Human Rights Promotion (3): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Take for instance capital punishment. Human rights defenders normally reject it. And indeed, if you use your head and look at the data, and if you refine your moral compass, you can’t possibly reach any other conclusion. And yet, most of us, even the most ardent rights defenders, know cases in which they would like to see people die – perhaps even administer the lethal drug themselves. Emotions are hard to reason with. We swallow the logic of human rights, the data and the moral precepts, and yet in doing so they leave a bad taste in our mouths.

There are other cases. Take child labor. We know that it’s detrimental to a child’s education and hence her future prosperity, intellectual development and flourishing. It’s probably also harmful to her health. And yet, we accept it in certain cases because the alternative is even worse. In some place, there may be no education provision worthy of the name, and forcing a child away from work may aggravate the poverty of her family without doing much for the child’s education. Acquiescing in a child’s rights violations is better for her rights than doing nothing.

The same is true with sweatshop labor or the exploitation of poor migrants:

In Lant Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. (source)

In all these cases we’re faced with awful situations, but the alternatives are even worse; or, better, the realistic alternatives. If we could eliminate poverty overnight, open our borders, provide decent education and labor standards to all, and inject a conscience in all employers, we wouldn’t need to swallow dirt and leave a bad taste. But we can’t, not now at least.

Another example is the veil. We should allow Muslim women to dress modestly because we want to respect freedom of religion and because we don’t want to treat those women as lesser human beings who don’t have the agency to stand up against patriarchy and who need to be liberated by us enlightened folk. And yet, at the same time we know that we may be endorsing and promoting a symbol of oppression and thereby oppression itself. We also know that there are women who are forced to hide themselves, but we don’t know which. And finally, we know that dressing modestly renders some activities difficult, and that women as a result may not be able to fully develop themselves. And yet we swallow, because the alternative – forcing all veiled women to uncover – would be worse.