attempts to establish the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom. Rights help to protect and realize this capacity. This implies that the rights holder has the moral power to waive or annul his or her rights. All rights are derived from the essential right of all human beings to be free.
  • Interest theory (IT) argues that the principal function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests. This is another way of saying that rights protect what is beneficial to individuals:

Necessary though insufficient for the holding of a legal right by X is that the duty correlative to the right, when actual, normatively protects some aspect of X’s situation that on balance is typically beneficial for a being like X. (source)

Both theories have appealing and somewhat less appealing features. One appealing aspect of WT is that it wants to offer equal freedom to all. People want things, face choices – good and bad – and need opportunities to do things. Rights offer the ability to make preferred choices and provide the opportunities to do things. The understanding that most rights are alienable is also positive, in my view.

However, more problematic – and some say fatal – is the fact that WT rules out the holding of rights by animals, dead people, future persons, infants, comatose people, severely mentally disabled people, senile people and fetuses. In WT, people only have rights when they are competent to claim rights, and members of the cited groups can’t typically claim rights. If they don’t have rights, we can do whatever we want to them. Not a good conclusion.

Personally, I think the most appealing feature of IT is that it more or less corresponds to my own value theory of rights (which I argued for here). Also not to be frowned upon is the fact that IT avoids the problem of the rights of non-autonomous beings.

One problem with IT is the vagueness of the term “interests”. What is an interest? Should it be the case that an individual understands an interest as an interest (in other words, should an interest be a felt interest)? Or is it enough that the interest is objectively a human interest? In the former case, IT replicates the problem of the comatose and others who can’t be said to understand their interests. In the latter case, we’ll quickly end up with paternalism and we’ll also have to enter the treacherous domain of human nature.

Another problem is that most versions of IT don’t define which specific interests we’re talking about, and which interests create rights. Consequently, IT also remains vague about the exact rights people have. In one sense, that may be positive. Rights have to evolve. But I think that the vagueness here is to be deplored.

Also, rights don’t only exist to benefit the rights holder. Your freedom of speech is in my interest as well (more on that here). Again, IT can’t deal with this very well.

To conclude, if we have to choose between IT and WT, I guess the problems faced by IT are less deep. The exclusion of large groups of beings in WT is very hard to solve. Compared to that, one can at least see some possible solutions to the problems raised by IT.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (40): On the Relative Unimportance of the Notion of Human Dignity

The word “dignity” features prominently in most human rights treaties and declarations. For example, the Vienna Declaration of the 1993 World Human Rights Conference affirms that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person”.

I don’t buy it. Human rights derive from human values. We need rights, not to protect our dignity, but to realize our values. I subscribe to a value-based approach to human rights. I can’t and won’t explain this approach here – you can read this older post if you want – because what I want to do now is simply argue against dignity as a basis or justification of human rights. In fact, that sounds a bit too extreme: dignity can be a basis, at least of some human rights, but it’s not the one I prefer. It’s my view that there really is no analytical or practical need for the concept of dignity in the field of human rights.

Of course, if someone decides that he or she wants to believe in human rights because of an affection for the notion of dignity, why not. In the end, what we want is full protection of all human rights, and the things that produce this protection are of secondary importance. However, I’m convinced that progress towards that end is more likely when we focus on values rather than dignity. Dignity, compared to values, is an extremely vague and contradictory notion, one that has many meanings, few of which are practically useful in grounding or justifying human rights.


Let’s start with the word’s inherent contradictions. Dignity implies both radical inequality and radical equality. Originally, inequality was central to the notion. Dignity was, and to some extent still is, the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, or better of a certain amount of honor or respect. Some people deserve respect due to their status, standing, position or function. For example, respecting the dignity of the queen means honoring her as a person having her function. A “dignitary” is defined as a person who has a high rank or an important position. A head of state or a government respects the dignity of foreign emissaries by giving them the proper privileges. All these and many other uses of the word “dignity” reveal the inequality that the word is intended to convey.

Another use of the word shows that it is about inequality not only of people but of things as well: “I will not dignify your question with an answer” means that your question is so silly and so far below an adequate level of quality that my answering it would give it more respect than it deserves.

On the other hand, dignity also has a radical egalitarian meaning. This is a relatively recent development. There is, it seems, something like human dignity, a dignity all humans share regardless of rank and position. This comes across in certain recent uses of the word. People are said to behave in an undignified manner when they fail to show sufficient self-respect: for example, a person who is about to be executed for a grave crime and who has be to dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows. Such a person certainly does not have a high rank or status and yet is still seen as behaving in an undignified manner. Why? Because that’s not how humans should behave. Humans should show self-respect.

People can also treat each other in an undignified manner: keeping a patient in a persistent vegetative state alive against her will and against hope is often described as undignified; the same is true for a failure to give someone a proper burial. “Aging with dignity” means being old and at the same time able to continue to perform normal human functions.

All these modern uses of the word “dignity” convey equality, and more specifically an equality based on a certain understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. Being treated with dignity means being treated in a human and non-degrading way, in a way that respects our common humanity, and in a way that all humans deserve.

Perhaps we have to thank democracy for this egalitarian turn in our understanding of dignity. Democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings. Jeremy Waldron has famously argued that the notion of human dignity comes from the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. There has been a “leveling up”: all of us deserve the same respect that was once reserved for high status people. We are all “dignitaries” now. Human dignity, as opposed to old-fashioned dignity, is considered to be “inherent” rather than given by class or status, by ritual, coronation, anointment, dress, office etc. However, while this egalitarian turn is to be commended, it looks like we have arrived at a point where dignity is no longer different from equality. It’s another word for the same thing. In what way is being treated with dignity different from being treated equally? Hard to say.

Another problem is that the two meanings of the word “dignity” – the egalitarian and the inegalitarian one – continue to exist side by side. This is confusing and it can lead to the idea that some people, on account of their actions, are no longer dignified or have lost their dignity and self-respect and hence no longer deserve their human rights.


On to the matter of the practical utility of the notion of dignity. To what extent can the word be used to justify specific human rights and denounce specific human rights violations? If we understand dignity as the preciousness of each human individual then we are not allowed to treat humans in a degrading way or in a way that diminishes their humanity. Torture would be a clear case of degrading treatment in this sense. Hence, a right not to be tortured would receive strong support from the notion of dignity. A similar reasoning is perhaps possible for certain other human rights such as the right not to be enslaved and the right not to suffer poverty. A slave or a poor person can be said to be have lost his or her dignity.

But how do violations of someone’s freedom of speech violate his or her dignity? Or someone’s right to associate and assemble on the town square? That’s not clear at all. Dignity, it seems, is of limited use in the justification of human rights. Perhaps one can make the case that dignity requires respect for autonomy, and free speech protects autonomy (see the argument here). But why not focus directly on autonomy? What is the value-added of dignity here? Looks like a detour. If anything, dignity is important because autonomy is, not vice versa. More generally, it’s entirely possible to defend the claim that people have dignity because they are rights bearers (or, somewhat less ambitious, that they have dignity because they are autonomous persons able to make rights claims). That they have rights because they have dignity may be the wrong way around.

In any case, the sweeping claim that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person” seems to be untrue. Sometimes we can say that dignity requires a certain human right but more often than not dignity does not tell us anything useful. Given that there are many better reasons to promote human rights, including those rights that can if necessary be based on dignity, I fail to see the strategic advantages of focusing on dignity. Sure, if dignity can justify some but not other human rights, we should not dismiss it. Everything that helps is welcome. However, I have the feeling that dignity is often used as the ultimate and deepest ground for all human rights. And that is plainly wrong. Our common human values are the ultimate and deepest ground for human rights.


A third problem with human dignity is its religious origins. If old-fashioned dignity comes from rank, position and function, then where does human dignity come from? What’s so special about human beings? Why do we deserve a certain treatment? Many would say that dignity comes from God. Because human beings are created in the image of God they have a certain value that needs to be respected if God is to be respected. However, the religious origins of the notion of dignity may make it unappealing to non-believers or adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions.

Of course, it’s possible to generate a plausible non-religious account of dignity. I mentioned autonomy a moment ago. Kant had an interesting view based on the idea that using people as means is an affront to their dignity. I’ve appealed to this view in the context of capital punishment and yet I’m not convinced that it is really necessary as a ground for human rights in general.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (39): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas, Ctd.

We need rights such as free speech, assembly and association (as well as other rights that function as prerequisites for these rights, such as the right not to suffer poverty) for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the way in which these rights protect open, public, inclusive and widespread deliberation.

But why do we need this kind of deliberation? Deliberation, ideally at least, forces ideas through a process of criticism, counter-arguments and competition with other ideas. Ideas that can get themselves accepted in such a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. Hence the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. A crucial point is that participation in public deliberation should be as free and as massive as possible, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas.

The marketplace of ideas improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking, and that’s a good thing. The fact that some human rights – and perhaps even all human rights given the interdependence of human rights – are necessary for the functioning of this marketplace justifies human rights. (More here).

I used the word “ideally” a moment ago, because the actual functioning of the marketplace of ideas in the real world is often marred by “market failures”. I listed a few here, such as confirmation bias, polarization, political correctness and other biases or processes that inhibit the free and open discussion and exchange of possibly persuasive arguments.

Here are a few more:

  • There’s what we could call the “fanatic effect”: fanatics have few if any doubts about their ideas and hence are more likely to set up lobbying groups, think tanks, political parties etc. As a result, a fanatic will receive more media exposure than the thinking person constantly revising her often complicated opinions in the light of new evidence. This is the supply side factor favoring the appearance of extreme views. Now, these views may well be correct in some cases, but it’s hard to know if those views are the ones that receive most coverage; views or arguments that go against the extremes may come from less convinced sources and hence may not find their way into the debates. As a result, the marketplace does not function adequately. This type of market failure is obviously linked to polarization, but it’s not completely the same thing. Polarization can occur between 2 or more non-fanatical or non-extreme views.
  • There’s not only a supply side factor; the demand for extreme and fanatical positions also plays a role in undermining the marketplace of ideas. Extreme positions are better for pageviews and ratings. People want good TV and interesting websites, and extremists battling each other with soundbites are better than long nuanced arguments. Who doesn’t prefer a debate between a racist and a black radical to a polite discussion based on charts, numbers and philosophical references? The soundbites may come from fanatics, but they don’t have to. If very reasonable points of view are only marketed in the form of sound bites, and if nuanced or lengthy arguments are thought to scare away viewer or readers, then the market fails just as badly.

However, let’s not despair. There’s also a lot of evidence that people arguing in groups come to better decisions than people on their own. Here’s a sample of some of the evidence:

A group of players is told that they should choose a number between 0 and 100, and the winner of the game will be the person who chooses a number that is (say) 1/2 of the average of the other choices. In this game, the rational player will reason as follows: “OK, let’s say that the other players choose randomly, so the average will be 50, and I should choose 25 to win. But if other players have this first level of insight, they will all choose 25 to win, and I should instead choose 12. But if other players have this second level of insight, then they will choose 12, and I should choose 6. Hmmm. If the other players are rational and self-interested, the equilibrium choice will end up being zero.”

The players … can be either individuals or groups. It turns out that groups choose lower numbers: that is, as a result of interacting in the group, they tend to be one step ahead.

Here’s another example … [P]layers get the following question: … “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable: (a) Linda is a bank teller. (b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Notice that Linda is a bank teller in both choices, but only active in the feminist movement in the second choice: that is, the second choice is a subset of the first choice. For that reason, it is impossible for choice b to be more likely than choice a. However, early research on this question found that 85% of individuals answered b. But when the game is played with groups of 2, and with groups of 3, the error rate drops. (source)

So the marketplace of ideas could justify human rights after all. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (38): Different Justifications for Different Types of Free Speech

There are different types of speech, and therefore also different types of free speech. The point I want to make here is that different types of free speech require different justifications. It’s a common error to reject some kinds of free speech because they seem unacceptable from the point of view of justificatory theories that are useful only for other types of free speech.

What does that mean, different types of speech? We can have different goals when we speak: we can try to persuade, to signal our allegiance or identity, to harm, to ostracize, to insult, to express emotions, to promise or to enter into a contract, to state facts, to name something, to order someone, etc.

Each purpose of speech requires a separate justification of free speech, and some purposes may be very hard to justify at all, in which case a limit on freedom of speech may be necessary. However, much talk about limits springs from a logical error. It’s important not to try to use a justification for one type of free speech in order to examine the justification of another type. This may result in the unwarranted conclusion that some type of free speech is not justifiable and that it can therefore be limited, whereas in reality we just use the wrong justification.

Take one type of speech: persuasion. Free persuasion is usually justified on the basis of the marketplace of ideas. In a nutshell: people should be allowed to try to persuade each other freely, because this process of free persuasion will improve the quality of opinions.

Now take another type of speech, namely emotive speech. Examples of emotive speech are “fuck you” (expressing rejection or disgust), “fuck” (expressing disappointment), “shit”, “motherfucker” etc. Such expletives, and emotive speech in general, are often viewed as completely lacking in merit and therefore unworthy of protection. US First Amendment jurisprudence is a case in point. The Supreme Court labels a lot of emotive speech as no-value or low-value speech and has no problem with restrictions of it. (See also here). Speech lacks value, according to the Supreme Court, if it’s no essential part of the exposition of ideas and doesn’t bring us closer to the truth. Any slight benefit it may have is outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

However, this means focussing on persuasion and the truth seeking purpose of speech, and using the justification of this type of speech in order to reject another type of speech. If, on the other hand, you believe that speech also has an emotional purpose, you would regard expletives as more valuable and more worthy of free speech protection.

The distinction between low or no-value speech on the one hand and high value speech on the other hand, whatever its merits (and those are not obvious), points us towards a further remark regarding the distinction between types of speech and between types of justifications. Those distinctions aren’t clear-cut: even people who express themselves merely because of signaling needs can be justified to do so because of the value of the marketplace of ideas. Although they don’t want to persuade, the fact that they merely express an opinion without arguing for it is valuable in the marketplace of ideas because it can convince others of the lack of real value of their opinions. Likewise, an order may indicate that persuasion has failed, and this in turn may indicate the relative weakness of an opinion.

More posts in this series are here.