The Ethics of Human Rights (44): Human Rights Between Cosmopolitanism and Partiality

Cosmopolitanism and partiality (or parochialism if you don’t mean it in a negative sense) are two very strong and yet contradictory moral intuitions. Let’s start with the former. Most of us have a strong sense of the arbitrariness of national borders. The accident of being born on one or the other side of a border – just like the accident of being born black or female – shouldn’t have any moral weight and shouldn’t determine one’s life prospects, as it unfortunately does.

As a result of this intuition, we believe that all people have the same moral worth, and this in turn convinces us that we shouldn’t condone the notion that the suffering or oppression of a fellow-citizen is more urgent or more important than the equal suffering of someone far away. There is something like humanity and all members of the human species have equal value. Being partial and favoring the alleviation of the suffering of some over the alleviation of the suffering of others, just doesn’t sound like the right thing to do. We should help people because they are human beings, not because they are compatriots. If I see a compatriot and a foreigner drowning in a pool I have no reason to save one before the other.

That’s the cosmopolitan intuition. On the other hand, there’s an equally strong intuition favoring some level of partiality. A father watching his daughter and her friend drown in a pool is allowed to save his daughter first if he can save only one. People care more about their friends and family than about strangers, and that’s completely uncontroversial. A bit less uncontroversial but perfectly common is the fact that citizens of a country – through their tax payments – typically provide relatively generous social security and welfare to their fellow-citizens and much less development aid, even though the beneficiaries of development aid are much less well off than many of the beneficiaries of the welfare state. Countries also impose immigration restrictions as a means to protect the prosperity of their reasonably well off citizenry, even if doing so means condemning foreigners to poverty. And finally, states generally enforce the other human rights of their citizens (poverty is a human rights violation) much more rigorously than the rights of foreigners.

Without staking out my position regarding these two contradictory intuitions, I would argue that imposing strict immigration and aid restrictions means taking partiality too far and that we should have more migration, more global redistribution and more international intervention aimed at the protection of human rights. However, you can demand this and still favor some level of partiality over strict cosmopolitanism.

So, the conclusions people draw from the partiality intuition aren’t always morally defensible, but the intuition itself is. And the same is true for the cosmopolitan intuition. In what follows I will ignore those who draw extreme conclusions from either intuition because they tend thereby to ignore the other intuition. Extreme nationalists, chauvinist patriots, racists, “ethical egoists” à la Rand etc. on one side, and the much less numerous “uprooted” citizens of the world and the corporate or non-governmental “modern nomads” who ridicule origins and meaningful national affiliations on the other side. It’s generally not a good idea to deny strong moral intuitions, and certainly not in this case. So I’ll focus on those who recognize the two intuitions and somehow try to juggle them.

How do people do that? Some choose one as the most important and believe that the other can only be followed in addition. Others just accept this as a case of irreconcilable value pluralism and believe that we can’t solve the dilemma. And still others deny that there’s always a conflict between the two intuitions.

Let’s look at those who favor the priority of partiality, see what reasons they have, and how those who favor cosmopolitanism respond. Many of those who favor the partiality intuition agree that we can and should do more to help others in distant places, but they also claim that we shouldn’t do as much for the billions of poor and oppressed people in the world as we do for our local charity, our relatives and friends and even our compatriots. They believe that once we’ve provided a minimum of care and aid to humanity in general, we’re allowed to focus our attention on a partial group or a limited circle of people that have a special meaning to us. They may provide different reasons for this claim. Let’s look at a few and at the ways in which cosmopolitans can reply:

  • Parochialists may argue that we need global institutions similar to national ones in order to provide the same amount and quality of care and aid to humanity as a whole. For example, you need a global welfare state to provide social security to everyone, and an effective global judiciary to punish gross violations of human rights in despotic regimes elsewhere in the world. We can call this the institutional objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could point to the progress in international criminal justice that has already been made, and could also argue that international redistribution of resources doesn’t necessarily require a global welfare state.
  • Parochialist can defend their limited partiality by claiming that relatively small groups of people are best placed to help each other, and that long distance help isn’t the most effective. For example, local judiciaries are better placed to judge local human rights violations than “ivory tower” international institutions, and small groups of people are better able and more motivated to give each other material assistance. Closeness means that you can do more, and if you can do more you should do more. It also means that appeals to help will be better heard and be more persuasive. People far away simply don’t have the necessary information or motivation to help effectively. We can call this the effectiveness and motivational objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could reply that there’s a certain circularity in this argument and that globalization has eroded much of the salience of closeness. I can go to an internet site and donate money to a specific person thousands of miles away. And the modern media have made the suffering of such a person much more salient and motivating.
  • Parochialists can argue that relatively small groups of people are not only best placed to help each other, but have a right to help each other and should be allowed to do so before the international humanitarians come barging in. This is akin to arguments about self-determination and cultural relativism. Caring about other places on the globe means wanting to intervene in those places in order to promote human rights and alleviate suffering. Such intervention may amount to cultural aggression. We can call this the cultural objection to cosmopolitanism. I’ve argued against cultural relativism elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here.
  • Parochialists may claim that partiality is the result of the importance of community membership. People want to belong to communities. This belonging is important for many reasons, notably for personal identity. In order to maintain a community, there have to be special duties towards fellow members. We can call this the community objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could argue that those special duties are different from the global duties imposed on us by human rights and humanitarianism and don’t diminish or replace those global duties.
  • Parochialists can argue that global duties and a global morality are meaningless concepts. Perhaps a real understanding of what a moral duty is can only arise from the communal traditions and language of a particular culture. Morality is then culturally situated, embedded and determined. Moral impartiality and global justice are then oxymorons. This objection to cosmopolitanism is related to the cultural objection, and we can call it the meta-ethical objection. A cosmopolitan could reply that this is a rather strange conception of morality. It’s not uncommon for people to be influenced by moralities from far away. Hence, it’s wrong to claim that morality is completely embedded in culture.
  • Parochialists can argue that cosmopolitanism and the need to treat everyone equally imply the imposition of excessive burdens on the wealthier members of humanity and would therefore be both unrealistic and unfair. Treating everyone equally would leave them with little for themselves and for their partial circle of care. None of them would still wear expensive watches or clothes, go on vacations or give their children an expensive education. We can call this the feasibility objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could answer in different ways. First, things aren’t entirely zero-sum as the parochialist seems to believe. For example, a well-educated child can more effectively help humanity. Hence, the two intuitions don’t have to cancel each other out and people don’t always have to choose. Love for humanity and love for certain people don’t necessarily clash. Secondly, even if it’s not feasible to help everyone, that doesn’t mean we have to be partial. The moral equality of all human beings may require that we select a random group of people to help, rather than our inner circle. Such a random choice would guarantee that we help strangers just as much as relatives, friends and compatriots, even though we can’t help everyone equally. The problem with such a random choice is that you need to know about people in order to be able to help (see the effectiveness objection above). The cosmopolitan could reply that random selection isn’t really necessary and that we can help a lot of people a lot more than we may think, without completely undermining our own wellbeing. It’s not absolutely clear that the world doesn’t hold enough resource to give everyone a decent life.

Human Rights and International Law (18): Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The “Responsibility to Protect“, or R2P in U.N.-speak, is a humanitarian principle that aims to stop mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It refers initially to the responsibility of states to their own citizens, but in case states can’t or won’t protect their own citizens, other states can step in, respecting the Security Council procedures. However, this is a last resort, especially if the intervention is of a military nature.

The concept is closely linked to, if not indistinguishable from, humanitarian intervention. Often it’s also called the principle of non-indifference, a sarcastic pun on the principle of non-intervention. Some for whom national sovereignty and non-intervention is still the main and overriding rule in international affairs, see R2P as an excuse for Western interference. Noam Chomsky is a notable if unsurprising example. You can read his arguments here. He is joined by a number of governments that risk being a future target.

However, most in the West aren’t jumping the queue to enter into a legal obligation that can force them to undertake expensive and risky interventions in the name of humanity. The fact that these interventions aren’t only expensive and risky but often also without collateral benefits, doesn’t help either. R2P is not yet a legal rule, more a quasi-legal rule. Some legal or quasi-legal texts include the concept. The Constitutive Act of the African Union includes “the right of the Union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the African Union assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The same is true for the Security Council of the UN. The concept was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, so it can be argued that the principle is part of international common law (i.e. international law established by coherent and unanimous state practice).

Human Rights and International Law (14): Human Rights vs. Humanitarianism?

In this post, I want to look at some of the differences – and perhaps conflicts – between human rights activism and humanitarian action (or humanitarian intervention). Obviously, some definitions to start with. There’ve been enough discussions on the definition of human rights on this blog, so I’ll focus now on humanitarianism. (Note: I’m leaving aside the more problematic issue of armed humanitarianism).

Definition of humanitarianism

According to Wikipedia,

humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions.

However, the concept of humanitarianism has become more precise and restrictive over the last decades. In fact, it is now generally understood to be shorthand for “international humanitarian action“, which in turn means international emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises representing

a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. (source)

When you think about humanitarianism, you think about the Red Cross, the UNHCR, MSF, WFP etc. The focus is on the alleviation of widespread suffering and the saving of lives.

Hence, there is a close link between humanitarianism and human rights activism. Humanitarianism deals with rights violations. The absence of suffering is a human right, as is life. Of course, human rights are about much more than that. Free speech, democracy, religious liberty etc. are not about suffering or death, at least not normally). Nevertheless, humanitarianism shares its goals and ideals with part of the human rights agenda, and can therefore be understood as a subset of human rights activism.

Differences between humanitarianism and human rights activism

This link doesn’t mean that there are no differences between the two approaches. I’ll try to mention a few of them here. Apart from the more narrow scope of humanitarianism, compared to human rights activism, the main differences are:

Short term and urgency

Humanitarian agencies such as those mentioned above are by definition engaged in conflict zones or disaster zones. Their only objective is the protection of civilians against immediate harm resulting from war, famine etc. Hence, they are focused on the very short term future: making sure people survive, have enough to eat and are physically secure. Human rights activism, on the contrary, will also look at longer term results and less urgent needs, such as education, institutionalized (as opposed to emergency) healthcare, poverty etc.

Forward looking

Humanitarianism is mainly forward looking, whereas human rights activism reserves a lot of its attention to the past, and more specifically to justice for past human rights violations (including criminal justice).

Immediate causes

Humanitarianism also looks at the immediate causes of suffering, e.g. a war, a disaster etc., whereas human rights activism will tend to identify the root causes behind these immediate causes, e.g. bad governance, poverty, discrimination and other “structural injustices” which surpass the timeframe and the tools of the humanitarian.


Humanitarianism means unconditional action. Given the urgency of the suffering they want to alleviate, agencies will go in, no matter what. The war can still be going on, the disaster can be unfolding… The human rights activist, however, will often point to prerequisites which have to be present before some specific human right can be realized, and without which action is futile (e.g. the removal of a dictator as a prerequisite for freedom of the press). A related point: humanitarianism takes a few human rights in isolation, and works on those only. A human rights activist will look at the whole system of human rights, and stress the interdependence of all human rights.

Political neutrality

Humanitarianism tries to be neutral. It doesn’t take sides in a conflict or in a (civil) war. All suffering is viewed as equally deserving of alleviation, whether it is the suffering of the victim or the suffering of the aggressor (“a universal duty to act in the face of human suffering”). This isn’t moral relativism, but a practical necessity in many cases. If the humanitarian agencies want to have access to the people who are suffering, they often don’t have the luxury of criticizing any of the parties in the conflict, of outspoken public advocacy, and of “naming and shaming”.

The human rights activist, on the contrary, has to take a stand. Human rights aren’t politically neutral. They require, to a certain extent, democratic government, and non-democratic government is often a root cause of many rights violations.