The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (19): Fun With Percentages

A certain company discovered that 40% of all sick days were taken on a Friday or a Monday. They immediately clamped down on sick leave before they realized their mistake. Forty percent represents two days out of a five day working week and is therefore a normal spread. Nothing to do with lazy employees wishing to extend their weekends. They are just as sick on any other day.

A more serious example, now, more relevant also to human rights:

The stunning statistic that 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock is driven, to be sure, by the fact that many poor black women have a lot of children. But it turns out it is also driven by the fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women. (source)

The fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women obviously inflates the percentage of black babies born out of wedlock. If married black women had just as many children as married white women, the proportion or percentage of black babies out of wedlock would drop mechanically. But why do they have fewer children? It seems it’s a matter of being able to afford children.

It’s well known that the black middle class has a lot less in the way of assets than whites of similar income levels – hardly surprising, given the legacy of generations of discrimination and poverty. But that also means that things that a lot of white middle class people take for granted – like help with a down-payment on a house when you have your first kid – are less available. Middle class black parents have less in the way of a parental safety net than their white equivalents, so they’re less likely to have a second kid. (source)

The 70%, when compared to the national average which is about 40%, may seem high, but it’s artificially inflated by the relatively low number of black babies in wedlock. So before you go out yelling (see here for example) that all the poverty and educational problems of African-Americans are caused by the fact that too many of their children are born and raised out of wedlock, and presumably by single parents (although the latter doesn’t follow from the former), and that it’s better to promote “traditional marriage” instead of affirmative action, welfare etc., you may want to dig a bit deeper first. If you do, you’ll paint a more nuanced picture than the one about dysfunctional black families and irresponsible black fathers.

Nevertheless, while the percentages may not be as high as they seem at first glance, it remains true that black babies still make up a disproportionate share of kids born out of wedlock. And if “born out of wedlock” means “single parents” (usually mothers) then this can be a problem. Although many single parents do a great job raising their children (and often a better job than many “normal” families), it can be tough and the risks of ending up in poverty are much higher. And yet, even this is not enough to justify sermons about irresponsible black fathers. Maybe the misguided war on drugs, racial profiling and incarceration statistics have something to do with it.

Measuring Human Rights (6): Don’t Make Governments Do It

In the case of dictatorial governments or other governments that are widely implicated in the violation of the rights of their citizens, it’s obvious that the task of measuring respect for human rights should be – where possible – carried out by independent non-governmental organizations, possibly even international or foreign ones (if local ones are not allowed to operate). Counting on the criminal to report on his crimes isn’t a good idea. Of course, sometimes there’s no other way. It’s often impossible to estimate census data, for example, or data on mortality, healthcare providers etc. without using official government information.

All this is rather trivial. The more interesting point, I hope, is that the same is true, to some extent, of governments that generally have a positive attitude towards human rights. Obviously, the human rights performance of these governments also has to be measured, because there are rights violations everywhere, and a positive attitude doesn’t guarantee positive results. However, even in such cases, it’s not always wise to trust governments with the task of measuring their own performance in the field of human rights. An example from a paper by Marilyn Strathern (source, gated):

In 1993, new regulations [required] local authorities in the UK … to publish indicators of output, no fewer than 152 of them, covering a variety of issues of local concern. The idea was … to make councils’ performance transparent and thus give them an incentive to improve their services. As a result, however,… even though elderly people might want a deep freeze and microwave rather than food delivered by home helps, the number of home helps [was] the indicator for helping the elderly with their meals and an authority could only improve its recognised performance of help by providing the elderly with the very service they wanted less of, namely, more home helps.

Even benevolent governments can make crucial mistakes like these. This example isn’t even a measurement error; it’s measuring the wrong thing. And the mistake wasn’t caused by the government’s will to manipulate, but by a genuine misunderstanding of what the measurement should be all about.

I think the general point I’m trying to make is that human rights measurement should take place in a free market of competing measurements – and shouldn’t be a (government) monopoly. Measurement errors are more likely to be identified if there is a possibility to compare competing measurements of the same thing.