Religion and Human Rights (18): Euthanasia

People own their own body. Their body is part of their private property. It is something that is theirs; it is the thing par excellence that is their own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination and therefore the right to die.

Economic Human Rights (20): Health and Wealth

A few more words about the relationship between poverty and health. First of all: both are human rights issues. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The concern is that people may find themselves in a trap. Their poverty causes ill health because healthcare costs money, because poverty leads to malnutrition etc. And their ill health leads to further poverty, because they aren’t as productive as healthy people.

The ill health of poor people isn’t a problem only for these poor people. If they were more healthy, they would be more productive and more creative, and the economy as a whole and the wellbeing of society as a whole would benefit. Healthy children are also likely to stay in school longer, and hence will be more valuable to society when they grow up.

There is, of course, some obscurity regarding the direction of the causation: rich countries may be more healthy on average mainly because they spend more on healthcare. But it may also be that they have become rich because their health was improved first. Impossible to disentangle all this, because the “wealth of nations” is the result of hugely complex processes of many forces and counter-forces.

For example, there were some developing countries that benefited from WHO assistance after World War II and from breakthroughs in medication (such as penicillin). These countries, therefore, didn’t improve their health through economic growth and increased wealth. Health improvements were caused by external forces. One result of these health improvements was increased life expectancy, but as a result of this increase, there was population growth that went beyond GDP growth, resulting in declining levels of income per head. After some decades, the economic benefits of having more people in the economy, and reduced birth rates caused by better healthcare (and access to contraceptives), reversed the trend. There’s an interesting study by Acemoglu and Johnson here.

Others, however, have pointed out that this is just a tiny piece of the puzzle, and other factors can push societies in other directions. An increase in the population doesn’t necessarily lead to Malthusian problems. International trade and cooperation for example, but also technological improvements have sharply reduced the possible impact on an economy of an increase in population levels.

Limiting Free Speech (4): Derogatory Speech

In this series, I examine the possibility of limiting certain kinds of speech, and especially the possibility of legal limits. As stated in the introductory post in this series, such limits are possible but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech.

So-called derogatory speech is a form of speech which expresses ridicule, mockery, contempt or derision. It is a disparaging kind of speech that often takes the form of cartoons, caricatures, pamphlets, comedy shows, outright insults etc.

The main justification for limiting free speech is the possibility that speech violates others people’ s rights. When I claimed that limits are justified in the case of holocaust denial and hate speech, I did so because I believe that these kinds of speech can violate rights, and when rights come into conflict, a balance should be found and one right has to give way for the other. In some cases, limiting the right to free speech of holocaust deniers or hate preachers is a lesser harm than the harm that would be done if they were allowed to speak.

In the case of derogatory speech I think this is not the case. Derogatory speech is often silly, sad and pathetic, but the only harm it does is the insult suffered by the target, or perhaps a feeling of dishonor and a loss of self-esteem. People should be able to live with insults and there are no rights to protect self-esteem or honor. The reason we have a right to free speech is to protect speech that causes offense. Inoffensive speech hardly needs protection.

But is it really true that insult is the only harm produced by derogatory speech? One could argue that derogatory speech causes other kinds of harm. It perpetuates negative stereotypes of certain minority groups in society, groups which are already relatively vulnerable. Or it devalues the collective image of the group, thereby deepening social divisions and increasing the risk of discrimination. It may also erode the capacity of the majority culture to be receptive of new identities or communities. Tolerance may suffer.

Moreover, derogatory speech makes it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. It poisons the debate. Neither the Muhammad cartoons, for example, nor the subsequent reactions from parts of the Muslim community did anything to foster the debate on the multicultural society. Ridicule, just as threats of violence, kill the discussion.

John Rawls reminded us that free speech should contribute to rational debate. The purpose of speech is to convince, to examine arguments, to revise one’ s opinions in the light of as much information as possible, to submit one’ s opinions to a critical public etc. Neither ridicule nor threats can advance such a vision of debate. (source)

All this is undoubtedly true, but is it enough to prohibit derogatory speech? I don’t think so. The best defense against harmful speech is either counter-speech or simple disregard. If we start to prohibit insulting speech, we take the slippery slope: anything can be insulting.