The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (18): Comparing Apples and Oranges

Before the introduction of tin helmets during the First World War, soldiers only had cloth hats to wear. The strange thing was that after the introduction of tin hats, the number of injuries to the head increased dramatically. Needless to say, this was counter-intuitive. The new helmets were designed precisely to avoid or limit such injuries.

Of course, people were comparing apples with oranges, namely statistics on head injuries before and after the introduction of the new helmets. In fact, what they should have done, and effectively did after they realized their mistake, was to include in the statistics, not only the injuries, but also the fatalities. After the introduction of the new helmets, the number of fatalities dropped dramatically, but the number of injuries went up because the tin helmet was saving soldiers’ lives, but the soldiers were still injured.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (12): Generalization

An example from Greg Mankiw’s blog:

Should we [the U.S.] envy European healthcare? Gary Becker says the answer is no:

“A recent excellent unpublished study by Samuel Preston and Jessica Ho of the University of Pennsylvania compare mortality rates for breast and prostate cancer. These are two of the most common and deadly forms of cancer – in the United States prostate cancer is the second leading cause of male cancer deaths, and breast cancer is the leading cause of female cancer deaths. These forms of cancer also appear to be less sensitive to known attributes of diet and other kinds of non-medical behavior than are lung cancer and many other cancers. [Health effects of diet and behavior should be excluded when comparing the quality of healthcare across countries. FS]

These authors show that the fraction of men receiving a PSA test, which is a test developed about 25 years ago to detect the presence of prostate cancer, is far higher in the US than in Sweden, France, and other countries that are usually said to have better health delivery systems. Similarly, the fraction of women receiving a mammogram, a test developed about 30 years ago to detect breast cancer, is also much higher in the US. The US also more aggressively treats both these (and other) cancers with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy than do other countries.

Preston and Hu show that this more aggressive detection and treatment were apparently effective in producing a better bottom line since death rates from breast and prostate cancer declined during the past 20 [years] by much more in the US than in 15 comparison countries of Europe and Japan.” (source)

Even if all this is true, how on earth can you assume that a healthcare system is better because it is more successful in treating two (2!) diseases?

Another example: the website of the National Alert Registry for sexual offenders used to post a few “quick facts”. One of them said:

“The chance that your child will become a victim of a sexual offender is 1 in 3 for girls… Source: The National Center for Victims of Crime“.

Someone took the trouble of actually checking this source, and found that it said:

Twenty-nine percent [i.e. approx. 1 in 3] of female rape victims in America were younger than eleven when they were raped.

One in three rape victims is a young girl, but you can’t generalize from that by saying that one in three young girls will be the victim of rape. Perhaps they will be, but you can’t know that from these data. Like you can’t conclude from the way the U.S. deals with two diseases that it “shouldn’t envy European healthcare”. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but more general data on life expectancy says it should.

These are two examples of induction or inductive reasoning, sometimes called inductive logic, a reasoning which formulates laws based on limited observations of recurring phenomenal patterns. Induction is employed, for example, in using specific propositions such as:

This door is made of wood.

to infer general propositions such as:

All doors are made of wood. (source)

More posts in this series.