What Are Human Rights? (37): Do Human Rights Point Downwards or Upwards?

A common but, in my opinion, shortsighted view of human rights is the following: human rights are minimal standards. They serve to avoid the terrible rather than to achieve the best. Hence, they point downwards rather than upwards. They are the lower limits of tolerable human conduct, not high aims, ideals or utopian visions. They protect us against the worst things that can happen to us, but they don’t help us to achieve the best things that should happen to us. They limit the depths to which governments and our fellow human beings can sink, but they don’t promote the heights we can reach.

If we limit our understanding of human rights to all this, then it’s difficult to integrate the view that human rights are necessary for the search of truth, and that democracy – a human right – is a way of life. Human rights do in fact – also – point upwards. They set a lower limit of tolerable human conduct, and they also point towards higher possibilities and human perfection. This perfection, of course, they will never deliver like they never deliver full protection from horror, but they help us on the way.

More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on human rights and progress is here. More on utopian thought is here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (39): The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Widespread Human Rights Violations

Sorry for the strange title, but there is a logic behind it: it’s more difficult to end human rights violations the more widespread they are, and not just in a logistical sense. If rights violations are widespread, then they can become the moral norm. How does this happen? First, if everyone or a large group of people is victimized, victims start to believe that there’s nothing special about their predicament. Why would they make a fuss about something that happens to so many people, all of whom also don’t make a fuss. People don’t want to be crybabies and tend to align their behavior to that of others. They may suffer in silence or even fail to conceptualize their suffering as suffering. (This is similar to the bystander effect: if bystanders witness a crime, they first look at the reactions of other bystanders in order to see if the others judge the situation as one which requires intervention. When all bystanders do this simultaneously, then no one interferes).

A next step turns all of this into a vicious circle. When a certain practice is widespread, those who engage in it tend not be held blameworthy. Blame is always and only linked to practices that are more or less exceptional. It can’t be a perpetual and universal condition, because then it loses its meaning. This lack of blame then reinforces the sense that certain practices are normal, which again makes blame impossible. And so on. Hence, widespread human rights violations are their own cause.

Take this interesting story about sexual harassment at the Oxford University around the middle of the 20th century:

[A] group of remarkable [female] philosophers … were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment. What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behavior seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never “after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behavior seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us”. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, “Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…” (source)

At the time when sexual harassment was widespread behavior, it became the normal thing to do, nothing special and therefore also not blameworthy.

The obvious question is then: how do we escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of human rights violations? The easy answer would be that we can’t. This answer fits nicely with the fashionable idea that our morality isn’t a rational thing but rather a rationalization of universal, innate and ingrained moral emotions such as disgust – in other words, a fancy story built on gut reactions. This idea in turn corresponds to the recent finding that even very young children – as well as primates – have a sense of morality even though they don’t have the full ability of reason.

However, this answer won’t do because it’s obvious that we can escape from the cycle and that we can change our moral sense. History is rife with practices that were once considered normal and yet somehow became abnormal and blameworthy: slavery, gender inequality, sexual violence etc. Many of these changes have come about through a mix of reasoning, deliberation, storytelling and appeals to honor. To some extent, it’s true that morality is a reflection of common practice and determined by it. But fortunately it’s more than that.

More about catch 22 in the field of human rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (14): Wage Stagnation at the Bottom of the Income Distribution

Income inequality has risen in many countries during the last decades, including the U.S. The causes of this evolution obviously differ from country to country, although some causes may be universal. If we focus on the U.S., one important cause is wage stagnation for middle class and poor families since the 1970s. This stagnation, combined with the fact that the incomes of the wealthy continued along their pre-1970s growth path, caused increasing income inequality. The 1970s are a clear turning point, as you can see here.

The decades before the 1970s were what has been called a time of “shared prosperity”. Maybe trickle down economics really did work back then. Since the 1970s, however, income gains went almost entirely to the very wealthy, without much of the gains trickling down.

If that is why inequality has increased, we still have to answer the question why lower wages have stagnated. Maybe the decline of the minimum wage has something to do with it.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (19): Justifying Human Rights

Justifying human rights means answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. In this post I won’t try to answer that question but rather discuss the reasons why we need to ask it in the first place. We need to ask that question because the desirability or necessity of human rights isn’t self-evidently or axiomatically true, like it’s the case with a phrase such as “nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect”. The latter phrase doesn’t require proof and can or even should be accepted as such. The same doesn’t apply to phrases such as “we need human rights”, “human rights are desirable rules”, “human rights are rules of morality” or “people ought to respect human rights”. Those phrases aren’t self-evident. They require rational and argumentative support. Not proof, of course, since there is never any proof in moral, legal or political matters. What they do require is the support of sound arguments.

Fortunately, it’s the case that many people, perhaps even a majority of humanity, believe that those phrases about human rights are actually self-evidently true. And a substantial part of those people, for a substantial part of their activity, act as if those phrases are self-evidently true. Still, this sociological fact about public opinion and public behavior does not absolve us from the duty of answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. After all, slavery was once believed to be self-evidently necessary by a majority of public opinion (as far as we can tell), and yet this wasn’t, fortunately, a good reason not to ask why it should be necessary. What ought to be can never be settled by pointing to what is (otherwise we would commit the so-called naturalistic fallacy).

In general, people should give reasons for their beliefs and actions. Some would even say that giving such reasons is what makes us human. Giving a justification for human rights is therefore an intellectual necessity. And it would require this even if every single individual believed that human rights are necessary and always acted in accordance with this belief. But, of course, not every individual believes this, or acts according to this belief. Hence the exercise of justifying human rights also has a practical necessity: some of those who don’t believe in human rights, or whose belief isn’t sufficiently strong to guide all their actions, may be persuaded by a good justification. I say “some”, because others are perhaps not open to rational persuasion or argumentation. Good luck trying to convince Ted Bundy or Osama bin Laden of the desirability of human rights. But even when faced with people like them, it’s good to have a sound justification of human rights, not because it will help to convince them, but because it will help us to know what we are doing with them and why we are doing it.

So, if it’s accepted that we have to try to produce a sound and possibly convincing answer to the question “why do we need human rights?”, and that this answer should be based on rational arguments, we still haven’t said anything about the content of such an answer. I think there’s a good reason for keeping that content as open as possible. I don’t believe that it’s possible to find the One or the Best Justification. There are many good ways of justifying human rights, none of them obviously better than all others. Some justifications will be more convincing to some people, others more to other people. Some justifications may even be in conflict with each other, or logically incompatible. And other justifications may be deeply flawed and yet convincing to many. None of this is a problem. None of it implies that human rights are self-defeating, incoherent or wrong. All that matters is that a maximum number of people find their own justifications and are sufficiently persuaded by them.

Justifications may be based on religious revelation or logical reasoning. On utilitarian calculations or on moral and deontological rules. On strong principles or on opportunistic reasons (opportunism on the part of rulers who believe that their rule may be safer when they respect human rights, or opportunism on the part of citizens who believe that their own rights will be safer when they respect the rights of others in a spirit of reciprocity). Justifications may use one moral value (for example dignity, equality or liberty) or may try to accommodate the plurality of human values. They may be based on a conception of a minimally good life which human rights are supposed to guarantee, or on something more. Justifications can also be derivative: like postulating one fundamental human right (e.g. the equal right of all to be free) and then trying to deduce all other rights from this basic right. And, finally, it may not be the content, the postulates, the basis, the structure or the motivation of the justification that can differ, but also its form: justifications may be rational endeavors like the examples cited here, or may ditch rationality altogether and use emotions such as sympathy. Whatever helps.

Wikileaks and the Paradox of Freedom of Information

It’s impossible to measure of course, but I would guess that the recent disclosure by Wikileaks of secret documents about the Iraq war has created more noise than the war itself. And that’s good. We want people to have information on human rights violations, especially when they occur on a national scale and when the cloak of war hides them from view. The Wikileaks model, whatever its deficiencies, and the whistleblower model in general are extremely important for the exposure of human rights violations. In many cases, we can’t count on the victims of those rights violations to stand up for themselves. Not only do they often fail to survive the rights violations, but they are generally in a position of powerlessness and domination, making it impossible for them to speak out and let the world know what’s happened. Third parties such as Wikileaks step into the void and expose what otherwise would remain unknown. Such exposure is important because we hope that it ultimately leads to the cessation of rights violations and/or redress for the victims.

This is true for human rights violations in general, not just those gross violations that occur during wartime. Even the daily, “small” scale rights violations in otherwise reasonably well-governed countries are often hidden from view. People try to expose those violations in various ways: they go to the press, they blog, they litigate, they associate, assemble, protest, educate themselves, boycott etc. And, as in the case of Wikileaks, third parties play an important role. For example, journalists investigate, and they have a powerful tool called freedom of information acts. Those acts are in fact legal versions of the Wikileaks model.

Both official and non-official disclosures of secret government information are crucial for the exposure of human rights violations, but they are plagued by the paradox of self-frustration. Let me explain. When government officials engaged in rights violations become aware of the risk or likelihood that what they do will become public (either through official freedom of information procedures or through the initiatives of whistleblower or “traitors”) they may act in two ways:

  • Either they change their behavior for the better,
  • Or they try to hide their behavior even further, for example by switching from written to oral procedures.

The latter option is not unrealistic. Assuming that people take that option, one also has to assume that the third party disclosure model can only function to the extent that those whose behavior will be disclosed are unaware of the possibility of disclosure, or at least as little aware as possible and dismissive of the likelihood of disclosure. But with every new disclosure, their awareness of the possibility of disclosure will increase, as will their evaluation of the risks of being disclosed.

On the other hand, one would want the citizenry in general to be maximally aware of the possibilities of disclosure: if no one knows of freedom of information acts, no one will use them. So in fact the third party disclosure model requires an unrealistic asymmetry in knowledge. If anything, the asymmetry will go the other way in real life: it’s likely that government officials are better informed about legislation and the possible effects of legislation than the citizenry in general. Hiding the possibility of disclosure to government officials, in the hope that their lack of knowledge will steer them away from tactical behavior aimed at frustrating disclosure, means hiding it for the public as well, and means that there will be no disclosure demands.

That’s a real paradox. And apart from this paradox, disclosure efforts face other problems as well. It’s obvious that some secrets are necessary. For example, government agencies for crime prevention can’t be required to publish the dates when they’ll intervene to trap criminals. Other agencies managing public procurement can’t be expected to divulge the content of an offer to competitor firms also interested in making an offer. Etc. Some of this secrecy is “due time” secrecy, in the sense that it’s temporary and that disclosure after some time won’t be self-frustrating. And perhaps all secrets are of this nature. But that also means that those who engage in “guerilla” style disclosure outside of official freedom of information procedures have to be careful not to frustrate the legitimate objectives of some secret operations.

What is Democracy? (46): The Boundary Problem

Most discussions about democracy take one thing for granted: that the composition of the group of people who (have to) govern themselves democratically is already fixed. The topics discussed are:

  • how can these people govern themselves democratically, or more democratically?
  • which procedures, institutions or voting systems should be used to guarantee the highest level of democracy?
  • is representative democracy best, or should there be some kind of <a href="http://direct democracy?
  • which are the prerequisites for an adequate or perfect democracy (education, free speech etc.)?
  • what happens to the minorities within this group of people?
  • etc.

What is forgotten in all such discussions is that the composition of the group of people governing themselves democratically has an enormous importance. This composition is of course established by boundaries or borders. These boundaries are prerequisites for any democratic decision: before such a decision is possible or even conceivable, there has to be a prior decision on who the “demos” is, on who is included in and excluded from the group that is supposed to govern itself democratically.

There is no problem when the democratic decisions of the group are strictly self-regarding; the “boundary problem” arises when the groups takes democratic decisions that affect outsiders, those who have been excluded from the demos by the initial boundary decision. And that happens quite often. Groups then take decisions that have consequences for other people who have had no say in the matter. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but other times the boundary decision has been made precisely in such a manner that the outsiders have been excluded on purpose. An example of the former case is the decision by a democratic country to exploit its rainforest for wood exports, impacting the global climate. An example of the latter is the disenfranchisement of felons and the subsequent democratic decision to impose forced labor on prisoners.

This last example already indicates that the boundary problem isn’t limited to national frontiers. These national frontiers obviously raise important problems (and not only when they are contested, as in the case of the occupied territories in Palestine where the excluded Palestinians have to live with the decision of democratic Israel), but other, less material boundaries do so as well. In many cases, the prior boundary decision effectively determines (and in some cases is meant to determine) the consequent democratic decisions. When blacks were disenfranchised under the apartheid regime in South Africa, then this determined – and was intended to determine – the nature of the democratic decisions taken by non-blacks.

As is clear from these examples, the boundary problems arises when the decision-makers don’t include all those who are affected by the decisions. The boundary problem therefore violates a basic democratic principle, namely self-government and self-control. The purpose of democracy is precisely the avoidance of heteronomy, the political subjection of a community to the rule of another power or to an external law. The boundary problem can mean the reintroduction of – intended or unintended – heteronomy. Boundaries are obviously necessary for the creation of democracy – no democracy without a fixed demos, and no demos with boundaries, exclusion and inclusion – but they can also undo it, namely when they exclude people who are affected by the decisions of those who are included.

The rule that we should try to include in the demos all those who are affected by democratic decisions sounds good in theory but raises problems of its own. For example, it’s never clear beforehand who will be affected by a decision, and hence it’s impossible to include all those who may be affected. In addition, the affected population is extremely different from one decision to another, meaning that the rule would force us to radically reconsider and alter the demos for each decision. That seems practically impossible. And finally, the affected population may be very far away, physically, or may cover the entire world population, including those not yet born. Again, difficult if not impossible to solve this in practice.

Bob Goodin, who has thought about this a lot more than me,  states that we may perhaps not be able to always include all those affected by all decisions, but there is less and more. He states that over-inclusiveness is less of a problem than under-inclusiveness, and proposes some practical ways in which to promote inclusiveness.

Another way to solve the boundary problem is international democracy – i.e. the creation of democratically governed cooperative inter-state institutions. This can solve the problem of negative externalities imposed by the democratic decisions of one state on other states.

We can also do something about the boundary problem by granting immigrants some degree of voting rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees typically have no voting rights, even in the most democratic of countries. This is exacerbated by the often very restrictive citizenship application rules. And, finally, issues of global justice are also instances of the boundary problem. Decisions by rich countries regarding import quotas, free trade arrangements etc. obviously impact the poor in other parts of the world.

There is also another problem, similar to the boundary problem. People may not be de iure excluded from the demos, but de facto. I’m thinking here of so-called permanent minorities. Permanent minorities are groups of people who, although not officially disenfranchised, are always subject to the decisions of majorities.  Federalism would allow those permanent minorities that are regionally concentrated, to have self-government. When they are allowed, in a federal system, to make their own self-regarding decisions, they will no longer be affected by national decisions over which they have almost no influence, not because of a lack of voting rights, but because of a lack of voting weight. Federalism can solve the problem of a minority negatively affected by the decisions of a majority, not because it is disenfranchised but because it is a permanent minority.

Economic Human Rights (31b): Certain Objections

Economic rights are a subset of human rights. Put very briefly and simplistically, they are what could be called anti-poverty rights: for example, there’s a right to a certain standard of living, to social security, to work, to fair wages, to healthcare, housing etc.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s no universal consensus on these rights. Some say that these aren’t “real” human rights (like Bill Easterly for example). Others say that these rights are useless or even harmful. Here are a few of the most common objections raised against economic rights.

The big state criticism

Economic rights are believed to require invasion of privacy and hence violations of an important freedom right (freedom rights such as free speech, privacy, habeas corpus etc. are usually distinguished from economic rights, political rights etc.). In order to verify whether people have a right to social security benefits or healthcare benefits, the state has to check people’s income (legal and illegal), their family composition, their health, their medical consumption, their lifestyle etc.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the state is the only or the main party responsible for the realization of economic rights. This is not the case. People in need can call on other people to help. And these other people have a moral responsibility to help. The duties of mutual assistance, charity and philanthropy point to a horizontal aspect of economic rights. People in need do not only have a vertical right to assistance, or a right directed at the state. Their economic rights can be addressed at their fellow citizens, and these have a duty to respect and protect these rights. It’s only when horizontal duties fail that the state should intervene. If we think of economic rights in this way, the dangers of an overbearing state don’t look that ominous anymore.

The rule that economic rights should – in part – be realized by citizens has another advantage as well: economic rights tend to foster community spirit and feelings of solidarity and belonging.

But this insistence on solidarity shouldn’t obscure the rule that people have a responsibility to help themselves and support themselves. This kind of independence is a part of freedom and an important good. Solidarity comes into play only when self-help is unsuccessful or impossible, and the state comes into play only when solidarity is unsuccessful or absent.

Different kinds of duties

Another objection: some say that economic rights, if they are rights at all, are radically different from “normal” human rights – also called freedom rights – and can therefore be given a lower priority (and maybe aren’t even real rights at all). Freedom rights imply duties of abstention or forbearance, whereas economic rights require duties of active help, involvement and intervention. In the case of violations of freedom rights, the remedy is easy: stop doing what you’re doing. In the case of violations of economic “rights”, the remedy is often very difficult if not impossible. If there is no work, no one can give it to me. If a country is poor, no one can raise the standard of living.

When freedom rights are violated, the victim can go to a court and a judge can force the violator to stop his or her actions. When economic rights are violated, it’s useless to go to a court. Not only isn’t there an obvious violator who can be stopped, there is often no one who can stop the violation from happening. Hence it looks like these rights are unenforceable and often have no remedy. Rather than rights, it seems that they are aspirations or policy goals, often long term policy goals.

However, there’s again an erroneous assumption underlying all of this. The distinction between the two types of duties – forbearance and active assistance – isn’t clean-cut. Freedom rights require active intervention by the state in order to enforce forbearance. They require an efficient judiciary and police force. For some states, this may be as unattainable as prosperity. In fact, it’s precisely because of a lack of prosperity that many states are unable to guarantee protection for freedom rights. Of course, the fact that economic rights are a prerequisite for freedom rights isn’t a sufficient reason to call them rights. But neither is it a reason not to call them rights.

Conversely, economic rights often require more forbearance than active intervention. Economic rights in China during the Great Leap Forward would have been better served by state forbearance. All types of human rights require forbearance and intervention. Perhaps economic rights generally need more intervention, but that is a difference in degree and not in essence, and it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the label of “rights” for the aspirations inherent in economic rights.

Ought implies can

There’s another criticism of economic rights, related to the previous one. Economic rights are said to violate a general rule for rights: ought implies can; there can be no obligation to do something if there is no capability to do it. You cannot have a duty to help someone who’s drowning if you can’t swim yourself. Hence the person drowning doesn’t have a right to be assisted by you. The same is said to be true of economic rights which therefore aren’t real rights. If a poor country doesn’t have the resources to help its poor citizens, then these citizens don’t have a right to be helped.

However, we don’t follow the same logic in the case of freedom rights. Freedom rights also require resources, as we have seen. When a state doesn’t have the resources necessary to protect its citizens’ freedom rights, we usually don’t say that the citizens of such a state have lost their freedom rights. People have rights irrespective of the probability that they can be protected. Or better: the less people’s rights are protected, the more important it is that they have rights. And anyway, violations of economic rights don’t occur because there are insufficient resources but because of an unequal distribution of resource, nationally or internationally. So the “can” part of “ought implies can” isn’t as fanciful as the critics of economic rights believe.

Economic rights are superfluous and useless

This is supposed to be the case because free markets should automatically produce a certain standard of living for everyone that is high enough to realize the goals inherent in economic rights. Free trade, deregulated markets and low taxes cause profits to rise, which in turn means more investments, which in turn means more and better jobs and higher incomes. All boats rise on a rising tide.

Now, it’s my belief that history – and especially recent history – has shown that this isn’t enough. Free markets are beneficial, but they don’t automatically provide high standards of living for everyone.

Economic rights are harmful and counterproductive

This is a stronger version of the “useless” argument. Economic rights are believed to require a big state (see above), high taxes and intrusive regulation. All of this hinders the economy and the creation of wealth. As a result of economic rights, there is less wealth to redistribute, and economic rights therefore undo what they want to achieve.

They are also harmful in another way: they violate freedom rights, especially the right to privacy and the right to property (because of redistribution). We’ve already seen that we can mitigate this risk when we include horizontal duties. But even if this risk is real, why should property and privacy automatically rank higher than the absence of poverty? If we assume that economic rights are real rights, then it’s not surprising to see that they can contradict other rights. Contradictions between human rights are very common. The right to privacy is often in conflict with free speech for example. Sometimes one right has to be limited for the sake of another. So why should this be a problem when dealing with economic rights?

Of course, one shouldn’t dramatize. Economic rights and freedom rights are generally not incompatible. On the contrary, they are interdependent. Freedom for the poor often doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, on the other hand, the squeaky hinge gets the oil: poverty has to have a voice if it is to be eliminated.