An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

Human Rights and Negative Utilitarianism

nuclear explosion

nuclear explosion

 

Lots of people define human rights – mistakenly as I argue below – in a strictly negative sense: you can’t torture me, you can’t silence me etc. The duty bearers in such a system of human rights have exclusively negative duties: abstain from doing what harms my rights, and omit actions that go against my interests or diminish my dignity. The only positive thing that duty bearers are obliged to do is to protect us against others who fail to abstain or forbear in ways that are required by my rights.

In this view, rights serve to avoid the terrible rather than achieve the best. They put limits on what people can do, rather than allowing them to do things.

Hence the temptation to link human rights to so-called negative utilitarianism. Instead of maximizing overall happiness, pleasure or preference satisfaction as in traditional utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism seeks to minimize pain, harm, suffering and preference negation for all. However, we should avoid linking human rights with negative utilitarianism. While this type of utilitarianism avoids some of the problems of other, more “positive” incarnations of utilitarianism – for example, the problem of accepting the pain of some or inflicting pain on some if that produces a larger quantity of happiness for others – it runs into problems of its own making: e.g. the total destruction of humanity, even if very painful, would no doubt reduce human suffering when this suffering is aggregated over a sufficiently long period of time (very long periods of time when the aggregate suffering is very small). And in any case, negative utilitarianism doesn’t solve other problems inherent in all types of utilitarianism, such as preference adaptation (minimize your suffering or maximize your happiness by being modest and ascetic), objectification and instrumentalization of human beings (kill people that cause some annoyance to others in order to advance the happiness of others or reduce their “suffering”) etc.

Of course, human rights are indeed negative rules of the kind described above. But they’re more than that. They’re not just limits to the depths of evil and inhumanity; they also provide capabilities necessary to reach higher forms of humanity. Free speech rights, for example, counteract censorship and silencing of all kinds, but they also promote the good that comes from liberated discourse and argumentation. (One good being better thinking).

Also from a purely procedural point of view is it wrong to focus only on the negative character of human rights. All rights, even the most “classical” “freedom rights” such as speech, freedom from slavery and torture etc. require both abstention and active assistance. The state not only has to refrain from practicing censorship; it also has to protect its citizens against censorship by other parts of the state or by third parties. And it has to create conditions in which the risk of censorship and of other impediments to speech is minimized. For instance, an educated citizenry is more likely to enjoy its speech rights than one which hasn’t had the benefit of state sponsored education. You need to have things to say in the first place.

This should clear up another misconception in human rights theory, this time about economic human rights. If all rights require both action and forbearance, the supposed distinction between freedom rights and economic rights becomes are lot less clear. More about this here and here.

Is Morality Becoming Harder?

In order to get this post off the ground, let’s assume the following: on the level of general principles, what it is to be moral hasn’t changed a lot over the ages. Help the poor, care for your children, avoid doing harm etc. Being a moral person, however, may have become a lot harder, especially during the last few decades. Harder not necessarily in the sense of the dictates of morality having grown more numerous or more demanding – although they may have (new technologies for example may create new moral rules, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) – but in a negative sense: has it become harder to ignore the dictates of morality?

I think it has. It’s now easier than ever to help the poor: there are websites that tell you which charity is most trustworthy and effective; you can wire money with your phone in less than a minute; information propagation technologies tell us where people suffer the most harm at this very moment, and who’s there to help; evildoers are named and ranked; and so on. This means that the usual excuses for inaction in the face of suffering and harm have lost a lot of their pertinence. How do I know that I’ll be doing something effective rather than wasteful? There are so many evils in the world – how do I select the ones that deserve my moral action? Why do people closer by and more able to help not step up first? Even the dodge that sufferers of harm somehow must have deserved what is coming to them is being undercut by neuroscience and social psychology. For example, it has been shown that adversity at a very young age can have an impact on the brain causing self-destructive behavior in adulthood.

So, the combination of science and technology seems to force us towards morality – to the extent of course that we can agree on what it is to be moral, but I assume here that in general we can. However, if people are being forced towards morality, then shouldn’t we fear a backlash? We don’t like to be forced. If it’s harder to ignore morality, morality may become harder. Harder on us, I mean. Maybe we won’t like to live without our usual dodges.

The Ethics of Human Rights (95): Rights Between “Is” And “Ought”

Human rights inhabit the space between humanity as it is and the kind of humanity we can and should be. First in people’s minds when thinking about rights is of course what an awful lot we are. We’re evil, frail, vulnerable and insignificant, and human rights try to do something about that: they counter our frailty when it’s overwhelmed by our tendency to cause harm. (Although they also protect us against the forces of nature, an often neglected or misunderstood aspect of human rights. It’s not just other people who can violate our rights).

Human rights serve to avoid the terrible, but they also aim to achieve the best. They take humanity as it is and try to reduce the pain and oppression we inflict on each other, but they also promise a better humanity, and not just better in the sense of less harmful. They promise to improve our thinking, to allow us to govern ourselves more justly and efficiently etc.

It’s important to stress this middle position of all thinking about human rights. Too much focus on one side of the is-ought divide inevitably results in distortions. Only considering human beings as they are will  lead you to underestimate the power of rights. You’ll see evil as a permanent feature of history and you’ll tend to underestimate the power of moral uplift. Why do we need rights when people are as they are, and as they’ve always been? An exaggerated focus on people as they can and should be will likewise lead to a deflation of the power of rights, because you’ll tend to overestimate people’s ability to better themselves without the need for rights, and you’ll tend to envision a future in which rights will no longer be necessary. I doubt that there will ever be such a future.

More here.

Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

Actions are motivated by beliefs, at least to some extent. (I’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s safe to say that many actions are driven mainly by beliefs, beliefs both about the nature of facts and about how we should act – factual and moral beliefs in other words. Unsurprisingly therefore, many actions that result in rights violations are also caused by beliefs. Certain beliefs are harmful to human rights because they result in actions that violate those rights. I’ll focus here not on harmful beliefs that are self-interested – I find those rather boring – but rather on harmful moral beliefs: rights are often violated because of the view that other people should be forced to do what the coercers believe is the “right thing”. (FGM is an example that comes to mind.)

Beliefs about how we should act are often based on beliefs about “facts” (for example the supposedly detrimental facts that result from failure to perform FGM, such as female promiscuity and bad hygiene). “Facts”, in turn, are seen through a thick interpretative layer of beliefs about morality, which is why I use the scare quotes. For example, if you oppose homosexuality for moral reasons (because “it’s wrong”), then you may tend to see homosexuality as “unnatural”, and this view is often proposed as factual. 

One way to undermine harmful moral beliefs is to attack their factual basis. We can point out the real facts (for example, that the Koran does not require FGM, or that women’s sexual morality and health do not require it). Of course, people who are for some reason intimately attached to certain beliefs will “find” other “facts” to support them. In some cases, however, challenging people’s factual beliefs can make them reject their harmful moral beliefs. At least that’s my belief.

We can also attack harmful moral beliefs directly and try to persuade people to change those beliefs irrespective of their factual basis. For example, we can stress inconsistencies or logical fallacies in ethical beliefs. We can say to racist Christians that the teachings of their God include statements about human equality and rules about neighborly love. And the naturalistic fallacy is abundant (“homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural”; “we should not care about distant strangers because evolution has programmed us to take care of our own”, etc.). 

In short, there’s a whole lot we can say in order to undermine harmful moral beliefs and promote support and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, this will only work in some cases. Ask yourself how often you’ve modified your own moral beliefs. I myself can only come up with two examples: my views about criminal punishment and immigration. (To the extent that I’m quite ashamed of some of the older posts on this blog, to which I won’t link). When we do change our moral beliefs, it’s because we’ve become convinced that the facts on which we’ve based our moral beliefs aren’t what we thought they were (immigration isn’t harmful, capital punishment doesn’t deter, gay marriage doesn’t undermine traditional marriage etc.). When we change our moral beliefs, this is why we do it, not because we now see the moral truth of something (the truth of the rule that strangers have as many rights as we have, that criminal shouldn’t be treated as means to scare future criminals, that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine rights etc.).

So, the best means to change harmful moral beliefs is to attack the supposedly factual basis of those beliefs. However, as I’ve said, this won’t work every time or even a lot of the time, because we constantly try to marshal new facts as a basis of our moral beliefs when the old facts become discredited. If necessary we fabricate the facts. That we do this points towards a deeper problem. Maybe what really motivates us are primordial emotional reactions such as disgust, cleverly dressed up and rationalized by way of beliefs and “facts”.

There’s a great scene at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds about how we can’t justify our disgust of rats on the basis of facts that wouldn’t also justify disgust of pretty squirrels:

If indeed we’re not motivated by moral beliefs or facts, then no amount of moral reasoning or factual discussion can help us avoid rights violations resulting from post hoc rationalizations of our disgust. A more emotional kind of persuasion may be more promising. Telling people stories about the suffering of those who are seen as disgusting can conceivably remove their disgust and hence their need for harmful beliefs and biased selection or creation of “facts”. The chances of something like this succeeding have to be balanced against the “primordial” nature of a lot of our emotional reactions. “Primordial” in the sense of “very old” and “resulting from early human evolution”. That’s a steep climb. 

All this has implications for the legalistic approach to human rights promotion. To the extent that rights violations are actions that have a deep foundation in our emotions – and not all rights violations are like that – legislating them away won’t work. Other strategies have to be employed. 

There’s a good podcast about the same topic by the VeryBadWizards guys here. More about persuasion here and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Place of Human Rights in Morality

Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]

Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

So what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on cultural rights here.