What Are Human Rights? (47): A Hostile Symbiosis

“Hostile symbiosis” is a concept I borrow from Benjamin Wittes. The idea is that the different human rights that are part of the system of human rights are both mutually dependent (or interdependent) and at the same time hostile to each other. For example, the publicity of free speech can’t exist without the privacy offered by privacy rights (no light without darkness), and yet at the same time respect for a person’s privacy may require limitations of someone else’s speech rights. Religious liberty can’t exist without equality of rights (religious liberty is in fact religious equality) and yet it may be necessary to allow religious groups the right to discriminate against candidate members in order to preserve their religious identity. And so on.

The same rights which are in one case interdependent and which can’t exist without each other, are in other cases mutually hostile and need to be balanced against each other and limited for the sake of each other. Hence the concept of hostile symbiosis.

Symbiosis is a term from biology, and is a combination of the Ancient Greek terms for “together” and “living”. It refers to close and long-term interactions between different biological species, the classic example being the clownfish and the sea anemone. A clownfish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone and it’s territorial instinct protects the anemone from anemone-eating fish. In addition, the fecal matter from the clownfish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clownfish is in turn protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging cells, to which the clownfish is immune.

This is not a hostile symbiosis, as in the case of different human rights. Human rights form not just a hostile symbiosis but also an obligate symbiosis, meaning that both symbionts entirely depend on each other for survival. That is, as I understand it, not the case with clownfish and sea anemones, but some types of fungi and tree symbioses for example are obligate in nature. Many varieties of fungus live in close association with trees and other plants, drawing in nutrients from deep underground and providing them to the tree in exchange for a share of the energy (in the form of sugars) produced by the tree’s photosynthesis. The trees need the fungi in order to gain nutrients more efficiently (source).

Some more examples of what I’m talking about are here and here. More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (40): Properties & Characteristics of Human Rights

I imagine readers are faced with a “haystack” problem when searching this blog for an overview of properties of human rights. I did write about this many times before, but usually one property at a time, and the respective posts are probably buried underneath a load of other posts (there are literally thousands here). So I thought to myself, why not give a summary, and link to some of those older posts. Here goes.

Human rights are moral claims (and hence part of morality, but only part of), that

  • have a very high if not an absolute priority compared to other moral or non-moral claims (such as claims based on honordisgust, utility etc.)
  • require mandatory (as opposed to discretionary) compliance (more here)
  • are therefore more than mere aspirations (more here)
  • are necessary for the protection and realization of certain fundamental, basic and universal human values and interests (more here)
  • are therefore instrumental principles in the sense that we don’t want them for their own sake; in other words, they are means and not goals (more here and here)
  • are universal: all human beings have certain rights, for no other reason than their humanity and the values attached to humanity; this means that human rights precede and trump considerations of national sovereignty and that national sovereignty therefore does not provide a means to escape human rights obligations (more here)
  • are pre-political: they are a moral order that has a legitimacy and existence preceding contingent social, legal, political, cultural and historical conditions and that can be used to assess and question those conditions (more here)
  • are independent from legal/social/cultural/religious recognition: human beings have human rights even if the laws and customs of their country/group do not recognize or perhaps even violate these rights – although people’s rights are obviously much more secure when they are translated into law and custom (more here and here)
  • are unconditional: people have rights without conditions; respect for rights is not conditional upon fulfillment of duties, status, legal recognition of rights or persons etc. (more here)
  • are inalienable: since rights are owned by human beings because of their humanity, these rights aren’t given and hence can’t be taken away; people still have rights when those rights are violated (more here)
  • are not forfeitable: people can’t give their rights away for the same reason that these rights can’t be taken away; however, people can decide that they don’t want their rights enforced (more here)
  • are equal rights: rights are equal in two meanings of the word; they are equal between people (because all people are equally human) and they are equal to other human rights (there are no “basic” and “less urgent/important” human rights) (more here)
  • are interdependent: different rights need each other, violations of one right most likely lead to violations of other rights (which is one reason why there can’t be a core of “basic” rights) (more here)
  • are limited: rights have to be balanced against each other because respect for one right can imply a violation of another right; balancing means imposing limitations on some rights for the benefit of other rights (or of the rights of others); the fact that there are no basic rights makes this balancing a lot more difficult but not impossible – conflicting rights then have to be balanced taking into account the way in which the two conflicting rights realize the values they are supposed to realize
  • are not politically neutral: not all forms of government can equally respect human rights; there’s a close link between human rights and democracy (more here)
  • are multidimensional: human rights aren’t just a matter between citizens and the state; they are addressed at everyone and impose duties on everyone (which means that they are also transnational and transgenerational) (more here)
  • are simultaneously positive and negative: they always and everywhere require both forbearance and active intervention (although in different degrees according to the circumstances) (more here and here).

And I’ll put in an “etc.”, just to be sure. Related posts are here, here and here.

Migration and Human Rights (29): Is Freedom of Association a Means to Promote or to Restrict Immigration?

Freedom of association is an important human right (see here for example). Linked to freedom of association is the right to exclude: groups that aren’t allowed to exclude whomever they want from membership aren’t free to associate. Another reason why the right to exclude is an important consequence of freedom of association is that association is meaningless without the concept of group identity. People associate in groups because these groups have a certain identity, and this identity is or becomes an intrinsic part of the individual identities of the members. Hence, groups should be able to have a coherent identity and that means allowing them to exclude people who don’t conform to or accept this identity.

For example, freedom of association means that Christians have a right to join a “truly” Christian group. And if the meaning of the word “truly” means excluding gay Christians or atheist (people who, according to some, don’t “conform to” or don’t accept “true Christianity” respectively), then that is what is required by freedom of association. (Which doesn’t mean that this freedom of association or this right to exclude is unlimited. Non-discrimination is also a right and sometimes we’ll have to make a trade-off. Non-discrimination can sometimes prevail over freedom of association. And yet, every exclusion from a group or every exercise of the freedom of association which in some way harms outsiders isn’t a case of discrimination. I, a non-Scot, may fail to be accepted in the clan of the MacDonalds, but I’m not discriminated against by this decision, even if it hurts my feelings and my sense of identity).

Some see a link between freedom of association and immigration restrictions. If groups are allowed to exclude, why not countries? Countries are also groups. If you force Americans, for example, to take in immigrants, despite majority opposition, then you violate their freedom of association and their right to exclude. In addition, you are accused of harming their identity – in this case national identity – because the stated reason they associated and continue to exclude, is precisely the preservation of their groups identity (made up of US values, the English language etc.).

People who don’t take a restrictionist position on immigration – such as myself – can respond in two ways.

  • First, one could claim that the rights of immigrants should be taken into account. The American freedom of association isn’t the only right in the world. When rights clash, they should be weighed against each other and the path of the “least violation” should be chosen. In the current case, one could easily argue that violations of the rights of immigrants (i.a. the right to a certain standard of living) caused by restrictions on immigration are much more severe than violations of the right to associate caused by relaxed immigration. After all, do people really believe that a culture as strong as that of the US would be harmed by immigrants? Or that immigration would change the nature of US society beyond recognition?
  • Another way to respond to the restrictionist arguments based of the right to associate, is to use the right to associate against the restrictionists. Many immigrants come or would like to come to a country because employers in that country (would) like to have them as employees. Immigration restrictions therefore violate the freedom of association of employers. Even if the country as a whole – or better the majority – feels that its right to free association is violated by immigration, it’s not obvious that the rights of the majority automatically trump the rights of a minority, however tiny this minority may be (and it’s not tiny in this case). If anything, human rights are there to protect minorities against majorities. You can make the same argument for nationals wishing to marry a foreigner, immigrants already in the country wishing their families to join them etc.

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.