The Causes of Human Rights Violations (27): Harmful Moral Judgments

Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:

  • One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
  • Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
  • The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
  • Etc. etc.

The rational approach

It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.

You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.

That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.

One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.

The emotional approach

The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).

Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.

If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.

The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.

Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).

The diversity approach

Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:

  • In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
  • When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
  • Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
  • People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
  • Also,

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered.  Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)

Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.

Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.

The Ethics of Human Rights (32): Human Rights and the Chain of Causation

Who causes human rights violations? Causation is a key factor in the attribution of moral and legal responsibility, so it’s an important topic in human rights talk. The problem is that there is often not one single cause of rights violations, and hence not one single violator. Rights violations can be the collective responsibility of an entire group or a government for instance, but the issue I want to focus on here is another type of collective responsibility. It’s possible that there is a chain of causation: a series of events taking place over a period of time, and one event causes the next one until a rights violation occurs. The question is then: is it only the last moral agent, the last one in the chain of causation that results in a rights violation, who is the violator and the morally and legally responsible party? Or do some of the agents earlier in the chain of causation also carry some responsibility?

Let me give an example. Take the case of a drunk driver causing a fatal accident and thereby violating the right to life of his victim. Just before the accident, a pub-owner willingly sold the visibly intoxicated man more alcohol. You could argue that both persons caused the accident: the drunk because of his drunk driving, and the pub-owner because he sold the drinks. Both could have taken action to avoid the accident (assuming that the driver wasn’t sufficiently intoxicated before he bought the extra drinks from the pub-owner). And because they both could have acted otherwise, they are both responsible – morally and legally – for what happened. Both have violated the rights of the victim.

Causing something isn’t a sufficient condition for responsibility. You could go further down the chain of causation and claim that the pub-owner’s parents also caused the accident, because they had the choice of having or no having a child. By having the child, they initiated a chain of causation that led to the accident. They could have taken action to avoid the accident. However, no one would claim that they are thereby responsible for the accident. The difference between the parents on the one hand and the pub-owner and the driver on the other hand, is that the parents could not have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions. Hence, responsibility requires causation plus foresight rather than simply causation (some would say that intent should be added as well). (Of course, in some legal contexts, cause is sufficient for liability: if I drive my car into another one, I may be liable for the damages even if I didn’t intend what happened and could not have foreseen it. Product liability is another example. In other legal contexts, cause is not necessary: if my dog bites you, I’m liable, even though I didn’t cause the harm. But those aren’t the cases I’m interested in).

The pub-owner and the driver could have and should have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions, and probably did foresee them in some part of their brain. We all learn that some consequences flow from some actions, with high degrees of probability. And yet they still went ahead with their actions. Hence both are responsible for what happened because they caused it, because they could have acted otherwise, and because they could have foreseen the consequences. The chain of causation leading up to the rights violation goes back many steps (and many years if not centuries), but the chain of responsibility stops somewhere along the road. It stops with the first person in the chain of causation able to foresee the ultimate result of the chain and able to act otherwise. In our example, the pub-owner.

But, of course, this example is too simple. Often we have to go back more than two steps in the chain of causation to find the first point of responsibility. Suppose the pub-owner bought his pub from some other guy who knew at the time about the reckless way in which the pub-owner serves his customers. (Suppose the pub-owner did something similar before he bought his current pub). How far back in time and in the chain of causation should we be allowed to go in order to attribute responsibility? And do all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility? Probably not; that would violate our moral intuitions, which tell us that the driver carries the heaviest burden. He had many alternative options: he could have decided not to drink so much, not to go to the pub in the first place, or take a taxi home etc. The pub-owner could of course have decided to stop selling booze, but maybe he didn’t know that the drunk was intending to drive back home. And if he knew, how could he have stopped him driving back home? The person selling the pub also could have decided to sell it to someone else, but perhaps there wasn’t another possible buyer, and perhaps he believed in redemption and didn’t want to judge a person’s future on the basis of past mistakes.

But if not all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility, how do we differentiate between the levels of responsibility of the different parties and calculate each party’s share? Does time play a role? Does responsibility diminish as time passes? Those are terribly difficult questions and most of the time we just forget about them and simply punish the last link in the chain and accord him or her the full weight of responsibility, whether this is just or not. One example in which we do try to answer these questions is when a judge or a jury takes attenuating circumstances into account when sentencing: for instance, a criminal may receive a more lenient sentence when it is clear that childhood neglect or abuse contributed to his actions. However, we rarely give the parents their part of the punishment in such cases.

These questions are relevant is a huge number of human rights cases. Take the more important example of world poverty. To some degree, one can argue that the West shares some of the responsibility for poverty in the Third World (Thomas Pogge is famous for this argument). It imposes trade restrictions, it supports corrupt dictators and deficient institutions, and it inflicted colonial rule. Some of these actions go back some steps in the chain of causation. For example, a corrupt dictator may be the last cause in the chain leading to poverty, but support for this dictator by the West is an earlier cause. In the case of colonialism, the chain of causation is complicated by the transgenerational aspect: to what extent are the people in the West who are currently alive responsible for the actions of their forefathers? More on this question here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (16)

We usually distinguish between three different origins of human rights violations:

  • The state. States commit rights violations for different reasons. Rulers may believe that such violations are necessary in order to maintain power, undermine or destroy the opposition, and impose some world view or economic organization of society. Or they may think that some types of violations are necessary evils when faced with certain risks. For example, torture or indefinite detention can appear to be a reasonable price to pay in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. States can also violate human rights unintentionally: lawmakers can draft a legal system that unnecessarily encroaches on private freedom (e.g. the “nanny state”). And, finally, a state can violate rights, not – as in the previous cases – by doing something it shouldn’t do, but by failing to do what it should do: a state that doesn’t provide an efficient judiciary or police force will be unable to protect the rights of its citizens and will be an accessory to rights violations.
  • Selfishness. In the case of economic human rights – such as the right not to suffer poverty – it’s often greed, lack of compassion or generosity, or the absence of sufficient and adequate aid and intervention that causes rights violations. Selfishness can cause both individuals and states to violate rights. States, for example, can uphold international trade structure or protectionist legal systems that favor the local economy at the expense of relatively poor exporters elsewhere.
  • Culture. Some say that certain elements of cultures and religions lead to practices that violate human rights. And then usually we get a mention of Islam, Shari’a, muslim misogyny etc. Here as well, we see that both states and individuals can use culture as a reason to violate rights.

Regarding the last point, there’s an interesting paper here (or here) claiming that it’s not Islam but oil that causes gender discrimination in Muslim countries.

Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. Michael Ross

Oil production and export crowd out other exports, and hence artificially restrict the manufacturing sector. Compared to oil production, manufacturing uses relatively large numbers of low wage workers, which is why manufacturing has always and everywhere been a booster for female labor participation. Female labor participation in turn has always and everywhere promoted female political representation and women’s rights. The paper shows that, in the Middle East, countries without much oil (like Morocco and Tunisia) do relatively well on gender equality, compared to oil-rich countries. The same is true when comparing oil-poor and oil-rich countries outside the Middle East.

If that’s correct, then it’s still cultural and religious practices and beliefs that cause gender discrimination, but these beliefs are themselves caused by or at least promoted by economic fundamentals. Sounds quite Marxian to me (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!).

Papers looking into the cultural and religion causes of gender discrimination can be found here and here (thanks to the Monkey Cage for the pointer).