What Are Human Rights? (53): Have Human Rights Lost Their Meaning?

Human rights have started to look somewhat like a substance spread so far and wide that it has lost its depth. Some use rights to promote peace, while others take them to war against oppressive dictators. Some say that abortion is a right of the mother, while pro-lifers say that it’s about the right of the baby. Religious believers are urged to respect the rights of those they view as morally depraved, but the former answer that the way they treat the latter is a matter of religious liberty. Putin intervenes in Ukraine for the sake of the rights of Russians, while Ukraine counteracts because of the rights of Ukrainians. Almost every political or moral debate is now essentially two groups of people throwing rights at each other. And as with all things that are used for anything and everything, rights have lost their meaning. At best, their meaning has become very thin.

Part of the reason for this “thinness” is overinterpretation; another part is rights inflation. We should of course interpret rights. Their meaning isn’t obvious. The only thing that is more or less undisputed are a few lists with rights described in one or two sentences. As is clear from the examples given above, what these sentences imply for specific cases is hotly contested. We can try to give some substance to the meaning of different individual rights, as well as to the idea of rights in general. This is in fact what I try to do in this blog series, and what many others try as well. But success is far from guaranteed, if it’s even clear what success would mean in this case. At a minimum, some form of widely shared agreement, I guess, such that for instance religious believers accept that their rights do not warrant violations of the rights of non-believers.

Likewise, while we should allow rights to evolve – new wrongs may require new rights – we should also try to agree on some outer boundaries and perhaps make a division within the set of rights between fundamental or basic rights on the one hand and aspirational rights on the other. It would harm the practical effectiveness of rights if we can’t set limits on interpretation and evolution. We wouldn’t want to deal in empty promises.

But is there really a “thinness” to human rights? There is certainly overinterpretation and inflation, but the “spread substance” metaphor is somewhat misleading. Perhaps rights haven’t really lost their meaning. As with all fundamental philosophical concepts, there wasn’t an a priori meaning to begin with and hence no original content that has been squandered. Political and moral disputes, because they are increasingly framed in a language of rights – as opposed to the language of duty, honor and virtue – have made the concept of rights more complex and contested than it needs to be, and perhaps even murky and vague. But that is because there’s too much meaning rather than too little. Taking again the same example: the claim that religious liberty should include the freedom to discriminate is a claim to unwarranted “thickness”. We need to be clearer on the content and extent of human rights, but perhaps it’s wrong to say that rights are “lost”.

More on the causes of the increase in human rights talk is here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (11): Intentionality Bias Causing the Surge in Human Rights Talk

First, there has indeed been a surge in human rights talk over the past decades and even centuries. This is particularly obvious for the period since the end of WWII. Human rights have become the lingua franca among the oppressed, the persecuted and the bleeding hearts worldwide, effectively replacing language based on benevolence, honor etc. (No insult intended, I’m a bleeding heart myself). There’s something about the notion of a human right that captures the strength of demands for freedom and equality like nothing else. It makes a claim sound very strong and difficult to ignore.

Other reasons for the popularity of human rights – or better the fascination with human rights – are their clarity and simplicity, their obvious universality and the fact that they cover most if not all areas of human suffering, depravity and failing, including persecution, violence, lack of freedom, discrimination, poverty, work and the family.

A further, and as yet unexplored reason is the so-called intentionality bias. The intentionality bias is a psychological bias where actions are viewed as intentional even when they’re not.

Three studies tested the idea that our analyses of human behavior are guided by an ‘‘intentionality bias,” an implicit bias where all actions are judged to be intentional by default. In Study 1 participants read a series of sentences describing actions that can be done either on purpose or by accident (e.g., ‘‘He set the house on fire”) and had to decide which interpretation best characterized the action. To tap people’s initial interpretation, half the participants made their judgments under speeded conditions; this group judged significantly more sentences to be intentional. Study 2 found that when asked for spontaneous descriptions of the ambiguous actions used in Study 1 (and thus not explicitly reminded of the accidental interpretation), participants provided significantly more intentional interpretations, even with prototypically accidental actions (e.g., ‘‘She broke the vase”). Study 3 examined whether more processing is involved in deciding that something is unintentional (and thus overriding an initial intentional interpretation) than in deciding that something is unpleasant (where there is presumably no initial ‘‘pleasant” interpretation). Participants were asked to judge a series of 12 sentences on one of two dimensions: intentional/unintentional (experimental group) or pleasant/unpleasant (control group). People in the experimental group remembered more unintentional sentences than people in the control group. Findings across the three studies suggest that adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior. This research has important implications both in terms of theory (e.g., dual-process model for intentional reasoning), and practice (e.g., treating aggression, legal judgments). (source)

If there is indeed a tendency to view actions as intentional, then there will also be a tendency to frame problems in terms of human rights. For example, if the intentional actions of an oppressive majority assisted by prejudiced legislators and law enforcers are believed to be the main cause of discrimination of a racial minority, then holding those intentional actors legally and judicially responsible for rights violations makes sense and may be effective. When, on the other hand, a lot of this discrimination is in fact the result of unconscious bias, or when it is statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination, then judicial action based on human rights is much less effective.

And it’s my opinion that a lot of human rights violations are unintentional, unconscious and statistical. That doesn’t mean we should stop framing the underlying problems in human rights terms, but it does mean that our efforts to do something about them should be non-legal and non-judicial. Story telling, making people aware of their unconscious biases against certain groups of people, incentivizing people and other strategies can then be more successful in stopping rights violations.

The intentionality bias can be understood as an example of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. A simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

More on human rights and intentionality is here, here and here. More on biases is here.