Human Rights Promotion (12): What Makes People Care About Human Rights?

Human rights are not like music or love, things people care about for their own sake or for the pleasure or happiness they provide. If people care about human rights they do so because they view those rights as means to achieve some other goals or purpose. I personally see the following reasons why people care about human rights.

Signaling

Human rights function as signaling tools (see also here). People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but perhaps only want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that. They may of course improve respect for human rights along the way, sometimes unwittingly (for example because their talk contributes to a culture of human rights), but human rights are valuable to them primarily because they allow them to communicate certain things about themselves. For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. This kind of reason to care about human rights is not by definition useless for the promotion of human rights – it can advance the cause of human rights – but it’s obviously not the best possible reason.

Self-interest

Human rights promote people’s self-interest. That’s obviously true for their own rights, but also for the rights of others. I’ve written here about the ways in which people may view the promotion of the rights of others as a means to protect their own self-interest. This reason to care about human rights is more beneficial to the cause of human rights than the signaling reason, but it’s still not the best possible reason. People’s self-interest does not advance all human rights of all other people.

Values

People may believe that human rights promote some of their cherished values or ideals, such as freedom or equality, for themselves and for humanity in general. Like the previous two reasons for caring about human rights, this reason will only advance the cause of human rights contingently: if freedom is what you care about, you will only promote human rights to the extent that they enhance freedom, and only those rights that enhance freedom.

It’s not true that freedom is served by all human rights all of the time, at least not if you adopt a restrictive definition of freedom. For example, those human rights that guarantee a basic standard of living are not clearly meant to enhance the freedom of poor people – within the bounds of a certain definition of freedom – and they may even limit the freedom of those who have to contribute the means necessary to guarantee a basic standard of living for others. Conversely, if you’re an egalitarian and equality rather than freedom is what you care about, then you may not feel especially attached to the right to property for example.

Humanity

People may cherish rights because they believe human beings are uniquely valuable creatures who should be treated in a certain way. For example, you may believe that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Or that they deserve to have their autonomy protected. Or that people have been created by God in His image and that this requires a certain treatment. Human rights are then viewed as means to achieve this treatment. Compared to the previous reasons to care about human rights, this reason is potentially more inclusive and wide-ranging and less contingent on facts about personal motivation. However, it depends on a substantive and inherently controversial philosophy about human nature, dignity or religion.

Evil

Conversely, people may cherish human rights, not because of their views about the inherent worth of human beings, but because of the evil inherent in humanity. Human rights are necessary not because they protect the good in people but because they protect people from the evil in others.

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Racism (25): What Do We Know About Race?

At least the following 5 things:

  1. There are no human races in the sense of biological or genetic divisions within the human species. About 94% of genetic variation between individuals lies within so-called “racial groups” – or rather “groups which are conventionally labeled as races” on spurious grounds (for example on the basis of vague and ambiguous differences in appearances). This means that two Africans may be as genetically different from one another as an African and a European. Continued interbreeding throughout history and the resulting exchange of genetic material has maintained humanity as a single species. There are no clearly divided species of humanity that are biological distinct. Humans aren’t monkeys. The concept of race has no genetic basis and genetics doesn’t provide support for those dividing humanity into different races.
  2. Even divisions based solely on appearances rather than genetic characteristics are flawed since those appearances show a continuum across individuals rather than a clear division between discrete groups of individuals. There are indeed superficial visual differences between people living in different parts of the world, but those differences are individual gradations on a continuum rather than divisions between groups. If you move towards the equator, skin color darkens because darker skin helps to avoid the cancerogenous effect of the sun entering the atmosphere at a right angle. These superficial differences are not only continuous and gradual rather than discrete; they also have no connection to other, supposed differences such as IQ or morality. Even if IQ and morality are determined by genes – and that’s a big “if” – then there is no reason to believe that the genes that determine these qualities “cooperate” with the genes that determine skin color. Hence no reason to assume a causal link between skin color and intellectual or moral faculties.
  3. So, even if you manage to divide humanity roughly into groups according to broad ranges of skin color – and provide a category called “mixed” for descendants of two individuals belonging to different groups (“Creoles” for example) or for people belonging to borderline groups (Arabs for example) – nothing useful can be concluded from such a division. There is nothing – no gene, no trait, no color, no moral or intellectual characteristic – that distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.
  4. As a result of this, observed inequalities between groups that are wrongfully labeled as racial groups must be the result not of biological inheritance but of differences in education, rights and treatment. Biological or genetic arguments for intellectual or moral differences between races are groundless because the denominator – race – is a fiction.
  5. The word “race” only has meaning in the sense that it is something some people believe in, talk about and act upon. “Race” is something that exists only in the minds of people. In other words, it’s a social construct. However, a social construct can have real life effects given the fact that people treat other people on the basis of their mistaken ideas about “race”. Likewise, race can be meaningful as a form of self-identification, subjective allegiance and group belonging. But also in this sense, the word race refers to nothing in biology or genetics.

More on race here. More posts in this series here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (27): Do Babies Need Human Rights?

It seems that babies, although they are obviously human beings, don’t have the same rights as adult human beings. Even compared to young children they have less rights. Young children normally have a right to expression. Babies don’t. Because they can’t express themselves (with language) they don’t need a right to expression. Such a right doesn’t even make sense in their case. For the same reason, namely their lack of certain abilities, they also don’t have a right to political participation and self-government (in this respect they are like young children, although there’s a push to lower the voting age or to at least grant children a say on political matters). The same is true for free movement, property and many other rights. Babies’ liberty and equal status are severely limited (they can be force fed, traded etc.).

Of course, you can’t go about and kill or maim babies, so they do have some rights. It’s just that the set of their rights is very small compared to the set that belongs to adult humans. Babies aren’t the only group of human treated in this way. I mentioned young children, but there are also categories of adult human beings whose rights are a subset of the standard set of rights: criminals, immigrants, foreigners etc.

So, it looks like we’re not talking about human rights after all, but rather about different sets of privileges granted to different groups of people according to different sets of criteria. Some groups of human beings have more rights than others, and some may not even have any rights at all (e.g. fetuses, according to some, and to the extent that fetuses count as human beings). And then there’s the opposite case: why not grant certain categories of non-humans also some of the rights which we erroneously call “human” rights? Animals, perhaps, in an effort to avoid speciesism. Or maybe also future enhanced human beings who will no longer be biologically human (or at least not fully biologically human).

Hence, it seems that we should ditch the qualifier “human” from the concept of human rights. Doing so, however, means according too much credibility to the somewhat confused narrative set out thus far (a good example of this confusion is this). The case of babies is different from the cases of criminals and foreigners, which in turn are entirely different from each other. Let’s remember that human rights are tools for the realization of cherished human goals and values (such as peace, prosperity, identity, belonging and knowledge). Categories of persons who don’t – as yet – have those goals or who have decided to abandon them should not be accorded human rights or can, if they want, waive them. Babies obviously belong to this group: they can’t waive their rights, but they clearly don’t need them. Migrants and criminals are different. They usually don’t waive their rights and neither are they in a position in which they objectively don’t need them. The case for limiting their set of rights is therefore a lot harder to make.

Racism (22): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice, Ctd.

Being less than white in the US is not an asset when you’re in court, in more than one sense. It’s well known that black defendants face prejudice in the criminal justice system. There’s in fact a double injustice going on: dark skinned people get a raw deal from juries, and there are more of them facing juries because of racial profiling. But something similar is happening on the other side of the court room:

In this paper, I find that cases decided by black federal lower-court judges are consistently overturned more often than cases authored by similar white judges. I estimate this effect by leveraging the fact that incoming cases to the U.S. courts are randomly assigned to judges, which ensures that black and white judges hear similar sorts of cases. The effect is robust and persists after matching exactly on measures for judicial quality (including quality ratings assigned by the American Bar Association (ABA)), previous professional and judicial experience, and partisanship. Moreover, by looking more closely at the ABA ratings scores awarded to judicial nominees, I demonstrate that this effect is unlikely to be attributable exclusively to differences between black and white judges in terms of quality. This study is the first to explore how higher-court judges evaluate opinions written by judges of color. (source)

If we assume that it’s likely that black judges are more sensitive to the possibility of racial injustices suffered by defendants – and that assumption doesn’t require a huge leap of faith – then we’ll have a vicious feedback loop: if the decisions of black judges are more often overturned, then that will also harm black defendants. Add this to the harm done by prejudiced juries and police officers, and you’ll have a good explanation for incarceration rates by race.

What Are Human Rights? (26): The “Human” Part of Human Rights

Why do we need the qualifier “human” when we talk about human rights? Why is the word “rights” not enough? The obvious reason is that we want to broaden the class of protected persons to cover the whole of humanity. Traditionally, rights were accorded only to specific groups of persons, e.g. the nobility, guilds, citizens etc. The essence of human rights is their universality, which means that they are rights that belong to human beings whatever group they are part of and wherever they happen to live. People have certain rights for the simple reason that they are human; there’s no need for any other reason such as group affiliation, nationality, form of government, legal system etc.

Human rights can thus be seen as the end state of a long expansionary evolution during which ever broader groups of people acquired certain rights. However, the inclusiveness of human rights has often been countered by exclusionary movements. If some want to include a maximum number of people under the protection of rights, others have an interest in the continuation of rights violations. The latter have two options: challenge human rights directly (e.g. by claiming that they are western rights, godless rights etc.), or take the more indirect route: maintain the notion of human rights but at the same time exclude some categories of people from humanity.

Many rights violations are explicitly or implicitly justified by reference to an absence of humanity on the part of the targets of those violations. The terror inflicted by Al-Qaida, the televised beheadings of innocent hostages etc. proves that these people are less than human. They are “animals” and can’t therefore claim that their “human” rights are respected when they are executed extra-judicially, eliminated by way of targeted killing, tortured, or arrested indefinitely in Guantanamo. Perhaps people don’t mean it literally when they say that terrorists are animals. Perhaps they do accept that they are human – they look human after all – but at least they are lesser humans, and hence not deserving the same rights as the rest of humanity. Perhaps they are merely barbarians, a separate and inferior class of humans.

The same attitude is evident in certain non-consequentialist justifications of capital punishment: the people who are executed are “the worst of the worst”, “animals” that have proven their inhumanity by way of their crimes. Also the native populations of colonized territories were considered to be non-human or at least lesser humans. There was a time when westerners weren’t sure that these people had a “soul”, a classic if currently somewhat outmoded distinguishing mark of humans. For those who believed they didn’t have a soul, their enslavement and murder was as acceptable as keeping and slaughtering animals. It took a Papal Bull to attempt to reign in the more extreme colonizers, without much success by the way.

This raises the fundamental question: what is “human”, what does it mean to be human, what is humanity? Respect for human rights depends on the type of answer we can agree on. Ideally, we would like to have a broad definition that makes it difficult if not impossible to exclude large portions of homo sapiens from the category of humanity and to violate their rights as a result of this exclusion. Claiming that someone is human because of his or her “good behavior”, e.g. non-terrorist and non-murderous behavior, is not the right way forward. “Good behavior” is a moralistic notion that can be defined in lots of different ways. Hence we potentially exclude the large majority if not the totality of people from humanity if we go along that road.

On the other hand, a non-moralistic definition, for instance a naturalistic or biological one, isn’t necessarily better. Given the way in which we treat animals, it’s probably best to avoid a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species (in Plato’s phrase, the “featherless biped“). An animal species, however distinct from other species, still consists of animals that are in some sense like other animals belonging to other species. We don’t have moral rules that tell us to treat cats differently from dogs, so a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species is unlikely to yield moral rules that tell us to treat humans differently from cats or dogs.

However, biology can be a useful element in the definition of humanity since it’s biology that justifies some human rights. Some of the biological vulnerabilities that are distinctive of us featherless bipeds, and perhaps even some of the vulnerabilities we share with some non-human species (e.g. the ability to suffer) can be seen as reasons to respect certain human rights. (Although in the latter case the price to pay would be to grant the same rights to non-human species that have the same vulnerabilities; those human rights would then no longer be strictly “human” rights. But perhaps that’s a price we should be willing to pay).

However, for the reasons given above biology is hardly sufficient for the definition of humanity. I guess we also don’t want to use the concept of “soul” to define humanity, given its association with religion. Ideally, we want to be persuasive to the non-religious violators of human rights as well, and those won’t be swayed by soul talk (perhaps they won’t be swayed at all but at least we can try). “Human nature” is a discredited concept, dignity is excessively vague, and moral agency seems to be less typical of humanity than we once believed.

So what can we use? I’ve argued elsewhere that some values that are typical of and in certain cases exclusive to human beings – or homo sapiens – can be seen as adequate justifications of human rights, since these rights serve the realization of those values (examples of those values are the importance of thinking, of social and cultural life, of religion, of prosperity, peace etc.). Excluding certain specimen of homo sapiens from the category of humanity or “real humanity” is then an attack on values that are shared by all specimens; rights violators then unwillingly attack their own values.

However, one problem remains. People’s rights aren’t necessarily safe, not even if we can settle the question of humanity and define the concept in such a way that it becomes difficult to exclude people from humanity. Humanity itself can be the problem. If human rights can be violated when a person’s humanity is denied, it’s also the case that a person who’s merely human runs the same risk. Hannah Arendt has often cited the plight of stateless persons before and after WWII, people whose nationality had been taken away from them by their racist, fascist or xenophobic governments, and who therefore only had their “humanity” left. In the best of cases, they were refugees in foreign countries where their rights were far from safe given that many countries only protected the rights of their own citizens.

The notion of humanity inherent in human rights is also incompatible with widespread feelings of partiality: most of us care more for our family and friends than for the rest of humanity, and some of us also care more for fellow-citizens. Somehow that’s inevitable: not only is it psychologically impossible to care for all the misery in the world – there’s simply too much of it – but it also seems morally right to care more for those who are closer.

In all those examples, we see that human rights have to come back to partiality. Inherent in human rights is universal inclusiveness, but at the same time we see that human rights can only be adequately protected when they are at the same time rights of very specific subgroups of humans: citizens, soldiers, family etc.

More on dehumanization and universality.

The Ethics of Human Rights (24): Richard Rorty on Human Rights and Sympathy

Richard Rorty has an interesting take on human rights. If we want universal acceptance of and respect for human rights, we shouldn’t try to argue about it. We shouldn’t attempt to work out rational justifications of human rights, or arguments that will convince people that human rights are a good thing. Instead, according to Rorty, we would achieve better results if we try to influence people’s feelings instead of their minds. And the best way to do that is by telling sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc., or by making political art. Such stories and art make the reader sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience or the reader to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position. The victim, who may be of another class, race or nationality and who seems so very different that he or she initially isn’t even considered to be of the same species and therefore cannot possibly claim to enjoy the same rights, is transformed by the story into a living human being. The sympathy engendered by the story gives the victim a human face. This person also grieves for the loss of children, also has an opinion and a moral sense. He’s or she not a barbarian. As a consequence, the victim can be given human rights.

This approach to human rights doesn’t justifying human rights in an abstract and philosophical way – something which according to Rorty isn’t possible anyway (Rorty’s a post-modern anti-foundationalist highly sceptical of the power of reason or rationality). Instead it motivates specific individuals to respect the rights of other specific individuals. So motivation instead of justification. And the focus isn’t so much on human rights themselves, but on humanity. When human rights are violated, it’s often not because people object to human rights, but because they consider the targets of rights violations as somehow outside the realm of humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very eloquent about human rights, but was a slave holder at the same time. Undoubtedly because he had convinced himself that negroes were more akin to animals than humans.

The big advantage of the sentimental approach is that is can convince people to accept others into the realm of humanity. Sympathy means after all the recognition that someone else’s suffering is akin to your own. Rorty harked back to David Hume for this insight:

Hume held that corrected (sometimes rule-corrected) sympathy, not law-discerning reason, is the fundamental moral capacity. Richard Rorty (source)

This approach, or “sentimental education” as Rorty called it, can indeed be very useful. However, I think we should and can use both strategies, the emotional and the rational one. The emotional approach isn’t without a downside. Human rights violations do not always occur because of a lack of sympathy or because of dehumanization. They are often the result of power structures, cultural practices, legal rules, institutions, international relations etc. Just engendering sympathy won’t do much good there. Moreover, sentimental education implies a willingness to listen – not a notable characteristic of many of the worst human rights violators, i.e. Taliban c.s. – and a certain standard of living that allows people to relax long enough to be able to listen. These are problems which Rorty recognized (source) and which indicate that his approach cannot be exclusive.

Human Rights and International Law (16): In Defense of Universal Jurisdiction

Universal jurisdiction, according to Wikipedia, is:

a principle in international law whereby states claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country. The state backs its claim on the grounds that the crime committed is considered a crime against all, which any state is authorized to punish. (source)

Universal jurisdiction departs from the standard principle that there should be some kind of connection between an act and the state asserting jurisdiction over it. In other words, the normal rule is that states exercise justice in relation to crimes committed on their territory or crimes committed by their nationals abroad. Indeed, this departure is the main criticism of universal jurisdiction: by allowing a state to prosecute individuals who are not its citizens, and who have committed crimes in other states, against people who are citizens of other states, we in fact allow this state to violate the right to self-determination of other states.

However, universal jurisdiction is nothing new, and most countries accept some kinds of universal jurisdiction. For example, few now oppose the right of Israel to judge Adolph Eichmann. The discussion, therefore, centers on the proper extent of universal jurisdiction. Human rights activists claim that states should be able to exercise universal jurisdiction in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, war crimes and slavery.

The reason behind this list is also the main justification of universal jurisdiction. These crimes affect all of us, the whole of humanity, and not just the immediate victims. Those who commit these offenses are hostis humani generis, enemies of humanity. And this has to be taken literally: these crimes are attacks on humanity, not just on individual human beings. The torturer dehumanizes his victim, but also himself. And he infects the society in which he operates. A society that allows torturers in its midst, can no longer be called a society. The same can be said of genocide and the other crimes in the list.

Universal jurisdiction is the act of reclaiming humanity. It is a statement by different parts of the world community, claiming that humanity does not accept such crimes. It is, therefore, an expression of humanity against those who attack humanity. And it’s a powerful expression of humanity precisely because it emerges from different parts of humanity, different countries and nations which all have an interest in the preservation of humanity.

I can imagine that some would object to all of this and would insist that crimes are committed against individuals, and not against an abstract entity such as “humanity”. But then I would invite those people to explain how they differentiate between a single anti-semitic murder and the holocaust. Or between a single case of an individual torturing another individual, and a case of state organized torture. I do believe that the concept of “crimes against humanity” makes sense, and that universal jurisdiction is a good way to respond to those crimes, maybe not from a purely legal point of view (universal jurisdiction isn’t the most effective jurisdiction) but from a human point of view.

What Are Human Rights? (19): Universal Rights

What is meant by the expression “universality of human rights“? Just simply that these rights belong to all members of humanity, all members of the human family, without any distinctions. They are equal rights, not just the rights of a particular class, race, gender, nation or religion. Human beings have these rights, not because they belong to a certain group, or because they have certain beliefs of convictions, or because they fulfil certain conditions or whatever. They have them for no other reason than because they are human. This is, of course, obvious from the word “human” in “human rights”.

Why is it important to mention this? Because it’s contested. Some say that gays shouldn’t have the right to marry, even though this right is included in the Universal Declaration, a Declaration which explicitly states that

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.

People of color, members of other ethnic groups or members of other religions are regularly treated as inferiors (or worse). Women often have less legal rights than men. And the list can go on and on.

If you oppose this, and believe that all people should be treated equally and should be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then you in fact espouse the ideal of the universality of human rights. (Equality, in the sense of equal rights, is a concept that is closely related if not identical to the concept of universality of rights).

However, how would you defend this position against those who want to discriminate and treat certain people unequally? There are many possible defenses. For example, you could say that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore equal. Treating them unequally would then be an offense against God. Or you could invoke a concept such as human dignity. My preferred defense is based on certain very specific human values, values which are shared by all human beings and which require human rights in order to be protected. Physical security, bodily integrity, self-government, peace, prosperity, belonging, property, identity etc. are some of these values. The problem here is not to convince opponents of human rights – or better of the universality of human rights – of the importance of these values. It will be very difficult to find anyone who needs to be persuaded of this and who is not self-destructive. The problem is how to give an adequate and convincing explanation of the way in which these values require human rights.

These values are shared by human beings in the same way as they share some biological features, like their organs, limbs, and skin. This analogy with biology can be taken quite literally, in the sense that human life can cease when these values are negated. Hearts may not stop beating and brains may not stop working (although they can in extreme cases) but people at the very least will stop living like human beings when they are unable to realize these values. Human rights are therefore indispensible for humanity: all human beings needs them, and we all need them for our humanity. I said a moment ago that all human beings have human rights because they are human beings and for no other reason than their humanity. If asked what is humanity, I would say that it is respect for these universally shared human values.