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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (47): Globalization

Human history is often viewed as a widening circle of moral concern. In the olden days, the claim goes, people cared only about their siblings and tribe. Then they started to care about their class, their nation, their religious community, their civilization, and ultimately their shared humanity. Cosmopolitanism, or the equal respect for all human beings whatever their affiliation or location, is then the end-state of morality (although some want to go further and include animals or even inanimate objects in the circle of moral concern). This end-state dovetails with human rights concerns because human rights are also the rights of all humans, whatever country, class or culture they belong to.

The widening of moral concern – if it indeed occurred as described – went in tandem with other and more familiar globalization processes, such as increased international trade, integration of different economies, the development of international law, increased communication through the internet, easier transportation, intercultural dialogue, migration etc. And all these different processes interact: communication and transportation foster trade, trade fosters communication, communication widens the circle of moral concern etc.

This story implies that globalization – of any kind – is always or unequivocally beneficial from the point of view of human rights. However, that may not be true. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of different types of globalization.

Pros

  • Increased migration is almost without exception beneficial to the prosperity and freedom of all parties involved, although the migrants obviously benefit most.
  • Intercultural dialogue promotes tolerance and agreement on human rights, and this dialogue is not only fostered by new technologies but also by international trade. Better communication as well makes people care more about what happens in the world and makes it more difficult for oppressive regimes to hide their oppression. In this sense, communication and trade drive the widening circle of moral concern.
  • Economic interdependence between countries creates a self-interested incentive for governments to promote rights and democracy elsewhere in the world and makes it more likely that international law can impose itself over concerns about national sovereignty. Global economic collaboration requires international regulation, and economic regulation can open the door for other types of regulation, including rights regulation. Countries that depend economically on an international institutional and regulatory system, will have a much harder time invoking their sovereignty when faced with accusations of rights violations, since they already lost a huge chunk of their sovereignty due to economic integration.
  • The increasing importance of multinational companies makes it easier for consumers in one part of the world to lobby for corporate responsibility elsewhere in the world.

Cons

  • Outsourcing, a commonly cited aspect of globalization, can result in people losing their jobs, and the threat of outsourcing can force people to accept lower wages or inferior labor conditions. And work is a human right.
  • The threat of cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign products can lead to protectionism and immigration restrictions, two major causes of poverty in developing countries.
  • Globalization may erode the welfare state because a large part of the tax base – corporations, financial intermediaries and skilled workers – become internationally mobile and can thereby avoid to pay the taxes that governments need to finance their welfare systems. The tax base can also decrease because governments cut taxes in an effort to maintain the competitiveness of local businesses.
  • The previous three phenomena – outsourcing, labor and product competition and pressure on the welfare state – may not only lead to restrictions on international trade and migration, but can also counteract the widening circle of moral concern: politicians and local businesses can and often do use these threats to stir up xenophobia. A xenophobic public is more likely to vote in favor of trade and immigrations restrictions. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that people’s circle of moral concern is wider in countries that are more affected by globalization.
  • Globalization implies a certain degree of power deflation: states lose power vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, international institutions and each other. This in turn means that decisions affecting the well-being of people are taken by outside forces. Democratic self-government – which is a human right – is then threatened.
  • The interconnectedness of international financial markets increases the likelihood that a local financial or economic crisis spreads to the rest of the world.
  • A higher number of increasingly globalized multinational companies also means a higher risk that some of those threaten indigenous cultures, exploit poor workers etc.

On balance, however, I believe that globalization is good for human rights, even though I can’t quantify the pros and cons.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (45): Distance

Whereas it’s obvious that distance can be a protection against human rights violations – privacy needs distance, and physical integrity requires a safety zone – it’s equally true that it often harms human rights.

We care more about our friends and family than about strangers, especially distant strangers, about whom we know very little, if anything. Maybe we don’t know their predicament and hence the idea of our possible duty to help them and safeguard their rights doesn’t even arise. Or maybe we know about their predicament but we’re ignorant about the causes. Hence, they could have themselves to blame, in which case we tend to think that we’re not obliged to help. Or if they don’t have themselves to blame, our ignorance about the causes of their predicament inhibits our effective assistance. Maybe we also assume that the causes are local, and hence not our fault.

It’s safe to say that such feelings of detachment increase proportionally with distance, because the further away the less we know and the more we assume that we are not responsible. To some extent at least: the effect of distance flattens out; we’re not more detached from people five thousand miles away than from people four thousand miles away.

The effect of distance, although it decreases after a while, does start very quickly. A few meters can be enough to reduce empathy:

Drawing on motivational approaches to emotion, the authors propose that the perceived change in spatial distance to pictures that arouse negative emotions exerts an influence on the significance of these pictures. Two experiments induced the illusion that affective pictures approach toward the observer, recede from the observer, or remain static. To determine the motivational significance of the pictures, emotional valence and arousal ratings as well as startle responses were assessed. Approaching unpleasant pictures were found to exert an influence on both the valence and the arousal elicited by the pictures. Furthermore, movement of pleasant or neutral pictures did not influence startle responses, while the second experiment showed that approaching unpleasant pictures elicited enhanced startle responses compared to receding unpleasant pictures. These findings support the view that a change of spatial distance influences motivational significance and thereby shapes emotional responses. (source)

In other words: perceiving the approach of negative emotion-eliciting scenes intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving receding emotion-eliciting scenes weakens the associated felt emotion.
There’s a less abstract illustration of this point in an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely:

[W]hat causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by[?] To look into this question, I called on … an acting student at Boston University. I asked [him] to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him. (source)

So a reduction of both the physical distance (standing) and emotional distance (eye contact) resulted in more giving and less poverty.

At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who … said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not see him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. (source)

You could argue that this whole distance thing is a red herring. If everyone takes care of those who are close, then distance won’t be a problem. Still, it will be a problem in many cases because not everyone has friends and family who can help. The beggars in the quote above probably only know other beggars and hence have to rely on efforts to reduce distance.

Indeed, one way of solving the distance problem is to try to reduce distance. The beggars’ strategy isn’t the only example. NGO campaigns almost always feature close-ups of the faces of people in distress, as well as personal stories about their predicament and about how the global system has made it worse (implicating better off people far away). These faces and stories reduce distance in a way that is similar to the beggars’ eye contact. Alternatively, instead of trying to reduce distance, one can attempt to discredit the idea of distance altogether and foster a more cosmopolitan approach to caring.

There’s also another way in which distance can cause human rights violations, although you would have a hard time finding a lot of examples at this point in history (perhaps only in failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia where a violent and extremist rebel movement tries to assert its authority):

Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems. (source)

Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (24): Richard Rorty on Human Rights and Sympathy

Richard Rorty has an interesting take on human rights. If we want universal acceptance of and respect for human rights, we shouldn’t try to argue about it. We shouldn’t attempt to work out rational justifications of human rights, or arguments that will convince people that human rights are a good thing. Instead, according to Rorty, we would achieve better results if we try to influence people’s feelings instead of their minds. And the best way to do that is by telling sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc., or by making political art. Such stories and art make the reader sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience or the reader to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position. The victim, who may be of another class, race or nationality and who seems so very different that he or she initially isn’t even considered to be of the same species and therefore cannot possibly claim to enjoy the same rights, is transformed by the story into a living human being. The sympathy engendered by the story gives the victim a human face. This person also grieves for the loss of children, also has an opinion and a moral sense. He’s or she not a barbarian. As a consequence, the victim can be given human rights.

This approach to human rights doesn’t justifying human rights in an abstract and philosophical way – something which according to Rorty isn’t possible anyway (Rorty’s a post-modern anti-foundationalist highly sceptical of the power of reason or rationality). Instead it motivates specific individuals to respect the rights of other specific individuals. So motivation instead of justification. And the focus isn’t so much on human rights themselves, but on humanity. When human rights are violated, it’s often not because people object to human rights, but because they consider the targets of rights violations as somehow outside the realm of humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very eloquent about human rights, but was a slave holder at the same time. Undoubtedly because he had convinced himself that negroes were more akin to animals than humans.

The big advantage of the sentimental approach is that is can convince people to accept others into the realm of humanity. Sympathy means after all the recognition that someone else’s suffering is akin to your own. Rorty harked back to David Hume for this insight:

Hume held that corrected (sometimes rule-corrected) sympathy, not law-discerning reason, is the fundamental moral capacity. Richard Rorty (source)

This approach, or “sentimental education” as Rorty called it, can indeed be very useful. However, I think we should and can use both strategies, the emotional and the rational one. The emotional approach isn’t without a downside. Human rights violations do not always occur because of a lack of sympathy or because of dehumanization. They are often the result of power structures, cultural practices, legal rules, institutions, international relations etc. Just engendering sympathy won’t do much good there. Moreover, sentimental education implies a willingness to listen – not a notable characteristic of many of the worst human rights violators, i.e. Taliban c.s. – and a certain standard of living that allows people to relax long enough to be able to listen. These are problems which Rorty recognized (source) and which indicate that his approach cannot be exclusive.

The Ethics of Human Rights (22): Caring for What Happens in the World vs Moral Indifference or Moral Apathy

I guess we all have, now and again, the feeling that it’s strange that we go about our business as usual, being content or even happy, when at exactly the same time in countless other places in the world, someone is suffering, being tortured, killed, raped or whatever. Normally, we don’t think about these facts, because that would make our lives impossible. Thinking about it causes feelings of guilt and unease. Even though we’re often not directly responsible for what happens to these people, there’s always the lingering thought that there may be something we can do to help. And probably there is something we can do, especially if we invested some more effort in associating with others. (Individually we may indeed be powerless).

And there’s an even more unsettling thought lurking deeper in the backs of our minds, namely that we are responsible to some extent, even for the suffering of people thousands of miles away, people we don’t know and will never know. Thomas Pogge for instance has claimed – correctly in my view – that in our globalized world we all contribute, to some extent,  to institutions, rules and processes that violate human rights. For example, we buy clothes from companies that use child labor or ban trade unions; we still profit from colonial exploitation that happened more than a century ago; we acquiesce in democratically enacted laws that exclude poor producers from our markets etc.

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

By the way, Pogge’s argument can be used to counter the claim that “poverty human rights” are substantially different from “normal human rights” such as the right to free speech etc. (are perhaps not even “real human rights” at all), because they impose positive duties instead of merely negative duties, duties to help instead of merely duties not to interfere. For Pogge, poverty is a negative duty: people aren’t poor because we fail to help them but because we actively – albeit often unconsciously – contribute to their poverty. Rather than focusing our efforts on how we can help the poor, we should focus on how we hurt them. This is reminiscent of recent debates on the continued usefulness of development aid.

OK, back to the main point. It’s all very well to encourage “caring”, and possibly also “helping”, but thinking about what we could call the “synchronicity of heaven and hell” makes it very difficult to get on with our lives. Hence we tend to suppress such thoughts. It’s a survival strategy, and quite understandable as such, but the consequence of not thinking is not helping. We know in the back of our minds that while we’re doing fine, elsewhere it’s hell, but we just don’t think about it too much. Only when we watch the news, donate something, or sit in the park and have nothing else to do. And then we’re amazed at how cold-hearted we can be. But at the same time and unconsciously, we continue to function in structures, institutions and sets of rules that underpin the problems that occasionally make us angry. And then we return to our normal mode of moral indifference. Much like the people in the “Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, a painting commented upon in a poem by WH Auden:

… In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (full text here)

Also like the father figure in the “Elf King” poem by Goethe, ignoring the suffering and anxiety of his own sun until it’s too late. We can try to rationalize our moral indifference in several ways. First, we may reject the claim that we have any part in the problems that occur far away. We may believe that poverty and dictatorship are home-grown, and not supported by globalization or our own countries’ involvement. Perhaps we believe that individuals failures are the only cause of their problems. Instead of being a bleeding heart Atlas supporting the misery of the world (as in the poem by Heinrich Heine below), we should simply “shrug“.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muß ich tragen,
Ich trage Unerträgliches, und brechen
Will mir das Herz im Leibe.
Du stolzes Herz, du hast es ja gewollt!
Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich,
Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,
Und jetzo bist du elend.

We also rationalize our inaction and moral indifference by pointing to the distance between us and those who suffer. This distance makes action on our part difficult, we believe, and makes it more likely that actions by others who are closer and more familiar with what’s happening will be more successful. While it’s generally correct to state that closeness is a factor in the ability to help, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the causes of problems are very distant indeed, and hence the solutions have to be distant as well.