The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

Hate (6): Hate Crime

Practically all crime is “thought crime” in the good ol’ common law sense of the Latin phrase actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea – the act does not make guilt unless the mind be guilty. If we were to take a strict liability approach to all violent crime we would be obliged to place wrongful death on a par with premeditated murder. (After all, it’s not as though the lives of those killed accidentally are worth less.) John Holbo (source)

This nicely debunks the claim that hate crime laws – laws which make the punishment for an existing crime more severe when the crime was motivated by hate for the segment of the population to which the victims belongs – institute “thought crimes” and make thoughts, opinion and beliefs illegal. I believe that hateful motives are aggravating circumstances that should make a penalty more severe. A hate crime is not only a crime against the immediate victim, but is intended to terrorize a whole segment of the population. It creates therefore more victims than is apparent at first sight.

When you mistakenly believe that hate crime laws create thought crimes, you have to conclude that proponents of hate crime laws do not want to punish behavior but want to eradicate hate, or at least reduce the levels of hatred in a society. And then you have a cheap shot: how stupid to want to eradicate hate! Haha! (There’s an example of this kind of reasoning here*).┬áIndeed, that would be stupid, if that’s what proponents of hate crime laws would propose. But they don’t. They simply want to punish crimes, and want to punish a specific kind of crime in a specific – and especially tough – way. They know that there will always be hate, that hate is the price to pay for a free society. Maybe hate crime laws can reduce the amount of hate in a society, but that’s not the main purpose. Hate crime laws want to punish behavior and want to protect people from fear. And they want to signal that society has understood the difference between hate crimes and other types of crimes, even if these other types of crimes have the same material results.

* The article linked to also irresponsibly blurs the differences between hate speech and hate crime. When you do that, it’s of course much easier to attack hate crime laws because then it becomes much more “obvious” that hate crime laws are “in fact” thought crimes.

The Ethics of Human Rights (6): Human Rights and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values. Abraham Maslow

Economic theory is or was dominated by the assumption of the homo economicus, the human being as a rational, perfectly informed and self-interested actor who desires nothing but wealth and profit. It is certainly one of the achievements of Maslow that today we are all conscious of the variety and complexity of human motivation and human needs.

A human need is something that is essential to survive and to survive in a decent, happy and fulfilling manner. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with the lowest or most fundamental needs at the bottom. He distinguished 5 types of needs:

  1. Physiological needs such as food, water and sleep
  2. Safety needs such as security of the body, health and property
  3. Social needs such as friendship, family, belonging and identity
  4. Esteem needs such as recognition, self-esteem, confidence, justice and respect
  5. Growth or self-actualization needs such as creativity, problem solving, art, beauty, personal fulfilment and freedom.

The assumption of the hierarchy is that the lower needs have to be met first, and are preconditions for the realization of the higher needs, although a temporary insufficiency in the lower levels will not undo the aspirations of the higher levels. For example, a surgeon who normally has no problem satisfying his or her physiological or safety needs, and instead focuses on recognition, may be forced to concentrate temporally on his or her health without sacrificing the overriding importance of recognition.

Conversely, someone who normally has problems satisfying lower level needs, will not find the resources necessary to focus on higher level needs.

Criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The hierarchy is not strict or linear. Higher needs can sometimes become so strong that they override the lower needs: the need for recognition for example can overcome the need to survive (we’ll call this “courage”). And people do not always automatically move from one, satisfied need to a higher one. It’s not because someone’s physiological and safety needs are satisfied that he or she necessarily strives towards recognition or self-development. The latter needs are very weak for some people, just as they can be overriding for others.

Also, how do we determine that a particular need is “higher” than another? Doesn’t this imply subjective judgment? Why would hedonism for example be inferior to self-development? I agree it is, but that’s just my subjective preference. I have no way of proving to a hedonist that he or she is wrong.

Some needs can also become too important, at the expense of other needs. In the American culture for example one can observe that recognition (“fame”) is given way too much attention, and to a certain extent the physiological and safety needs are reduced to a matter of individual responsibility. In Islam, there is an exaggerated focus on respect and honor, and’a0too little attention’a0is given to’a0self-development and freedom.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human rights

This indicates that a strict, universal hierarchy among human needs does not exist. But while it is certainly impossible to offer a fixed hierarchy or even classification of ever-changing needs in an ever-changing society, the model of Maslow offers some advantages. Especially its relationship to the issue of human rights is interesting.

First of all, one could claim that all human rights violations are caused by conflicts between human needs, between one type of need for one person and the same need for another person (e.g. food or safety), or between different types of needs for different persons (e.g. the needs of justice and the needs related to the safety of property).

This is not completely correct because many rights violations have other causes: outright evil, unintended consequences of actions, structural or institutional causes, self-inflicted causes etc. But it remains useful to see rights violations in the light of needs. However, one shouldn’t expect too many useful results from this approach. How to quantify which needs are causing which violations or conflicts? Or to quantify which needs would be met when respecting a particular human right?

Secondly, there is a hierarchy in the system of human rights that can be linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are different types of human rights, and one can claim that respect for some types of rights is a precondition for respect for other types. In this post I outlined the argument that social and economic human rights, which are rights that give people the opportunity to fulfill their physiological and safety needs, are necessary prerequisites for the exercise of freedom rights, which are rights that are more focused on people’s social, esteem and growth needs (and some safety needs as well such as bodily integrity, property and life).

However, things are not as simple as that. Here I argued that freedom rights and even political rights can help to meet physiological and safety needs. Furthermore, it is far fetched to describe some of the purposes of some human rights as “needs”: is equality or justice a need? Or is it rather a “value”, something that is important in our lives but not quite a “need”?