What is Democracy? (69): Direct Participation, But Not Like This

In an older post in this series, I’ve argued in favor of a certain amount of direct citizen participation in modern representative democracies. Referenda in particular are useful as a means to correct certain deficiencies of purely representative systems. However, this argument is often vehemently opposed, even by true defenders of democracy. Referenda, it is said, are open invitations for demagogy and citizen manipulation. They distort the normal representative process and they can lead to horrible decisions based on nothing more than emotion and prejudice.

Indeed, there are many examples of problematic referenda in the history of mankind. The German Anschluss of Austria is one. Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria just before WWII, scheduled a referendum on the proposed Anschluss in March 1938 (before the Anschluss actually took place). Schuschnigg was opposed to Hitler’s ambitions to absorb Austria into the Third Reich. He set the minimum voting age at 24, as he believed younger voters were supporters of the German Nazi ideology. He never had time to go through with his referendum because Hitler invaded in April. Had the referendum taken place, the results would obviously have been biased. The fact that Schuschnigg’s efforts were in a good cause did nothing to reassure opponents of referenda in general.

And those opponents have an even better reason for their opposition. After the German invasion, Hitler decided he needed a referendum of his own, which took place in April 1938. As one can guess, this referendum was utterly and completely biased. It officially recorded a support of 99.7% of the voters (with a turnout of also 99.7%). This was only possible because of large-scale propaganda, the arrest of 70,000 opponents, and the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population, mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews). Officials were present directly beside the voting booths and received the voting ballot by hand (in contrast to a secret vote where the voting ballot is inserted into a closed box) (source).

However, I fail to see how the history of the Anschluss invalidates referenda in general. Let’s not forget that Hitler also abused the representative process in his own country, and yet few people cite the events of 1933 in Germany as a reason to abandon representative democracy. If there is a risk of manipulation in referenda, deal with the risk. You don’t get rid of your car because you have a problem. You fix the problem. Things are different, of course, when one can point to a general pattern of problems with referenda. But one can’t. There have been many successful referenda throughout the world in very different circumstances.

By the way, after his efforts to keep Austria independent had failed Schuschnigg resigned his office. He was arrested by the invading Germans, kept in solitary confinement and eventually interned in various concentration camps, which he survived.

More posts in this series here.

What’s So Special About the Holocaust?

History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.

The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.

Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.

The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.

More on the Holocaust here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (69): Democratic Transition Caught Between the Rights of Past and Future Generations

Here are some general observations inspired by the recent talk of a possible amnesty for Assad as a means to convince him to give up power in Syria.

Imagine a country in which roughly 20% of the population ruled the other 80% during several decades or even centuries. The members of the ruling class owned the land and controlled much of the economy, are of a different social class (perhaps even race) and made sure that the rest of the population lived in constant poverty, oppression and discrimination.

The combination of an internal uprising and external intervention produced a successful transition to a fully democratic form of government. A strong and independent judiciary is now in place, able to effectively enforce a constitution that includes a wide array of human rights.

How should this new democracy deal with the horrors of the past and the rights violations of the now defunct regime? There are two seemingly incompatible needs: victims of rights violations in the past now demand justice, but the society as a whole may be better off without justice, at least in the short run immediately after the democratic transition (and later it may be too late to bring the perpetrators to justice because they’re all dead). Justice can make it more difficult to integrate the old ruling class into the new state. Given that most of the members of that class were heavily implicated in the horrors of the past, justice can’t be a simple matter of punishing a few key perpetrators. And punishing large groups of people will alienate those people, with potentially fatal consequences for the stability of the new state. It may even be the case that one can identify a few key perpetrators, but that those are still quite important for stability even though they’re not very numerous. For example, it’s likely that the military was implicated in past injustices, but the military – especially the top brass – is very important for stability and the new state can’t risk alienating this group, even if it’s not very large. An internally divided society is not at peace with itself and risks upheaval.

However, failure to pursue justice will also divide society. Failure to do something about past injustices will result in impunity and will undermine the moral authority of the new state. Also, what would that imply for future respect for human rights? Why respect rights when past disrespect was without consequences? And if only new rights violations are prosecuted, then there will be a feeling of injustice because of double standards.

A solution to this dilemma can perhaps be found in the fact that there are degrees and different kinds of justice. Justice doesn’t have to be penal or focused on retribution or revenge. Better perhaps to emphasize truth, also a traditional element of justice. Truth, as in the so-called truth commissions, can foster repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Judicial prosecutions can still play a part, but their potential divisiveness can be softened by measures such as amnesty, pardon or limited punishments, on the condition that the defendants cooperate in truth commissions. It’s often the case that truth is more important to victims than retribution.

Of course, some major perpetrators may still have to be punished and perhaps even severely punished. Some types of responsibility are simply to heavy to warrant amnesty. It may be impossible for a society to exist given the presence of monsters continuing their lives as if nothing happened. It’s not necessary to “buy” the allegiance of every single individual in society, not even individuals who still have a broad base of support. In addition, we have to avoid coerced amnesty: perpetrators can blackmail the new state by threatening large-scale unrest or upheaval.

So we need to balance the needs of the past and the future. Both needs should be acknowledged and neither should be sacrificed for the other. Of course, that’s easy to say and very hard to do.

More on the rights of past and future generations here, here, here and here. More on transitional justice here. More on the prerequisites for a transition to democracy is here.

What is Totalitarianism?

It sounds like a somewhat antiquated concept and it may very well be true that it’s useless as a descriptive device for current politics. However, I believe that it remains a necessary tool for the correct understanding of 20th century history. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China were very different countries and very different political regimes, but it can be argued that what they had in common was more important than what separated them. And what they had in common separated them from all other authoritarian governments before and after them. (Hannah Arendt was one of the first to notice this). That is the reasoning behind the concept of totalitarian government. Those three governments – and perhaps a few others – can be described as totalitarian states and were therefore instances of a separate type of government, like oligarchy or democracy. They were not just particularly brutal forms of dictatorship. We’re not talking about a difference in degree. Of course, some of the elements of totalitarian rule which I describe below can be found in other dictatorial governments as well, but other elements can’t. (Just like some elements of democracy can be found in non-democracies). And what certainly can’t be found elsewhere is the combination of all those elements.

Totalitarian government is a post-democratic form of government. It couldn’t exist in the era before mass democracy. It’s post-democratic in the sense that it is an outgrowth of modern democratic traditions. Political parties, party ideologies, mass movements and mass mobilization, the pseudo-popular legitimacy of rigged elections and referenda, the mass idolatry, the personality cults, mass indoctrination, propaganda, Potemkin constitutions, show trials etc. all show the totalitarian debt to democracy. The same is true for the focus on re-education and rectification of thought when some parts of the popular will are considered to be deviant: this is proof of the importance of popular consent (when consent is absent, it’s fabricated).

Contrary to older forms of despotism, totalitarianism admits that the state is no longer the natural property of a ruling class, the private tool of a sovereign or a gift of God. It is the expression of the will of the people. Not, as in a democracy, of a divided people or of a people who’s identity fluctuates over time as a consequence of public debate. The will of the people under totalitarian government is permanently defined as a unified whole. The people are defined as a race or a class. The people have a homogeneous project, namely racial supremacy or the liberation of the proletariat. The will of the people, which is also the basis of democracy but which is always kept vague, heterogeneous and fluctuating in a democracy, now becomes a singular, clear and permanent will. All individuals and individual projects or interests are identified with a collective project. Everything which is in accord with this project, is part of the people; everything else is not – is foreign, alien, “entartet”, bourgeois or capitalist – and must be destroyed. If it’s the whole of the people that works towards a certain project, then those with another opinion are enemies of the people and have to be destroyed to protect the people and its project.

That is the origin of the genocidal nature of all totalitarian governments but also of their less extreme forms of exclusion of the other. Every internal division is seen as external. The other is not part of the people. Society isn’t divided but is divided from its enemies. Every sign of internal division is externalized: dissidents are foreign spies, the other is a member of the international jewish conspiracy, a tool of international capitalism, the fifth column etc. For example, long after it was clear that the attack on Hitler in 1939 was the work of a single German individual (Georg Elser) the nazis maintained that the British secret service was to blame. The other attack by von Stauffenberg in 1944 was framed as the work of aristocratic officers who were alienated from the German people. This division between internal and external is consciously cultivated because it confirms the image of the people as a unified whole. If real foreign spies or class enemies can’t be found then they are created. and duly suppressed. Hence everyone can become the enemy, even the most loyal followers.

The fixed will of the people is subsequently represented by the party and the state. The party doesn’t represent a majority, but the people. Hence, other parties have no reason to exist. All people and the whole of the people are represented by a single party. And since this party perfectly represents a perfectly clear and unified popular will, it can infiltrate all parts of society: school, church, labor union, factory, the press, the judiciary, the arts and all other social organizations cease to be independent. The party is everywhere and submits every organization to its will. It believes it can do so because its will is the will of the people. And the party uses the means of the state to be everywhere: the secret service, the department of communications, the police… As a result, the state is also everywhere. Totalitarian government simultaneously bans people to the private sphere – all free and deviant public actions and expressions are forbidden – and destroys the private sphere, to the point that people can’t even trust their friends and family. All private actions are potentially public. Wiretapping, surveillance, public confessions… Even the most private things of all, your own thoughts, are attacked by way of propaganda and indoctrination. Totalitarianism strives for total control of private and public life. All spontaneous and independent individual or social projects are doomed unless they are completely trivial. They can only survive when they are part of the common project, because they make sense only when they are part. When they are not, they are potentially in opposition to the common project.

But we should understand that the identification of the party with the state is only temporary. The state in fact is bound to disappear. That becomes clear when we consider the imperialism that is typical of totalitarianism (to a lesser degree in the case of China). By definition, the projects of totalitarian governments – racial supremacy or a classless society – go beyond the borders of a state. Aryans aren’t only meant to rule within the borders of Germany. They deserve global supremacy in part because they are the best race and in part because the Jews are a worldwide threat. And the classless society can’t exist when it is surrounded by a capitalist world; the proletariat in other countries also deserves to rule.

Totalitarianism is a form of rule that goes beyond the state. A particular state is just a convenient tool for a certain stage in the popular project. The people as well is a concept that goes beyond the group of citizens of a given state. There are also Aryans and workers in other states. In non-totalitarian dictatorships, political rule is essentially tied to the state. A normal dictator may attack other countries, but will do so while enhancing his state or expanding his country. His rule will never go beyond the rule of a state, suitably redefined if necessary. If necessary he’ll redraw the boundaries of the state, but he will never go beyond the state as such. Totalitarian rule, on the other hand, is ultimately larger than the state. It’s the rule of a race or a class, on a potentially global level.

As the people and the state are subject to the rule of the party, so the party is subject to the rule of one individual. The leader makes sure that the party remains unified, because a divided party can’t claim to represent a unified people. So there’s a series of identifications going on: the people is identified with a class or a race; this unified people is then identified with the party that represents it; the party in turn identifies itself with the state because it (temporarily) needs the tools of the state to realize its project (class rule or race rule); the state then takes over society and identifies with it; and ultimately a single leader takes over everything in order to guarantee unity.

The people are like a collective individual, a body with a head controlling all its coordinated movements. State terror and genocide can then be seen as the body removing sickness and parasites. The other is often explicitly identified as parasitical or infectious. Violence and oppression are medicines used to safeguard the integrity of the body of the people and their purpose. The Great Purge wasn’t called a purge by accident. The Jews weren’t depicted as pestilent rats for no reason.

The image of the body also means prophylaxis: why wait with punishment until the crime is committed? We know that certain persons are enemies of the people. Crime in the sense of opposition to the project of the people is a fatality for them, sooner or later. There may be good Jews, but we can’t take the risk that they marry an Aryan and defile the race. And some capitalists may be less harmful than others, but why wait until their presence undermines collectivization or until they betray the country and invite an invasion?

Totalitarian government isn’t like a normal lawless and arbitrary dictatorship. Of course, the laws under totalitarian government are regularly broken or changed to serve certain goals. But there are deeper laws that the totalitarian government has to protect, namely the laws of nature (in the case of Nazism, and more specifically the laws of natural selection) and the laws of history (in the case of communism, more specifically the laws that say that economic and industrial development will necessarily destroy capitalism and inaugurate communist production). Those “deeper” laws aren’t human laws; they are historical laws that drive mankind towards the realization of the project that animates totalitarianism. Totalitarian government serves to facilitate and fasten the operation of those deeper laws. Jews are exterminated because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of Aryans. Capitalists, bourgeois, kulaks etc. are exterminated (or reeducated in order to become communists) because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of the proletariat (the proletariat is doomed to rule given the evolution of capitalism, but its rule can be hastened).

There is no “regis voluntas suprema lex” as in previous forms of despotism. The legal lawlessness covers a deeper lawfulness. Legal laws have to be adapted to best serve the deeper laws. If terror and violence are required for the realization and hastening of the evolution postulated by the deeper laws, then the legal laws will mandate and require terror and violence. Terror and violence don’t only serve to intimidate, destroy opposition, isolate people from one another and coerce compliance. They serve the project of the people.

I think all this justifies grouping Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China under a separate form of government. That doesn’t mean that everything about those regimes was new and typical only of totalitarian government. Obviously, genocides, terror, show trials etc. have occurred before and since. Those are not inventions of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. There are historical parallels, just as there are parallels between contemporary art and ancient art, but still we prefer to distinguish these two forms of art. We have to look beyond the phenomenology of despotic regimes throughout history, and identify the particular logic of different forms of despotism.

What is Poverty? (4): Does the Concept of Poverty Collapse Under the Weight of Historical Comparisons?

Many of the people who are considered poor in developed countries have a higher living standard than the average middle class citizens of some centuries ago. If we bracket the minority of the extremely poor in developed countries (the homeless for example), poverty today seems to be a relatively comfortable position to be in, once you see it in a historical perspective.

The same is true for people in poor countries. In 1820, average income per person was low everywhere in the world: about $500 in China and South Asia, and about $1000-$1500 in Europe (1993 US$ PPP). In developing countries today the range is between $1000 and $3100 (the world average is about $6000, the US has more than $40,000). So, the poor of today are equally well off or even better off than the average world citizen 200 years ago. 75% of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day in 1820. Today, almost no one does in the West. In China it’s less then 20%, in South Asia 40%, in Africa half. Globally, it’s less than a quarter. Historically, almost everyone was poor; today it’s a minority.

So it seems almost futile to talk about poverty today. What is defined as poverty now was the normal way of life not so long ago. However, if that’s the way you want to go, the concept of poverty evaporates. You’ll always find someone who’s worse off. You just need to go sufficiently far back in time (or move in space) to find people who are more deprived and who make the current poor (or the local poor) seem relatively well off. The baseline is then the caveman and everyone else isn’t really “poor”.

Hence, if you want to keep talking about poverty, you can’t engage in historical comparisons. Does that mean that poverty can only be measured against the current average standard of living? That poverty is a percentage of current median income? In that case, there will always be poverty and the fight against it is a Sisyphean task. I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of the concept of relative poverty – that you should compare people’s living standards to society’s average standard (where poverty becomes basically income inequality) – and the historical rather than spatial version of relative poverty reinforces my doubts. However, I know that people commonly see poverty as a relative thing and that they may feel deprived because they compare themselves to their living compatriots and not only because they are below a certain absolute level of income, consumption or capabilities. Conversely, the middle classes of some centuries ago, even if they had the same standard of living as some of today’s poor, felt good about themselves because they looked at the poor of their time and felt that they had done comparatively well.

Still, relative poverty is not the only solution to the problem of historical comparisons. Poverty can be measured relative to average historical or current standards of living, but can also be measured by comparing consumption, income or capabilities to a commonly accepted absolute minimum level (for example a minimum amount of calorie intake).

In the latter case, it’s not important how rich the rich really are, or what the median income is, or how poor the poor were centuries ago. It’s important to know what are people’s basic needs, how much they cost, and how many people currently can’t buy the stuff to fulfill their basic needs. Of course, these basic needs can’t always be determined scientifically (as in the case of calorie intake) and some level of arbitrariness is unavoidable. A lot depends on the capabilities we believe are necessary in order to have a minimally decent life, and that’s controversial.

I also understand that social norms evolve and that basic needs can change over time. Several centuries ago a microwave and a cellphone were obviously not a basic need; now you will be considered poor if you lack these tools. In a pre-modern agrarian society, you would have been considered poor only when you were on the brink of starvation. You didn’t need technological tools, child care, education etc. in order to have a minimally decent life, because no one had those things and your functioning in the economy didn’t require them. Today, if you don’t have them, you’ll feel excluded, less than normal, weird, “trash” and in certain cases you’ll end up deeper in poverty because you’ll have a hard time finding a job if you don’t have a car, a cell phone or child care.

Also, why shouldn’t we become more ambitious over time? Should we be content if we’re able to avoid only the worst kind of deprivation? Or should we try to continually improve many different capabilities? The latter is I think a sign of civilization and progress. That doesn’t mean we should scatter our attention and forget to focus on the worst deprivation. It only means we shouldn’t stop after we’ve dealt with the worst. And we haven’t dealt with the worst simply because the percentages of those worst off have been coming down (see the numbers cited above). Indeed, a smaller share of the world’s population suffers from low income than some time ago. But because of population growth – which is a good thing resulting from higher life expectancy rates – the total number of people with low income is now higher. And total numbers also count, just as much as percentages. As Thomas Pogge has argued, the Holocaust wouldn’t be any less horrible if it turned out that the number of people killed was a smaller percentage of the world’s population than initially thought.

The Ethics of Human Rights (55): The Widening Circle of Equality

Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:

  • During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, with the formation of the nation state in Europe and the development of the virtue of patriotism, citizens of those new states – and their copies elsewhere in the world – stopped acting as if members of neighboring tribes were somehow subhuman. Human equality, equal concern and equal rights were extended from the tribe to the nation.
  • After the end of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual acceptance of religious liberty, adherents of other religions were no longer viewed as sinners who had to be destroyed, but rather as equal citizens enjoying the same rights.
  • From the middle of the 19th century (with the abolition of slavery) to the middle of the 20th (with the Civil Rights movement), non-whites gradually won equal rights.
  • During roughly the same period, workers and the workers’ movement convinced the other social classes that someone who has to sell his or her labor power for a living isn’t destined to an animal-like life in filth and misery.
  • From the beginning of the 20th century (with the suffragette movement) until the end of that century, women gradually won their equal place in many areas of society: politics, the labor market, etc. This movement, like all the previous ones, isn’t complete, but at least nowadays it’s rare to encounter the view that women are lesser men and should be relegated to the home.
  • The Holocaust, ironically, resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the emancipation of Jews.
  • The end of colonialism in the mid-20th century was the culmination of a long process during which westerners convinced themselves that the people they had colonized were not animals or subhumans but rather human beings like themselves.
  • The latest step forward in the history of human equality can be witnessed in our own time: gays and lesbians are now in the process of achieving what other outgroups have achieved before them.

So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.

There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:

  • Our current treatment of criminals may come to be seen as unacceptable. There’s already a strong movement for the abolition of capital punishment, but I’m convinced that our whole system of criminal punishment is without justification. And I’m not just talking about overcrowding, prison rape, excessively long sentences etc. Read more here.
  • Migrants as well may become more accepted, to the point that an open borders policy will be generalized. Currently, we still condemn people to misery for no other reason than the fact that they are born in the wrong place, like older generations condemned people to slavery for no other reason than their skin color. The causes of this exclusion are an insufficient awareness of the benefits of immigration and lingering prejudices against outgroups.
  • And, finally, the inclusionary movement may one day lead to better treatment of animals: our current system of industrial meat production will then be considered barbaric.

Do I forget something?

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (29): Human Rights as Expressions of Human Duties in Early Protestant Thinking

Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However,  it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.

Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.

How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.

Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).

I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?

All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism – as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.

More on the justifications of human rights here, here and here.

Gender Discrimination (25): The Plough as a Cause of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:

  • in political representation or participation
  • in income or labor market participation
  • in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
  • in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
  • in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.

Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.

When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:

Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …

[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)

And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women.

The Causes of Poverty (42): Slavery

At least in Africa, part of the explanation of poverty is the enduring effect of slavery:

Slavery, according to historical accounts, played an important role in Africa’s underdevelopment. It fostered ethnic fractionalisation and undermined effective states. The largest numbers of slaves were taken from areas that were the most underdeveloped politically at the end of the 19th century and are the most ethnically fragmented today. Recent research suggests that without the slave trades, 72% of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today. … The countries from which the most slaves were taken (taking into account differences in country size) are today the poorest in Africa. …

An alternative explanation for the relationship is that the parts of Africa from which the largest number of slaves were taken were initially the most underdeveloped. Today, because these characteristics persist, these parts of Africa continue to be underdeveloped and poor. My research examines this alternative hypothesis by testing whether it was in fact the initially least developed parts of Africa that engaged most heavily in the slave trades. I find that the data and the historical evidence suggest that, if anything, it was the parts of Africa that were initially the most developed, not least developed, that supplied the largest number of slaves. (source)

It’s not difficult to imagine how large scale “extraction” of able bodied young people can harm an economy, even centuries after the event. The huge importance of the effect of slavery (“if the slave trades had not occurred, then … 99% of the income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world would not exist”) should lay to rest frivolous speculation about cultural or racial causes of Africa’s predicament.

More posts in this series are here. I mentioned another enduring effects of slavery here.

Measuring Human Rights (17): Human Rights and Progress

We’re all aware of the horrors of recent history. The 20th century doesn’t get a good press. And yet, most of us still think that humanity is, on average, much better off today  than it was some centuries or millennia ago. The holocaust, Rwanda, Hiroshima, AIDS, terrorism etc. don’t seem to have discouraged the idea of human progress in popular imagination. Those have been disasters of biblical proportions, and yet they are seen as temporary lapses, regrettable but exceptional incidents that did not jeopardize the overall positive evolution of mankind. Some go even further and call these events instances of “progressive violence”: disasters so awful that they bring about progress. Hitler was necessary in order to finally make Germany democratic. The Holocaust was necessary to give the Jews their homeland and the world the Universal Declaration. Evil has to become so extreme that it finally convinces humanity that evil should be abolished.

While that is obviously ludicrous, it’s true that there has been progress:

  • we did practically abolish slavery
  • torture seems to be much less common and much more widely condemned, despite the recent uptick
  • poverty is on the retreat
  • equality has come within reach for non-whites, women and minorities of different kinds
  • there’s a real reduction in violence over the centuries
  • war is much less common and much less bloody
  • more and more countries are democracies and freedom is much more widespread
  • there’s more free speech because censorship is much more difficult now thanks to the internet
  • health and labor conditions have improved for large segments of humanity, resulting in booming life expectancy
  • etc.

So, for a number of human rights, things seem to be progressing quite a lot. Of course, there are some areas of regress: the war on terror, gendercide, islamism etc. Still, those things don’t seem to be weighty enough to discourage the idea of progress, which is still quite popular. On the other hand, some human rights violations were caused by elements of human progress. The Holocaust, for example, would have been unimaginable outside of our modern industrial society. Hiroshima and Mutually Assured Destruction are other examples. Both nazism and communism are “progressive” philosophies in the sense that they believe that they are working for a better society.

Whatever the philosophical merits of the general idea of progress, progress in the field of respect for human rights boils down to a problem of measurement. How doe we measure the level of respect for the whole of the set of human rights? It’s difficult enough to measure respect for the present time, let alone for previous periods in human history for which data are incomplete or even totally absent. Hence, general talk about progress in the field of human rights is probably impossible. More specific measurements of parts of the system of human rights are more likely to succeed, but only for relatively recent time frames.

What Are Human Rights? (25): Some Common Human Rights Misconceptions

Here’s a short and unfortunately incomplete list of common misconceptions about human rights. I distinguish between theoretical misconceptions (mistakes about what human rights are or what they mean) and factual or historical misconceptions. The former are obviously the most harmful, and I’ll start with those.

Some theoretical misconceptions about human rights

  • It’s often claimed that there are “three generations of rights“: traditional liberty rights, social-economic rights, and cultural rights. Each new generation has “followed” the other. That’s clearly wrong. So-called “poverty rights” are as old as freedom rights. For example, among the rights listed in the revolutionary Constitution of 1791 in France, was this:

    A general establishment for public relief shall be created and organized to raise foundlings, relieve the infirm poor, and furnish work for the able-bodied poor who have been unable to procure it for themselves. (source)

    This misconception is often used to discredit the more “recent” rights as being new inventions or “fads” that inflate away the meaning of the word “rights”. This misconception is typical of some American audiences.

  • Equally common is the claim that human rights are anti-democratic. Indeed, human rights, as they are translated in the constitutions of most modern democracies, are specifically – but not exclusively – aimed at the protection of the interests of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. However, that doesn’t make them anti-democratic. Democracy needs human rights, and is much more than simple majority rule.
  • Thirdly, the notion that there are negative and positive rights, that only the former are “real” rights and that the latter are too costly on society and require limitations on the freedom of citizens, is also wrong. All types of rights require both forbearance and active protection, and all rights are costly. Depending on the circumstances, what are often called negative rights may be more costly than positive rights.
  • And, finally, there’s this notion that some human rights are basic rights. If you claim that some human rights are more basic, more important and more urgent than other rights, then you can’t possibly take account of the interdependence of all human rights. If a so-called basic human right is dependent on another, non-basic right – and that’s easy to show – then it’s no longer a basic right.

Some factual misconceptions about human rights

And here are also some factual or historical misconceptions about human rights. These are of lesser importance, but fun to mention:

  • There is no evidence that the torture device known as “iron maiden” was ever used for torture. It’s often depicted in stories about medieval torture, but it looks like it was pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums. (source)
  • A “fatwa” is a non-binding legal opinion issued by an Islamic scholar under Islamic law, not an official death sentence. The popular misconception probably stems from the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 regarding the author Salman Rushdie, who he stated deserved a death sentence for blasphemy. (source)
  • The word “jihad” does not necessarily mean “holy war”. Literally, the word in Arabic means “struggle”. While there is such a thing as “jihad bil saif”, or “jihad by the sword“, many modern Islamic scholars usually say that it implies an effort or struggle of a spiritual kind. (source)
  • Voltaire never uttered the phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The line comes from The Friends of Voltaire (1907) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It resembles the actual line “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too” from Voltaire’s Essay on Tolerance. (source)
  • Likewise, Niccolò Machiavelli didn’t write “The ends justify the means.” A more literal translation is “One must consider the final result”, a disappointingly sensible statement. (source)
  • And Stalin probably never said that “the death of one man is a tragedy, and the death of millions is a statistic”. (source)
  • Female genital mutilation is not required by Islam. And neither is the veil (the Quran merely requires “modest dress“).
  • China does not dismiss international human rights or the universality of human rights. It has ratified many of the major human rights treaties, although of course it violates human rights in practice, as most if not all other countries.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (22): Utopia

Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch

You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a way to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.

And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.

Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.

If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.

Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.

The Ethics of Human Rights (41): Human Rights of Past Generations?

In a previous post I discussed the claim that future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive. I argued that they probably have. The “sister-claim” is, of course, whether the same is true for past generations. Obviously past generations had human rights, just like you and me and everyone who comes after us. The question however is whether current generations can violate the rights of past generations.

For starters, it’s obvious that past and future generations should be viewed differently. Future generations can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations). Past generations, on the contrary, can’t be harmed by current actions, since they are dead (assuming, theologically, that deceased people are gone; if you believe that your ancestors are in heaven watching you, your actions may still harm them in some sense, although I doubt they need human rights in heaven).

If past generations can’t be harmed by current actions because they are dead, then current generations shouldn’t and even can’t adapt their actions so as to respect the rights of past generations. However, perhaps we should carve out an exception here. Maybe there are cases in which we can convincingly speak about harm done to people in the past.

Take the following example. It’s reasonable to assume that past generations – like all generations – valued the future and posthumous state of their society or the world. For example, if freedom was important to them when they were alive, they may have felt distressed about the possible prospect of a posthumous totalitarian world government. They may have been distressed because they valued freedom and/or because they were concerned about the fate of their descendants. The harm to one’s descendants is typically viewed as something of concern to oneself. We all care about the fate of our children’s children’s children, even if we may never see them. So, past generations can be harmed by current (or future) generations if the latter are seen as a threat by the former.

However, I object to calling this harm a rights violation. The harm we’re discussing here may be immoral and even unjust, but the infliction of distress still isn’t a human rights violation. The actual totalitarian government and the harm it does – as opposed to the threat – are imposed on living generations, not past generations. So unless someone comes up with a better example, I guess it’s indeed useless to speak about present generations violating the rights of past generations.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (14): Assassination

If we agree that democracy is something important, then we need to know why, how and when countries turn to or away from democracy. So, here’s another installment in our ongoing series:

Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history. (source, source)

I guess no need to say that this isn’t a sufficient condition for a democratic transition. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (39): The Effect of Time on Human Rights Violations

What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?

  1. Perhaps there’s no effect: a crime remains a crime, and a rights violation remains a rights violation, even if all the victims have died long ago and their descendants don’t continue to suffer from the fact that their ancestors were wronged.
  2. Perhaps the passage of time erodes the severity of rights violations.
  3. Or perhaps the passage of time makes rights violations worse.

I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.

Time has no effect

We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).

An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.

The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.

So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.

Time erodes the rights violation

Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.

Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.

Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.

Time makes things worse

An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.

The Ethics of Human Rights (35): The Global Origins and Foundations of Human Rights

As Jacques Maritain put it when discussing the work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

the nations should and could reach practical agreement on basic principles of human rights without achieving a consensus on their foundations. (source)

In other words, different countries and cultures in the world can – and could in 1948 – agree on the list of human rights as long as nobody asks them why, because they all will have different reasons. Even if we take the charitable view and assume that no one accepts the UDHR and human rights in general for opportunistic reasons (because it reduces international pressure and confers legitimacy for example), we still have to say which substantial reasons different nations, cultures or religions tend to use in order to justify the importance and acceptance of human rights. These reason will emanate from their own culture, religious texts, traditions and history.

To some extent, different cultures can and do find their own foundations of human rights. In this sense, human rights aren’t simply western rights which are imposed on or adopted by the rest of the world. Of course, some of these foundations will be universal because some values are universal in the sense that they belong to all cultures in the world. Homicide, for example, is universally considered to be immoral. In other cases, however, different cultures will find different reasons to justify human rights. For example, the right to free speech in the West will be viewed as justified by the necessity of counterbalancing government power, whereas in other cultures it may be viewed as something to promote prosperity or religious tolerance.

There’s a nice German term for this: human rights are said to be Begründungsoffen, their justification or foundation is open in the sense that they can be justified by different religious, cultural or intellectual traditions. That’s a big advantage. One can legitimately object to making universal claims grounded on such particularized foundations as Christianity, dignity, likeness of God etc. Muslims probably won’t accept human rights if they can only be justified by the teachings of Jesus. They can be justified in this way, and that’s a powerful justification for Christians, but they can also be justified in other ways. There isn’t one ultimate justification for human rights. All different justifications have a particular plausibility for a certain group of human beings, whether this group is a culture, a nation or a religion.

These different cultural paths to human rights, based on different cultural and historical resources, should, however, not discourage dialogue. If you’re convinced that different cultures can find their own way to human rights, you may conclude that intercultural dialogue isn’t necessary. It is necessary, because it’s utopian to believe that each culture will find its way to an identical set of human rights or an identical understanding of human rights. The moralities of all or most cultures or groups will condemn homicide, torture and slavery, but will perhaps provide different exceptions. And other values, such as free speech or freedom of religion may not find an equally strong justification in all cultures. It’s unlikely that the entire set of human rights as present in the Universal Declaration will find a strong and broad justification in all cultures. There’s still a lot of disagreement between cultures on the foundation, importance and extent of things such as discrimination, religious freedom etc.

That is why human rights treaties and declarations don’t just codify a universal moral consensus but also try to steer different moralities into a certain common direction. They want to change norms rather than just describe them. In other words, they formulate a justified morality rather than an existing morality. They want to create a consensus, not describe one. Creating a consensus is impossible if all cultures limit themselves to independently and solipsistically justifying human rights using only their own resources. Intercultural dialogue is necessary, and this dialogue will not just be the exchange of descriptions of different moralities but will try to go beyond existing moralities and formulate a consensus that is wider that the sum of existing norms. It will contain a set of norms that are based not solely on existing moralities but also on justified reasons. Not just on the sum of different moral codes but on the agreements of people discussing about good reasons for human rights, reasons that go beyond “my God/prophet/history/tradition says …”. This dialogue will result in a wider global agreement on the importance of human rights, an agreement that can ultimately result in greater respect for human rights.

For the benefit of those who don’t even believe in the first step – finding the sources of human rights in different cultures – here’s a sample of those sources:

  • Christianity, and more generally the Abrahamic religions – so that includes Judaism and Islam – postulate the equality before God. All human beings are equal creatures of God, and created in the image of God. That notion bestows a sacredness to life that is not a function of national origin, status or affiliation. This is also apparent in the Judaic maxim that he who destroys one person has dealt a blow at the entire universe and he who saves one person has sustained the whole world.
  • Protestantism has developed the freedom of conscience, the right and responsibility of every man to worship as his conscience dictates, to make his own judgments, uninhibited by a religious hierarchy.
  • The Indian emperor Ashoka (third century BC) is famous for the Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as on boulders and cave walls found throughout India. These are social and moral precepts in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity, fairness in the exercise of justice, caution and tolerance in the application of sentences, and kindness to prisoners. His was the first welfare state, providing free education and hospitals.
  • Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in sixteenth century India, was famous for his religious tolerance.
  • The Qur’an claims that there can be no compulsion in religion. Islam also knows the principle of equality and generosity: “Not one of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (An-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith). Caliph Omar, in the 7th century: “Only decide on the basis of proof, be kind to the weak so that they can express themselves freely and without fear, deal on an equal footing with litigants by trying to reconcile them”.
  • Mencius, arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, has said: “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence”.
  • Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, has said: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
  • In the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit and Hindu epics, it says: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”.
  • Siddhartha (the birth name of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha) has said: “What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to others too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?” In Buddhism, the human perfection that is sometimes called “enlightenment” consists, in part, in discerning the transcendent truth that the Other is infinitely precious and in acting toward the Other in accord with that discernment, namely, with compassion (in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh).
  • Baha’i, a monotheistic religion founded in nineteenth-century Persia, claims: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for any one the things ye would not desire for yourselves. This is My best counsel unto you, did ye but observe it”.
  • Jainism is an ancient religion of India that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated”.

Granted, not all of these moral precepts can be immediately translated into recognizable human rights, and many precepts underlying human rights are difficult to find here. Yet, we can claim that all these cultural sources can be used, to some extent, to justify human rights.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (17): Freedom From Nature

From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.

Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.

The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated many harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.

Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.

This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.

However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.

The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.

So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.

One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.

That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).

Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.

What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.

Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.

This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.

The Ethics of Human Rights (31): Reparations for Violations of the Human Rights of Past Generations

How should we deal with the violations of the human rights of past generations? This question is similar to one I already discussed here, namely the rights of future generations. The difference, however, is that our current actions can influence the well-being of future generations, but cannot mean anything for past generations since the people in questions are already dead. However, many people favor reparations for past rights violations that benefit the descendants of the deceased victims of those rights violations. It can be argued that these descendants still suffer the consequences of the violations inflicted on their deceased relatives.

Such reparations – also called restitutions – can take different forms:

  • restoration of lands owned by previous generations but expropriated
  • financial compensation for goods that cannot be restored (such as desecrated burial grounds)
  • financial compensation for financial loss (theft)
  • merely symbolic restoration (public apologies or amendments to textbooks etc.)
  • etc.

This kind of intergenerational justice is – just like but even more so than the forward looking kind – fraught with difficulties. I’ll describe some of those problems below, but if you want a more systematic treatment there are two good papers by Tyler Cowen here and here.

Since we have to deal, necessarily, with the descendants of the victims rather than the victims themselves, we have to take into account the time element. The claim that the descendants should be compensated somehow, at least in the case of gross violations with lasting effects such as slavery, quickly faces the difficult question of “how much?”. How much did the descendants exactly lose as a result of the ancient theft, and how much should be given back? That’s extremely difficult to determine. First you have to calculate the initial loss for the original victims. In the case of slavery for example, how much did slavery represent in financial terms: how much value did slaves produce for instance. That’s already very difficult.

But then you have to calculate the loss over generations: imagine the counterfactual that slaves could have kept the proceeds of their work, weren’t deprived of education opportunities etc., then how much would their capital have grown over time, given investments, savings etc., and how much would they have profited from their education had they received it? It’s clear that the descendants of the original victims have lost more than the initial sum of the theft that was caused by slavery. They have forgone investment opportunities, educational opportunities that can also be translated in loss of income, etc. But how much? If you take all the lost opportunities – investments, education and many others – into account, and if you deal with an original crime that is relatively far in the past, you can arrive at huge sums, perhaps even sums that are larger than the current wealth of a society.

Likewise, the descendants of the thieves – the slave owners in this case – have gained more than the amount of the initial theft, since this theft has allowed them to invest, and their better education has allowed them to compete inequitably with the descendants of the slaves. And so on. But how can you possible calculate all this? Also, how can you ever know what the descendants of the slaves would have done with the capital – financial and human – if it hadn’t been stolen from their forefathers? Can you just assume that they would have done the same thing as anyone else and use market interest rates? No, I don’t think you can. There is an infinite number of possible counterfactuals.

And that’s just one problem. You also have to make some dubious assumptions. First, you have to assume that you can unequivocally identify the original victims and their descendants, and the original perpetrators and their descendants. How else can you redistribute? If you just assume that all whites in the U.S. are to blame for slavery and all blacks are to benefit from reparations for slavery, you’ll be punishing and rewarding people who don’t deserve it. Some whites fought against slavery and some blacks collaborated. The descendants of those whites don’t deserve to pay restitutions. Also, you have to assume that there hasn’t been any genetic exchange between the victims and the thieves, and that’s demonstrably wrong. How will you treat the descendants of a child born from a slave and her owner? As a victim or a perpetrator, or both? That doesn’t make any sense.

There’s also the point, made by Derek Parfit, that the exact individuals who comprise the descendant generations would not have been born had the initial violation not occurred. A state of slavery for instance has enormous consequences for marriage, intercourse etc. In other words, since the descendants would not have been born without the initial violation, in a sense they can be said to have benefited from the violation. They now exist, where otherwise they wouldn’t have existed. To exist is obviously better than not to exist (at least in most cases, or I’m completely wrong about humanity). In another counterfactual you can claim that the descendants of slaves for instance don’t actually benefit from slavery, but that the negative consequences they suffer from the slavery of their forefathers don’t grow worse over time (see above) but tend to fade away. Their current predicament is caused by more recent events rather than old history.

And there are numerous other problems (for example, if you go back sufficiently far in time, all of us have ancestors who were oppressed; should we all receive restitutions?). So, given all this, does justice require some form of reparation for the most serious and widespread human rights violations of the past? We may not know exactly how much we have to pay or what exactly we should do to right the wrong. We also don’t know exactly who should benefit or pay. And maybe there are conflicting movements: for some reasons, the injury grows over time, but perhaps for other reasons it diminishes (genetic exchange, diminishing rates of return on capital etc.). Nevertheless, it may be good public policy to admit the mistakes of the past and also to put your money where your mouth is, especially when it’s obvious that current generations continue to suffer to some extent (as is the case for African-Americans for instance).

However, personally I feel that the focus should be, not on restitutions for violations of the past but on protection for violations of the present. If African-Americans in the U.S. are currently in a disadvantaged position (which is often the case), then their current rights are violated and we should do something about that, whatever the causes of those violations. These causes are in part the violations of the rights of their ancestors, which still have an effect today and produce violations of the rights of descendants. If these descendants suffer from poverty and poor education, it can be helpful to know the causes, even if some of these are far back in time, but ultimately these causes don’t change the nature of the current violations, or the nature of current obligations. These people have a right to assistance and education, just as much, not more or less, as other people who suffer the same violations but who are not descendants of people who suffered centuries ago. So in a sense we don’t need restitutions to do something. Current rights violations are sufficient reasons to act.

Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fueled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)

The Recession, the Economics Profession, and the Prediction of the Future

The current economic recession has cast a shadow on the economics profession. Economists are blamed for not having foreseen the recession. There’s for example this famous article by Paul Krugman.

Whereas many economists undoubtedly have encouraged wrong policies and harmful trade practices, I think it’s unfair to criticize them for failing to predict the future. Contrary to the natural sciences, human sciences (or social sciences) such as economics are constitutionally unable to predict the future. The reason is their subject matter: human beings. Contrary to celestial bodies, atoms or DNA, human beings have free will, which means that we can decide to change our goals and plans. And this kind of decision cannot be foreseen because the decision is our own free choice, a choice therefore that isn’t determined by other factors. Moreover, because we live in society with others, there’s necessarily interaction between people’s goals. Other people have different goals which interfere with our own goals. And because of their own goals, they often do not wish to cooperate with us or even actively oppose us.

There is therefore an uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in our goals. This seems to be an unavoidable fact of social life. An action causes reactions, and that is why the consequences of the action are often different from the ones we intend, expect, predict or desire. Consequences are often unknown beforehand, or at least uncertain. You never know if the result of your action matches your intentions, if you will reach your goal and if things turn out as planned, as foreseen, as initially desired.

That is also why you cannot and should not be held legally or criminally responsible for all the possible consequences or results of your actions. Only for those consequence which could reasonably have been foreseen. Part of the legal definition of a mentally ill person and one of the reasons why such a person’s criminal actions should be punished in a different way (if at all) is this person’s inability to judge the consequences of his or her actions.

Reality often does not live up to expectations. Events are not always anticipated events. Many events escape the power of those who have initiated them or wish to guide them.

“Siramnes the Persian replied to those who were amazed that his enterprises turned out so badly, seeing that his projects were so wise, by saying that he alone was master of his projects while Fortune was mistress of the outcome of his enterprises . . . What he undertakes is vain if a man should presume to embrace both causes and consequences and to lead the progress of his action by the hand”. Michel de Montaigne

We all have the experience that the future is not completely determined by the will of an individual or a group. The unexpected and unwanted is part of social history because history, and even many different parts of history – many “stories” – are the result of both action and reaction, of a game of action and reaction over which no one has complete control. This is the inevitable result of the plurality of social life. Demanding prediction and predictability – as is now done of economists – means neglecting plurality. Only in the absence of plurality can predictability be conceived, because only when there is one goal will there be no action and reaction.

Hannah Arendt has lambasted the equation between history and production. History is not made by man in the sense that an artifact, a cultural object or a technological application of scientific knowledge is made by man. It is not written beforehand like a blueprint or a production procedure. History, and every social story involving different actors, is written afterwards, in retrospection, and often not even by those who act in it but by an outsider. Everybody is the author of his own actions or reactions, but not of the complete story. The complete story – all interconnecting actions, reactions and consequences – becomes clear only when it is more or less finished, afterwards, when we can know how it was and what the reactions and consequences have been.

In the words of Hegel: the owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, only flies out at dusk. The actor, contrary to the author, looks forward or better tries to look forward, and by definition knows less than the author of history. It was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards.

Of course, history is not entirely unpredictable. We can guess. We can try, on the basis of the past, to identify some trends, patterns, regularities etc., and hope that they will hold for the future. Some guesses are better than others. Also, contrary to the criticism of Arendt, there is sometimes creation or “production” in history. Some actions do not encounter reaction and unfold as planned beforehand. These stories do not result from the game of action and reaction or from a plurality of separate and contradictory desires. They result from one desire and one goal. In some instances, people have a goal, a desire, and can realize it in a predictable and controlled manner, without or notwithstanding reactions. Life would not be worth living without such stories. Sometimes, people have a grip on the future. Politics is also impossible without a consensus on a purpose.

Suppose we think of ruling as being an exercise of power. For someone to exercise power is for their wishes to be effective. So someone is a ruler if it is the case that what happens happens because it is in accordance with their wishes. If, then, the people rule, this means that the people’s wishes are effective. (source

Somebody who is in power has a desire and realizes this desire. Otherwise it cannot be said that this person has power.

However, such kind predictability is probably the exception. History in its entirety and many parts of it can never be a creation, a simple purpose or the realization of a plan, a process or an evolution. History and most of its parts are the result of different and contradictory actions, reactions, desires and goals interfering with each other. Therefore, the idea of progress has to be limited. There may be fields of progress, but these evolutions are counteracted by reactions and other evolutions. Progress is never global or certain or predictable.

Not even one’s personal history is written or produced entirely by the person in question. And since our identity is perhaps the same thing as our personal history, our identity is not entirely the product of our own actions and decisions either. It is also the product of the things that happened to us and of the actions and reactions of others. We act, we strive to achieve goals, but there is a plurality of goals. The single, uniform goal, either in overall history (e.g. the overall goal of progress, communism or democracy dragging people along) or in many small or personal histories, is a pipe dream. Plurality results in things happening to us, things that we cannot control or foresee but which shape our lives, histories and personalities irrespective of our will.

History and most of its parts are not made by man, but they are not made by any other force either. I do not believe that God or Fate or the Economy or whatever makes history. History is to a large extent if not entirely the result of consciously chosen human actions and reactions. Consequently, people remain responsible for their actions, although not for all the consequences of their actions. They cannot claim that things happen because God or Nature (the genes for example) or Race or Culture (the unconscious national character) or Fate or whatever wants these things to happen or causes people to make them happen. People are relatively free. Most of their actions are not caused by some necessary force outside of them (or inside of them, for that matter, but beyond their power).

In order to remedy the defects of plurality – uncertainty, unpredictability and the powerlessness which this implies – one can try to eliminate plurality. Reactions and contradictions are excluded (and maybe “reactionaries” are persecuted) and all actions are focused on one and the same goal. Instead of the plurality of individual projects, we get a collective project. Individuality disappears.

“Le groupe en fusion” or “la volonté générale” implies that the individual individual is absorbed by the community. Everybody’s individual goals or desires must be harmonized with the collective one. Every action is forced into a coherent whole. The individual will is discredited. It is egoistic, focused on the short term, subjective, reactionary; it is useless and powerless because of the contradictions with other individual wills; or it is futile because contrary to the trend of History or the forces of Biology etc. If the individual is only a part of a whole, then he can be sacrificed for the whole. Individual rights become less important. At best, people are interchangeable, specimen instead of unique individuals; at worst, they are eliminated.

As many successful dictators have shown, eliminating reaction will indeed make it possible to control the future, to remain in control of an action, to enforce certain consequences, to realize goals, to make history like an artifact or to write history like a novel. It makes it possible to know the future, to know how things will turn out, to put a clear purpose in history, a plan which unfolds exactly as it was contemplated beforehand, a clean process rather than a volatile and uncertain multi-directional chaos. If there are no reactions and only one general will, then all actions go in the same direction and toward the same goal, and only nature or inactivity can thwart our plans (hence the dictatorial need for “mobilization”). We can with much greater certainty predict the future and the realization of our plans. The expected consequences are the actual consequences. We are masters of the consequences and we control the future.

This has always been the great selling point of authoritarian government. Compared to the chaos of democracy, the “strong man” can be very efficient. I’ve refuted this here. Democracy indeed doesn’t offer predictability, precisely because it guarantees plurality. The common will of a democratic majority can be undone by reactions of the minority, by the reactions of a future majority, or by some outside force. Predictability requires unanimity rather than majority, if possible global unanimity (dictatorships are therefore often imperialistic). Only a unanimous group can have power as it was described above: power means that wishes are effective, that things happen because they are in accordance with wishes. A majority can only have limited effectiveness, effectiveness limited by future majorities and by the reactions of minorities (in a democracy, minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). Of course, unanimity is often obtained by force: reactions are forcibly suppressed because unanimity of convictions and goals is a rare occurrence. Force then produces power, although Arendt, again, has something to say about the confusion between these two terms.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. On the contrary, it fosters them. But it does try to ritualize and soften them, take the violence out of them, because they can take a nasty turn. Democracy needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality etc. It is the game of action and reaction institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democracy embraces uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular and perhaps ineffective this may be.

However, democracy also needs some level of predictability. It wants to be certain of its own survival and that is why it accepts only opposition within the system. It tries to eliminate anti-democratic reaction and opposition and asks people to promise respect for democratic values. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom and free choice, which is not the case with certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime. This is the rationale behind the so-called “pledges of allegiance”. Promises are based on freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. Although a democracy wants to limit coercion as much as possible and tries to secure its future by way of promises, education, persuasion, judicial review etc., there has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of actions. Promises cannot be coerced. Coercion in this case is the use of force against anti-democratic reaction.

An anti-democratic reaction is a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Those who want to limit the game of action and reaction are necessarily anti-democratic. More freedom and more democracy means more reaction, more plurality, more kinds of actions which can interfere with each other, and therefore more unpredictability, less control over the future, and less certainty that goals will be achieved. Democracy does not only accept the game of action and reaction as an inevitable fact of social life. It also promotes this game, as long as it remains a game and does not become violent or a threat to democracy or to people’s rights and freedom.

Counter-intuitively, freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen. It’s when they want this certainty that they are tempted to destroy the freedom of society. When people want to be certain of their goals and want to be in control – when, in other words, they want to be free – they need to eliminate interference from other people and other goals. Other people with other goals become a nuisance, and their freedom has to be sacrificed. However, this may not result in control. It is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable.

The Ethics of Human Rights (12): How to Deal With the Horrors of the Past?

After a country has gone through democratic reforms, it often faces the difficulty of dealing with the horrors and injustices committed by the previous dictatorial regime. In many cases, a democratic transformation is possible only because of some kind of deal with the previous rulers. They agree to give up power and in exchange receive amnesty and immunity (take the case of Pinochet or of many of Franco’s assistants).

However, things may even be worse. In some cases, the horrors have been committed, not only by a handful of rulers, but by large numbers of citizens. The transformation to a stable democracy is then sealed by a so-called “Pact of Silence”, in which the victims and their families agree to burry the past in order to make it possible for the different parts of the new democratic state to live together.

Democratic progress and democratic stability may indeed require the tragic choice of impunity for the old rulers. But they also require national reconciliation when the past atrocities were the work not only of the rulers but also of numerous civilian henchmen. A society that is not at peace with itself doesn’t have a future, especially when it is a democracy. A democracy, much more than any other state, require the support of a large majority of the people. If a substantial number of people feel that the new democracy is the state of the “victors”, a state moreover which will do everything to get back at them, then we will witness strong social division and a lack of loyalty, both of which are very dangerous for young and not so young democracies. No democracy can afford dissatisfaction and disloyalty in large groups of civilians.

Does this reconciliation, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the new democratic state, require silence about the atrocities of the past? A “turning of the page”? I don’t thinks so, because this silence will not satisfy the victims and their families. And then they will not accept the new democracy. And neither will the international community. Silence and inaction undermine the legitimacy of the new state and sends a message to future criminals.

Punishment can indeed alienate a large portion of the population, and can be detrimental for a young democracy. But so can silence. A democracy is caught between doing too much and doing nothing. However, there’s a large distance between silence and punishment, a distance which can be filled with the writing of history, the telling of the truth (as in the South-African Truth Commission), and the dispensing of forgiveness. Victims and their families will never accept silence, certainly not in the long term. The telling of the truth is very important to them, more important probably than punishment. And in exchange they may be convinced to forgive, especially if the truth-tellers can also express regret, remorse and guilt. This forgiveness in turn sends a strong message to the perpetrators, a message of inclusion and love. And this is a strong basis for a new society. Forgiveness is the opposite of forgetting. Because of the extraordinary nature of the forgiveness for an act of horror, this act will be remembered forever. A “right to truth” can be based on the right to information as expressed in art. 19 of the Universal Declaration.

The remembrance of the past may require some kind of amnesty. One can convince people to tell the truth and to ask for forgiveness by promising some kind of leniency. To fight amnesia, amnesty may be necessary. Of course, this applies to the large number of ordinary citizens who were the executors of the crimes, not to the few leaders planning and ordering them. They have to be punished, and they can be because their support is not required for national reconciliation. Their support is not necessary for the maintenance of the new regime. How can people be expected to live their lives when the most despicable murderers continue to live among them, often in luxury and without remorse? And how can the normal criminal justice system be expected to function?

Punishment of large portions of a population, on the other hand, may satisfy some short term feelings of revenge, but does nothing to build a long term future for society. There may be judicial verdicts on their crimes, but the punishments for the crimes should be indefinitely postponed in exchange for the truth. This is not impunity. It’s the correct balance between the needs of the past and the needs of the future. Turning the page without closing the book, as someone has said.

Silence is never good. Telling the story can help to avoid the horror from repeating itself. However, telling the story isn’t a sufficient conditions. Education isn’t almighty. Present-day neo-Nazis for example know all too well what happened, and they consciously want to repeat it. But forgetting is a sufficient conditions for a repetition. Some people do learn from history. And telling the truth, making things clear will force people who want to repeat it to openly take the side of barbarity. They will have a lot more difficulties to promote their case and they will only attract barbarians.

Limiting Free Speech (2): Holocaust Denial

In the introductory post of this series, I summarized the dangers of limiting free speech while at the same time granting that such limits are necessary in some cases. One case is Holocaust denial, or Holocaust revisionism as it is referred to by its supporters.

What is Holocaust denial?

Holocaust deniers only rarely claim that the Holocaust didn’t take place or that no Jews were killed by the Nazis. Rather, they claim that either or all of these facts are lies:

  • The Nazi government of Germany had a policy of deliberately exterminating the Jews
  • Over five million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis
  • The extermination was carried out with tools such as gas chambers.

Instead of outright negation, there is trivialization. Moreover, Holocaust denial claims that the holocaust is a deliberate Jewish conspiracy created to advance the present-day interest of Jews and Israel.

Most historians and scholars reject Holocaust denial as a pseudo-science that fails to respect the rules of historical evidence and that is grounded in hatred rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Holocaust denial is characterized by the distortion or falsification of historical documents and the selective use of sources.

Holocaust deniers are mainly far-right, neo-nazi types and antisemites, but there are also far-left deniers, islamic deniers etc.

How can we justify the limits on free speech inherent in laws prohibiting Holocaust denial?

Nothing that went before is in itself sufficient to justify laws limiting the right to free speech of Holocaust deniers. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post in this series, one has to show that some rights are violated by Holocaust denial, and that this violation is worse than the violation of the rights of Holocaust deniers which would result from Holocaust denial laws.

There are a few possible kinds of justification:

1. Antisemitism

There is antisemitism inherent in Holocaust denial, although it is not necessarily obvious or immediately apparent. It is often implicit rather explicit antisemitism: the Holocaust is an invention of Jews, a tool to make them look like victims instead of criminals, and thereby gaining some sort of immunity for their vicious acts. Or a tool to make financial claims on Germany.

However, the mere antisemitism of Holocaust denial is not a sufficient reason to prohibit it. Antisemitism as such should enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech. Only when antisemitism explicitly incites to violence against or discrimination of Jews can it be forbidden. And Holocaust denial is rarely this explicit.

The offensive nature of Holocaust denial does undoubtedly inflict harm on Jews, especially the survivors of the camps, but no harm in the sense of rights violations. One could claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates and encourages antisemitism and therefore increases the likelihood of antisemitic attacks on individual Jews. But it would be a tough job establishing the causal links.

One could also claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates negative stereotypes in society, and thereby contributes to the marginalization of Jews. Again, difficult to prove.

In general, Holocaust denial is such a marginal phenomenon that it’s difficult to claim that it makes a substantive contribution to violence and discrimination. But in some countries or subcultures, the balance can be different.

2. Offensive speech

Justifying the prohibition of Holocaust denial merely on its offensive nature, would open the floodgates to a massive number of possible limitations of free speech, especially in the field of blasphemy. This would lead to an excess of political correctness and ultimately to “thought police”.

3. Libel

A justification based on the harm to the reputation of Jews would make Holocaust denial similar to libel. However, libel is traditionally designed to protect an individual’s reputation, income, and honor against abusive and harmful accusations. I fail to see how Holocaust denial can be directly harmful to individual Jews. Group defamation is highly controversial and could lead to the same problems cited in the previous point.

4. Democratic self-defense

Sometimes limits on rights are necessary to protect a rights-supporting community against anti-democrats who use democracy against democracy. A democracy is a particularly vulnerable form of government. The freedom it delivers can easily be misused by those who want to take it away. Anti-democratic and illiberal forces are free to use rights, freedoms and democratic procedures for the promotion of tyranny and oppression. The purpose of many holocaust deniers is the resurrection of Nazism, and a condition for this resurrection is the denial of the Nazis’ greatest crime. There can be no hope for acceptability of far-right policies as long as the Holocaust stands in the way. German Nazism, of course, is notorious for the way in which it misused the imperfect Weimar democracy.

Seen in this light, the criminalization of Holocaust denial is a self-defensive act of democracies in their struggle against extremism. Holocaust deniers use the freedoms of democracy in order to overthrow it. One cannot reasonably force democracies to abstain from self-defense. No system can be required to cherish the seeds of its own destruction.

To the extent that Holocaust deniers aim to overthrow democracy, they are hardly in a position to complain about limitations of the freedoms they would like to destroy:

One has no title to object to the conduct of others that is in accordance with principles one would use in similar circumstances to justify one’s actions towards them. A person’s right to complain is limited to violations of principles he acknowledges himself. John Rawls

You should not ask something for yourself that you are planning to deny to others. This, according to me, is the strongest justification of Holocaust denial laws, even in those countries were the revival of Nazism of highly unlikely. It may be unlikely precisely because of measures such as Holocaust denial laws.

5. The defense of Israel

Some extreme Islamists use Holocaust denial in their campaign against Israel. They hope that when they negate the Holocaust, they can remove one of the moral foundations of the state of Israel (as a refuge for the survivors). This negation, they hope, can help their efforts to destroy Israel.

However, whereas this justification may be useful in some circumstances, it is difficult to use it for an outright, worldwide prohibition on Holocaust denial since Holocaust denial outside of the Middle East can hardly be linked to the possible destruction of Israel.

6. The special case of Germany

In Germany, there may be an additional justification available. Holocaust denial laws can there be seen as part of a package of reparative justice, a kind of “sorry” issued by the state, a public acknowledgment of responsibility.

7. The interest of historical truth

Whereas truth is very important, it seems wrong to use laws to enforce the truth. Truth should be based on proof and sound argument, and using the law to punish “lies” only encourages those who believe the lies. They, and others as well, will think that there must be something wrong with the “truth” if it needs the law for its protection.

Conclusion

There is a case to be made for Holocaust denial laws, but one should be very careful and limit the prohibitions to cases and circumstances that really require them. Not all forms of Holocaust denial is equally pernicious, and not all circumstances are equally dangerous. Moreover, one should take into account the counterproductive effects of stigmatizing a certain group: persecution by the law can encourage them, can increase the number of sympathizers, and can give them more publicity than they would otherwise receive. Ignoring Holocaust deniers rather than criminalizing them could often be the most successful strategy. And some justifications should be avoided because they can create a dangerous precedent.

Countries with laws against Holocaust denial

Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland (source: here or here).