The Causes of Human Rights Violations (48): Farmer v Herder Culture

According to Steven Pinker, farmer cultures and regions or countries arising from farmer cultures are much more amenable to human rights than herder cultures and their successor societies.

The North [of the US] was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement.

As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults. (source, source)

It’s an interesting explanation, but also reductionist. Even if the descriptions of herder and farmer cultures are historically correct, it’s by no means evident that present-day people are determined by the mentalities of their distant forefathers.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (43): Disgust

Disgust can be good or bad for human rights. It’s probably true that no amount of rational argument against torture, incest, cannibalism etc. is as strong as the feelings of disgust produced by such actions. Some, such as Leon Kass, have therefore conceptualized disgust as a kind of moral wisdom: wisdom which can’t necessarily articulate itself or reason about itself, but which nevertheless guides our actions in a morally sound direction and guides them better and more effectively than rational argument. Disgust or nausea often makes us shudder, literally, at the immorality of others or ourselves. As a result, it helps to bring about a better world, and it does so more effectively than reasoning or persuasion (in this sense, disgust is similar to other emotions such as sympathy and shame).

Disgust is not an argument, but that’s a strength rather than a weakness if you believe the likes of Kass. It grips us, whereas arguments can be boring or unconvincing. (This can also explain why many of us have a love-hate relationship with disgust: we’re disgusted by some things, but at the same time we relish this disgust). Because of its gripping force, disgust is the human psyche policing itself and other psyches, keeping desire and passion in check and in the process making life in society a lot easier.

That is why some view disgust as the evolutionary origin of morality and law. Initially a protection mechanism against putting bad, rotten or infected stuff into our mouths, disgust quickly evolved from an emotion focused on physical health to one including morality. Moral disgust came about as one of society’s self-preserving forces, and human evolution favored the emotion because it produces social benefits such as taboos, rules and order. Human evolution favored this extension of the feeling of disgust into the realm of morality because it made social life easier, more orderly and more peaceful. These supposed evolutionary origins of moral disgust give it an added advantage compared to more rational approaches to morality: the latter can be unconvincing but most people in the world will even fail to hear them, whereas the evolutionary origins of moral disgust means that it drives all people, even those who will never hear a moral argument in their entire lives. Moral disgust therefore delivers immediate, reflexive and almost universal moral judgments.  

Complicating this simple evolutionary theory is the fact that disgust doesn’t seem to be innate, at least not in all cases: children are notoriously lacking this emotion and don’t develop it until they are three years old or something. This diminishes the strength of the evolutionary part of the argument. However, a more important problem with the argument is the fact that the objects of disgust are not the same throughout history and across societies. What was disgusting centuries ago isn’t anymore – or vice versa – and different societies find different things disgusting. Agreed, the range is somewhat limited: disgust is mostly about things related to the human body (e.g. torture), and more specifically to metabolism (eating and excreting disgusting things with our disgusting intestines), sex (doing disgusting things with each other with our disgusting organs) and mortality (being a disgusting corpse). But within this range many different things can be viewed as disgusting, and it’s not obvious that all the things we would label immoral from a reasoned point of view are always and everywhere disgusting, or that everything that is seen as disgusting by some is also immoral upon reflection.

For all these reasons, we have to conclude that disgust isn’t a very reliable moral faculty. It can make mistakes, and often has. Not so long ago, the supposed body odor of blacks, their curly hair and facial features routinely provoked disgust among whites (still today but less commonly so). And I’m convinced that this disgust was a major cause of the subjugation of blacks. The same is true for some, now less pervasive beliefs about the disgusting nature of homosexual activity.

So it’s clear that disgust can be either beneficial or detrimental for human rights. Lack of disgust where disgust would be appropriate can lead someone to violate someone else’s rights, but inappropriate disgust can have the same result. One would therefore be wrong to label disgust as a kind of moral wisdom, superior to rational thinking about morality. 

The problem is then how to distinguish good disgust from bad disgust. For example, why is disgust directed at pedophilia appropriate, whereas disgust about interracial sex is not? Whatever the answer, we won’t get there without reasoning. Hence, reasoning reclaims its position at the top of moral faculties. Disgust, rather than a type of moral wisdom, seems to be a socially transmitted and culturally specific substitute for the absence of reasons.

This is why many argue against the use of disgust as a tool for human rights protection. In theory, it could work, just as the incitement of shame and sympathy can work. But it’s dangerous:

maybe we should try portraying racism and racists as disgusting. The powerful influence of this emotion might help push racism to the edge of society or eliminate it altogether, but my response is that we still shouldn’t do it. It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (39): The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Widespread Human Rights Violations

Sorry for the strange title, but there is a logic behind it: it’s more difficult to end human rights violations the more widespread they are, and not just in a logistical sense. If rights violations are widespread, then they can become the moral norm. How does this happen? First, if everyone or a large group of people is victimized, victims start to believe that there’s nothing special about their predicament. Why would they make a fuss about something that happens to so many people, all of whom also don’t make a fuss. People don’t want to be crybabies and tend to align their behavior to that of others. They may suffer in silence or even fail to conceptualize their suffering as suffering. (This is similar to the bystander effect: if bystanders witness a crime, they first look at the reactions of other bystanders in order to see if the others judge the situation as one which requires intervention. When all bystanders do this simultaneously, then no one interferes).

A next step turns all of this into a vicious circle. When a certain practice is widespread, those who engage in it tend not be held blameworthy. Blame is always and only linked to practices that are more or less exceptional. It can’t be a perpetual and universal condition, because then it loses its meaning. This lack of blame then reinforces the sense that certain practices are normal, which again makes blame impossible. And so on. Hence, widespread human rights violations are their own cause.

Take this interesting story about sexual harassment at the Oxford University around the middle of the 20th century:

[A] group of remarkable [female] philosophers … were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment. What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behavior seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never “after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behavior seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us”. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, “Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…” (source)

At the time when sexual harassment was widespread behavior, it became the normal thing to do, nothing special and therefore also not blameworthy.

The obvious question is then: how do we escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of human rights violations? The easy answer would be that we can’t. This answer fits nicely with the fashionable idea that our morality isn’t a rational thing but rather a rationalization of universal, innate and ingrained moral emotions such as disgust – in other words, a fancy story built on gut reactions. This idea in turn corresponds to the recent finding that even very young children – as well as primates – have a sense of morality even though they don’t have the full ability of reason.

However, this answer won’t do because it’s obvious that we can escape from the cycle and that we can change our moral sense. History is rife with practices that were once considered normal and yet somehow became abnormal and blameworthy: slavery, gender inequality, sexual violence etc. Many of these changes have come about through a mix of reasoning, deliberation, storytelling and appeals to honor. To some extent, it’s true that morality is a reflection of common practice and determined by it. But fortunately it’s more than that.

More about catch 22 in the field of human rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights and International Law (21): Human Rights and the Irrelevance of the Law

If you want to promote respect for human rights you’re likely to turn to the law, and not just any law: human rights are usually if not always included in constitutions and in the human rights treaties that countries have accepted. They are, in other works, part of the basic law. You hope and expect that those in charge of verifying respect for the law and enforcing this respect when it’s absent will see that the case you bring before them is a clear violation of human rights – clear on the basis of the evidence you present – and will use their legal monopoly of violence in order to force the violators to stop, to respect the law and to remedy the harm that is done to you or to those you represent. Judicial courts, including international courts, and enforcement agencies such as the police force, the military, peacekeepers and such, are believed to be the institutions that are best placed to promote respect for human rights law.

You may have many good reasons for this belief: there’s the authority of the law as a special kind of rule, stronger and more commonly accepted than rules of morality, and there’s the possibility to use violence as a means to coerce. You may also have good reasons to believe that these legal and enforcement institutions will never be perfect: there can be perjury, judges may be incapable, suspects can escape, the police may be corrupt, laws can be counterproductive etc. Still, you strongly believe that the law is the best you can hope for in a world of imperfect humans, and certainly better than self-defense or persuasion.

Many of us will recognize our own beliefs in this description. However, one could easily call these beliefs naive. Look at the Supreme Court in the U.S. for instance. Would there be so much bickering over the nomination of new Justices by acting Presidents, if the judicial protection of rights was the quasi-mechanical process that I just described? Or is this bickering not proof of the fact that the political affiliation of the Justices determines to a large degree their rulings? Why would the other political party systematically object to the Justices proposed by the President if the politics of those Justices don’t make a lot of difference in the way they rule? But if those politics do make a lot of difference, what is left of the credibility of the system of law as a means to enforce respect for rights?

Some of this skepticism is the basis of the theory of legal indeterminacy. This theory states that laws have nothing to do with how judicial cases come out; that lawyers and judges can manipulate laws and the legal system in order to justify any decision they please; and that any possible result in any legal dispute can be justified as the legally correct outcome. If laws do not determine or – according to a more moderate form of the theory – do not significantly constrain judicial decisions, then it’s often futile or even risky to ask a judge to rule on a supposed rights violation. You may get the result you want, but only if the judges share your moral, political or religious outlook. In the worst case, your tormentor is vindicated, which will only encourage him and others like him.

The theory of indeterminacy is corroborated by the historical shifts in rulings based on the same texts. Take for example the death penalty in the U.S., which has been ruled both constitutional and unconstitutional. Of course, the indeterminacy of the law is not always the fault of judges, lawyers or prosecutors. The legislators also have a role to play. Laws have to be clear and unequivocal.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to require strict determinacy: no law, however carefully crafted, will produce one and the same legally acceptable type of outcome over decades. There will always be so-called hard cases that require interpretation and choices. And because beliefs and opinions change over time, interpretations and choice will also change. Still, in all legal systems in the world, there seems to be much more indeterminacy than what most of us believe would be optimal.

Take another example: international criminal justice. Here as well it’s clear that the equal application of the law is just a sick joke. Security Council Resolutions – which can be seen as quasi-judicial – are notoriously inconsistent, and their application is even more inconsistent. The International Criminal Court, one of the best international legal institutions around, only manages to prosecute the worst violators in the poorest and geopolitically irrelevant parts of Africa. China merely has to hint at possible economic consequences and all human rights talk about China – let alone action against China – stops instantly. Never mind the fact that China has accepted human rights treaties. Russia is part of the Council of Europe and has therefore accepted the jurisdiction of the most powerful international human rights court in the world. And yet, we all know< that human rights in Russia are far from safe. International human rights law clearly suffers from collective action problems, perverse incentives, competing priorities and double standards.

So, if it's naive to rely only on the law, which other means do we have in order to promote respect for human rights? The two major alternatives to law are story-telling and honor. Read more about those here and here respectively.

The Ethics of Human Rights (48): Human Rights and Honor

Many human rights violations are perpetrated by people in power for selfish reasons, because they are corrupt or evil, or because they believe they are doing good. In such cases, it often helps to remove those people from their positions of power. Other types of rights violations, however, are deeply ingrained in a society’s everyday culture and are the daily habits of large numbers of people. Think of gender discrimination in traditional patriarchal societies, or homophobia, racism etc.

What can be done about the latter type of rights violation? It’s extremely hard to change cultural customs and beliefs (some say that we shouldn’t even try because we should avoid cultural imperialism). Cultures do change, of course, but very slowly. There’s an inherent inertia. Culture determines personal identity, and people obviously cling to identity. And there’s no identity, it seems, without stability. Culture is also a marker of belonging and community, two other cherished values. When cultures change, the patterns of belonging and community may also change, and that frightens people. The result is again inertia. And finally, there’s the time element: when something has existed for a very long time (or when people believe it has existed for a very long time) it becomes much harder to change because it has the patina of tradition. When something has survived for so long, it surely must have some value.

As a result of all this, appeals to change fall on deaf ears. You can reason, and say that certain practices aren’t in the best interests of anyone, that they aren’t really very old and traditional and that they aren’t anointed by religious texts or cultural transmission. Or you may have other killer arguments. When people’s identity and community are believed to be at stake, all this will fail. You can also outlaw the practices, but then the law will simply be put aside. You can claim that people are being immoral, but they will answer that they have another morality.

Then how to motivate people to do the right thing? Which tools are left? I’ve discussed Rorty’s story telling strategy before. And more recently, another philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has claimed that appeals to honor may be successful catalysts of change. He

singles out three historic practices that later were stamped out: dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade. In each case, he says, a successful public campaign to end the misconduct was based not on questions of right or wrong, but on honor. Dueling swiftly perished when attitudes changed among gentlemen, who went from considering it highly honorable, to disreputable. The excruciating binding of women’s feet disappeared with great abruptness once China began to worry about its reputation among nations, early in the 20th century — national honor seeming at stake. A similar sense of honor led Great Britain finally to ban the slave trade after all appeals to morality had proven futile. (source)

Shaming people or nations, and trying to convince them that they bring dishonor upon themselves by way of the rights violations they commit or condone, may indeed be more successful than simply telling them that they are morally wrong or that they act in an irrational manner against their own self-interest. People need the esteem and approval of others. Few of us can survive a constant barrage of contempt.

However, as Appiah also notices, honor has often been a force against human rights, sometimes even a deadly force. It may have contributed to the demise of dueling, but it was also its origin. And then there are the infamous honor killings, when fathers or other relatives kill girls after accusations of sexual or romantic misconduct. That’s a practice that has survived until today. Furthermore, shame and dishonor have often been used as cruel forms of criminal punishment, with convicted criminals forced to endure public humiliation. Hence, honor is a two-edged sword at best. Sharpening one edge may also make the use of the other edge more common.

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

Gender Discrimination (11): Honor Killings

The press has reported a number of honor killings in the United States, Canada, and Europe. These cases show the killings to be primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime…The victims are largely teenage daughters or young women. Wives are victims but to a lesser extent. And, unlike most Western domestic violence, honor killings are carefully planned. The perpetrator’s family may warn the victim repeatedly over a period of years that she will be killed if she dishonors her family by refusing to veil, rebuffing an arranged marriage, or becoming too Westernized. Most important, only honor killings involve multiple family members.

Fathers, mothers, brothers, male cousins, uncles, and sometimes even grandfathers commit the murder, but mothers and sisters may lobby for the killing. Some mothers collaborate in the murder in a hands-on way and may assist in the getaway. In some cases, taxi drivers, neighbors, and mosque members prevent the targeted woman from fleeing, report her whereabouts to her family, and subsequently conspire to thwart police investigations. Very old relatives or minors may be chosen to conduct the murder in order to limit jail time if caught.

Seldom is domestic violence celebrated, even by its perpetrators. In the West, wife batterers are ostracized. Here, there is an important difference in honor crimes. Muslims who commit or assist in the commission of honor killings view these killings as heroic and even view the murder as the fulfillment of a religious obligation. A Turkish study of prisoners found no social stigma attached to honor murderers.

The perpetrators may interpret the Qur’an and Islam incorrectly, either for malicious reasons or simply because they are ignorant of more tolerant Muslim exegesis or conflate local customs with religion.

Here, Muslim-American and Muslim-Canadian associations might play a role so long as they cease obfuscation and recognize the religious roots of the problem. Now is the time for sheikhs in the United States and Canada to state without qualification that killing daughters, sisters, wives, and cousins is against Islam. A number of feminist lawyers who work with battered women have credited pro-women sheikhs with helping them enormously. Sheikhs should publicly identify, condemn, and shame honor killers. Those sheikhs who resist doing so should be challenged. Phyllis Chesler (source)

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).


  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.


Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.


Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.