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.

Economic Human Rights (28): The Health Consequences of the Recession and of Unemployment

The Economist called it the “unsurprising research finding of the day“, but I think it’s a useful confirmation of an existing intuition: this paper finds that the recession can have a beneficial effect on the health of some people who lose their job because of it, namely those people spending their new leisure time in a healthy way. Other people, however, spend their leisure time cultivating some of their pre-existing unhealthy habits, or find themselves depressed and without employer-provided healthcare (especially in the U.S.). Because their healthcare has become more expensive now that they are unemployed, they decide to go without treatment or tests.

Results showed the body mass of the average laid-off food-lover increasing by the equivalent of more than 7 pounds for a 5-foot, 10-inch man weighing 180 pounds during unemployment. Similarly, frequent drinkers on average doubled their daily alcohol intake after losing their jobs and before finding another one. (source)

Elsewhere in the world, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, it seems that the health consequences of the global recession are more dramatic:

The financial crisis will kill between 28,000 and 50,000 babies in sub-Saharan Africa this year, according to this paper. The reasoning here is straightforward. For people on subsistence incomes, a fall in GDP can be fatal. The paper’s authors, Jed Friedman and Norbert Schady, estimate that a one percentage point fall in per GDP across sub-Saharan Africa is associated with a rise in infant (defined as under-ones) mortality of between 0.34 and 0.62 per 1000. If we multiply this increase by the number of births this year and by the 2.4 percentage point difference between GDP growth this year and last (a reasonableish estimate of the effect of the crisis), we get a figure of between 28,000 and 50,000. … Of course, you can quibble with the numbers. But the general story holds. For the poor, income is a matter of life or death. Which brings me to my question. If one-in-seventeen British babies were to die this year because of the financial crisis, it would be the biggest media story for years and there’d be rioting in the streets until the government did something. So, why the silence? Chris Dillow (source)

The Causes of Poverty (19): Does Better Healthcare Lead to More Poverty?

This may look like a stupid – or, more kindly, counterintuitive – question. The answer is obviously “no”. At least when we focus on the level of the individual, better healthcare seems like the best way out of poverty rather than a cause of more poverty. With better health comes better education, better and more productive work, and hence less poverty. Even a society as a whole seems better off if less of its members are unhealthy. Overall productivity and wealth increase when there is less disease. Healthy people produce more, innovate more and contribute in other ways to social wealth.

However, many people believe – wrongly in my view – that the question should be answered in the affirmative, especially when the topic is development aid. When a country drastically improves its healthcare system – thanks to development aid for instance – life expectancy rates will go up and child mortality rates will go down. This results in population growth which often outpaces GDP growth (for example because scarce development resources have been targeted at healthcare rather than GDP). GDP per capita will therefore decrease, which means increasing poverty levels and perhaps even famine.

This type of reasoning is sometimes used to justify limits on development aid in the field of healthcare. However, it’s plainly wrong. Better healthcare doesn’t lead to high population growth, and this non-existing population growth therefore cannot result in more poverty.

Now, why doesn’t better healthcare lead to population growth? With just a few exceptions, it’s the poor countries of the world that have high fertility rates, and when countries become richer, these rates drop dramatically. Poverty leads to high fertility rates for a number of reasons (see also here), but the most important one is that people tend to have more children to offset the risk of high infant mortality rates that are typical for poor countries.

Countries with high infant mortality rates also have high population growth (contrary to intuition). Some other reasons why high fertility rates are correlated with poverty:

  • More developed countries move away from agriculture and towards urban and industrialized economies, reducing the need for children as farmworkers.
  • For the same reason, women become more active in the economy, increasing the cost (in money and time) of raising children.
  • Also for the same reason, contraceptives and family planning become more common.

In this case, it seems that our initial intuitions are correct.