Why Do We Need Human Rights? (40): On the Relative Unimportance of the Notion of Human Dignity

The word “dignity” features prominently in most human rights treaties and declarations. For example, the Vienna Declaration of the 1993 World Human Rights Conference affirms that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person”.

I don’t buy it. Human rights derive from human values. We need rights, not to protect our dignity, but to realize our values. I subscribe to a value-based approach to human rights. I can’t and won’t explain this approach here – you can read this older post if you want – because what I want to do now is simply argue against dignity as a basis or justification of human rights. In fact, that sounds a bit too extreme: dignity can be a basis, at least of some human rights, but it’s not the one I prefer. It’s my view that there really is no analytical or practical need for the concept of dignity in the field of human rights.

Of course, if someone decides that he or she wants to believe in human rights because of an affection for the notion of dignity, why not. In the end, what we want is full protection of all human rights, and the things that produce this protection are of secondary importance. However, I’m convinced that progress towards that end is more likely when we focus on values rather than dignity. Dignity, compared to values, is an extremely vague and contradictory notion, one that has many meanings, few of which are practically useful in grounding or justifying human rights.


Let’s start with the word’s inherent contradictions. Dignity implies both radical inequality and radical equality. Originally, inequality was central to the notion. Dignity was, and to some extent still is, the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, or better of a certain amount of honor or respect. Some people deserve respect due to their status, standing, position or function. For example, respecting the dignity of the queen means honoring her as a person having her function. A “dignitary” is defined as a person who has a high rank or an important position. A head of state or a government respects the dignity of foreign emissaries by giving them the proper privileges. All these and many other uses of the word “dignity” reveal the inequality that the word is intended to convey.

Another use of the word shows that it is about inequality not only of people but of things as well: “I will not dignify your question with an answer” means that your question is so silly and so far below an adequate level of quality that my answering it would give it more respect than it deserves.

On the other hand, dignity also has a radical egalitarian meaning. This is a relatively recent development. There is, it seems, something like human dignity, a dignity all humans share regardless of rank and position. This comes across in certain recent uses of the word. People are said to behave in an undignified manner when they fail to show sufficient self-respect: for example, a person who is about to be executed for a grave crime and who has be to dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows. Such a person certainly does not have a high rank or status and yet is still seen as behaving in an undignified manner. Why? Because that’s not how humans should behave. Humans should show self-respect.

People can also treat each other in an undignified manner: keeping a patient in a persistent vegetative state alive against her will and against hope is often described as undignified; the same is true for a failure to give someone a proper burial. “Aging with dignity” means being old and at the same time able to continue to perform normal human functions.

All these modern uses of the word “dignity” convey equality, and more specifically an equality based on a certain understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. Being treated with dignity means being treated in a human and non-degrading way, in a way that respects our common humanity, and in a way that all humans deserve.

Perhaps we have to thank democracy for this egalitarian turn in our understanding of dignity. Democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings. Jeremy Waldron has famously argued that the notion of human dignity comes from the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. There has been a “leveling up”: all of us deserve the same respect that was once reserved for high status people. We are all “dignitaries” now. Human dignity, as opposed to old-fashioned dignity, is considered to be “inherent” rather than given by class or status, by ritual, coronation, anointment, dress, office etc. However, while this egalitarian turn is to be commended, it looks like we have arrived at a point where dignity is no longer different from equality. It’s another word for the same thing. In what way is being treated with dignity different from being treated equally? Hard to say.

Another problem is that the two meanings of the word “dignity” – the egalitarian and the inegalitarian one – continue to exist side by side. This is confusing and it can lead to the idea that some people, on account of their actions, are no longer dignified or have lost their dignity and self-respect and hence no longer deserve their human rights.


On to the matter of the practical utility of the notion of dignity. To what extent can the word be used to justify specific human rights and denounce specific human rights violations? If we understand dignity as the preciousness of each human individual then we are not allowed to treat humans in a degrading way or in a way that diminishes their humanity. Torture would be a clear case of degrading treatment in this sense. Hence, a right not to be tortured would receive strong support from the notion of dignity. A similar reasoning is perhaps possible for certain other human rights such as the right not to be enslaved and the right not to suffer poverty. A slave or a poor person can be said to be have lost his or her dignity.

But how do violations of someone’s freedom of speech violate his or her dignity? Or someone’s right to associate and assemble on the town square? That’s not clear at all. Dignity, it seems, is of limited use in the justification of human rights. Perhaps one can make the case that dignity requires respect for autonomy, and free speech protects autonomy (see the argument here). But why not focus directly on autonomy? What is the value-added of dignity here? Looks like a detour. If anything, dignity is important because autonomy is, not vice versa. More generally, it’s entirely possible to defend the claim that people have dignity because they are rights bearers (or, somewhat less ambitious, that they have dignity because they are autonomous persons able to make rights claims). That they have rights because they have dignity may be the wrong way around.

In any case, the sweeping claim that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person” seems to be untrue. Sometimes we can say that dignity requires a certain human right but more often than not dignity does not tell us anything useful. Given that there are many better reasons to promote human rights, including those rights that can if necessary be based on dignity, I fail to see the strategic advantages of focusing on dignity. Sure, if dignity can justify some but not other human rights, we should not dismiss it. Everything that helps is welcome. However, I have the feeling that dignity is often used as the ultimate and deepest ground for all human rights. And that is plainly wrong. Our common human values are the ultimate and deepest ground for human rights.


A third problem with human dignity is its religious origins. If old-fashioned dignity comes from rank, position and function, then where does human dignity come from? What’s so special about human beings? Why do we deserve a certain treatment? Many would say that dignity comes from God. Because human beings are created in the image of God they have a certain value that needs to be respected if God is to be respected. However, the religious origins of the notion of dignity may make it unappealing to non-believers or adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions.

Of course, it’s possible to generate a plausible non-religious account of dignity. I mentioned autonomy a moment ago. Kant had an interesting view based on the idea that using people as means is an affront to their dignity. I’ve appealed to this view in the context of capital punishment and yet I’m not convinced that it is really necessary as a ground for human rights in general.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (77): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs, Ctd.

Take a look at the following conflicting facts:


There are currently 113,198 [U.S.] patients on the United Network for Organ Sharing wait list for organ transplants. With only 28,535 transplant surgeries performed in the United States last year, it is clear that actions need to be taken to increase the supply of available organs. Around 7,000 Americans die each year while waiting for a suitable transplant (source).


In a study of India’s kidney market, 86 percent of donors had major health issues after their surgery. … The same study of kidney sales in India revealed that 79 percent of sellers regretted their decision to donate an organ and a shocking 71 percent of sellers were married women. Because poor women in India have little power, they can be easily forced by their husbands to sell their organs. (source).

Good health and survival are human rights. Those of us who have objections to unregulated markets in human organs have to show that markets fail, on balance, to further human rights protection and that alternative systems of organ provision perform at least as well as organ markets in terms of human health and survival. It’s important to note here that the comparison of the cases for and against organ sales will have to take the human rights of all – buyers as well as sellers – into consideration, and will also have to factor in all human rights and not just the rights to health and survival if the case against organ markets can show that other human rights may suffer if markets are implemented.

The typical argument against organ sales – and, by extension, against other types of commodification and other instances of the “imperialism” of the market – consists of three parts:

  • some “things” are degraded or corrupted if turned into commodities
  • if some “things” are traded for money then the profit motive may crowd out other types of motivation, and those other types of motivation are often morally valuable
  • organ markets are typically coercive given the fact that poor people will be coerced by economic necessity to sell their organs.

The first point has been stated most clearly by Michael Sandel:

[M]arkets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. … We don’t allow children to be bought and sold, no matter how difficult the process of adoption can be or how willing impatient prospective parents might be. Even if the prospective buyers would treat the child responsibly, we worry that a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are properly regarded not as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. Or consider the rights and obligations of citizenship. If you are called to jury duty, you can’t hire a substitute to take your place. Nor do we allow citizens to sell their votes, even though others might be eager to buy them. Why not? Because we believe that civic duties are not private property but public responsibilities. To outsource them is to demean them, to value them in the wrong way. (source)

Market values can indeed change how we look at things. If a human body is viewed as an organ mine, then ultimately this can destroy the dignity of the body, of the human person and of life itself. There is an inescapable incompatibility between the view that something has a financial exchange value and that the same thing has dignity. The horror of slavery wasn’t merely defined by the pain, the oppression and the lack of freedom suffered by slaves, but also by the fact that slaves were viewed as commodities rather than human beings. And although it’s unfair to compare organ trade to slavery, the same commodification and financial market logic underlies both. Commodification of the human person, whether as a whole or in part, is a failure to treat human beings with dignity and respect. Human beings shouldn’t be used as tools, instruments or resources.

Not even if it means saving people’s lives? Yes, not even if it means saving people’s lives, on the condition that there are other feasible ways of saving people’s lives. And there are. The fact that current rates of donation are not always and everywhere sufficient to meet the growing demand does not imply that all possible donation schemes are insufficient. Rather than giving up completely on donation just because current schemes don’t always work well we should focus on improving it, especially given the serious drawbacks of the market system that is hastily and sometimes lazily proposed by some.

I do understand the tendency of some to look for market solutions, especially given the success of markets in other areas of life. But there’s no good reason to assume that all social relationships should be financial ones.

The second objection to organ sales is that market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about such as altruism and solidarity. Not only is this intuitively persuasive – if people get money for things it’s likely that they’ll stop giving it away for free, and that giving in general will become rare when market values invade every part of life – but there’s also some evidence. This paper argues that donation rates would decline in a market, with detrimental consequences for social relationships. And this paper also finds evidence of crowding out.

I’ve dealt with the third objection – the coercion objection – in an older post.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Poverty (68): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People

You can criticize trade policy, immigration restrictions, bad governance or any other commonly cited cause of poverty, but you shouldn’t forget the obvious: there are a lot of wealthy people in the world who could, without losing much wellbeing (due to the diminishing marginal utility of money), help to lift every single poor person in the world to a much higher level of wellbeing.

The fact is that they could but don’t. We do have progressive taxation systems and other means of redistribution, we have development aid, we have charity etc., but none of these things yields enough money to lift everyone out of poverty. And there’s not enough public support to strengthen these redistribution mechanisms. Development aid is already unpopular at current levels, and don’t even start to talk about tax increases. The tireless efforts of Peter Singer and company to promote giving also have only a small effect.

The insufficiency of giving and other means of redistribution is hard to understand, in particular given the fact that rich people are generally not very dumb and able to understand the law of diminishing marginal utility. Of course, I know about loss aversion, the endowment effect, habit formation, the importance of status etc. But again, wealthy people should in general be the ones best able to overcome biases, to distinguish the important things in life from the unimportant, and to see how helping others can be beneficial to ourselves, both psychologically and socially (helping makes you feel good, and living a good life amid misery is socially untenable). But perhaps I’m wrong about rich people.

And then there’s something else stopping us from giving more (or allowing ourselves to be taxed more, which is roughly the same thing), namely the stories we tell ourselves. For example, you often hear that it’s better to allow people to look after themselves first, so that they can create the conditions in which they unintentionally help. Allowing entrepreneurs to get rich – i.e. not taxing them too heavily and not insisting that they should give their money away rather than invest it – will be much more beneficial to the poor. Many of the poor will get a job thanks to them, and their products and services will also make the lives of many a lot better.

However, this is not incompatible with giving. True, what you give you can’t invest, but we can allow people to delay their giving until the day that they don’t need to invest a lot more. The example of Bill Gates comes to mind. So we can accept that there is some truth to the story that free enterprise takes care of a lot of poverty, and at the same time insist that there should be more giving.

Another story we tell ourselves goes like this: giving people money isn’t a very good way of helping poor people. Many of them will just waste it, middle men will confiscate it, third world governments will misuse it, people will become to depend on it etc. Well, that doesn’t seem to be completely correct. Experiments with conditional cash transfers are very promising. And even if it’s correct to some extent, that’s just an argument to be smarter when giving money: invest it in businesses, healthcare etc.

And finally, there’s the story about agency: helping people is disrespecting them as self-authors and self-governing moral creatures. You may make them materially better off – at least in the short run because dependence on help may create motivational problems in the long run – but you take away their dignity and make them psychologically and morally worse off. People may not want to be helped, and even if they do it may not be in their best long term interest. The problem with this story is not that it’s false as such; it’s that people may not have a long term if we fail to help, and that starvation or homelessness is also an affront to dignity, and surely one that is a lot worse than receiving help.

More about giving is here. More posts in this series are here.

Hate (8): Tolerance and Hate Speech

Jeremy Waldron claims that tolerance is more than merely the absence of violent assault on people who have adopted beliefs and practices we don’t like, and more than simply abstaining from persecution and legal sanction. He says that tolerance also implies the absence of hate speech and a legal prohibition of hate speech. Members of minority groups whose beliefs and practices are strongly disapproved of by the rest of society, have a right to go about their lives without the threat of constant hatred, vilification, insult and humiliation. They have a right to visit the shops and restaurants they want to visit, and to generally interact with others without being treated as pariahs.

And, indeed, that sounds quite reasonable. People undoubtedly have and should have such rights. But others have rights as well: hate mongers have a right to free speech, and racist shop keepers and restaurant owners have a right to ban whoever they want from their private property, under certain circumstances.

When the rights of the haters and the rights of despised minorities come into conflict, the different rights have to be balanced. I argued before that the right of private property of racists, or the freedom of association of prejudiced groups wanting to exclude homosexuals for example, should no longer be protected when these racists and bigots have become so numerous and authoritative that the objects of their racism or bigotry no longer have any alternative options and risk having their own rights violated. In the Jim Crow era, for example, it was very difficult for blacks to move around, find decent housing etc. because there were so many transport companies and landowners discriminating against them that their options were seriously diminished. Hence their rights were violated, and violated to such a degree that limitations on the rights of their tormentors were justified.

Similarly, in our current example, hate speech should only be banned and the right to free speech of hate mongers should only be limited when there’s an impact on the rights of their targets. Claiming, as Waldron seems to do, that a tolerant society generally requires such bans and limits will not do. That’s just not enough as a justification. For example, writing blood libel on an obscure blog that nobody reads should probably not be prohibited. On the other hand, burning crosses in the front yards of black people and forcing them to move elsewhere is a violation of their right to freely choose their residence. The same is true if people dare not walk the streets because of the risk of being constantly cursed at. These two cases of expressions of hate speech can and should be banned because they result in rights violations. Other expressions of hate speech should be protected. A general claim that tolerance requires not just constraints on coercion and violent persecution but also a general respect for people’s dignity and a social atmosphere free of hatred, insult and defamation, goes too far. It would be nice if the world was free of hate and if respect for dignity was the normal attitude, but there’s no right to such a world. Nor should there be.

If we were to adopt such a right, we’d run the risk of terminating debate altogether. If tolerance includes a general ban on hate speech it’s likely that it will also imply banning vehement discussion of other people’s supposed errors. You don’t need to engage in hate speech in order to have a vehement and lively discussion and criticism of others, but a lot of such criticism can be readily understood and perceived by its targets as an expression of hate and an insult to dignity. These targets can then use the power of law to shut down the debate, and that’s not something we want. Ideally, specific instances of speech should not be judged as inadmissible instances of hate speech and proper objects of legal sanction simply on the basis of the feelings or perceptions of the targets, but only on the basis of the objective consequences for the rights of the targets. Tolerance that includes a ban on all hate speech is a tolerance that in the end may silence us all.

More on tolerance, hate speech, defamation and insults. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (30): Strategies for Justifying Human Rights

When we try to answer questions such as “why do we need to respects human rights?”, “why are there human rights?”, “where do human rights come from?” and “what are the grounds of human rights?”, then it’s not beyond doubt that our answers will result in any practical benefits or real improvements in actual respect for human rights. One often hears the argument that all such answers are useless, since those looking for them are already convinced that human rights are important and are simply engaged in an intellectual exercise without practical consequences. These answers will – by definition – fail to produce beneficial consequences in practice, because those who violate human rights will not be persuaded by intellectual exercises.

I think that’s true for some violators. The Taliban for instance seem to be impervious to reason. Others, however, may be swayed. Hence, the exercise may be more than intellectual; there is a chance that good answers to questions about the grounding of human rights have some practical effect and can produce some improvements in levels of respect for human rights.

There’s an obvious and easy answer to those questions, but I doubt that it’s a very useful one. It’s provided by religion, and more specifically by the Judeo-Christian religion. If human life is sacred because all men and women are equally the children of God and created in His image, then there are certain things one cannot do to them and certain standards of conduct that apply equally to all human beings. With the help of some interpretation of the Bible, it should be possible to express those standards in human rights language. Some would even claim that there is no other way to ground human rights, since this grounding requires the concept of the sacredness of human life, and this sacredness can only be defended by positing a divine creator.

There are at least two difficulties with this approach. First, attempts to ground human rights in religion sound vaguely anachronistic: human rights have started their ascent during an era of increasing secularization. So it seems that they can survive and thrive without a religious basis and that there’s no need to use categories such as “sacred”.

The second difficulty with the religious approach is its lack of universal appeal: it will only persuade the persuaded. Adherents of other religions, non-believers or Jews and Christians who interpret the Bible differently will often find such a grounding of human rights hard to swallow.

So it seems that a proper justification of human rights – proper in the sense of being universally acceptable, at least potentially – has to be a-religious and purely rational. However, rational justifications also face some problems. A rational justification is limited by definition. Because you can’t appeal to the word of God, you have to use other values to ground human rights. And to some extent, you have to justify the grounds you use as a justification. However, this can’t go on indefinitely. For example, if you argue that we need human rights in order to protect human dignity or rationality, you also have to expound the reasons why we need dignity or rationality (at least, that is what you have to do when you can’t or won’t assume that our dignity comes from God). And then the same for the reasons why we need those reasons etc. At a certain point, you just have to accept circularity and admit that at a basic level of morality you need to do what is moral simply because that is what morality requires (and not because of some other reason).

Still, before you reach that point you can do useful work by linking respect for human rights to some other values that people deem important. Because people have already adopted those values, you don’t need to argue for them. Hence you can avoid the infinite regress of justification, and you can limit yourself to the reasons why the protection and realization of certain given values require human rights.

More on the justification of human rights is here and here.

What is Equality? (1): Some Dimensions and Distinctions

If you want to explain the nature of equality the best thing to do is to distinguish between different types of equality. In fact, we’ll need a whole set of different distinctions, so that’s what I’ll try to do below. You can probably already guess the conclusion: equality is always and necessarily complex equality (in the words of Michael Walzer). I suppose that’s also why this post is so long. I apologize.

What equality isn’t

But before we distinguish types of equality, let’s clearly distinguish equality from some other concepts: equality ≠ identity (or sameness) ≠ uniformity ≠ similarity.

When people speak about “equality” in moral and political philosophy, they never mean “identity” (perhaps they do in mathematics, but we don’t care about that). Claims that people aren’t treated equally or suffer from some form of unjust inequality are not claims that people should always and in every respect be equal or treated equally. Complete or absolute equality would be the same as identity, but that’s not what is at stake in moral or political discourse. To my knowledge, people never claim that all people should always be treated identically in every respect. The claim is that people should be treated equally, or “the same”, in some very specific ways or some very specific fields of life: people should have the same access to education, for example. The anti-egalitarian claim that those of us who care about equality will push society to a dystopian future of uniformity is therefore misguided. Egalitarianism demands certain forms of equality, but beyond that it’s very happy to accept inequality.

The egalitarian goal isn’t even “approximate correspondence” or high levels of similarity between people. Very dissimilar people can have a justified claim to equal treatment in certain respects, and when they achieve this equal treatment they don’t become “similar” to each other in any ontological sense. They remain very different people, except that in some very specific sense and very specific part of their lives they are being treated the same. For example, a poor African American has the same right to a fair trial as a wealthy WASP, but that, together with all their other claims to equality, doesn’t make them similar people.

Equality needs at least one other word: equality is always equality of something very specific. Equality without any qualifier would indeed be very close to identity or uniformity. People should be equal in important and specific respects only. They shouldn’t in general be the same, nor should they even be treated in generally the same way. The goal is to realize certain specific types of equality among human beings, not to move steadily towards ever greater “correspondence”, similarity or even identity and uniformity. This very specific nature of equality is a natural limit on its scope, something which should appease critics of equality. People shouldn’t be treated equally or uniformly in all respects, only in those respects for which people have a justified claim to be treated equally or uniformly.

The question then is, of course, what are those justified claims and which claims are not justified? What are the specific cases in which people deserve to be treated equally? We are talking about equality of what exactly? Which are those “specific field of life” where equality is required? That’s an ongoing and probably never-ending public discussion. A typical strategy in dealing with such questions is to take a step back as it were. Make things a bit more abstract. As a result, the most common qualifier or “second word” is dignity or respect, which in turn is believed to justify other, more specific qualifiers. For example, the equal dignity of all human beings, if that’s a claim that can be justified, is supposed to invalidate gender discrimination.

Descriptive or prescriptive equality

Justifying equality is a prescriptive task. You want to come up with reasons why a certain form of equality is morally necessary. You’re not interested in descriptive equality, i.e. the measurement of levels of (in)equality, of their causes and effects, of the interaction between different types of (in)equality etc. You will be interested, but only after the prescriptive work is done and after you’ve decided which types of equality are morally important. Prescriptive equality is the claim that people ought to be equal in some respects. Because equality is necessarily a social concept – i.e. you need at least two people before you can speak about equality – the prescription here is comparative: people ought to be equal in some respects to other people, mostly to all other people, but not necessarily. Perhaps people should be treated in an equal way by other people in certain circumstances (e.g. the ballot); or perhaps their opportunities should be equal to those of other people; or perhaps their basic resources should be equal to those of other people etc. (More below).

So prescriptive equality has two different aspects: people should be equal

  • in certain respects (equality of what: treatment, resources; opportunities etc.), and
  • to certain other people (equality of whom: we’ll see below that in some cases all people should be equal but in other cases only some people or people belonging to a certain group).

Prescriptive equality will also answer the question: why should people be equal in certain respects and to certain/all other people? Why is this equality important and why is its absence a problem? The remainder of this post will focus on prescriptive equality.

Universal or specific equality

Prescriptive equality can be either universal or specific. Since equality is a moral concept, we see in most cases that the equality claimed by people is a universal one: people want to be equal in some respect to all other people. The claims by victims of racism, discrimination, oppression etc. fall under this heading. However, equality can also be more specific: people may want to be treated equally compared to certain other people, and therefore, logically, unequally compared to the rest of humanity. An example of that is Aristotle’s claim that we should treat “like cases as like”. Cases that are unlike each other should sometimes be treated unlike each other. The classic example is that of students: we usually sense that there is something wrong when a teacher systematically gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. Equal treatment in such cases should be limited to similar people, in this example people with similar merit.

Other examples of a non-universal notion of equality:

  • A sick person has other needs than a healthy person. Treating them equally doesn’t sound right. However, giving help to one sick person and not to another also doesn’t sound right. Equality here means equal treatment of all sick persons.
  • People who are themselves responsible for their unequal position because of their own free decisions – for example the so-called undeserving poor – will have more difficulties making the claim that society should restore their equal position – in this example, deliver some basic goods.

Instrumental and non-instrumental equality

The previous distinction leads to another one: suppose that you value equality not for its own sake but as a means for another goal, say solidarity. A more equal society is then supposed to be one in which people care more about each other, which in turn can be a means for yet a more profound goal, for example stability. In that case, it won’t make a lot of sense to adopt a universal type of equality (see above). You’ll focus instead on the equality between members of a specific community. If, on the other hand, you value equality for its own sake, then there’s no reason to limit the egalitarian concerns to a given community. However, an instrumental type of equality is not necessarily specific. It can be universal if the goal that is served by equality is a universal goal. An example of such a goal could be dignity.

Absolute or limited equality

If equality is a value in itself and not the means for achieving other values, and if it is, at the same time, a value that takes priority over all other values and that cannot be limited by other values, then we have a problem. Because in that case,

there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. … If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. (source)

And that’s highly counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that equality shouldn’t be a non-instrumental value; only that it shouldn’t be both a non-instrumental and an absolute value at the same time.

Formal or substantial equality

Equality can be either formal or substantial equality. An example of formal equality is legal equality: all people have the same legal rights – e.g. equal human rights – and all people are equal before the law. Marx has famously ridiculed this formal equality, saying that it has no meaning for the poor, and can even serve to oppress the poor (it’s therefore a negative instrumental equality). A rich and a poor person both have the same legal rights, but the rich person can use these rights more and better than the poor person, sometimes even against the interests of that poor person. Hence, formal equality leads to substantial inequality. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that formal equality isn’t as useless as that. It may be useful but it’s not sufficient, and more substantive notions of equality, such as equality of opportunity, of basic resources etc. are important as well. People shouldn’t only have an equal legal right to something, but also an equal right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right. Those means can be food, education, opportunities etc. Let’s have a closer look at some of those more substantial types of equality.

Political, legal, economic or social equality

So universal equality isn’t only legal equality but also political, economic or social equality. Political equality means that all the citizens of a country should have the same political power. That usually translates into equal voting rights in a democracy – which are legal rights – combined with some more substantial equality like equal education, education being a prerequisite for adequate political participation (so the equal right to education is a “right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of another right”, in this case political rights).

However, the universality of political equality is often somewhat limited, in a couple of ways:

  • people living elsewhere obviously have no need for political power in our country
  • it’s also limited to full citizens, controversially
  • and it’s – even more controversially – limited to adult people who are not in prison.

Economic equality is usually understood as the equal distribution – or redistribution – of some basic goods such as food, shelter, health, education etc. (It’s rarely seen as absolute equality of all goods).

Social equality is often a mix of the three previous ones: racial discrimination for example is a violation of the demands of social equality (equality between different social groups), but it often manifests itself unequal voting rights, unequal legal rights (e.g. segregation or Jim Crow) or unequal prosperity between racial groups.

Equal opportunity or equal outcomes

Equal outcomes can be, for example, equal resources: people should have the same basic resources (e.g. a guaranteed basic income). Equal opportunity means that people have the same options in life and the same prospects for preference fulfillment as all other people. The actual outcomes, what ultimately happens to them – whether their lives are equal or not, whether they’re rich or poor – is less important because, given equal starting opportunities, those outcomes are their own responsibility. However, most people would agree that outright misery, even if it’s someone’s own fault and not the result of back luck, discrimination or unequal starting opportunities, should be a legitimate issue of egalitarian concern.

Equality of opportunity then may not be enough but it certainly is important. No one deserves the circumstances, family, class, country etc. into which she is born. She doesn’t even deserve her talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort. Bad luck in the natural lottery (talents) or the lottery of birth (circumstances and places of birth) can lead to vastly unequal opportunities. We can’t equalize talents or luck, but we can mitigate the inequalities they create. For example, we can offer some insurance against misfortune, or education as a means to develop abilities.

Quantitative or qualitative equality

And finally, equality can be viewed as a quantitative or qualitative notion. Two people can be equal when they have the same amount of something – e.g. income – or when they have the same characteristics or qualities – e.g. equal rights. Quantitative types of equality are economic equality, political equality in some sense and equality of certain opportunities. Qualitative equality is for example legal equality and social equality.

What Are Human Rights? (23): Alienable Rights?

One of the most commonly cited characteristics of human rights is their inalienability. Human rights aren’t granted to people by a sovereign, a law or a tradition, and hence can’t be taken away. They can of course be violated, but violating rights doesn’t mean taking them away. If you’re tortured you still have a right not to be tortured. In a sense, you only have rights – or, in other words, your rights are only real – when they are violated. When rights aren’t violated they move to the background, as self-evident facts not even worthy of being mentioned.

The question here is not whether rights can or cannot be taken away, but whether people can give them away. I think people can’t give away their rights – people are human and hence they have certain rights – but what they can do is waive their rights, meaning that they insist that they don’t want others or the state to intervene in order to enforce respect for their rights. If someone wants to sell herself into slavery, submit herself to cruel treatment, sell her organs, let herself be cannibalized or used in a dwarf-throwing competition, then that person should be free to do so, even if it means that her rights are violated. If those rights violations are her free, conscious and informed choice, we’ll have to respect that choice. She still has her rights but chooses to allow violations of her rights.

Rights are important because they are important to people. They aren’t important as such. If certain people no longer deem them important, then they are no longer important for them. We can’t force people to have their rights respected. That would be a lack of respect for people’s moral autonomy, their dignity and freedom, even if their choices imply giving up their dignity and freedom.

The assumption here is of course that people have a real choice in the matter. If they are forced in some way to renounce their rights, then society and the state still have a duty and a right to intervene in order to enforce respect for people’s rights, even if these people explicitly state that they don’t want this intervention. A masochist who freely chooses to be a masochist – and isn’t suffering from a mental illness or from sadistic pressure – should be free to have her rights violated. A dwarf or a prostitute who has no other means of income than dwarf-throwing or commercial sex respectively is clearly forced and didn’t freely choose to have her rights violated, in which case society has a right to intervene, even if that person opposes such intervention. But of course she will only oppose the intervention if it is merely a prohibition: if the state merely prohibits dwarf-throwing or commercial sex it will make things worse. The person in question loses her income on top of her rights and dignity. Hence, intervention should also mean the provision of an alternative income not implying rights violations. Lack of income is also a rights violation, and you can’t solve one rights violation by violating another right. You can’t free someone from sexual slavery by taking away her income.

The obvious difficulty here is to ascertain whether people’s renunciation of their rights is a free choice.

Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté

Lèse majesté (a French expression but originally from a Latin expression meaning “injury to the Majesty”) is a legal rule making it a crime to say or write things that offend or insult a king or queen, or violate his or her dignity.

Fortunately, this kind of limitation of freedom of speech has become extremely rare. Most countries have done away with the archaic institution of the monarchy and hence also their lèse majesté rules. Or they have relegated their monarchies to the domain of symbolism and celebrity. Absolute monarchies or monarchical dictatorships are the exception nowadays. Oppression has become a distinctly “republican” affair. (Some of the remaining absolute monarchies are Brunei, Qatar, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia).

Most of the monarchies that continue to exist have no strict practice of limiting free speech on the grounds of lèse majesté. They may have some legal rules, but they aren’t applied rigorously. So, on a global level, it’s difficult to claim that lèse majesté is a big problem for freedom of speech. However, some monarchies do impose the rule and thereby violate the right to freedom of speech to a large extent. I’m thinking of course of Thailand. The law there states:

The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action. Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen or the Heir-apparent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. (source)

Moreover, a precise definition of defamation of or insult to the king is lacking, making the net very tight. As a result, the law has shown itself very useful for political vendettas. There have been numerous cases of censorship, self-censorship and imprisonment, often as a consequences of rather ridiculous faits divers:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses and was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King. (source)

But the consequences of many cases have been much more serious than the causes. Writers and academics have been jailed, thousands of internet sites are blocked, books and magazines such as The Economist have been banned etc. It’s not impossible that the site you’re reading now will suffer the same fate.

Thai law goes well beyond protection of the royal family. It has been used and abused to protect and justify an entire ruling elite, an autocratic and conservative social system, and even military coups.

Other monarchies are much more tolerant. It’s worth mentioning that some non-monarchies also have rules prohibiting insults to heads of states. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the president and prime minister by farting loudly (see here).

Lèse majesté laws in one form or another, especially in countries where the beneficiaries of such protection are relatively powerful, is undemocratic. They can stifle large areas of political journalism and debate, and make it impossible to expose official wrongdoing and corruption.