The Ethics of Human Rights (78): Our Duties to People in Other Countries

If we leave aside the minority view that we don’t have any moral duties to other people, as well as the somewhat more common view that we only have duties to a very limited group of people (our tribe, family or nation for example), then we end up accepting that we owe something to the rest of humanity. But what exactly? I don’t want to discuss whether we owe human beings in general the same as what we owe the people we know or the people we are associated with. What I’m interested in here is simply the nature of our obligations to “distant” people, and the basis or reasons of those obligations. Whether they’re stronger, weaker or just as strong as the obligations to “those nearer and dearer” is not the topic of this post (I have an older post about that).

1. What should we do? What are our obligations?

I think there are basically three types of obligations to distant others:

  • we have a duty to protect their human rights; this implies both abstaining from violating their rights and assisting them in the protection of their rights when those are violated (this is a legal duty)
  • we have a duty to create a more just global order (a duty of justice)
  • and we have a duty to act benevolently (a duty of beneficence).

1.1. Protect rights

This duty is in fact a set of different sub-duties:

  • A negative duty to stop violating rights ourselves. For example, if we apply a strict policy of closed borders, we violate certain rights of people in other countries (their freedom of movement, their right not to suffer poverty etc.). Our duties demand that we stop this policy.
  • A negative duty to stop assisting others who violate human rights. For example, the oppressive government of another country violates the rights of its citizens by means of weapons supplied by us (or by firms established in our country and exporting with our approval). Our duties demand that we stop assisting this government in this way.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to stop human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when the Rwandan genocide was in progress.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to prevent human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when it became clear that a genocide was about to occur in Rwanda.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to create the preconditions for human rights. For example, when the institutions in other countries are dysfunctional or absent (in the case of failed or weak states) we have a duty to assist these countries’ efforts in institution building, so that they end up with institutions capable of protecting the rights of their citizens.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to assist people’s efforts to overcome their poverty. Since poverty is a human rights violation, this is not really a separate duty: we shouldn’t create or aggravate poverty in other countries, we shouldn’t assist when others (e.g. foreign governments) create or aggravate poverty, and we have a duty to end and prevent poverty, and to create the institutions that make it possible to end and prevent poverty. However, I mention it separately because some of the specific means of intervention are peculiar to poverty, and don’t apply to other human rights (take for example development aid).

Our duties to intervene can cover

  • either only gross violations of some human rights (crimes against humanity, emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters or other humanitarian crises) – also called r2p
  • or violations of human rights in general.

Gross violations may warrant specific types of intervention that are not allowed for violations in general, for example military intervention. More mundane violations require other types of intervention, such as aid, conditional aid, diplomatic intervention, economic boycotts, universal jurisdiction etc. Intervention can also be either multilateral through the UN, or unilateral. Preferably it’s a legal form of intervention, but if necessary it can also be illegal – morality trumps law.

1.2. Create a just global order

Perhaps we should do more than just rid the world of human rights violations and extreme poverty. The world is a very unequal place, and will continue to be so even when all human rights are protected and poverty has been eliminated (given a certain definition of poverty). So maybe we also have a duty to create a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, resources and/or opportunities across countries.

However, this duty is much more controversial than the previous one (1.1). Contrary to human rights violations, there is also no legal standard prohibiting an unjust and grossly unequal global order. Hence, given the uncertainty about this second type of duty, it’s safe to argue that we should take it to be a negative duty at most. In other words, we should not make the world more unequal and more unjust than it already is, and we should try to remove or improve institutions that make the world order unequal and unjust. More specifically, we have to

  • remove unfair trade agreements or trade restrictions
  • remove the current system of national border restrictions and allow freedom of movement
  • pay reparations or otherwise correct the lingering effects of a violent and exploitative history
  • improve economic regimes that make it impossible to have equal and fair access to natural resources
  • improve international institutions, shaped by the wealthy countries to their advantage
  • etc.

Obviously, many of these actions also remove human rights violations and are therefore covered by the first type of duty. However, even when they don’t they may be required by morality.

1.3. Act benevolently

The classic description of this duty is Peter Singer’s. He gives the example of a child drowning in a pool. We all believe that there’s a strong duty to save this child, even if there’s a certain cost to ourselves – e.g. it’ll ruin our expensive suit. The equivalent of the drowning child happens all the time in distant places, and there are systems in place that allow us to save people all over the world, at a cost that isn’t much higher than the price of a suit. In many cases, all we have to do is donate some money.

This duty to act benevolently can be interpreted more widely. It can involve more than the requirement to save people from disaster. Singer claims that it implies a radically egalitarian obligation: we ought to help others until the next increment of aid would do more good spent on ourselves than transferred to others. Practically, this means helping others until we are ourselves barely better off than the rest. This is extremely demanding, and very controversial, but the narrow interpretation of the duty of benevolence is widely shared.

Again, these three different duties are not always clearly different. There are overlaps. The duty to act benevolently is partly justified by the rights of the beneficiaries: a drowning child and a starving Ethiopian have a right to life. Creating a more just global order will improve respect for people’s rights, and improving respect for people’s rights will make the global order more just. Still, there are differences between these duties and it’s interesting for human rights activists to consider the possibility that people can appeal to moral obligations that go beyond respect for their human rights.

2. Why should we do what we should do? What is the basis of our obligations?

So, now that we stated what we should do, how can we explain why we should do those things? There may be different reasons why we have obligations to help other and distant people:

  • We may be responsible ourselves for their predicament (or at least partially): we may have violated their rights, helped others to violate their rights, or established and maintained an unjust international order (for example because we have been colonizers or because the international trade system that we have imposed is biased in our favor).
  • People have rights, and these rights by themselves create a duty for everyone else to respect and to promote respect for those rights. The duty to protect other people’s rights is not a duty only for those who are responsible for violating these rights. And neither is it a duty limited to those who have a special relationship with victims of rights violations or to those whose social duty it is to promote respect for rights (e.g. judges or police officers). We all have this duty, and we have it simply because others have rights. Hence, we pay taxes that fund the legal institutions that protect citizens against others who violate their rights, that fund schools and hospitals etc. There’s no reason to think that this does not apply globally as well.
  • We may have an obligation to help other and distant people not because their rights create a moral duty to assist, but because other moral values such as justice and/or benevolence or beneficence create such such a duty. If it is in our power to do something about suffering, injustice and inequality without too much of a sacrifice of our own interests and without violating some deontological demands (e.g. do not kill), then justice and/or benevolence may require that we do it.
  • Duties to help others can also be based on enlightened self-interest: national governments have a duty to protect the rights, security and prosperity of their own citizens, and in some cases this means protecting the rights, security and prosperity of people in other nations. The poor and oppressed may become refugees; civil wars may spread to other countries or may foster international terrorism; unstable economies may harm the global economic system and the environment etc. Conversely, free and prosperous nations benefit the rest of the world because of the gains of trade, cooperation in science and culture etc.

The Ethics of Human Rights (72): Who’s Responsible for Helping the Poor?

If you’re a heartless cynic, you’ll reply “no one” or “that they help themselves” when asked who should help the poor. If not, you’ll probably offer one of three answers:

  1. Those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. The main champion of this line of thought is Thomas Pogge who we’ve mentioned before on this blog.
  2. Those who can end poverty are responsible for ending it. Who caused poverty and how is really not important. Here it’s Peter Singer who is the main proponent. (I also mentioned him before).
  3. Those who are in a special relationship with poor people are responsible for helping them. The best known representative of this view is David Miller.

The problem is that all three answers sound appealing and yet they are mutually incompatible in some respects. At the same time they seem incomplete without each other. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each answer before dealing with the relationships between them.

Answer 1 focuses on causation: those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. And Pogge has argued very successfully that all poverty as it currently exists in the world is to a large degree if not entirely caused by the actions of people and institutions:

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (source)

Pogge also claims, convincingly, that focusing on the causes of poverty delivers a stronger account of duty. The negative duty to right a wrong for which you are responsible is stronger than the positive duty to help irrespective of whether you’re responsible for the predicament of those you have to help. It does seem to be a widespread moral intuition that the negative duty not to harm, to prevent harm and to rectify harm once you’ve done it is at least more urgent and perhaps also more important than the positive duty to do good. The latter duty is central in answer 2. The idea that we should help because we caused harm seems to carry more weight than the idea that we should help simply because we can.

And yet, there’s a competing intuition that we should help because others have needs, whether or not we are responsible for those needs. So answer 1 doesn’t seem obviously superior to answer 2. In defense of answer 2, Singer gave the example of the drowning child in a famous 1972 paper. Nobody would condone your failure to help a drowning child because you weren’t the one who threw her in the pond. The simple fact that you pass by and that you can help at a minimal cost to yourself is sufficient to ground a duty to help. Poverty, according to Singer, is the same, even if it is poverty far away: the minority of wealthy people in the word can end poverty at a small cost to themselves. We should help people if we can and it doesn’t matter why people need help or who caused the problem in the first place.

If you wish, you can listen to his argument here:

He obviously explains it better than I can.

So we have two strong and seemingly incompatible intuitions here. The advantage of answer 1 is that it appeals to our understanding that negative duties are more urgent. Hence, focusing on causation and personal responsibility can, in theory, accelerate the struggle against poverty. We are more likely to act if we are convinced that we did something wrong.

The advantage of answer 2, on the other hand, is that it renders discussions about the facts of responsibility moot. Indeed, Pogge’s case about the West’s responsibility for poverty in the world is strong but not watertight. One can argue that people are partly responsible for their own poverty, or that local governments and natural conditions are also to blame. Hence, paradoxically, answer 1 can delay effective action because responsibilities first need to be attributed, and that is inherently controversial. Answer 2 then suddenly seems the more effective approach. Furthermore, answer 2 is able to deal with poverty that has no human causes: answer 1 seems unable to force action against poverty caused by natural forces.

And then there’s answer 3 making things even more complex. Answer 1 and 2 also accept that some people have greater duties than others – those who are responsible and those who can help respectively – but answer 3 takes this notion a step further. Those who are in a special relationship to the poor have greater duties to help. Part of the reason for this claim is that a relationship often yields a larger remedial capacity. Parents are better able than strangers to help their children because they have a special relationship with their children: they know them, care more for them, are closer and understand them better. The same can be said for national, linguistic or ethnic communities, according to David Miller. He speaks about “solidaristic communities” where people identify themselves as fellow members sharing a culture or beliefs with other members. This makes distributions easier and more effective.

It’s now the turn of answer 3 to claim to be the more effective one. And indeed, distance does play a role, not only in the effectiveness of actions but also in the willingness to help. Even Singer accepts the latter fact. We may want to change the facts but that takes time. In the meantime, it may be better to count on solidarity within groups than on the duties defended by answers 1 and 2.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that we can give extra weight to the interests of those close to us. This does not imply that we are allowed to neglect the world’s poor, but it does mean that our efforts to help them should not be at the expense of those close to us, including ourselves. If we have a duty to give, then this duty is limited by what we need for ourselves and for those close to us.

So, this concludes the description of different answers to the question in the title of the blog post. The relationship between these answers is a difficult one. They seem incompatible: either we look for those responsible for harm and force them to remedy; or we look for those who can offer a remedy and force them to act; or we look inside solidaristic communities. The duty bearers will sometimes be the same according to all three answers, and then there’s no problem if one, two or three justifications of their duties are successful in forcing them to act. But it can happen that the duty bearers are different people in the three different answers, and then there’s a problem. And we shouldn’t underestimate the probability of this. I personally tend to favor answer 2, but I don’t really have a good argument for this.

The Causes of Poverty (68): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People

You can criticize trade policy, immigration restrictions, bad governance or any other commonly cited cause of poverty, but you shouldn’t forget the obvious: there are a lot of wealthy people in the world who could, without losing much wellbeing (due to the diminishing marginal utility of money), help to lift every single poor person in the world to a much higher level of wellbeing.

The fact is that they could but don’t. We do have progressive taxation systems and other means of redistribution, we have development aid, we have charity etc., but none of these things yields enough money to lift everyone out of poverty. And there’s not enough public support to strengthen these redistribution mechanisms. Development aid is already unpopular at current levels, and don’t even start to talk about tax increases. The tireless efforts of Peter Singer and company to promote giving also have only a small effect.

The insufficiency of giving and other means of redistribution is hard to understand, in particular given the fact that rich people are generally not very dumb and able to understand the law of diminishing marginal utility. Of course, I know about loss aversion, the endowment effect, habit formation, the importance of status etc. But again, wealthy people should in general be the ones best able to overcome biases, to distinguish the important things in life from the unimportant, and to see how helping others can be beneficial to ourselves, both psychologically and socially (helping makes you feel good, and living a good life amid misery is socially untenable). But perhaps I’m wrong about rich people.

And then there’s something else stopping us from giving more (or allowing ourselves to be taxed more, which is roughly the same thing), namely the stories we tell ourselves. For example, you often hear that it’s better to allow people to look after themselves first, so that they can create the conditions in which they unintentionally help. Allowing entrepreneurs to get rich – i.e. not taxing them too heavily and not insisting that they should give their money away rather than invest it – will be much more beneficial to the poor. Many of the poor will get a job thanks to them, and their products and services will also make the lives of many a lot better.

However, this is not incompatible with giving. True, what you give you can’t invest, but we can allow people to delay their giving until the day that they don’t need to invest a lot more. The example of Bill Gates comes to mind. So we can accept that there is some truth to the story that free enterprise takes care of a lot of poverty, and at the same time insist that there should be more giving.

Another story we tell ourselves goes like this: giving people money isn’t a very good way of helping poor people. Many of them will just waste it, middle men will confiscate it, third world governments will misuse it, people will become to depend on it etc. Well, that doesn’t seem to be completely correct. Experiments with conditional cash transfers are very promising. And even if it’s correct to some extent, that’s just an argument to be smarter when giving money: invest it in businesses, healthcare etc.

And finally, there’s the story about agency: helping people is disrespecting them as self-authors and self-governing moral creatures. You may make them materially better off – at least in the short run because dependence on help may create motivational problems in the long run – but you take away their dignity and make them psychologically and morally worse off. People may not want to be helped, and even if they do it may not be in their best long term interest. The problem with this story is not that it’s false as such; it’s that people may not have a long term if we fail to help, and that starvation or homelessness is also an affront to dignity, and surely one that is a lot worse than receiving help.

More about giving is here. More posts in this series are here.