The Ethics of Human Rights (93): Rights or Duties?

This is a telling result from Google’s Ngram viewer:

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It seems that once upon a time people believed that duties were more important than rights (or, which we assume is the same thing, people wrote more about duties than about rights). This time ended somewhere in the late 1800s. Some would call this the era of morality. The era that followed it would then be the era of “ME”, of individualism, of people’s nascent and by now “overwhelming” urge to claim things for themselves, and to claim them from others, from society and from the state. There is indeed a venerable school of thought that sees rights as amoral or even immoral and as the favorite tool of modern individualists and egoists.

Somewhat surprisingly, one origin of this idea is Marx. Nowadays, however, it’s associated more with conservatism and with so-called collectivist and harmonious “Asian” societies (with or without a history of communism). Or maybe it’s just associated with the self-appointed representatives of those societies, namely the often authoritarian leaders there. Not surprisingly, those leaders are the first beneficiaries of harmony and of a widespread sense of duty.

None of this should be understood as a rejection of the notion of duty. Far from it. One person’s rights are another person’s duties. (See also here). In a sense it is indeed regrettable that duties are apparently going out of fashion.

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (72): Who’s Responsible for Helping the Poor?

If you’re a heartless cynic, you’ll reply “no one” or “that they help themselves” when asked who should help the poor. If not, you’ll probably offer one of three answers:

  1. Those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. The main champion of this line of thought is Thomas Pogge who we’ve mentioned before on this blog.
  2. Those who can end poverty are responsible for ending it. Who caused poverty and how is really not important. Here it’s Peter Singer who is the main proponent. (I also mentioned him before).
  3. Those who are in a special relationship with poor people are responsible for helping them. The best known representative of this view is David Miller.

The problem is that all three answers sound appealing and yet they are mutually incompatible in some respects. At the same time they seem incomplete without each other. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each answer before dealing with the relationships between them.

Answer 1 focuses on causation: those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. And Pogge has argued very successfully that all poverty as it currently exists in the world is to a large degree if not entirely caused by the actions of people and institutions:

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (source)

Pogge also claims, convincingly, that focusing on the causes of poverty delivers a stronger account of duty. The negative duty to right a wrong for which you are responsible is stronger than the positive duty to help irrespective of whether you’re responsible for the predicament of those you have to help. It does seem to be a widespread moral intuition that the negative duty not to harm, to prevent harm and to rectify harm once you’ve done it is at least more urgent and perhaps also more important than the positive duty to do good. The latter duty is central in answer 2. The idea that we should help because we caused harm seems to carry more weight than the idea that we should help simply because we can.

And yet, there’s a competing intuition that we should help because others have needs, whether or not we are responsible for those needs. So answer 1 doesn’t seem obviously superior to answer 2. In defense of answer 2, Singer gave the example of the drowning child in a famous 1972 paper. Nobody would condone your failure to help a drowning child because you weren’t the one who threw her in the pond. The simple fact that you pass by and that you can help at a minimal cost to yourself is sufficient to ground a duty to help. Poverty, according to Singer, is the same, even if it is poverty far away: the minority of wealthy people in the word can end poverty at a small cost to themselves. We should help people if we can and it doesn’t matter why people need help or who caused the problem in the first place.

If you wish, you can listen to his argument here:

He obviously explains it better than I can.

So we have two strong and seemingly incompatible intuitions here. The advantage of answer 1 is that it appeals to our understanding that negative duties are more urgent. Hence, focusing on causation and personal responsibility can, in theory, accelerate the struggle against poverty. We are more likely to act if we are convinced that we did something wrong.

The advantage of answer 2, on the other hand, is that it renders discussions about the facts of responsibility moot. Indeed, Pogge’s case about the West’s responsibility for poverty in the world is strong but not watertight. One can argue that people are partly responsible for their own poverty, or that local governments and natural conditions are also to blame. Hence, paradoxically, answer 1 can delay effective action because responsibilities first need to be attributed, and that is inherently controversial. Answer 2 then suddenly seems the more effective approach. Furthermore, answer 2 is able to deal with poverty that has no human causes: answer 1 seems unable to force action against poverty caused by natural forces.

And then there’s answer 3 making things even more complex. Answer 1 and 2 also accept that some people have greater duties than others – those who are responsible and those who can help respectively – but answer 3 takes this notion a step further. Those who are in a special relationship to the poor have greater duties to help. Part of the reason for this claim is that a relationship often yields a larger remedial capacity. Parents are better able than strangers to help their children because they have a special relationship with their children: they know them, care more for them, are closer and understand them better. The same can be said for national, linguistic or ethnic communities, according to David Miller. He speaks about “solidaristic communities” where people identify themselves as fellow members sharing a culture or beliefs with other members. This makes distributions easier and more effective.

It’s now the turn of answer 3 to claim to be the more effective one. And indeed, distance does play a role, not only in the effectiveness of actions but also in the willingness to help. Even Singer accepts the latter fact. We may want to change the facts but that takes time. In the meantime, it may be better to count on solidarity within groups than on the duties defended by answers 1 and 2.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that we can give extra weight to the interests of those close to us. This does not imply that we are allowed to neglect the world’s poor, but it does mean that our efforts to help them should not be at the expense of those close to us, including ourselves. If we have a duty to give, then this duty is limited by what we need for ourselves and for those close to us.

So, this concludes the description of different answers to the question in the title of the blog post. The relationship between these answers is a difficult one. They seem incompatible: either we look for those responsible for harm and force them to remedy; or we look for those who can offer a remedy and force them to act; or we look inside solidaristic communities. The duty bearers will sometimes be the same according to all three answers, and then there’s no problem if one, two or three justifications of their duties are successful in forcing them to act. But it can happen that the duty bearers are different people in the three different answers, and then there’s a problem. And we shouldn’t underestimate the probability of this. I personally tend to favor answer 2, but I don’t really have a good argument for this.

What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (33): Something More Than Goals

You can often hear the claim that economic rights such as the right to healthcare, food and work are not really rights but merely desirable goals. A first reply would be that all types of rights, not just economic rights, are also goals. Free speech is just as much a goal as healthcare, food and work. But not all goals are rights, so it’s reasonable to ask if economic rights are really rights. What is a right? It can be different things, but it should, minimally, impose a duty. A duty implies feasibility. Ought implies can. There’s no point imposing duties on people which they are unable to respect.

A typical objection against economic rights is that they impose precisely such duties, duties which are not and will not be feasible in many countries in the world. Imposing a right to healthcare, food and work in Somalia, for instance, is imposing an illusion. It’s just too expensive. Hence, because they impose impossible duties, economic rights can’t really be rights. They are merely goals.

Now, I did argue before that the relative expensiveness of economic rights compared to “freedom” rights is often very much exaggerated. Which is why Somalia and other countries have also failed to secure freedom rights successfully. Part of their lack of success is due to their unwillingness to leave people be – which they could at no expense – but another part is due to their unwillingness and inability to fund the institutions necessary to enforce people’s freedom. Yet, no one claims that these failures turn free speech into a mere goal or aspiration rather than a right.

Furthermore, the international treaties that impose respect for economic rights have taken the cost criticism into account. They often frame economic rights in terms of “progressive realization”. Countries don’t violate the treaties if they can show that they have taken all possible measures to ensure the progressive – as opposed to immediate – realization of economic rights.

If we turn rights into goals, we lose a lot. Goals are a lot weaker in terms of moral force than rights. Those who are without food can no longer demand that something is done, that they are the victims of an injustice, and that they have a right to food. All they can do is ask or beg that a certain social goal, one among probably thousands, is taken a bit more seriously.

Finally, is it really so farcical to impose duties that exceed people’s abilities to comply? Aren’t we doing that all the time? It’s common to view “telling the truth” as a moral duty, a very strong one even. And yet, we all know that this exceeds our abilities to comply. We lie all the time, and if you deny this, you’re lying. The best we can do, morally, is precisely “progressive realization”: trying to lie as little as we can, and less than we’re used to. The same progressive realization rescues economic rights as rights: rather than imposing a duty to realize the goal inherent in the rights, they impose a duty to try to realize that goal.

The Ethics of Human Rights (50): Human Rights and Deontological Ethics

Compared to utilitarianism (see this previous post), deontological ethics – or deontology/deontologism for short – seems to be a moral theory that is much more amenable and receptive to human rights. Deontology, after all, focuses not on the consequences of actions but on the duties (“deon”) we have; and one man’s rights are another man’s duties. Deontology does not accept that good consequences override our duties; for example, we have a duty not to torture, even if torturing would yield certain beneficial consequences. The right thing to do is more important than increasing the good in society. And the right thing to do is to act according to a moral duty translated into a moral norm. So the right thing to do is typically encapsulated in rules, as is the case for human rights.

However, the choice of moral theory for a human right activist isn’t as clear-cut as that. Deontology, and especially those forms of deontology that look a lot like moral absolutism – and that’s a big temptation for deontology in general – have been accused of accepting catastrophic outcomes for the sake of respect for rules and duties. The infamous Kantian rule not to lie to a murderer asking about the whereabouts of his intended victim comes to mind. And we’re not just talking about philosophers’ mind games. The oath taken by German soldiers to be loyal to Hitler was a case of an uncontroversial deontological rule – keep your promises – that has arguably cost millions of lives. The power of duties and rules often borders on the absolute.

Of course, deontology doesn’t have to be moral absolutism. It’s not because there are rules and duties that we must always respect them. So-called threshold deontology allows for rules to be overridden once a certain level of bad consequences is reached. Beyond the threshold, deontology is replaced by consequentialism. Granted, the threshold of exception must be high, otherwise it would be futile to speak about rules and duties at all.

Such a deontological theory is not absolutist, and it is more in line with human rights. The system of human rights isn’t absolutist either. Rights can be limited, for example when different rights clash with each other. There are very few if any absolute human rights, i.e. rights which can never be violated. (The right to life is a possible candidate).

However, threshold deontological theories are not without problems either. First, even if we use thresholds, some duties and rules will still be strong enough to produce, in some cases, violations of human rights. And second, there’s the problem of the exact level of the threshold. It has to be high, but how high? Take the case of torture: threshold deontology would argue that torturing a “ticking time bomb terrorist” is an acceptable deviation from deontological rules and duties if the consequentialist gains are high enough, for example when this torture will allow us to save a large number of lives. But what is a large number? 100? 1000? And won’t we create perverse effects? (E.g. having a torturer put some more lives at stake as a means to legitimize his torture?). Deontology seems to collapse into consequentialism if it adopts a system of thresholds, because reducing the threshold value by 1 unit (one life in this case) never seems to invalidate the choice of suspending rules or duties. And yet, after a certain number of reductions by 1 unit, there’s no rule or duty left.

More posts in this series are here.

Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.

Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically

Human rights cost money. It’s often claimed that economic human rights aren’t really human rights because they are so expensive for many governments in the world that they can’t realistically impose duties: governments of poor countries can’t be expected to respect a duty to provide healthcare, housing, food, work etc. Ought implies can. You can’t be under an obligation if there’s no way you can honor that obligation. It’s claimed, therefore, that economic rights are mere aspirations rather than rights.

Yet, the same argument can be made about the supposedly more distinguished and respectable freedom rights. It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.

Providing effective and non-corrupt police forces and judiciaries is expensive. Probably just as expensive as providing a good public healthcare system. True, rights have to be enforceable, and duties shouldn’t be farcically unrealistic. But I fail to see the ontological difference here between freedom rights and economic rights.

We also shouldn’t overestimate the cost of economic rights. The purpose of these rights is not to have a government that gives healthcare, food, work etc. to every single citizen. That would destroy the economy. A system of economic rights will require that most people provide these goods for themselves through work and economic activity. It will also require that citizens show generosity and help each other. Economic rights also create duties for fellow-citizens. The government supplies the goods in the remaining cases, when self-help and mutual help are not enough.

As a result, the cost of economic rights isn’t as high as a cursory reading of these rights would imply. Conversely, the cost of freedom rights is often higher than one would conclude at first sight: true, these rights often require abstinence and forbearance (“don’t invade my privacy or inhibit my speech”) and that’s something cheap. But the enforcement and equal protection of those rights and the enforcement of forbearance requires an efficient government, which is expensive.

Something about another cost issue related to human rights, namely the relative cost of freedom and dictatorship, is here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (28): Private Charity vs the Welfare State

In a previous post, I wrote about my personal views regarding the best ways to help the poor. I favor private philanthropy or charity over the welfare state. Some of the reasons are:

  • The welfare state imposes certain costs on the economy, thereby damaging the prospects of the future poor.
  • Closeness and affinity imply a greater ability to help. And he or she who can do more, should do more (can implies ought). Citizens are better placed than the government to help poor people in their community/family because they better understand the needs.
  • Spontaneous mutual assistance fosters community spirit. Allowing poverty reduction to take place at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen feelings of belonging.

When all this fails – as it often will – and only when this fails, can a state intervene and can the welfare mechanisms and redistribution systems based on taxation begin to operate (these merely enforce deficient private philanthropy).

However, some claim that the welfare state crowds out private charity. If you don’t care about private charity and want a government monopoly on care for the poor, you won’t mind if there is crowding out. And if you don’t care about private charity or about government assistance to the poor, you won’t mind either. But I guess most people agree with me that both charity and the government have a part to play (although they may not agree with my chosen priorities). So it’s good to see that

government welfare programs [do not] appear to displace an equivalent amount of private charity. Private giving does not vary inversely with the size of government programs and there is little evidence for a “crowding out” effect. Many private charities, in fact, rely on government funding to some extent. Private charitable giving to the poor, defined in narrow terms, runs in the range of $10 to $15 billion a year [in the U.S.], and few observers believe that this sum is capable of significant augmentation in the short run, regardless of government policy. Tyler Cowen (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (27): The Human Rights of Future Generations and Poverty

I’ve argued many times before that poverty is a human rights issue, so I won’t do that again. For those who are not convinced, just assume arguendo that I am right, otherwise the rest of this post won’t make a lot of sense. I’ve also presented my views on the types of duties produced by the human right not to suffer poverty, and on the moral agents that carry those duties: is it a face-to-face thing, or does the government have a role to play by way of redistribution and the welfare state? Etc. You can read about this here and here for instance, so that’s something else I won’t repeat.

I do believe the welfare state is an important institution because it can fill the gap left by deficient private charity. But my view is that private charity should come first and should be promoted. The welfare state should be a fallback option rather than the starting point. So I guess I don’t think it’s as important as people from the left usually think it is. In order to bolster my view, I can point to some problems with the welfare state. In fact, it can be argued that the welfare state is another case of a self-defeating human rights policy, in the sense that it reduces poverty but at the same time produces poverty. Tyler Cowen, in a very interesting paper, has argued that while the welfare state does indeed reduce the levels of poverty of those people currently living (at least if we focus on the level of the state and forget the global impact of the operation of a welfare state in a particular country), it also has a negative impact on the poverty of future generations.

The argument goes as follows. It’s reasonable to accept that economic growth lifts people out of poverty and that the welfare state lowers the rate of economic growth, perhaps not by much annually but small reductions of economic growth over several years may amount to a large cumulative reduction. Now, how does the welfare state lower the rates of economic growth? There are at least four effects:

[1] A welfare state will cause some people to substitute welfare dependency for private work, thus lowering the number of individuals in the active work force or causing them to work less hard. … The poor could be engaging in more productive exchange with other individuals in the economy, but to some extent they desist, for fear of losing welfare benefits. …

[2] The taxes used to support the welfare state discourage taxpayers from working or otherwise creating economic value. …

[3] The extensive welfare states of Western Europe typically are bundled with labor market protections and interventions. It is not politically or economically feasible to give the non-working significantly more risk protection than the working. Western European welfare states therefore tend to create a privileged class of working “insiders,” with high real wages, high benefits, and near-guaranteed positions of employment. This practice, of course, lowers the number of new jobs that are created, limits labor market mobility, and raises unemployment.

[4] [The welfare state] causes the economy to develop new technologies and new ideas at a slower rate. … A welfare state will plausibly have a negative effect on innovation. By withdrawing individual labor from the productive sector of the economy, the rate of discovery is likely to fall. Both the poor and the taxpaying non-poor will work less when a welfare state is in place [see 1 and 2 above]. If we think of research and development, broadly construed, as one kind of work, we can expect the rate of growth to decline. Even if the poor do not participate in ideas production directly, they do so indirectly. To provide a simple example, to the extent it is harder or more costly to hire good janitors, and other forms of cheap labor, fewer research laboratories will be opened. … The welfare state permanently discourages various individuals from contributing to technological development and thus lowers the rate of economic growth in lasting fashion. (source)

One can argue about the importance or even the existence of these four effects, and there may even be counter-effects (welfare recipients may move in the underground economy, unemployment may lead to better parenting and hence better education etc.). But even if the effects are small, it’s sufficient to spread them towards the very long term future in order to produce a lowering of the economic growth rate and an increase in future poverty. Given that the future contains an infinitely large population, the welfare state will always produce more poverty than it eliminates (given that the current population and hence also the current poor are a limited number). That would mean that the concept of the welfare state is doomed. And if that’s the case, it would seem I have proven too much (I merely wanted to buttress my argument that the welfare state should come second, after private philanthropy).

However, I don’t think it’s obvious that we should value the rights of future people the same way as the rights of existing people. After all, these future people may never come into existence. If we try to protect their welfare by giving up the welfare state, we will harm real people for the rights of people who may never exist. Furthermore, the future may bring a novel solution to the poverty problem.

The Ethics of Human Rights (22): Caring for What Happens in the World vs Moral Indifference or Moral Apathy

I guess we all have, now and again, the feeling that it’s strange that we go about our business as usual, being content or even happy, when at exactly the same time in countless other places in the world, someone is suffering, being tortured, killed, raped or whatever. Normally, we don’t think about these facts, because that would make our lives impossible. Thinking about it causes feelings of guilt and unease. Even though we’re often not directly responsible for what happens to these people, there’s always the lingering thought that there may be something we can do to help. And probably there is something we can do, especially if we invested some more effort in associating with others. (Individually we may indeed be powerless).

And there’s an even more unsettling thought lurking deeper in the backs of our minds, namely that we are responsible to some extent, even for the suffering of people thousands of miles away, people we don’t know and will never know. Thomas Pogge for instance has claimed – correctly in my view – that in our globalized world we all contribute, to some extent,  to institutions, rules and processes that violate human rights. For example, we buy clothes from companies that use child labor or ban trade unions; we still profit from colonial exploitation that happened more than a century ago; we acquiesce in democratically enacted laws that exclude poor producers from our markets etc.

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. Thomas Pogge (source)

By the way, Pogge’s argument can be used to counter the claim that “poverty human rights” are substantially different from “normal human rights” such as the right to free speech etc. (are perhaps not even “real human rights” at all), because they impose positive duties instead of merely negative duties, duties to help instead of merely duties not to interfere. For Pogge, poverty is a negative duty: people aren’t poor because we fail to help them but because we actively – albeit often unconsciously – contribute to their poverty. Rather than focusing our efforts on how we can help the poor, we should focus on how we hurt them. This is reminiscent of recent debates on the continued usefulness of development aid.

OK, back to the main point. It’s all very well to encourage “caring”, and possibly also “helping”, but thinking about what we could call the “synchronicity of heaven and hell” makes it very difficult to get on with our lives. Hence we tend to suppress such thoughts. It’s a survival strategy, and quite understandable as such, but the consequence of not thinking is not helping. We know in the back of our minds that while we’re doing fine, elsewhere it’s hell, but we just don’t think about it too much. Only when we watch the news, donate something, or sit in the park and have nothing else to do. And then we’re amazed at how cold-hearted we can be. But at the same time and unconsciously, we continue to function in structures, institutions and sets of rules that underpin the problems that occasionally make us angry. And then we return to our normal mode of moral indifference. Much like the people in the “Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, a painting commented upon in a poem by WH Auden:

… In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (full text here)

Also like the father figure in the “Elf King” poem by Goethe, ignoring the suffering and anxiety of his own sun until it’s too late. We can try to rationalize our moral indifference in several ways. First, we may reject the claim that we have any part in the problems that occur far away. We may believe that poverty and dictatorship are home-grown, and not supported by globalization or our own countries’ involvement. Perhaps we believe that individuals failures are the only cause of their problems. Instead of being a bleeding heart Atlas supporting the misery of the world (as in the poem by Heinrich Heine below), we should simply “shrug“.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muß ich tragen,
Ich trage Unerträgliches, und brechen
Will mir das Herz im Leibe.
Du stolzes Herz, du hast es ja gewollt!
Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich,
Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,
Und jetzo bist du elend.

We also rationalize our inaction and moral indifference by pointing to the distance between us and those who suffer. This distance makes action on our part difficult, we believe, and makes it more likely that actions by others who are closer and more familiar with what’s happening will be more successful. While it’s generally correct to state that closeness is a factor in the ability to help, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the causes of problems are very distant indeed, and hence the solutions have to be distant as well.