The Ethics of Human Rights (44): Human Rights Between Cosmopolitanism and Partiality

Cosmopolitanism and partiality (or parochialism if you don’t mean it in a negative sense) are two very strong and yet contradictory moral intuitions. Let’s start with the former. Most of us have a strong sense of the arbitrariness of national borders. The accident of being born on one or the other side of a border – just like the accident of being born black or female – shouldn’t have any moral weight and shouldn’t determine one’s life prospects, as it unfortunately does.

As a result of this intuition, we believe that all people have the same moral worth, and this in turn convinces us that we shouldn’t condone the notion that the suffering or oppression of a fellow-citizen is more urgent or more important than the equal suffering of someone far away. There is something like humanity and all members of the human species have equal value. Being partial and favoring the alleviation of the suffering of some over the alleviation of the suffering of others, just doesn’t sound like the right thing to do. We should help people because they are human beings, not because they are compatriots. If I see a compatriot and a foreigner drowning in a pool I have no reason to save one before the other.

That’s the cosmopolitan intuition. On the other hand, there’s an equally strong intuition favoring some level of partiality. A father watching his daughter and her friend drown in a pool is allowed to save his daughter first if he can save only one. People care more about their friends and family than about strangers, and that’s completely uncontroversial. A bit less uncontroversial but perfectly common is the fact that citizens of a country – through their tax payments – typically provide relatively generous social security and welfare to their fellow-citizens and much less development aid, even though the beneficiaries of development aid are much less well off than many of the beneficiaries of the welfare state. Countries also impose immigration restrictions as a means to protect the prosperity of their reasonably well off citizenry, even if doing so means condemning foreigners to poverty. And finally, states generally enforce the other human rights of their citizens (poverty is a human rights violation) much more rigorously than the rights of foreigners.

Without staking out my position regarding these two contradictory intuitions, I would argue that imposing strict immigration and aid restrictions means taking partiality too far and that we should have more migration, more global redistribution and more international intervention aimed at the protection of human rights. However, you can demand this and still favor some level of partiality over strict cosmopolitanism.

So, the conclusions people draw from the partiality intuition aren’t always morally defensible, but the intuition itself is. And the same is true for the cosmopolitan intuition. In what follows I will ignore those who draw extreme conclusions from either intuition because they tend thereby to ignore the other intuition. Extreme nationalists, chauvinist patriots, racists, “ethical egoists” à la Rand etc. on one side, and the much less numerous “uprooted” citizens of the world and the corporate or non-governmental “modern nomads” who ridicule origins and meaningful national affiliations on the other side. It’s generally not a good idea to deny strong moral intuitions, and certainly not in this case. So I’ll focus on those who recognize the two intuitions and somehow try to juggle them.

How do people do that? Some choose one as the most important and believe that the other can only be followed in addition. Others just accept this as a case of irreconcilable value pluralism and believe that we can’t solve the dilemma. And still others deny that there’s always a conflict between the two intuitions.

Let’s look at those who favor the priority of partiality, see what reasons they have, and how those who favor cosmopolitanism respond. Many of those who favor the partiality intuition agree that we can and should do more to help others in distant places, but they also claim that we shouldn’t do as much for the billions of poor and oppressed people in the world as we do for our local charity, our relatives and friends and even our compatriots. They believe that once we’ve provided a minimum of care and aid to humanity in general, we’re allowed to focus our attention on a partial group or a limited circle of people that have a special meaning to us. They may provide different reasons for this claim. Let’s look at a few and at the ways in which cosmopolitans can reply:

  • Parochialists may argue that we need global institutions similar to national ones in order to provide the same amount and quality of care and aid to humanity as a whole. For example, you need a global welfare state to provide social security to everyone, and an effective global judiciary to punish gross violations of human rights in despotic regimes elsewhere in the world. We can call this the institutional objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could point to the progress in international criminal justice that has already been made, and could also argue that international redistribution of resources doesn’t necessarily require a global welfare state.
  • Parochialist can defend their limited partiality by claiming that relatively small groups of people are best placed to help each other, and that long distance help isn’t the most effective. For example, local judiciaries are better placed to judge local human rights violations than “ivory tower” international institutions, and small groups of people are better able and more motivated to give each other material assistance. Closeness means that you can do more, and if you can do more you should do more. It also means that appeals to help will be better heard and be more persuasive. People far away simply don’t have the necessary information or motivation to help effectively. We can call this the effectiveness and motivational objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could reply that there’s a certain circularity in this argument and that globalization has eroded much of the salience of closeness. I can go to an internet site and donate money to a specific person thousands of miles away. And the modern media have made the suffering of such a person much more salient and motivating.
  • Parochialists can argue that relatively small groups of people are not only best placed to help each other, but have a right to help each other and should be allowed to do so before the international humanitarians come barging in. This is akin to arguments about self-determination and cultural relativism. Caring about other places on the globe means wanting to intervene in those places in order to promote human rights and alleviate suffering. Such intervention may amount to cultural aggression. We can call this the cultural objection to cosmopolitanism. I’ve argued against cultural relativism elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here.
  • Parochialists may claim that partiality is the result of the importance of community membership. People want to belong to communities. This belonging is important for many reasons, notably for personal identity. In order to maintain a community, there have to be special duties towards fellow members. We can call this the community objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could argue that those special duties are different from the global duties imposed on us by human rights and humanitarianism and don’t diminish or replace those global duties.
  • Parochialists can argue that global duties and a global morality are meaningless concepts. Perhaps a real understanding of what a moral duty is can only arise from the communal traditions and language of a particular culture. Morality is then culturally situated, embedded and determined. Moral impartiality and global justice are then oxymorons. This objection to cosmopolitanism is related to the cultural objection, and we can call it the meta-ethical objection. A cosmopolitan could reply that this is a rather strange conception of morality. It’s not uncommon for people to be influenced by moralities from far away. Hence, it’s wrong to claim that morality is completely embedded in culture.
  • Parochialists can argue that cosmopolitanism and the need to treat everyone equally imply the imposition of excessive burdens on the wealthier members of humanity and would therefore be both unrealistic and unfair. Treating everyone equally would leave them with little for themselves and for their partial circle of care. None of them would still wear expensive watches or clothes, go on vacations or give their children an expensive education. We can call this the feasibility objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could answer in different ways. First, things aren’t entirely zero-sum as the parochialist seems to believe. For example, a well-educated child can more effectively help humanity. Hence, the two intuitions don’t have to cancel each other out and people don’t always have to choose. Love for humanity and love for certain people don’t necessarily clash. Secondly, even if it’s not feasible to help everyone, that doesn’t mean we have to be partial. The moral equality of all human beings may require that we select a random group of people to help, rather than our inner circle. Such a random choice would guarantee that we help strangers just as much as relatives, friends and compatriots, even though we can’t help everyone equally. The problem with such a random choice is that you need to know about people in order to be able to help (see the effectiveness objection above). The cosmopolitan could reply that random selection isn’t really necessary and that we can help a lot of people a lot more than we may think, without completely undermining our own wellbeing. It’s not absolutely clear that the world doesn’t hold enough resource to give everyone a decent life.

Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).

This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.

I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).

So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.

Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:

  • First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
  • However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
  • A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
  • We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
  • The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
  • The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.

These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.

Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.