The Ethics of Human Rights (41): Human Rights of Past Generations?

In a previous post I discussed the claim that future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive. I argued that they probably have. The “sister-claim” is, of course, whether the same is true for past generations. Obviously past generations had human rights, just like you and me and everyone who comes after us. The question however is whether current generations can violate the rights of past generations.

For starters, it’s obvious that past and future generations should be viewed differently. Future generations can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations). Past generations, on the contrary, can’t be harmed by current actions, since they are dead (assuming, theologically, that deceased people are gone; if you believe that your ancestors are in heaven watching you, your actions may still harm them in some sense, although I doubt they need human rights in heaven).

If past generations can’t be harmed by current actions because they are dead, then current generations shouldn’t and even can’t adapt their actions so as to respect the rights of past generations. However, perhaps we should carve out an exception here. Maybe there are cases in which we can convincingly speak about harm done to people in the past.

Take the following example. It’s reasonable to assume that past generations – like all generations – valued the future and posthumous state of their society or the world. For example, if freedom was important to them when they were alive, they may have felt distressed about the possible prospect of a posthumous totalitarian world government. They may have been distressed because they valued freedom and/or because they were concerned about the fate of their descendants. The harm to one’s descendants is typically viewed as something of concern to oneself. We all care about the fate of our children’s children’s children, even if we may never see them. So, past generations can be harmed by current (or future) generations if the latter are seen as a threat by the former.

However, I object to calling this harm a rights violation. The harm we’re discussing here may be immoral and even unjust, but the infliction of distress still isn’t a human rights violation. The actual totalitarian government and the harm it does – as opposed to the threat – are imposed on living generations, not past generations. So unless someone comes up with a better example, I guess it’s indeed useless to speak about present generations violating the rights of past generations.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (39): The Effect of Time on Human Rights Violations

What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?

  1. Perhaps there’s no effect: a crime remains a crime, and a rights violation remains a rights violation, even if all the victims have died long ago and their descendants don’t continue to suffer from the fact that their ancestors were wronged.
  2. Perhaps the passage of time erodes the severity of rights violations.
  3. Or perhaps the passage of time makes rights violations worse.

I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.

Time has no effect

We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).

An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.

The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.

So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.

Time erodes the rights violation

Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.

Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.

Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.

Time makes things worse

An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (16): You Always Hurt The Ones You Love

Inflicting suffering on people is wrong. This simple and basic moral rule is a large part of the justification of human rights (although there are many other justifications). And yet, the parents among us – the large majority of human beings – simply by bringing children into existence, guarantee that those children will suffer. No life is without suffering. And they do so wittingly and willingly. So ignorance or impotence do not excuse this imposition of suffering. These children don’t get born because they have a right to be born. Non-existent people don’t have a right to come into existence. The opposite sentence would have some really scary and dizzying consequences. They are born because of parents’ choices. And those are informed choices. We all know that no life, not even the best one, is without suffering. Hence, the parents are, to some extent, responsible for this suffering (read more about the chain of causation here).

The fact that people keep reproducing without so much as an ounce of remorse, indicates that the willful infliction of suffering is an acceptable part of life, even if it is an infliction upon those closest to you. Perhaps we can explain this strange fact by the generally rational belief that the good that comes out of life compensates for the suffering we inflict on our children. Life’s suffering is just the price to pay for a greater good. Overall, most people do indeed find life worth living, notwithstanding the occasional suffering. Otherwise suicide would be much more common, I guess. But that kind of cost-benefit analysis is something we usually find repugnant. Many of us shudder at the decision to incinerate thousands of Japanese in order to end WWII.

But perhaps this cost-benefit analysis is much more acceptable when the cost for one persons isn’t intended to benefit another person. In our topic, the costs and benefits that are weighed against each other are for one and the same person. And yet, it’s not this person that does the weighing; it’s her parents. This is a case of literal paternalism: we decide for another person that some harm we do to her is necessary for a greater good. Like we decide that people can’t smoke cannabis (doing so is imposing a harm) because we believe that it’s in their interest and for their benefit. And paternalism is generally only acceptable when dealing with children, and with children as long as they are children. When reproducing we of course also inflict suffering on our children when they are grown up.