The Causes of Human Rights Violations (27): Harmful Moral Judgments

Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:

  • One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
  • Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
  • The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
  • Etc. etc.

The rational approach

It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.

You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.

That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.

One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.

The emotional approach

The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).

Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.

If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.

The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.

Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).

The diversity approach

Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:

  • In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
  • When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
  • Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
  • People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
  • Also,

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered.  Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)

Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.

Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.

The Ethics of Human Rights (35): The Global Origins and Foundations of Human Rights

As Jacques Maritain put it when discussing the work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

the nations should and could reach practical agreement on basic principles of human rights without achieving a consensus on their foundations. (source)

In other words, different countries and cultures in the world can – and could in 1948 – agree on the list of human rights as long as nobody asks them why, because they all will have different reasons. Even if we take the charitable view and assume that no one accepts the UDHR and human rights in general for opportunistic reasons (because it reduces international pressure and confers legitimacy for example), we still have to say which substantial reasons different nations, cultures or religions tend to use in order to justify the importance and acceptance of human rights. These reason will emanate from their own culture, religious texts, traditions and history.

To some extent, different cultures can and do find their own foundations of human rights. In this sense, human rights aren’t simply western rights which are imposed on or adopted by the rest of the world. Of course, some of these foundations will be universal because some values are universal in the sense that they belong to all cultures in the world. Homicide, for example, is universally considered to be immoral. In other cases, however, different cultures will find different reasons to justify human rights. For example, the right to free speech in the West will be viewed as justified by the necessity of counterbalancing government power, whereas in other cultures it may be viewed as something to promote prosperity or religious tolerance.

There’s a nice German term for this: human rights are said to be Begründungsoffen, their justification or foundation is open in the sense that they can be justified by different religious, cultural or intellectual traditions. That’s a big advantage. One can legitimately object to making universal claims grounded on such particularized foundations as Christianity, dignity, likeness of God etc. Muslims probably won’t accept human rights if they can only be justified by the teachings of Jesus. They can be justified in this way, and that’s a powerful justification for Christians, but they can also be justified in other ways. There isn’t one ultimate justification for human rights. All different justifications have a particular plausibility for a certain group of human beings, whether this group is a culture, a nation or a religion.

These different cultural paths to human rights, based on different cultural and historical resources, should, however, not discourage dialogue. If you’re convinced that different cultures can find their own way to human rights, you may conclude that intercultural dialogue isn’t necessary. It is necessary, because it’s utopian to believe that each culture will find its way to an identical set of human rights or an identical understanding of human rights. The moralities of all or most cultures or groups will condemn homicide, torture and slavery, but will perhaps provide different exceptions. And other values, such as free speech or freedom of religion may not find an equally strong justification in all cultures. It’s unlikely that the entire set of human rights as present in the Universal Declaration will find a strong and broad justification in all cultures. There’s still a lot of disagreement between cultures on the foundation, importance and extent of things such as discrimination, religious freedom etc.

That is why human rights treaties and declarations don’t just codify a universal moral consensus but also try to steer different moralities into a certain common direction. They want to change norms rather than just describe them. In other words, they formulate a justified morality rather than an existing morality. They want to create a consensus, not describe one. Creating a consensus is impossible if all cultures limit themselves to independently and solipsistically justifying human rights using only their own resources. Intercultural dialogue is necessary, and this dialogue will not just be the exchange of descriptions of different moralities but will try to go beyond existing moralities and formulate a consensus that is wider that the sum of existing norms. It will contain a set of norms that are based not solely on existing moralities but also on justified reasons. Not just on the sum of different moral codes but on the agreements of people discussing about good reasons for human rights, reasons that go beyond “my God/prophet/history/tradition says …”. This dialogue will result in a wider global agreement on the importance of human rights, an agreement that can ultimately result in greater respect for human rights.

For the benefit of those who don’t even believe in the first step – finding the sources of human rights in different cultures – here’s a sample of those sources:

  • Christianity, and more generally the Abrahamic religions – so that includes Judaism and Islam – postulate the equality before God. All human beings are equal creatures of God, and created in the image of God. That notion bestows a sacredness to life that is not a function of national origin, status or affiliation. This is also apparent in the Judaic maxim that he who destroys one person has dealt a blow at the entire universe and he who saves one person has sustained the whole world.
  • Protestantism has developed the freedom of conscience, the right and responsibility of every man to worship as his conscience dictates, to make his own judgments, uninhibited by a religious hierarchy.
  • The Indian emperor Ashoka (third century BC) is famous for the Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as on boulders and cave walls found throughout India. These are social and moral precepts in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity, fairness in the exercise of justice, caution and tolerance in the application of sentences, and kindness to prisoners. His was the first welfare state, providing free education and hospitals.
  • Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in sixteenth century India, was famous for his religious tolerance.
  • The Qur’an claims that there can be no compulsion in religion. Islam also knows the principle of equality and generosity: “Not one of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (An-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith). Caliph Omar, in the 7th century: “Only decide on the basis of proof, be kind to the weak so that they can express themselves freely and without fear, deal on an equal footing with litigants by trying to reconcile them”.
  • Mencius, arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, has said: “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence”.
  • Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, has said: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
  • In the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit and Hindu epics, it says: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”.
  • Siddhartha (the birth name of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha) has said: “What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to others too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?” In Buddhism, the human perfection that is sometimes called “enlightenment” consists, in part, in discerning the transcendent truth that the Other is infinitely precious and in acting toward the Other in accord with that discernment, namely, with compassion (in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh).
  • Baha’i, a monotheistic religion founded in nineteenth-century Persia, claims: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for any one the things ye would not desire for yourselves. This is My best counsel unto you, did ye but observe it”.
  • Jainism is an ancient religion of India that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated”.

Granted, not all of these moral precepts can be immediately translated into recognizable human rights, and many precepts underlying human rights are difficult to find here. Yet, we can claim that all these cultural sources can be used, to some extent, to justify human rights.