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

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

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

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

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

1.1. Protect rights

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

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

Our duties to intervene can cover

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

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

1.2. Create a just global order

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

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

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

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

1.3. Act benevolently

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (21): Selfish Reasons for Respecting the Rights of Others

People usually have no problem acknowledging their own rights and demanding that others respect those rights. (I say “usually” because it’s not unheard of that people waive their rights. For example, some don’t want to live in a democracy). It’s the rights of others that are often a problem. One can try to foster benevolence, tolerance, mutual respect and humanitarianism as means to increase the level of respect for the rights of others, but perhaps that’s utopian, depending on your assessment of human nature. It’s true that the concept of human rights arose precisely because of deficiencies in human nature and an overall insufficiency of benevolence, tolerance etc.

So perhaps it’s better to try to find selfish reasons that may convince people to respect the rights of others. There’s a couple of those here:

  • To the extent that social stability and peaceful coexistence depend on some level of respect for certain human rights, and break down below that level, everyone has an interest in maintaining that level of respect. Massive and ongoing violations of certain human rights for a large enough subgroup of a population can cause social unrest that may ultimately affect the prosperity and security of all members of that population, including the violators.
  • I argued before (see here and here) that the optimal process for thinking and knowledge acquisition requires the free and public appearance of a maximum number of arguments for and against a theory or idea. Only those theories and ideas that survive this process will be of high quality. The multiplication of perspectives can, to some extent, be the result of solitary reflection (“imagination”) but is enhanced by the actual participation of others in the thinking process. It’s like you can’t know that a square shape is actually part of a cube rather than simply a square if you don’t look at it from all possible perspectives and if you don’t shine a “light” on all possible sides. Hence, if we assume that everyone has an interest in the quality of his or her own thinking and knowledge, then we can also safely assume that everyone has an interest in at least certain freedom rights being granted to a maximum number of other people (even people in other countries or cultures, since the marketplace of ideas should be extended as wide as possible in order to avoid national or cultural prejudice and to allow the appearance of unusual perspectives and arguments).
  • And then there’s reciprocity. If people cherish their own rights, it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity: others will to some extent return the favor. Respecting the rights of others can encourage them to respect your own rights. Conversely, if you claim the right to deny the rights of others, that sets the precedent that someone might deny your rights. This reciprocity operates on several levels: it’s probably a basic social instinct to answer respect with respect; and you may hope for reciprocity because your own practice of respect for the rights of others has contributed to a general culture of human rights.
  • Aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going. Hence their economic self-interest will convince them to be more positive about the freedom of movement and association of potential immigrants, something which will also be beneficial for those immigrants’ right to a certain standard of living.
  • Some other selfish reasons to respect the rights of others may seem a bit far-fetched but not completely unlikely. For example, people have an interest in art and want to consume art. Hence, they must grant artists freedom of expression.

The big question here is obviously the weight of these selfish reasons to respect the rights of others. There are, after all, numerous selfish reasons for violating the rights of others (for example, discrimination, like dishonesty, is an important producer of profit for the discriminators). And those reasons can easily be considered more important than the reasons to act benevolently. We wouldn’t need to discuss human rights if things were any different because the “invisible hand” would have eradicated all rights violations. Still, I believe it’s useful to emphasize some of the selfish reasons to respect the rights of others because those are clearly not understood well enough most of the time. A proper understanding could at least make things better at the margin, and in some cases.