The Causes of Human Rights Violations (27): Harmful Moral Judgments

Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:

  • One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
  • Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
  • The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
  • Etc. etc.

The rational approach

It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.

You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.

That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.

One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.

The emotional approach

The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).

Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.

If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.

The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.

Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).

The diversity approach

Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:

  • In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
  • When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
  • Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
  • People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
  • Also,

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered.  Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)

Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.

Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.

Religion and Human Rights (21): The Attractiveness of Religious Liberty to Those Who Hate it

Religious extremism

This post examines the relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism. The expression, “religious extremism”, does not only or even mainly refer to terrorism, jihad or sectarianism. Those are only the more flagrant instances of religiously inspired human rights violations.  All religiously inspired human rights violations are covered here by the concept of religious extremism.

Two other remarks may help to avoid misunderstandings. First, this post by no means focuses exclusively on Islam. Although most news stories about religious extremism nowadays tend to highlight rights abuses in Islamic countries or Islamic terrorism, history shows that none of this is the monopoly of any religion.

Second, the existence of religiously inspired human rights violations does not prove that religion as such is necessarily incompatible with human rights. This post does not make that claim. We should be well aware that rights abuses can be inspired by many different ideologies, religious and secular. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the historic evolution of human rights was and still is underpinned by religious motivation. The incompatibility of religion and human rights is the exception. It is limited to some interpretations of some practices of religions. Religion is above all a matter of conviction and belief, and only then a matter of practice. And conviction and belief can never harm human rights, which is why they benefit from absolute protection by human rights.

Religious liberty

Regarding the concept of religious liberty: what is it and why is it so important? Religious liberty is a human right among other human rights. It contains the freedom of belief, the freedom to practice and promote a freely chosen belief, both in private and in public. It is also the freedom to change belief and the freedom to have no belief at all (the freedom to be non-religious, or the freedom from religion).

Here’s the way it’s formulated in the Universal Declaration, article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Religious liberty is in general words the right to be protected against religious coercion and persecution. Of course, one can and does discuss this definition. There is a lot of literature about the precise meaning of religious liberty. I just assume that we can use the definition given here as a working definition for the purpose of this post.

By protecting people against religious coercion, the right to religious liberty promotes a diverse and plural society, even beyond the field of religion. If there can be diversity and debate in something as important as religion, why not in other fields? So religious liberty functions as an example and a benchmark. It promotes diversity and debate in general, and hence it promotes other human rights – such as freedom of speech – which can occupy the free public space created by religious freedom. Religious liberty, in the same manner, promotes tolerance. If people can be tolerant – or, better, can be forced to be tolerant – in religious matters, it will be easier to enforce tolerance in other fields.

As a consequence, religious liberty is of importance to everyone, including non-religious persons, and not only because it protects them against the imposition of a religion. It also allows them, and everyone else, to live in a world of diversity, tolerance and human rights. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of the system of human rights and of crucial importance to a plural world. It is a prerequisite for the whole system of human rights, but also vice versa. Freedoms of speech, of assembly and of association are religious freedoms as well and are prerequisites for religious liberty strictu sensu.

The attitude of religious extremists towards religious liberty

The relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism is ambivalent. On the one hand, we see that religious extremists, especially those living in democracies, use or better abuse religious liberty to justify certain religious practices and norms which violate human rights. On the other hand, and more generally, religious extremists do not like religious liberty. They are universalists. They want to impose their norms on others and do not want others to enjoy religious liberty. Unbelievers do not deserve freedom because they oppose the laws of God, the only God and the God of all human beings. Man does not have the freedom to violate the laws of God.

Religious universalists naturally try to take over the machinery of the state, because then they can use the law, the police, the judiciary, state education, etc, to bring back the “lost sheep”, against their will if necessary.

[R]eligiously wrong – a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against.  Deorum injuriae Diis curae.  Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods.  It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures.

The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them.  […] a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion.  It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

Universalism is of course inherent in most major religions (perhaps not in Judaism). However, religious extremists go beyond the normal religious tendency of promoting universality by persuasion and voluntary conversion. They try to achieve universality by taking away the religious liberty and other human rights of their opponents. They use force and violence, sometimes even terror and war. Even the members of their own groups often suffer rights abuse because of the objective of universality (for example, punishment for apostasy).

(By the way, universalism is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. We can also find it in many non-religious worldviews such as capitalism and communism. We can observe that these other worldviews also tend to violate human rights if they take their universalism too seriously. One could even claim that the ideology of human rights is a kind of universalism. Fortunately, this ideology cannot permit itself to violate human rights for the sake of its universalism, because that would be self-destructive).

First-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

I’ve mentioned above that there is a two-way causation, unity and interdependence in the system of human rights (by the way, this is a recurrent feature in the system, even in parts of it unconnected to religious liberty). This unity can help to solve the problem of the violation of religious liberty by religious extremists and the violation of other human rights justified by religious liberty. Religious extremists can violate human rights in two ways:

  • either internally in their own groups, again in two ways:
    • for example, certain religious practices such as gender discrimination, forced circumcision, etc). These practices are often justified as falling under the protection of religious liberty;
    • or by prohibiting exit-attempts (apostasy) – which often occur as a consequence of the previous type of violation – and taking away the freedom of religion in the sense of the freedom to change one’s religion;
  • or externally, in their practices directed at outsiders (for example, forced conversion, terrorism, holy war, etc). These practices can violate only the freedom of religion of outsiders, or also their other human rights.

Now, all these practices cannot and should not benefit from the protection offered by religious liberty. No single human right, including the freedom of religion, can justify human rights violations. Human rights have to be balanced against each other and must be limited when they produce human rights violations. Limiting rights for the sake of other rights or the rights of others is a normal practice in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. Rights can be contradictory. Take the right of privacy of a public figure trumping the right of freedom of expression of a journalist. Or the right to life of people in a crowd trumping the freedom of speech of one of them wanting to yell “FIRE!” without good reason.

In the case of religious liberty: one could argue that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination of women, the right to life of apostates and the religious freedom of adherents of other religions trump the right to some religious practices which would normally enjoy protection under the religious liberty articles.

Second-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

This first-level protection implies, of course, the enforcement, often by force, of human rights against the will of religious extremists. A better protection would be based not on external force but on internal motivation. The central thesis of this post is the following: notwithstanding the hostility shown by extremists with regard to religious liberty and other human rights, they can be persuaded that they have tactical reasons to accept religious liberty and human rights in general, even if their religious views tell them otherwise. This thesis is based on the force of self-interest as a universal human motivation. It therefore excludes the ultra-extremists who blow themselves up for their religion. They have forsaken self-interest and cannot be convinced to take a course of action based on self-interest. However, they are a minority even among extremists (some of them probably have not forsaken self-interest but are forced to do what they do). So let us concentrate on the other extremists.

There is reason to believe that societies are becoming more and more diverse, culturally and religiously. As a consequence of migration and globalization, states are becoming collections of religious sub-communities. This increased diversity of societies means that religious sub-communities need the protection of religious liberty and other human rights. Even the extremists among them, those who want to coerce, can one day, when the demography has changed, be coerced by the opposing extremists. Therefore, they can be tempted to adopt religious liberty and human rights for their own long-term protection even if these contradict their religious beliefs and practices and their universalist claims. At first sight, a universalist religious extremist may not consider religious liberty and the freedom and equality of all religions as being in his self-interest, or even in the self-interest of the adherents of the other religions. On the contrary, it is in his interest that a maximum number of people convert to his religion. From the point of view of salvation, this is also in the unconscious interest of the people to be converted. He may claim that the latter not only should lose their religious liberty, but also their other rights, and perhaps even their life.

But rejecting the religious liberty and other rights of others means destroying the state mechanisms which he may one day need to defend himself against other extremists who immigrate or become stronger through other means. After all, globalization means that everyone can become a minority everywhere.

It makes sense for a strong majority with universalist claims to reject the rights of minorities, but only in the short-term. In the long term, it’s much more rational to keep the human rights protection mechanisms intact, if not out of conviction, then tactically in order not to cut off the branch one may need to sit on in the future.

Even the protection of human rights internally in a group makes tactical sense. Here it’s not a question of counting on reciprocal respect, if necessary enforced by your own reluctant example or by enforcement mechanisms kept intact by your own groups’ respect for them. Respect for the rights of the members of your own group also helps to maintain a rights enforcing state which can help protect you against other groups.

Of course, this reasoning requires rationality and objective analysis of self-interest on the part of religious extremists, which is perhaps utopian.

Inclusive and exclusive norms

We can put all this in another way by making the distinction between inclusive and exclusive norms. Inclusive norms are norms such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. They try to protect plurality and hold different people with different convictions together.

Exclusive norms try to win a competitive struggle with other norms and try to exclude difference. For example, homosexuality is a sin. Religious norms are often exclusive norms, but not always (think of charity for instance) and many exclusive norms are not religious at all (racism for example).

Someone who is attached to an exclusive norm will try to change people, to persuade, convert, perhaps even impose or force. (To stay with my example on homosexuality: there are “clubs”, if you can call them that, in the US where people help homosexuals to “convert” to heterosexuality). So, exclusive norms may lead to rights violations or violations of inclusive norms.  In that case, inclusive norms should, in my view, take precedence. However, for religious people, the commands of God clearly trump human rights. It’s easier to protect inclusive norms against exclusive norms if religious communities have internalized inclusive norms and only promote, rather than impose, their exclusive norms. In doing so they guarantee that the inclusive norms are alive and well when the exclusive norms of other sub-communities start to manifest themselves. Even extremists may be convinced that this is a rational approach.

Gender Discrimination (3): Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM), or the practice involving the cutting away of one or more parts of the female genitalia (often the clitoris), violates girls’ and women’s human rights, denying them their physical integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their right to life.

The sanitary conditions in which the practice takes place are often substandard leading to medical complications, infections and even death. It is often performed without anesthesia by untrained traditional midwives or laypersons with rudimentary health training, using knives, razor blades or even pieces of glass. Another consequence of FGM are the complications during future child delivery – impacting on women’s rights to a family life. Women who have undergone FGM are twice as likely to die during childbirth and are more likely to give birth to a stillborn child than other women.

The practice also stigmatizes girls and women and affects their feelings of self-esteem given that the justification for the practice is the supposed beneficial impact on female promiscuity. Girls and women are made to feel that without the practice, they would be immoral parts of society. Other justifications are tradition, religious requirements and cleanliness.

FGM is often called “female circumcision”, implying that it is similar to male circumcision. However, the degree of cutting is much more extensive, often impairing a woman’s sexual and reproductive functions.

The BBC estimates that FGM affects 100 million women and girls annually. UNICEF estimates that 70 million women and girls aged 15-49 in 27 countries of Africa and the Middle East have undergone the practice (most girls undergo FGM when they are between 7 and 10 years old). The fact that younger women are less likely to have experienced FGM shows that the practice is becoming slowly less common.

The practice occurs mainly in Africa, but can also be found in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as in parts of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Western countries seem to import the practice as a consequence of migration. However, until the 1950s FGM was performed in the West as a common “treatment” for lesbianism, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy etc.