The Ethics of Human Rights (71): The Rights of the Dead

Can the living violate the rights of the dead? Assuming that the dead are gone, they can’t be harmed. So the obvious answer would be “no”. And yet, I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable about cases such as the death of Whitney Houston some time ago: certain very intimate and private details about her and her death were leaked to the press. So in some sense we believe that the dead deserve privacy.

Also some time ago, there was an uproar about Mormons posthumously baptizing people. Maybe this is harmless: the dead, again, can’t be harmed. If you believe in an afterlife, then things are different of course. For non-Mormon believers, posthumous baptism harms the dead because their wishes and agency are intact after death and are not respected by posthumous baptizers; for Mormons, on the other hand, a lot of good is done because it saves the dead from eternal damnation. But again, it seems like a belief in an afterlife isn’t a requirement for having a feeling of unease about the practice. Even the dead deserve respect of their agency and their choices in life. Posthumous baptism implies a negative judgment about people’s lives. Unintentionally, it also implies a negative judgment of the religion that engages in the practice: if you can’t convince the living to join your church and feel the need to co-opt them after death, then that says a lot about your appeal.

I could cite many other cases: there was this one about funeral disturbances; there’s of course the rule against necrophilia; and the argument against presumed consent for organ donation also relies on the rights of the dead (“my dead body belongs to me and the state can’t just confiscate it for organ donations if I haven’t explicitly consented to this”). Personally, I find this latter invocation of the rights of the dead much less appealing than the other ones I’ve cited: if the right to speech and the right to vote die with us, why not the right to control our bodies? Still, I mention the case because it’s testimony to a widespread belief that the dead have at least some rights.

Many of these discussions are “contaminated” by the effects of certain practices on the living. For example, it can be seen as offensive to living Jews if dead Jews are systematically baptized posthumously. We want to ignore those effects for argument’s sake and in order to determine whether the dead have certain rights. I now think they do.

If I’m right, this supports my previously stated view that human rights are about more than protection against harm – if the dead can’t be harmed and have rights nonetheless, then rights aren’t just about harm.

More on the rights of the dead here and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

Crime and Human Rights (13): What’s the Use of Criminal Punishment?

Criminal punishment, even in our non-medieval and so-called Enlightened societies, is the deliberate, intentional and organized imposition of harm on those we believe to be guilty of a crime. That remains the case even if we assume that those who are punished are in general guilty and that all necessary preconditions for criminal punishment are present (for example, that people are punished only after a fair trial, conducted by those authorized to conduct it; or that only those people aware of the moral significance of their actions are punished).

Given this imposition of harm, it’s important to be able to justify our systems of criminal punishment. Usually, but not always, the justifications people offer invoke the need to protect the rights of victims – actual or potential – but it’s far from certain that any justification can withstand even superficial criticism. Let’s look at the different justifications in turn. I think we can distinguish at least 5 common types of justification:

  1. Internalization
  2. Deterrence
  3. Rehabilitation
  4. Incapacitation
  5. Retribution

I’ll first offer a more or less neutral description of these different justifications, before criticizing them.

Justifications of criminal punishment

1. Internalization

The system of criminal punishment is justified because it is an expressive affirmation of shared values within a community (in other words, it’s a form of signaling). This affirmation serves to internalize shared values. When the members of the community have successfully internalized the shared values of the community, it’s assumed that crime will occur less frequently.

2. Deterrence

According to this second type of justification, criminal punishment is justified when it can be shown that the threat and practice of punishment is necessary for the prevention of future crimes, not through internalization of the norms expressed in punishment, but through fear of punishment. Punishment is supposed to reduce the prevalence of crime because it works as a threat. It’s assumed that most rational people who perceive this threat engage in risk analysis, weigh the possible costs and benefits of an intended crime, and conclude that the costs outweigh the benefits (the cost evaluation is a combination of likelihood of the threat – i.e. enforcement – plus severity of the threat). As a result, people reduce their willingness to carry out the crime.

3. Rehabilitation

Unlike internalization (1) and deterrence (2), this third type of justification does not aim at a general prevention or decrease in crime. Criminal punishment is justified because it prevents a particular criminal from engaging in future crimes. Prevention occurs because it’s believed to be possible to change the criminal’s propensity for crime through rehabilitative efforts within the penal system.

4. Incapacitation

This fourth type of justification also doesn’t aim at a general prevention or decrease of crime. Punishment is justified because it prevents a particular criminal from engaging in future crimes, not by way of rehabilitation but by way of incapacitation, which means either incarceration or execution.

5. Retribution

Criminal punishment is justified because criminals deserve to be punished in a certain way.

Consequentialism and deontology

Justifications 1 to 4 are consequentialist in nature: punishment is justified because of the good consequences that result from it, or because of the bad consequence that would result from our failure to punish. They all assume that punishment can prevent crime and hence protect victims – real or possible victims. Justification 5 is of a more deontological nature: punishment is a good in itself in the sense that it is required by justice irrespective of the likely consequences.

Contradictions between justifications

Notice how these different justifications may be incompatible.

Contradiction between (3) and (5)

Rehabilitation (3) means, by definition, flexible sentencing. Penal officials and judges need to have discretion, otherwise they can’t differentiate between successfully rehabilitated prisoners and others. Such discretion typically invokes anger among those who adopt a retributivist justification (5). Retributivism focuses on just desert in sentencing: a criminal should get the sentence he or she deserves, and usually this means a sentence that is in some way proportional to the gravity of the crime and to the harm done to the victim and to society. That is why retributivists demand uniformity in sentencing, and sometimes even mandatory sentencing. The discretion inherent in rehabilitation provokes feelings of unfairness among retributivists.

Contradiction between (4) and (5)

But also incapacitation (4) is often at odds with retributivism (5). For example, incapacitation in the form of incarceration may be less than what the criminal is supposed to deserve. Perhaps the criminal deserves to die according to the retributivist.

Contradiction between (2) and (5)

Retribution (5) can be incompatible with deterrence (2) because effective deterrence may require punishment that is more severe than the punishment that the criminal deserves. For example, there’s no reason why those who believe in deterrence should reject capital punishment for petty theft if it can be shown that such a punishment effectively deters this crime and that the benefits of deterrence outweigh the harm done by the execution. Something more is required to reject such a punishment, and that’s where retribution comes in. Retributivists would claim that petty thieves don’t deserve to die.

Contradiction between (3) and (4)

And a last example of a contradiction between different types of justification of criminal punishment: incapacitation (4) may make rehabilitation (3) more difficult. After all, it’s not obvious that prison is the best locus for rehabilitation. On the contrary, it’s often argued that prison is a school for criminals. Rehabilitation may then require a sentence such as a fine or GPS tracking.

A scale of decreasing ambition

We can view justifications 1 to 5 as being on a scale from most to least ambitious.

1. Internalization

Internalization (1) is obviously the most ambitious since it promises moral education of the citizenry and moral compliance with the law. The obvious problem here is that the desired outcome is highly uncertain, perhaps even utopian. It’s not sure that this uncertain objective justifies the very real harm imposed by criminal punishment.

2. Deterrence

Deterrence (2) is somewhat less ambitious since it discards the educational function of punishment as highly unlikely and aims instead at grudging compliance based on fear (as opposed to moral compliance based on conviction). Still, it’s relatively ambitious since it expects a society wide reduction in crime resulting from fear and rational risk analysis on the part of potential criminals. The data have shown that deterrence as well is overambitious.

3. Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation (3) in turn discards some of the unrealistic assumptions of deterrence (2), such as rationality on the part of future criminals and strict enforcement of the law, and tries to avoid some of the counterintuitive consequences of deterrence (2), such as the tendency to increase the severity of punishments resulting from the need to tip the scale in the risk analysis of criminals. It also tries to avoid the immoral instrumentalization inherent in deterrence. Moreover, it’s not clear that deterrence works, empirically.

Rehabilitation (3) is less ambitious than internalization or deterrence because it focuses on preventing only certain particular criminals from engaging in further crimes. There’s no society wide ambition anymore. However, the success of rehabilitative efforts during the past decades, as measured by reductions in recidivism, is mixed, to say the least. It’s correct to say that most criminologists have become somewhat disenchanted with rehabilitation. And there’s also some doubt about the morality of some rehabilitation techniques (especially those that have been lampooned in A Clockwork Orange). Which is why many have scaled back their ambitions even more and now focus on incapacitation (4).

4. Incapacitation

Let’s limit our discussion of incapacitation (4) to incarceration, since capital punishment is fraught with many other problems that have been widely discussed before on this blog. The problem with incapacitation is that it doesn’t have a clear boundary. Taken by itself, incapacitation theory could justify life imprisonment for petty crimes. In fact, the whole tough on crime philosophy can be seen as an exaggeration of incapacitation theory following the perceived failure of rehabilitation.

5. Retribution

This lack of a boundary in incapacitation theory (4) has led people to fall back on perhaps the oldest and least ambitious justification of criminal punishment, namely retribution (5). Retribution can be seen as a type of justification of criminal punishment that is entirely without ambition: punishment is inflicted for its own sake, not for the possible benefits it can produce. Criminals should be punished because it’s the right thing to do and because they deserve it, not because some aim or purpose can be served by it. This element of desert allows us to avoid both punishment that is viewed as being too severe – as in incapacitation (4) and deterrence (2) – and punishment that is viewed as being too lenient – as in rehabilitation (3).

Retributivism in fact abandons the pretense that punishment has a purpose, that it can achieve a desired objective and that no other, less severe means are available for this objective. However, retributivism isn’t a solid justification of criminal punishment either. It has proven to be impossible to know what exactly it is that the guilty deserve. Lex talionis is the easy answer, but it’s no longer a convincing one in modern societies. Proportionality is the difficult answer: severity in punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the offense. That’s the difficult answer because it leaves us with a system that is inherently imprecise and arbitrary. An infinite number of punishments are consistent with this justification. Hence it’s not really a justification at all.

No justification?

So, where does this leave us? It seems like criminal punishment is not justifiable. And indeed, there’s a long tradition in philosophy that views punishment as nothing more than rationalized anger, revenge and domination. Michel Foucault for example has analyzed criminal punishment as a cogwheel in the continuation of social power relations. The fact that there are so many African Americans in U.S. prisons and in execution statistics can be viewed as a symptom of continued racist domination. Nietzsche has described criminal punishment as being motivated solely by a deep natural desire to punish, subordinate and coerce. And indeed, if you want to punish someone for a crime, you first need to establish control over the would-be punishee. All systems of criminal punishment seems to be doomed to failure if there isn’t a prior system of control. This would indicate that there is already a prior system of control operating in society before criminal punishment takes effect, which in turn seems to indicate that systems of criminal punishment are merely the strong arm of deeper systems of control.

On the other hand, it seems difficult for anyone who’s serious about human rights to simply abandon criminal punishment. Without criminal punishment, we in fact expect victims of crime to either fend for themselves or undergo their suffering and rights violations. Neither outcome would be just.

The Ethics of Human Rights (33): Different Types of Justice and the Link to Equality

What I want to do here is list some of the types of justice that are commonly identified, and see how they are connected to the concept of equality in order to find out if the traditional link between justice and equality holds up to scrutiny. So let’s first have a look at some possible meanings of the word “justice”.

1. Distributive justice

Distributive justice (often called social justice) is about the allocation of resources and burdens. Justice may require that this allocation is done in accordance with certain rights (e.g. an equal right to a basic standard of living), merit or other criteria. This type of justice is about the fairness of what people get (e.g. basic goods, recognition, rewards etc.).

2. Contributive justice

Contributive justice is the opposite: it’s about what people are expected or able, not to get, but to contribute to society. It’s mainly about work: should people be required to be productive members of society, and if they are, should they have a right to organize their contribution in a fair and just way (for example, is it fair or just that some people are bound to menial tasks while others have much more interesting work?).

3. Criminal justice

Criminal justice is about rectification of interpersonal harm, about the restoration (when possible) of an initial position disturbed by harmful behavior, about retribution and punishment, and about restitutions or reparations of previous harm. Criminal justice is therefore often called corrective justice, rectificatory justice or punitive justice. And sometimes these words are supposed to refer to entirely different (sub)types of justice because there can indeed be substantial differences: criminal punishment may be intended to correct or rectify a wrong (e.g. theft), but it can also be used as plain retribution or even vengeance when the wrong is such that it can’t be corrected (e.g. murder).

Some argue that criminal justice is a type of distributive justice. One interpretation of distributive justice sees it as the distribution or allocation of rewards and punishments according to merit or desert. Punishment for a crime is then distributive justice. But that seems to be stretching the meaning of the word “distribution”. A judge in some case does not distribute anything from the offender to the victim and the victim recovers nothing (e.g. in the case of murder). Those are precisely the cases in which criminal justice is not corrective. I think it’s preferable to keep these concepts separated.

Criminal justice includes the work of the Courts, but also less formal corrective or reparative models, such as truth commissions, apologies etc. Transitional justice, some forms of transgenerational justice, mob justice or vigilante justice also fall under this header.

4. Procedural justice

Procedural justice, unlike the previous types, isn’t about certain just or fair outcomes (just distributions, contributions or punishments), but about fair procedures. The focus is on the processes of arriving at a certain decision (judicial, political etc.). The rules governing the fairness of trials are an example of procedural justice, as are the rules governing legislation in a democracy. People will differ over the fairness or correctness of the legal or political decisions, but they can agree on the fairness of the process. In many cases, defendants in criminal trials or losers in democratic elections may be disappointed in the outcomes but accept them nonetheless because they see that there was fairness in the process; for example, they were allowed to make their case in public with equal resources, there was an impartial judge who weighed the different arguments and so on.

5. Other types

Other types of justice include divine justice (usually a mix of distributive justice for the poor and criminal justice for the sinful), poetic justice (the fateful infliction of harm upon the harm-doer), instrumental justice (doing justice in order to achieve something else, e.g. deterrence) etc.

The link to equality

How are these different types of justice linked to equality?

Distributive justice is often seen as the most egalitarian type of justice, because most interpretations of distributive justice see it as a kind of equalizer of basic goods. Everyone needs a fair share of basic goods, and that means an equal share. Poverty reduction is typically seen as an exercise in distributive justice. However, distributive justice doesn’t need to be egalitarian. Aristotle for example claimed that justice wasn’t merely equality for the equal but also inequality for the unequal: we usually sense that there is an injustice when a teacher gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. However, you could say that even this merit-based type of distributive justice implies equality, namely equality between reward and merit.

Contributive justice as well focuses on an equal contribution in life’s pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Regarding criminal justice the picture is more blurred. Originally, criminal justice focused heavily on equality. The biblical lex talionis – an eye for an eye – was an explicitly – and horrendously – egalitarian form of punishment. The wrongdoer should suffer the same injury as his victim. That’s not fashionable anymore, but still we see that criminal justice strives towards some degree of equality or at least proportionality or correlation between the type of harm inflicted and the nature or weight of the punishment. It’s unfair to impose a life sentence for the crime of not paying your debts, or a fine for murder. Strict equality is, of course, often impossible: you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times. But sometimes it’s possible – i.e. in the case of theft or property damages – and we can demand full correction or rectification from the criminal. Most of the time, some kind of proportionality is more appropriate, not only because we want to avoid cruel punishments but also because we don’t have any other choice.

Procedural justice as well relies heavily on equality: an equal right to call witnesses, equal weight given to testimony, equal duration of arguments, equal access to courts and media etc. Even poetic justice is a form of equality because the wrongdoer suffers the same harm as he inflicted on or intended for someone else. In the story of Esther, for example, Haman is executed on the gallows he prepared for someone else. Something similar can be seen in all examples of poetic justice.

So, whereas justice is not the same as equality, the links between these two concepts are quite strong.

Types of Human Rights Violations (1): Fake Zero-Sum Human Rights Violations

We usually, and correctly, think of human rights violations as a zero-sum game (although the word “game” is hardly appropriate here). A rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. And although the benefits for the violator do not always equal the harm for the victim in a quantitative sense, we can safely call it zero-sum. In fact, neither the harm nor the benefits that result from rights violations can always be quantified.

I have represented these harms and benefits in the table below (just look at row number 1 for the moment): a plus sign for “violator value” means that he or she receives some benefits from the violations (otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a violation); a minus for “victim value” means a harm done to him or her. And indeed this is the usual case. But you can see in the table that other combinations of values and signs are possible. But more on that in a moment.

The usual case – number 1 – is what we could call the typical human right violation. It’s zero-sum: the thief who steals from me gains what I lose; the oppressive government that limits my right to free speech or movement or assembly or organization, gains stability and regime security while I lose freedom. In case number 1, the violator always wins, and the person(s) whose rights are violated always lose(s), in roughly the same proportion (if proportions are at all relevant here).

The second, more exceptional case, occurs when not only the victim of the violations loses out, but also the perpetrator. Examples: the suicide bomber (except when he or she is right about Paradise, which I doubt); the use of torture, invasion, drone attacks etc. by the U.S. in its “war on terror” (tactics which may create more terrorists than they eliminate).

The third case is still more exceptional, unfortunately, because it is really a win-win situation, disguised as zero-sum. Two examples. Take the development of the economies of India and China. It can be argued that these economies “take jobs away” from the developed countries, and that in a sense the right to work of many people in the West are violated because of it (the fact that none of this is intentional isn’t sufficient to claim that no rights are violated). However, as these developing countries increase the size of their economies, they will provide valuable and relatively cheap goods and services to businesses and households in developed countries, stimulating the economies there, and boosting disposable income, which reduces poverty in developed countries. As developing countries develop, they will also start to consume more western goods and services, with the same result. Again, no guarantee of course that the gains of one will equal the gains of the other, but at least it’s win-win and not zero-sum.

A second example, also to do with work: when a government withholds or stops unemployment benefits, it violates the rights of the unemployed. But when done under certain circumstances, this will encourage people to find work, and hence will make them better off in the end.

At first sight, these two examples look like typical zero-sum human rights violations, but not when look a bit closer.

The fourth case, where the victim of rights violations benefits from them, and the perpetrators lose out, is extremely exceptional, I guess. I could only come up with one example: the dictator becoming so oppressive that he creates revolt and ushers in his own downfall and the liberation of his people.

Limiting Free Speech (32): Hate Speech in Canada

In Canadian law and jurisprudence, the definition of hate speech as a form of speech that falls outside the protection of the right to free speech, is quite different from the definition in the U.S. And quite different as well from what I personally think is correct. I believe Canada is on the wrong track in this respect, and should move closer to the U.S. view.

In the U.S., the two main Supreme Court cases defining the rules concerning hate speech, are Brandenburg v Ohio and R.A.V. v St Paul. Hate speech in the U.S. can only be punished when it is likely to incite imminent lawless action. This is consistent with my personal view that human rights can be limited solely for the protection of other rights or the rights or others.

In Canada, however, it’s not the likelihood of actual harm than can turn speech into prohibited hate speech. The expression of hatred, irrespective of the possible consequences of this expression, is considered a crime. The content itself is the crime, not where it may lead. Canadian law and jurisprudence (see here for instance) assume that hate speech in itself, independent from its consequences, inflicts harm on a plural and tolerant society. The objective of Canadian hate speech laws is not only the prevention of harm to individuals and their rights, but also the protection of the kind of society Canada wants to be.

Obviously, Canadian society deserves protection, as does tolerance in general. But it’s quite another thing to claim that this protection requires content-based hate speech laws. I don’t think content as such should ever be the sole test of whether to protect speech or not. The (possible) consequences for the rights of others should be the main criterion, together with intent.

The Ethics of Human Rights (8): Mutually Advantageous Exploitation

exploitation: utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes. American Heritage Dictionary

To exploit someone means to take unfair advantage of that person. Usually, we define “unfair advantage” as somehow resulting in harm or coercion for the person who is taken advantage of. If A takes unfair advantage of B, we assume that B is harmed in some way, is forced to deliver the advantage, or is otherwise involuntary involved.

For example: A rapes B. The advantage gained by A is sex. This advantage is gained unfairly by A because the rape harms and coerces B. Otherwise it would not be rape. Rape is therefore charaterized as sexual exploitation.

However, it is possible to speak about exploitation and the taking of unfair advantage by A if A takes an action that benefits B. We can call this mutually advantageous exploitation, or mutually beneficial exploitation. A benefits, obviously, but B as well. B gains an advantage and is better off had the action not taken place, yet still is exploited.

Here’s an example to make this counter-intuitive statement more acceptable. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B and friends don’t have the strength to find another seller or to wait. The sale of bread makes B etc. better off, because without bread they would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyers’ condition. A exploits but doesn’t cause harm. However, A does coerce B. The transaction isn’t completely voluntary. B doesn’t have a choice.

It seems that the old maxim, volenti non fit iniuria – no injustice can be done to the willing – is still valid. Injustice implies coercion. But the other maxim, that injustice implies harm, can sometimes be wrong, unless the simple act of coercion by itself means harm.

A similar and politically more salient example would be if A were a transnational company offering to buy cacao from local cacao producers (B).

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.