The Causes of Human Rights Violations (28): Inattentional Blindness

Why do human rights violations endure? Because we don’t see them. Or better, some of them. We often suffer from so-called inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight because we are paying attention to some other details. If we don’t pay attention to an object that is really obvious, we simply will not perceive it, even if we “see” it, and that’s because attention is extremely important for perceiving. The best-known example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla test: observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking through the action.

Recently, a policeman was convicted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else. If even a policeman, trained to spot human rights violations, doesn’t notice them under certain circumstances, why should the rest of us?

If the persistence of human rights violations can be explained – in part – by inattentional blindness, than that’s depressing, since we have every reason to believe that inattentional blindness isn’t going away. On the contrary, our lives and societies are become more and more complex, urbanized and technology-based, requiring higher levels of attention to details. If this complexity makes it more likely that we fail to see certain human rights violations, then it’s clearly very difficult to do anything about them. You can’t change what you can’t see.

More posts in this series are here.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (4): Real Theoretical Life

(please read part 1, part 2 and part 3 first)

In the ideal Platonic society, led by thinking people who use force to train others to become like them, there will be wellbeing because spiritual life, free from the slavery of nature and desires, is the only good life. It means freedom, the satisfaction of knowledge, and peace because the desires and passions of people are the main reason for strife. Also other reasons for strife, such as scarcity, will be eliminated by a planning state taking care of population and birth control. The number of citizens will no longer cause scarcity, envy, territorial expansion and other reasons to go to war.

So Plato started from an initially attractive premise, the importance of a thinking life compared to consumerism, but then issued a whole range of proposals to protect and promote this life which invariably lead to dictatorship. In all this, he is perhaps the classic example of the way in which the combined hostility to nature, materialism and the plurality of society causes hatred for democracy.

But even his premise is questionable. Is solitary reflection of the general, free from appearances and the particular, really the road to wisdom? Perhaps it is more correct to say that sense perception, expression, and hence the use of one’s body and the interaction with other bodies is the best way to gain knowledge. Much of science is still very material, and discussion, argumentation, deliberation and the testing of opinions through expression and discussion protected by human rights can radically improve our opinions.

We need interaction and communication with other people in order to think correctly, and even to think at all. Would we think without our parents and teachers, without speaking and listening to anyone, without engaging in the world of appearances? And would we be able to think more or less correctly without public interaction protected by a democracy and human rights, without venturing in the bigger world of appearances and without leaving our own small and private group of people? Thinking needs the public use of reason (see also this post on Kant). Thoughts are not something you develop on your own, not even in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many freely expressed thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts, and then you need to test your own thoughts in confrontation with others.

By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of himself.

The world of appearances, so disliked by Plato for its volatility and imperfection, actually improves the quality of thoughts because of the range of sources of information and opinions, because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of the a posteriori testing and objecting by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights can help to achieve this. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question and therefore it is difficult to understand how a theoretical life can benefit from the elimination of the world of appearances.

Knowledge can hence be defined in a way which is completely different from the Platonic, passive, lonely, anti-social, introvert, non-discursive contemplation. More on the problem of knowledge and politics here.

Parts 1, 2 and 3

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (1): Appearance and Politics

In this series of 4 posts I will try to give a critical account of Plato’s pessimistic view of democracy and “human rights” or better the guesses one can make about what Plato would have thought about human rights had they existed in his time. (Athenian democracy did have free speech for example, but never extended such rights to humanity; it only respected rights for Athenian citizens. More about Ancient Greek democracy).

Plato had a preference for a very particular form of authoritarian government. Plato looked down upon the democratic polis. The people, according to him, are ruled by their natural desires. Freedom for them is in the first place the freedom to consume as much as they want. They think that they are free in a democracy, but they are the slaves of nature, of passions and lust. They live in the dictatorship of their desires.

According to Plato, the solution to this problem is not the development of technology. That would have been an anachronism and would perhaps not be a solution anyway, because technology only makes it easier to consume and does not offer a life beyond consumption, as was required by Plato. It offers merely the possibility of such a life. Plato’s solution is solitary asceticism, a radical turning away from sense perception and a dedication to an intellectual life of philosophy and theory which he called the “theoretical life“.

A philosopher has to shun the world of sense perception, sense perception in the meaning of the use of senses to fulfill desires, but also in the more general meaning of empirical knowledge production and of listening and speaking to others. In other words, he has to avoid democratic politics. According to Plato’s philosophy, sense perception, and therefore also political deliberation and the use of human rights (explicitly or implicitly), is an illusion, deception and mere appearance instead of reality. The philosopher must turn away from all this and try to take the lonely road towards the light of the eternal truths visible only to the eye of the mind.

These truths are the general ideas, also called “forms”. For example, the concrete chair, a particular appearance of the abstract idea of the chair, is only a poor imitation of the general idea, an ephemeral specimen of the eternal form, a mere approximation of the ideal. The general idea, the truth rather than the approximation, can only be seen by the eye of the solitary mind. Hence the devaluation of perception.

It is not the differences between things, the plurality, that count, but the resemblances. Plato’s ideal is a minimum of difference. Differences must be transcended in order to achieve knowledge of eternal truth. Knowledge is aimed at the unchanging and general ideas, not at the differences between concrete manifestations of these ideas. That is one of the reasons for his hostility towards democracy. Democracy is after all plurality, reaction and change, and resembles the world of appearances, of concrete things, rather than the platonic world of reality and of the eternal and unchanging forms. The people, according to Plato, constantly go from one concrete object to another, without ever seeing the general idea. For example, they go from one consumer product to another, from one policy or politician to another, from one changing opinion to another etc. The unchanging truth, which is beyond the level of the changes caused by persuasion and human rights, is unattainable for most of them.

Read also parts 2, 3 and 4