The Ethics of Human Rights (39): The Effect of Time on Human Rights Violations

What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?

  1. Perhaps there’s no effect: a crime remains a crime, and a rights violation remains a rights violation, even if all the victims have died long ago and their descendants don’t continue to suffer from the fact that their ancestors were wronged.
  2. Perhaps the passage of time erodes the severity of rights violations.
  3. Or perhaps the passage of time makes rights violations worse.

I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.

Time has no effect

We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).

An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.

The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.

So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.

Time erodes the rights violation

Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.

Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.

Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.

Time makes things worse

An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (17): Freedom From Nature

From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.

Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.

The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated many harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.

Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.

This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.

However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.

The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.

So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.

One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.

That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).

Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.

What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.

Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.

This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.

The Causes of Poverty (26): Hereditary Poverty, Another Poverty Trap

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. Mark 14:7

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land”. Deuteronomy 15:11

As a result of having parents who are poor, children

  • receive substandard education because they enroll in substandard schools (if at all)
  • may be forced to quit school early and start working
  • do not receive quality healthcare (because of the costs)
  • are more likely to be obese, with negative consequences for their health
  • have a lower birth weight, something which also has a negative impact on health.

Growing up in poor families has negative effects on children’s education and health, and these effects in turn make it more likely that these children grow up to become poor as well. And their children will go through the same process, and so on. Hence the concept of hereditary poverty.

Just a few more words on the effect of substandard education. The quality of schools (or better the cost of good schools) and the element of child labor aren’t the only factors limiting the education levels of children in poor families. An interesting article in The Economist points to effects discovered by neuroscience. It seems that stress, induced by poverty, lowers memory capacity, and this lowered memory capacity makes it more difficult to learn and to obtain a good education as a means to escape poverty traps. It’s been well known for a while that stress lowers memory capacity (it reduces the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with memory). However, Evans and Schamberg (see the paper here) showed that stress caused by poverty reduces memory capacity. First they showed that poverty is correlated with higher stress, and then that higher stress is correlated with lower memory capacity. Comparisons of the memory capacities of poor and middle class people showed indeed a difference in memory capacity, and this is caused by poverty induced stress rather than other elements of poverty. Poverty causes stress, which reduces memory, which in turn makes it harder to learn, which in turn makes it more difficult to escape a poverty trap. How does poverty cause stress? Well, there’s the obvious cause: financial insecurity. But low self-esteem caused by poverty (including for children in poor families) also seems to contribute. See this paper for instance.

The poor indeed will always be with us. At least if we don’t help them to get out of the traps in which they find themselves.