The Ethics of Human Rights (94): Spheres of Life

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I was never happy with some of the traditional distinctions in political theory such as state-church, state-society, etc. (The same is true for some traditional equations such as public and state). Don’t get me wrong, I think these two distinctions in particular are very important, but they tend to become simplistic in political discussions.

That is why I would like to propose a new model, which contains the distinctions, but also makes the different spheres overlap. Moreover, it includes an important distinction which is seldom made but very useful when discussing the problem of religious politics in a society which at the same time values religion in politics AND wants to hold on to the separation of church and state: namely the distinction between politics and the state. This distinction also makes it possible to accept a high level of citizen engagement in politics (direct democracy for instance) without abandoning the important distinction between state and society (some argue that direct democracy leads to a blurring of this distinction, and hence leads to an infiltration of the state in society, with totalitarianism as a result).

My model is stylized as a figure composed of squares and numbers. The squares represent the spheres of human life. I identify 7 overlapping or encompassing spheres: private and public life, personal and family life, social life, political life, and the state.

The numbers in the figure represent types of human activities: feelings, thoughts, judgments, relationships and actions.

The model is prescriptive, not descriptive: it pretends to describe an ideal situation, not actual human life. I understand that reality is too complicated to be forced into a simple drawing, but simplifications are often useful.

The gray area in the figure represents the scope of legitimate legislation, again ideally speaking. The whole of the state’s activity should be legislated. No state activity should take place outside of the law. This is the concept of the rule of law. All other parts of life can be partially regulated by law, apart from the purely personal, the activities which do not regard other people and which can never inflict harm on other people (for example thoughts, convictions, suicide, euthanasia etc.). This is John Stuart Mill ‘s Harm Principle.

Some examples of the different types of human activity, linked to the numbers in the figure above:

  1. Feelings of loneliness
  2. Marital infidelity or adultery (in some countries, the grey area would extend to this); Raising children in the family, but not the task of educating children, because education is that part of raising children, which is a public activity (education is the transmission of public knowledge) and is part of number 8
  3. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions about family life, for example the division of labor in the family (some feminists or egalitarians demand government intervention and regulation in order to establish a more equal division, and according to them the grey area should extend to this)
  4. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions unrelated to family life, for example convictions about the permissibility of suicide
  5. Gardening
  6. Child abuse
  7. Violence within the family, caused by patriarchy
  8. A sports club
  9. A cultural society, a church, certain political convictions
  10. A school (the government has a right and a duty to regulate education to some extent, hence it is in the grey area)
  11. Political participation outside government institutions, for example electing representatives, voting in a referendum, membership of and activity in a political party, participation in political demonstrations, in pressure groups, in lobbying etc.
  12. Political participation within government institutions, for example participation in local government meetings, in a jury, being an elected representative in parliament
  13. Espionage. Espionage is obviously not a public activity, but it is nevertheless part of public life, because in a democracy, espionage must become public, after the fact. It is a secret activity, not because it should never be known to the public, but because it involves acts that require secrecy, in order to be successful and effective. However, this requirement loses its force a certain time after the performance of the acts, which is why these secret acts can become public after a while.
  14. Administration, government bureaucracy

Human Rights Promotion (20): Exposing Criminals

There are a number of private initiatives aimed at publishing personal information about convicted criminals. Websites such as CriminalCheck.com, ukpaedos-exposed.com, Lexbase.se and so on publish information about criminals’ place of residence after they’ve left prison, or even their contact information. Newspapers as well seem to make it a point of honor to mention personal details in their crime reporting. Sometimes the “criminals” are people who are merely suspected of a crime.

This kind of thing is said to be justified as a form of privatized human rights enforcement. If people know where criminals live or work, they can steer clear of danger and increase their physical safety or the security of their property. Public knowledge about ex-cons also serves to “shame” them – including some potential criminals – and that again is something which may reduce the risk of future crimes. In any case, the overall justification seems to be enhanced protection of the rights of possible victims through private crime prevention.

Purveyors of personal information about criminals claim that what they do is protected by free speech rights – including the right to access information. Maybe it is, but in that case we seem to have a conflict between rights. Criminals have a right to privacy, and information about their past convictions may well be part of their private lives. Publication of this information could sometimes also endanger some of their other rights, such as their right to work, to choose a residence etc. -given what we know about public harassment and discrimination of people known to have a criminal past.

What to do about this conflict of rights? Perhaps violations of the rights of criminals are an acceptable price to pay for the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of possible victims. Even violations of criminals’ right to physical security – given the possibility of violent retaliation by past victims or vigilante hotheads – may be viewed as an acceptable risk. Some even want to argue that exposing criminals is a matter of justice: too lenient court sentences can be corrected by private retaliation made possible by published information.

I guess most of us would agree that this goes too far. Even if we believe that sentences are too lenient, we shouldn’t view private retaliation as an acceptable justification or byproduct of public exposure of convicted criminals. I don’t think there’s a large constituency against the right to physical security for criminals who have served their time (or for those still serving their time). A reasonably well-functioning criminal justice system should take care of punishment. And when we don’t have a well-functioning criminal justice system, the obvious goal is to improve it, not privatize it.

The best case in favor of private efforts to expose criminals is based not on retaliation but on the rights of the exposers and of possible victims. You can make the case that criminals’ general right to privacy can sometimes be overruled in favor of the right to free speech of the exposers and the right to physical safety and property of potential victims.

On the face of it, that’s not a ridiculous claim. Different rights often contradict each other, and it’s quite common that some rights should give way to some other rights in certain specific cases. Neither is it ridiculous to claim that private initiative has in general a role to play in human rights promotion. However, I don’t think we’re dealing here with a good example of a helpful private initiative. For two reasons.

  1. Balancing acts between rights are treacherous and best left to professional judges. Convicted criminals – or anyone else for that matter – have no right to be free from shame or public humiliation but they do have a right to privacy and to be free from harassment and vigilante justice. We should take these rights seriously, even if – and perhaps because – we are dealing with the rights of criminals. These criminals have already paid the price for their crimes and should be protected against violations of their rights. An attack on their privacy should therefore be avoided if at all possible, especially if such an attack can invite further violations of their rights such as vigilante justice, work problems, family problems etc. It’s unlikely that a balancing act between the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of the criminals would be decided against the latter. A balancing exercise between the exposers’ right to free speech and the criminals’ right to privacy would almost always favor the latter. The harm done to the rights of criminals when favoring free speech rights is more important than the harm done to the rights of the exposers when favoring privacy rights.
  2. If you’re not convinced by this and you still want to make the case that criminals’ right to privacy should be limited for the sake of someone else’s free speech right, then you still face another problem. It doesn’t seem right that criminals’ privacy should give way because there’s a risk of future violations of property or security rights of others. There has to be more than a mere risk, and typically there isn’t in these cases. People engage in the exposure of criminals because of the supposed risk of having criminals close by, not because these criminals are actually engaged in crime.

More about this here and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (71): The Rights of the Dead

Can the living violate the rights of the dead? Assuming that the dead are gone, they can’t be harmed. So the obvious answer would be “no”. And yet, I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable about cases such as the death of Whitney Houston some time ago: certain very intimate and private details about her and her death were leaked to the press. So in some sense we believe that the dead deserve privacy.

Also some time ago, there was an uproar about Mormons posthumously baptizing people. Maybe this is harmless: the dead, again, can’t be harmed. If you believe in an afterlife, then things are different of course. For non-Mormon believers, posthumous baptism harms the dead because their wishes and agency are intact after death and are not respected by posthumous baptizers; for Mormons, on the other hand, a lot of good is done because it saves the dead from eternal damnation. But again, it seems like a belief in an afterlife isn’t a requirement for having a feeling of unease about the practice. Even the dead deserve respect of their agency and their choices in life. Posthumous baptism implies a negative judgment about people’s lives. Unintentionally, it also implies a negative judgment of the religion that engages in the practice: if you can’t convince the living to join your church and feel the need to co-opt them after death, then that says a lot about your appeal.

I could cite many other cases: there was this one about funeral disturbances; there’s of course the rule against necrophilia; and the argument against presumed consent for organ donation also relies on the rights of the dead (“my dead body belongs to me and the state can’t just confiscate it for organ donations if I haven’t explicitly consented to this”). Personally, I find this latter invocation of the rights of the dead much less appealing than the other ones I’ve cited: if the right to speech and the right to vote die with us, why not the right to control our bodies? Still, I mention the case because it’s testimony to a widespread belief that the dead have at least some rights.

Many of these discussions are “contaminated” by the effects of certain practices on the living. For example, it can be seen as offensive to living Jews if dead Jews are systematically baptized posthumously. We want to ignore those effects for argument’s sake and in order to determine whether the dead have certain rights. I now think they do.

If I’m right, this supports my previously stated view that human rights are about more than protection against harm – if the dead can’t be harmed and have rights nonetheless, then rights aren’t just about harm.

More on the rights of the dead here and here. More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (31): Instrumental and Not Fundamental Moral Principles

It may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, but human rights are not fundamental moral principles. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant. On the contrary. There’s a difference between important and fundamental. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I believed that human rights are unimportant, but nothing written here is incompatible with the claim that they are not fundamental. The place of human rights in morality is at the level of subordinate principles: they are instruments for achieving or realizing other values; values such as peace, wellbeing, prosperity, freedom, equality etc.

The reason why this is the case, is made clear by the lack of meaning and usefulness of the contrary argument. Suppose that human rights are fundamental moral principles. We would then have to adopt some kind of rights deontology or rights utilitarianism:

  • In rights deontology, rights are to be respected in all or most instances (deontology is a type of morality that judges an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule).
  • In rights utilitarianism, the goal is to maximize overall rights protection (utilitarianism is a type of morality that judges an action based on the action’s good consequences).

Both rights deontology and rights utilitarianism demand that rights are protected, not because rights serve some other value, but because rights are the fundamental moral values. Now, this is both meaningless and unhelpful.

  • It’s meaningless because in everyday conversation and thinking, we don’t view rights in this way. I have never seen anyone making a convincing case that people need freedom of speech because freedom of speech is a fundamental value. The common argument is rather that we need that right because it allows us to realize some other values (political freedom, rationality, truth etc.). The claim that a violation of our right to free speech is wrong does not express a fundamental or axiomatic moral principle. It’s the result of complex arguments about the importance of other values and about the ways in which this right protects those other values. (The latter point obviously depends on non-philosophical and empirical claims as well). The opposite claim, that protecting rights has value even if no other value is advanced, has a distinct emptiness about it.
  • Placing rights at the basis of morality is also unhelpful in the sense that it doesn’t tell us what to do in difficult moral cases. In general, we should of course consider human rights as strong rules that we should respect, and we should also arrange our society in such a way that rights protection is maximized. But what should we do when different rights are in conflict with each other and are mutually incompatible? That happens quite often, and neither rights deontology nor rights utilitarianism are of any help when it does. You can only resolve a conflict between rights when there are certain more fundamental values at stake. When two conflicting rights are understood as instrumental values serving the realization of other, more fundamental values, then we can try to ascertain which one of the conflicting rights does a better job. For example, when a tabloid journalist hacks a politician’s cell phone in order to dig up some lurid details about his or her sex life, then one can argue that the politician’s right to privacy should prevail over the journalist’s right to free speech, given the fact that the right to privacy is in this case protecting more important values than the right to free speech. Privacy, intimacy etc. are more important than sensationalism or voyeurism.

Does all this mean that human rights can and should be ignored or violated if doing so maximizes the values that they normally protect? Yes. Rights are not absolute. However, because it’s generally not the case that ignoring or violating human rights maximizes the values that they normally protect, and because rights normally do a very good job protecting those values, it is best not to cast them aside every time a modest or marginal improvement in fundamental values can perhaps be achieved by doing so. Otherwise we would demote rights and decrease their importance in the general culture. And that would be detrimental to our fundamental values in the long run. Hence, it’s probably not a good idea to argue the case that human rights are instrumental rather than fundamental. If the general public is convinced that they are fundamental, then that is beneficial for our really fundamental values. Hence, maybe you shouldn’t have read this post.

Hence, there is a consequentialism inherent in rights, but it’s not a consequentialism of rights – we should arrange society in such a way that certain values are promoted, not that rights are promoted. Yet, arranging society in such a way that rights are promoted is a good proxy for a society in which values are promoted.

The Ethics of Human Rights (47): What’s So Funny About Paternalism?

In general, those who promote human rights will not be tempted to engage in paternalistic policies. That’s because human rights are about protecting people against each other, not about protecting people against themselves. And one of the foundations of human rights is the moral value of personal autonomy: people have a right to organize their lives according to their own plans and reasons, free from the influence and manipulation of others, even if others believe they are mistaken or self-destructive. Personal autonomy in this sense of the word is the basis of rights such as the right to privacy, property, political participation etc.

So, paternalism can be seen as detrimental to human rights. On the other hand, all societies are to some extent paternalistic, with the apparent consent of all. So what’s the deal? Let’s go through this topic in a systematic way, starting with some definitions, typologies and proposed justifications of paternalism, in order to end up with a clearer vision about paternalism’s temptations, dangers and limits.

Definition of paternalism

Paternalism is

  • interference
  • usually by the government
  • with an agent’s strictly self-regarding actions
  • and against the will of the agent.

It’s the use of coercion, force or incentives, against the initial will of the agent, with the purpose of imposing or preventing a certain type of action or lifestyle that has, respectively, positive or negative consequences for the agent and that does not harm or benefit a third party.

The purpose of paternalism is therefore to make the agent who is the object of paternalistic force, better off. She’s better off because she is forced, by the paternalist, to do good things to herself or to abstain from doing harm to herself.

Types of paternalism

This definition allows us to distinguish two types of paternalism: positive and negative (these qualifiers do not imply value judgments):

  • positive paternalism means forcing people to benefit themselves
  • negative paternalism means forcing people not to harm themselves.

The latter is much more common, I believe. Examples are anti-drug legislation, laws forcing people to wear seat belts or crash helmets etc. An example of the former are laws requiring people to contribute to a pension fund (although that case may not be strictly self-regarding since part of the motivation for such laws is the protection, not only of the future pensioner, but of his or her descendants or society in general).

Paternalism should therefore be distinguished from other types of coercion that aim at preventing people from harming others or forcing people to benefit others (such as laws against murder or laws imposing taxation respectively). Such non-paternalistic types of coercion focus on other-regarding consequences, whereas paternalistic coercion focuses on self-regarding consequences. Paternalism wants to limit the harm people’s actual or possible voluntary actions can do to themselves, and maximize the benefits that people’s possible but not voluntarily chosen actions can produce for themselves.

Paternalists are therefore “do-gooders” who want to maximize people’s utility, benefits, happiness, wellbeing etc. and who believe that this requires more than mutual protection.

(Other typologies of paternalism are, of course, possible: a soft form of paternalism would not intervene if people consciously and with full knowledge harm themselves, and only when self-harm results from lack of information; or would only intervene using incentives or “nudges” rather than coercion; hard paternalism would discount knowledge and intervene anyway; paternalism may be limited to the means people choose for their ends, or may also include these ends etc.).

Justifications of paternalism

Paternalists offer different reasons why they think that people, in some cases, should be prevented from engaging or forced to engage in certain actions.

  • As stated a moment ago, there may be a lack of knowledge on the part of the agent forcing the agent to unwittingly harm herself or fail to benefit herself. And this can be a lack of knowledge of different kinds:
    • First, the agent may not be aware of the harmful self-regarding consequences of a chosen or intended action, or may not be aware of the beneficial self-regarding consequences of an unchosen and unwanted action. In such cases, there are two possibilities. Either the simple delivery of information regarding the consequences – for example through education or communication – is enough to convince the agent to avoid harmful action or to choose beneficial action, and then no paternalistic action is necessary. Or this is not enough and paternalistic action is necessary. An example of the latter can be marijuana: according to some paternalists, the consequences of marijuana use are harmful, but this “information” doesn’t seem to register with users.
    • The absence of knowledge may be a deeper problem. The agent may not be aware of her true interests. Example: a terminally ill patient who wants to die may not be aware that her true interest – according to some – is respecting God’s will and God’s rules against suicide.
  • In many cases, people justify paternalism not because there’s a lack of knowledge, but because there’s a lack of “character” on the part of the agent. The agent may know very well what is and is not in her interest and what actions have beneficial or harmful consequences, but she just can’t bring herself to engage in or avoid those actions. There’s clarity about her interests and about consequences, but not the will, the courage, perseverance etc. to act correctly.

Most cases of paternalism, I guess, are of the first kind, where it is assumed that there’s a lack of continuous knowledge and a lack of conscious and lasting awareness of the consequences of certain actions, and that someone else, e.g. the state, knows better.

Hence, paternalism deserves its name. Paternalists assume – much like Plato – that society is divided into two groups of people, the “fathers” and the “children”, those who know better and are more rational, and those who don’t know and can’t be counted on to take their lives into their own hands. However, paternalism goes beyond the father-child metaphor because it believes that the “children” will never fully grow up: knowledge about consequences acquired through information and education, knowledge about which actions are or are not in the best interests of people, or knowledge about how people can act to best serve their true interests will often not be enough to act in a certain way. Apart from knowledge, character can be lacking, and that’s a fault that is much more difficult to correct without continuous paternalistic force.

The temptation of paternalism

So, all that sounds pretty awful, and yet all or most societies engage in some kind of paternalism without much public opposition. The examples given above are quite common. And indeed, some forms of paternalism are quite harmless and difficult to avoid. John Stuart Mill cites the case of a bridge that is about to collapse. The circumstances are such that only engineers are in a position to know this. Regular drivers don’t and can’t know the consequences of their actions – in this case driving across the bridge – and should therefore be prevented from acting by those who know better. This isn’t usually called paternalism, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear difference between this case and real cases of paternalism, such as laws forcing people to wear crash helmets (assuming that the reason why people don’t wear helmets is an insufficient awareness of the possible consequences), or moral rules dictating that we should try to convince our friends not to commit suicide if they are so inclined.

So, paternalism is there to stay. I don’t think there are many “hard anti-paternalists” around. Hence, as is often the case on this blog, we are faced with value pluralism and two contradicting values: in some cases it’s obviously good to protect people against themselves, but at the same time it is generally correct to respect people’s autonomy, their self-determination and their right to make their own decisions and to live according to their own reasons and motives, free from external forces.

Where’s the trade-off? I would say that the burden of proof is on those wishing to limit people’s autonomy, given the general importance of autonomy. Their case can made stronger when, for example, there’s absolutely no doubt that a certain course of action will produce serious harm to the agent. Otherwise the case for paternalistic coercion is less strong and the best we can do is simply warn people of the possible consequences. Their case can also be made stronger when medical opinion about an agent’s neurological or psychological disorders is unanimous.

The dangers of paternalism

The burden of proof is on paternalists because of the risks inherent in paternalism. We also tend to overestimate the effectiveness of paternalism. Generally, individuals are the best judges of their own needs and wants and of the means to realize them. It’s not obvious that a paternalistic class of “fathers” can have better knowledge, given the vast number of people, options and risks involved. And even if individuals make mistakes, the harm done by forcing them into a system in which they are treated like children may be greater than the harm they do to themselves when left alone. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves and the value of this freedom can sometimes compensate the cost of self-inflicted harm. It’s also likely that mistakes make people better judges.

Does that mean that people should have the freedom to damn themselves? In most cases, yes, if that’s someone’s free and voluntary choice, made in the light of all the information available and accessible to her.

Human Rights Promotion (1): Are “Social Media” and the Internet in General Good or Bad for Human Rights?

Well, it depends, as they say. “Both” is of course the only correct answer. If you’re an optimist, you would say that:

  • Social media make it easier for people to mobilize and coordinate their activities in the event of anti-authoritarian protests; to publish alerts in case of police attacks etc. They are a useful tool in strengthening resolve and confidence, given the fact that people will only turn up at potentially dangerous protest marches when they feel confident that a very large group will turn up (see here).
  • Free speech is of course greatly enhanced by the internet, including the right to information (the passive side of free speech).
  • The internet improves the marketplace of ideas; see here.

On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you would say that:

  • The internet and social media allow governments to monitor dissidents. For example, an authoritarian government can track dissident groups through Facebook profiles and friend networks, through Twitter communications and email etc.
  • Those governments can also use the internet to distribute propaganda, while stifling dissenting voices (they have the hardware, the software and the access to providers necessary to censor the internet).
  • Terrorist groups also have been successful users of the internet, particularly through video messages and videotaped atrocities.
  • There are the obvious privacy concerns. Etc.

The question therefore isn’t “good v. bad” but how to promote the good effects while minimizing the bad ones. In any case, internet euphoria about “twitter revolutions” and such seems very simplistic.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (23): Privacy, Justifications and Objections

The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:

Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Types of privacy

Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):

  • Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
  • Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
  • Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
  • Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
  • Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.

(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).

All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.

Justification of privacy

Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.

Objections to privacy

Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.

However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.

Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.

Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).

Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically

Human rights cost money. It’s often claimed that economic human rights aren’t really human rights because they are so expensive for many governments in the world that they can’t realistically impose duties: governments of poor countries can’t be expected to respect a duty to provide healthcare, housing, food, work etc. Ought implies can. You can’t be under an obligation if there’s no way you can honor that obligation. It’s claimed, therefore, that economic rights are mere aspirations rather than rights.

Yet, the same argument can be made about the supposedly more distinguished and respectable freedom rights. It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.

Providing effective and non-corrupt police forces and judiciaries is expensive. Probably just as expensive as providing a good public healthcare system. True, rights have to be enforceable, and duties shouldn’t be farcically unrealistic. But I fail to see the ontological difference here between freedom rights and economic rights.

We also shouldn’t overestimate the cost of economic rights. The purpose of these rights is not to have a government that gives healthcare, food, work etc. to every single citizen. That would destroy the economy. A system of economic rights will require that most people provide these goods for themselves through work and economic activity. It will also require that citizens show generosity and help each other. Economic rights also create duties for fellow-citizens. The government supplies the goods in the remaining cases, when self-help and mutual help are not enough.

As a result, the cost of economic rights isn’t as high as a cursory reading of these rights would imply. Conversely, the cost of freedom rights is often higher than one would conclude at first sight: true, these rights often require abstinence and forbearance (“don’t invade my privacy or inhibit my speech”) and that’s something cheap. But the enforcement and equal protection of those rights and the enforcement of forbearance requires an efficient government, which is expensive.

Something about another cost issue related to human rights, namely the relative cost of freedom and dictatorship, is here.

What Are Human Rights? (22): Part of the Rule of Law

The claim here is not the trivial one that human rights depend on the rule of law because they can’t be enforced without it. The more interesting question is the opposite one: whether there can be a rule of law without human rights. Or, in other words, is the rule of law a necessary but not a sufficient condition for human rights?

At first sight, the answer to both questions would be “yes”. Indeed, the law can be anything, and as long as it “rules” in some way – i.e. as long as the laws are consistently enforced and not superseded by frivolous and arbitrary commands of men – one could claim that there is some sort of “rule of law”, even if the laws in question violate human rights. Civilizations had the rule of law long before the concept of human rights even existed (the Roman Empire may be an example).

Joseph Raz has famously claimed that

the law may, for example, institute slavery without violating the rule of law. (source)

Nazi Germany was also very much a law based society. (See here for example). Indeed, it can be plausibly claimed that strong and authoritarian states are better able to impose rules. That would lead to an incompatibility between human rights and the rule of law.

The fact that many if not most dictatorships make a mockery of the rule of law and of the law itself, and govern in a totally arbitrary way based on the whims of a few men rather than laws and rules, doesn’t exclude the possibility that some dictatorships respect the rule of law, and that the rule of law can indeed be the rule of very bad law, viewed from the perspective of human rights. A prima facie conclusion has to be that dictatorships can respect the rule of law and that regimes based on human rights can inhibit the rule of law: privacy protection, rules on the determination of criminal guilt etc. can make the rule of law more difficult. Authoritarian regimes can easily lift the veil of privacy in order to check for violations of the law, and are not at risk of freeing guilty people because of the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof.

The rule of law, viewed in this manner, is a purely formal concept devoid of substance: as long as the laws “rule”, we have a rule of law, no matter what the substance of those laws may be. Laws are then viewed solely as rules that guide conduct, but the direction in which they guide is immaterial. The rule of law, according to this view, should not be confused with the rule of the right law. The rule of law as a concept deals not with the content of the laws but with the way in which they are enforced and formulated.

That last word is important: the rule of law should logically be more than a system of governance in which rules are imposed by force. Imposing rules by way of force can in itself not be viewed as a system of the rule of law. It would be far-fetched to claim, for example, that a government using force to impose completely arbitrary rules that change every day respects the rule of law. The rules in question have to be formulated in a certain way; there have to be rules of legislation in order to have a rule of law.

These rules usually include the following:

  • Laws should not be imposed retroactively: the rule of law implies respect for the laws, and citizens can’t be expected to respect laws if they are imposed retroactively.
  • Laws should be made public, for the same reason.
  • Laws should be relatively permanent, clear and intelligible, again for the same reason.
  • Laws should strive to be general rules applicable to everyone, rather than commands directed at certain persons or groups; the reason for this rule of legislation is the differentiation between rule of law and rule of man.
  • Laws should not contradict each other, again for reasons of respect.

These rules of legislation differentiate laws and the rule of law from an arbitrary set of rules imposed by force. The rules of legislation are formal and don’t, at first, impose content on the specific laws generated by these rules. However, once you take a closer look at these rules of legislation, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that the rule of law is a contentless concept that allows the law to be virtually anything, even abject oppression. Some of the values inherent in the rules of legislation are also inherent in human rights: publicity and equality for example.

The rules of legislation also create another link to human rights: they assume free will. If rules can’t be secret or can’t be applied retroactively it’s because we want to give people the choice to change their behavior so that it complies with the law. Secret and retroactive laws are impossible according to the rules of legislation, and hence also according to the rule of law, because they are an affront to freedom. (See the work of Lon L. Fuller for a more detailed version of this argument).

Hence, freedom is an important part of the rule of law, just like publicity and equality. So it would be strange to claim that a regime respects the rule of law if its laws violate people’s freedom, equality and public activity (such as speech). That would have to be a diminished kind of rule of law. Maybe the regime in question does respect the rules of legislation and does more than impose any arbitrary set of rules by way of force. But if it does so, it sets in motion a dynamic that will ultimately lead to freedom, equality and publicity because it uses these values in its legislation (although not in its laws). Violations of human rights are initially consistent with the rule of law – correctly understood as more than any arbitrary set of rules imposed by force – but not over time, since the dynamic of the rules of legislation uses values that are likely to infuse the laws themselves rather than merely the rules of legislation. And these values will direct the laws towards human rights since they are the same as the values inherent in human rights.

For example, if you have a law that imposes slavery, this law may initially have been created with respect for the rules of legislation (for instance, it may be a public law that doesn’t criminalize behavior that took place before the publication of the law). But since these rules imply the equality and freedom of all citizens, the law in question will ultimately come to be seen as inconsistent with the system of legislation. Over time, the rule of law will become the rule of the right law.

Discrimination (4): Private Discrimination, Freedom of Association and Property Rights

To what extent should anti-discrimination laws apply to private associations, to voluntary employment contracts and in private property? Let’s have a look at a number of recent news stories:

  • There was the controversy over Rand Paul’s opposition (shared by many other libertarians) to the application of the Civil Rights Act to private enterprises, which implies that a restaurant owner for example should be able to segregate his restaurant or even refuse black customers for example. (This view is based on the libertarian opposition to government regulation of the private sector).
  • Then there was the case of the Christian student’s union refusing gay members.
  • A teacher in a Christian school got herself fired because of premarital sex.
  • There’s the famous case of the Boy Scouts’ refusal to allow gay members (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale).
  • The D.C. police department recently decided to no longer intervene in an ongoing protest by Muslim women over their place in area mosques. These women have provoked confrontations in mosques by claiming the right to worship next to men, a right refused by conservative Muslim men. The police initially escorted the women out of the mosques, as requested by the men, but won’t do that anymore. The men claim that the mosques are private institutions, and private property rights should prevail. The women, they say, are trespassers.
  • And some time ago the British BNP, a racist political party, was forced to accept black members.

A similar but different case – because not based on prejudice or discrimination (except if you count PC as discriminating between views) – was the firing/quitting of journalist Helen Thomas following a politically incorrect and possibly antisemitic comment on Israel.

We can, of course, imagine an infinite number of similar cases:

  • Can a gym be held liable for dismissing a fat fitness trainer?
  • Should a business be able to offer a gays-only retirement home?
  • Can a landlord invoke religious objections to renting to an unmarried or gay couple?
  • Etc.

What all such real and imaginary cases have in common (even the Thomas case, which I’ll exclude from the current discussion because it’s slightly different and doesn’t – necessarily – involve discrimination) is that different values clash. Equality, equal treatment and the absence of discrimination on the one hand clashes with the freedom of association, the right to property and the freedom of contract on the other hand. (In the Thomas case, free speech clashes with freedom of employment contract).

If you’re a value pluralist – as I am – then these are hard cases. Property rights, freedom of association, freedom of contract (including in employment), equality and non-discrimination are all important values. It’s a right to hire or fire employees, accept or reject members of associations and serve or fail to serve customers on whatever basis you wish, even if this means discriminating certain employees, members or customers. But it’s also a right not to suffer discrimination. None of these values is by definition or a priori more important than the others. (If you think only freedom and property count, then you can wrap this up in a minute. Likewise if you think equality does count but is the automatic result of freedom. Don’t laugh, some actually think like that. Remember trickle down and the invisible hand).

All those rights are important, and when they clash, as in our examples, we’ll have to make a hard choice: which right in which case will receive priority? That will be, by definition, a case by case trade-off. You can’t use a general rule, since all these rights are – in the abstract – equally important. You can’t use a rule that says, for example, “property rights are equally important as equal treatment, except for bigots”. It’s not because you’re a bigot that you lose your property rights, your freedom of association or your freedom of contract. Those rights are human rights and intrinsically valuable.

So let’s assume that we will find many cases in which equal treatment is more important than property, contract or association rights. Pre-Civil-Rights-Act-America would be such a case. We will then engage in some justified anti-discrimination efforts that limit these other rights. And we will acknowledge that there is a limitation of rights going on. That there is a trade-off between rights and that the limitations of certain rights don’t mean that those rights are no longer important. It’s a necessary evil and an unfortunate consequence of clashing rights.

We’ll also find numerous cases in which property, contract or association rights will outweigh discrimination concerns. The example of the fitness teacher given above (who doesn’t have a right to employment in the business of his choice), or the gay retirement home (non-gay pensioners have ample opportunities elsewhere) would be cases like this. The same goes for the case of the guy protesting ladies’ night. Not all consequences of discrimination are equally harmful.

Consequently, anti-discrimination efforts can’t be an absolute concern and can’t become the only preoccupation. Otherwise, other rights would suffer needlessly. A balance has to be found. We have to decide how far our anti-discrimination measures can go without weighing too heavily on other rights, and how far bigots can be allowed to use their rights without harming the targets of their bigotry. (Or how far non-bigots can discriminate for non-bigoted reasons).

And when attempting to make this balance, we have to look at the specific circumstances and the relative harm that we can do on both sides. Small scale bigotry against a single individual who has numerous outside options – another employer, another restaurant, another organization etc. – won’t initiate anti-discrimination action, certainly not by the government. Jim Crow, on the other hand, inflicted enormous harm on large groups of people during many decades. And it would not have been abolished by a few activists, boycotts or sit-ins. Nor, for that matter, by the government ending its own discrimination. Active government action against private – and public – discrimination was required. And did happen in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later decisions which banned private actors from withholding services or denying employment on the basis of race (or of religion, sex, or national origin). Those anti-discrimination efforts did harm property and other rights but it’s clear that a failure to intervene would have meant perpetuating the greater harm of Jim Crow. I’ll come back to the topic of government vs private intervention against discrimination in a moment.

A parenthesis: some cases fall outside the current discussion. Government mandated discrimination in public places – trains, buses, public schools etc. – is completely and utterly unacceptable in all cases since the government can never be allowed to discriminate. Government discrimination also doesn’t cause a conflict of rights. The topic here is strictly private discrimination.

Take a look at this quote:

Wasn’t racial discrimination basically a private affair? Did we really have to enact federal laws and regulations to end it? Many of these laws dictate how people run their businesses and associations, and these restrictions are problematic to say the least. Even if we do find discrimination wrong, isn’t it a private wrong? (source)

In fairness to the author, he doesn’t seem to answer completely in the affirmative. And yet, why would you even ask those questions? Well, you should if you’re a libertarian and if liberty – including the liberty to do with your private property as you like and to freely engage in contracts and associations as you please without limitations – is the supreme value in life. However, if we accept the logic of this quote, then domestic violence and a whole bunch of other crimes are “private affairs” that shouldn’t be governed by “problematic” laws. And yet they are governed by laws, and hence we have laws “dictating how people run their associations”, and that’s a “problematic restriction”. We may think domestic violence or marital rape is wrong, but it’s a “private wrong” and hence none of our business. Domestic violence or marital rape take place within “private property” and can be seen, with a stretch of the imagination, as part of the freedom of contract (if a wife doesn’t want to be beaten or raped she should cancel the marriage contract, just like a pre-1964 African American who didn’t want to be discriminated by a restaurant owner should have gone elsewhere).

Of course, no one in his right mind would view domestic violence or marital rape like this, and no libertarian does. But the fact that libertarians – as well as many conservatives for that matter – never spill a drop of ink defending these crimes and yet fill libraries with defenses of private discrimination (and have even run a presidential campaign on the basis of this defense) just goes to show that equality and non-discrimination aren’t very important concerns for them, or at least not as important as violence and rape.

Do we really need government intervention to harmonize the two legitimate concerns? The concern for private freedom to discriminate within your property or associations, and the fight against discrimination? Some say that the fight against discrimination shouldn’t necessarily entail government coercion against private discrimination and should focus on private activism. That’s possible of course. Boycotts may help, just as minority organization, lobbying, education etc. (Another proof that free association is an important right. Minorities often depend on freedom of association and on strong property rights for their activism, and free commerce and freedom of contract tend to lower prejudice). There are also market mechanisms that counteract discrimination and fostering those mechanism might reduce discrimination without government coercion.

But that effort is certainly naive in many settings, especially when discrimination is widespread and group conformity counteracts market incentives (for example when customers are willing to pay a premium to visit segregated businesses, in which case the business owners will not be pressured by the profit motive to accept all customers; or when businesses are threatened into respect for segregation). Likewise when discrimination is government mandated. Hence the need, in many cases, for government coercion to break widespread patterns of discrimination that seriously reduce the options and opportunities of those who are discriminated against.

Why specifically state intervention? Racist business restaurant owners or bigoted employers or organizations can perhaps, sometimes, be persuaded to accept non-whites customers, employees or members through boycotts, social ostracism or the pressures of the market, but state intervention is often necessary in order to force them to do so. And they should be forced when the targets of their discrimination are seriously harmed by this discrimination, don’t have options elsewhere and can’t wait for the slow process of the market and of mentality changes. For example, a black person failing to get hired because of his or her race, after many attempts, suffers more harm than a black person failing to get served in a restaurant but having many more restaurant options close by.

It can be, in some settings, immoral to say that government shouldn’t intervene and that only social activists should struggle against racism and discrimination. In many cases, such as the southern parts of the US under Jim Crow, a struggle that isn’t backed by government often means risking life and limb. Discrimination in the US was underpinned by private terrorism (KKK) and actively supported or condoned by government law enforcement officers. Insisting that discrimination should be combated solely by private actors means exposing them to serious risks.

A final consideration: what if property is the direct result of discrimination? Can the descendants of slave owners really claim that their property rights should be a justification of their discriminatory actions? Or is their property illegitimate given the fact that it wouldn’t have existed without slavery? That would be an additional reason to favor equal treatment over property rights, when these two values clash.

Limiting Free Speech (35): Publishing Lists of Pedophiles on the Internet, Ctd.

A follow-up from this previous post on the same subject. We should of course do our utmost to protect people, and especially children, from sexual predators. In the U.S., and to a lesser degree elsewhere, “utmost” means publishing so-called “registries” of sex offenders on the internet. These registries contain the names, addresses and offenses of people convicted for sex crimes. The purpose of the registries is to inform people about the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and allow them to take measures to protect their children. (A few examples of registries are here, here and here; some of those are government sites, others are not).

By definition, since the purpose is protection, these registries should contain only information on people who are likely to offend again, and to offend in a way that is dangerous to children (and possibly adults). People who have been convicted in the past but are not deemed to be possible repeat offenders, or people convicted for sex crimes that are not dangerous (flashers for example) shouldn’t be included, but regularly are.

These registries are an exercise of free speech. The question here is: should they be allowed, or are they doing more harm than good? In other words: should this case of freedom of speech be restricted in order to protect other rights? (we’ve seen before how human rights can be limited when they come into conflict with other human rights). Which other rights could possibly be harmed by this exercise of free speech? One could say the right to privacy of the offenders (it’s not because you’re a convicted criminal that you automatically lose your right t privacy). But that’s not obvious. Someone’s address and criminal record aren’t private information. So registries of sex offenders aren’t, by definition, violations of the right to privacy. Hence, the right to free speech of publishers of such registries can’t be limited because of the right to privacy of the offenders.

But there are other reasons why the rights of those publishers can be limited. Registries can (and did) lead to

  • harassment of offenders, violent attacks and even murder
  • ostracism, including their family members and children (some registries even have button to print a mugshot that can be posted on the offenders’ doors)
  • violations of their right to freely choose a residence: they are either chased away, or legally prohibited from living near certain places (schools, playgrounds…); sometimes these prohibitions are so restrictive that people are forced to be homeless (in Miami, exclusion zones have created a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge)
  • violations of the right to work: people whose names are in registries are often fired from their jobs or have difficulties finding a job.

These are obviously rights violations that are serious enough to at least make us consider whether the right to free speech of the publishers of registries should be maintained.

And even the right to privacy can become a problem. As noted, addresses and criminal records aren’t private. However, many registries contain a lot of “noise” – people who do not pose any threat (some U.S. states requires registration of people who have visited prostitutes, who have had consensual sex as teenagers etc.). Not only does this label harmless people as “predators”, with often devastating consequences for them. Another result of this noise is that the registries become useless. As a consequence, those who defend the registries ask for more information to be included so that they can judge which “predator” is a real one:

I agree that a man who exposes himself to a woman may not pose the same danger as a convicted child-molester or rapist. All represent a threat, however, so the solution is thus not less information but more detailed information. Give me the facts about the offence and let me decide the level of risk to me and my family. As the parent of two young children I would like to know who my neighbour is going to be before I buy that new home. Adrian Kendall

Taken to its logical extreme, such a view will defend putting everything “bad” about everyone in a super-register. Perhaps registries could be used on a need-to-know basis only.

Religion and Human Rights (18): Euthanasia

People own their own body. Their body is part of their private property. It is something that is theirs; it is the thing par excellence that is their own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination and therefore the right to die.

Terrorism and Human Rights (19): The War on Terror and the Right to Privacy

During an apparently never-ending war on terror (what could be the end of such a war?), people are quick to believe their “liberal” governments when they tell them that a bit less privacy is a cheap price to pay for more physical security.

However, many of those governments, because they claim to be “liberal” and “democratic”, feel uneasy about this. After all, if rights are tradeable like this, if they depend on the circumstance and should be surrendered when the circumstances become more difficult, what is left of them? They become a luxury for good times, rather than a safeguard in bad times. (Another sign of this is the way in which the war on terror is eating away at other rights as well, e.g. the right not to be tortured; but let’s stick to the right to privacy here).

Because of this unease, governments claim that the right to privacy isn’t really being sacrificed. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. It’s only the terrorists whose right to privacy is being limited. But in the meantime

  • DNA databases are being established for almost entire populations
  • CCTV is omnipresent
  • “data mining” is used extensively (after all, how can you determine if someone is a terrorist if you haven’t first violated his or her right to privacy?)
  • etc.

I don’t mean to imply that rights such as the right to privacy are absolute or that there can never be a good reason to limit one right for the sake of another. On the contrary. But limiting rights can only be done when there is a “clear and present danger” for other rights or for the rights of others. A vague and everlasting “war on terror” provokes limits on rights when there’s no such danger. Limiting rights becomes the normal MO of governments keen to prevent such a danger from ever occurring. And that’s unacceptable. Obviously, terrorism is a danger, but governments can only limit rights in order to prevent it when the danger is clear and present, and imminent. A general and vague fear of terrorism will not do.

Limiting Free Speech (22): Aggressive Proselytizing

Some governments, local or national, want to ban aggressive proselytizing by some religious groups. In a multicultural environment, and especially in an area where there have already been tensions or clashes between religious groups, governments may believe that public order requires such a ban. Aggressive proselytizing by one group can provoke angry reactions by other groups. This can lead to public disturbances or even violent clashes.

As a rule, proselytizing is a form of speech that should be protected by freedom of speech, even when it is “aggressive” in the sense of persistent, widespread, continuous, and highly visible. However, “aggressive” can be more than this. As always in discussions on limits on freedom of speech, this freedom has to be balanced against other rights. When freedom of speech is used in such a way that it leads to violations of other rights, one has to decide which does the least harm: continuing to respect freedom of speech, or limit it for the sake of respect for other rights?

For example, when proselytizing becomes intrusive, the right to privacy may be harmed (in the case of religious telephone marketing for example). Or when it becomes too aggressive in an already tense multicultural setting, it may lead to violence and violations of the rights to security and bodily integrity. The system of human rights isn’t an harmonious whole, and different rights can harm each other. Freedom of speech is very important, but there’s no reason to believe that it is the only important or the most important human right.

Proselytizing is of course also part of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration grants the right to freedom of religion, but this article doesn’t include a right to try to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. It merely states that anyone has the right to freely choose, practice, change, teach, manifest and worship his or her religion. “Teach” may be interpreted to include proselytizing, but that is not evident. Article 19, however, the article about freedom of speech, does specifically grant the right to impart information and ideas. Religious information and ideas are obviously included.

Article 18 clearly states that proselytizing shouldn’t mean forcing people to adhere to a certain religion. Religion should be a free choice. The rule against forced conversion is mirrored by the exit-right: freedom of religion means that people shouldn’t be forcefully converted, and also means that people who are already members of a religion have the right to decide to leave. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration as well prohibits coerced membership of an association.

This prohibition of coercion is important when talking about proselytizing. Many religious groups use “soft coercion” in their attempts to increase their flock:

  • they use their power in the media, in politics or in the economy
  • they promise rewards to people if they convert (such as education or healthcare)
  • they use family members who have already converted to try to convince people to convert as well,  etc.

Hard coercion, such as indoctrination, “deprogramming” (a kind of indoctrination), fear tactics, bribes etc. are less common, because most religions understand that religious belief must come from the heart and must be a voluntary choice (albeit a voluntary choice that can be encouraged).

It is precisely when coercive tactics (hard or soft) are used that the “target religions” will consider the proselytizing to be aggressive. And then they may decide that counter-aggression in some form is the only possible response. The results of this are obvious.

Proselytizing should be a contest of ideas, and the only tactic should be voluntary persuasion. This can mean argumentation, “witnessing”, giving the good example, and even doing good works and engaging in charity if there are no conditions attached. A soup kitchen that is only accessible after conversion is again a type of coercion that shouldn’t be allowed. Most religions adhere to these principle, at least in their major texts. Many followers, however, are less patient in their attempts to save unbelievers from eternal doom. And their impatience often forces them to use tactics that go beyond persuasion.

For many religions, it’s a duty to proselytize: “Go to all the nations and make disciples” says the Bible. And this is understandable: if you’re convinced that you possess the truth, it would be immoral to leave your fellow humans in the darkness of error. The same goes for non-religious “truth”. What makes religious truth special is that this truth means eternal salvation. So the absence of truth not only means error but also eternal damnation. Hence, persuasion is a very important and urgent matter (although some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, don’t proselytize at all, in part as a result of a historical fear that other religions would react in an aggressive way). This importance and urgency, however, do not excuse the violation of people’s freedom to choose.

Limiting Free Speech (21): Publishing Lists of Pedophiles on the Internet

I know from experience that it’s not useless for a human rights defender to make this clear from the start: sexual activity with children is despicable and must be punished severely, but this punishment doesn’t imply the abandonment of all human rights by the convicted pedophiles. When you’ll read the rest of this post, you may rush to the conclusion that we pay more attention to the rights of criminals than to the rights of victims. Nothing is further from the truth.

My point is that the practice of publishing lists of pedophiles on special websites on the internet (also called “outing pedophiles”) may be well-intentioned but it is inappropriate and even dangerous, especially when such lists include addresses of pedophiles who have been released from prison and have done their time.

It’s not because you’re a convicted pedophile that you lose all your human rights, including your right to privacy. Of course, the fact that you are or have been a pedophile isn’t a private fact. You have been convicted in an open and fair trial, and hence your crime is in the public domain. There’s no reason to keep judicial verdicts secret. On the contrary. The facts of your crime may also be very relevant to people not immediately concerned with the crime or the trial, such as the children of your new wife. And perhaps your new neighbors should be informed, especially when there’s a risk that you’ll repeat your crime. (But then why have you been released?)

So the information regarding your crime isn’t private, and can be used in a targeted way to inform people who may need to know. But there is a difference between a fact being part of the public domain (and circulated in a targeted way), and the use of this fact in a sensationalist manner, by people who will never have anything to do with you, and directed at people who likewise will never be involved. (A very large majority of child molesters attacks relatives or the children of friends).

Your crime isn’t private, but what can be gained by publishing your whereabouts and informing people who will never be likely victims? It seems to me that websites that publish the whereabouts of pedophiles are part of a retrograde style of “justice”, in which it is important to name and shame, to publicly expose a felon, and ridicule him or her. And when the public starts to react, and start to call the alleged pedophiles to see “if they still rape children”, then there is an unjustified invasion of privacy. And maybe other rights will suffer as well, such as the right to physical security and bodily integrity of the pedophiles. In certain cases the “naming and shaming” amounts to incitement to violence. There have been cases of attacks on pedophiles following the publication of their names and whereabouts.

I suspect that the people who create these sites, rather than “protect the public”, intend to whip up a scandal, and hopefully get some attention. They also imply that the justice system is inadequate, and they want to cultivate public mistrust in institutions and politics. Institutions are never perfect, but fostering negativity isn’t the way to make them better.

Another problem: the lists that are published often contain people who are merely accused of pedophilia (and not yet convicted), or people who are, to some, suspicious. Imagine what it must be like for an innocent person to appear on such a list. A court deals much better with the presumption of innocence than an angry mob.

The rationale behind rules prohibiting the outing of pedophiles, and explicitly limiting the right to free speech of the “outers”, is the protection of the rights of the pedophiles (such as the right to privacy, inviolability of the home, and physical security). Some may find it difficult to accept that pedophiles have rights, and that some people pay attention to these rights, rather than to the rights of the victims. But it is fair to say that a defining part of our shared humanity is precisely the limits we impose on the ways in which people can be punished.

And, of course, we do pay attention to the rights of victims. That is why pedophiles are put into prison. And we have to try to balance the pedophiles’ rights against those of their victims and possible victims even after they leave prison. That is why I stated above that it should be possible to inform neighbors and new family members. This kind of information is a limitation of certain rights of pedophiles – such as the right to form a family, the right to choose a residence etc. – for the sake of the rights of possible victims. We rightly believe that such limitations are less harmful than a new attack on children.

So-called zoning laws are also justified in certain cases. Pedophiles are then prohibited from entering a certain zone, or loitering and living in a certain zone (e.g. close to schools or playgrounds). These laws limit the right to choose a residence and the right to freedom of movement of the pedophiles in question, but if there is a high probability that these laws will prevent future attacks on children, then they are justified because the rights of the children that would be violated by an attack are more important than the cited rights of the pedophiles.

Of course, zoning laws aren’t always the answer, and may create more problems than they solve. They can make it harder for law enforcement officers to keep track of the pedophiles, and make it harder for the pedophiles to receive treatment for their condition. Hence, zoning laws may be counter-productive.

Limiting Free Speech (11): The Right to Libel, Defame and Slander

A libelous statement (or a defamatory or slanderous statement, which are more or less synonymous) is a lie, a statement that can be disproven by facts (and therefore not merely an opinion), which has a direct impact on someone’s reputation and image. This impact results from the public nature of the lie and the likelihood that some people believe the lie is in fact not a lie.

Most systems of law provide legal measures to deter libel and provide compensation (financial or otherwise) for libel once it has been committed.

A related but slightly different problem is the public revelation of private information which is not of public concern. This information is not necessarily false, but may be embarrassing and hence may have the same effect on someone’s reputation as libel has.

A lie as such should of course not be prohibited, and is not a sufficient reason to limit freedom of speech. Neither should the revelation of private information. Sometimes, privacy is less important than other values. Regular readers of this blog will remember the rules for limiting free speech set forth in the introductory post of this series. Some rights can harm other rights – in this case freedom of speech and privacy – in which case one of the rights has to be limited for the sake of the other right.

This choice between rights is never easy, but one rule could be the relative harm done by limiting one right or another. If the harm caused by free speech is simply embarrassment, a slightly deflated reputation, or a feeling of dishonor, then the case for limiting free speech isn’t very strong. However, many so-called libelous statements do not only cause embarrassment. People whose reputation is destroyed, either by lies or by the disclosure of irrelevant private information that is of no public concern, may lose their livelihood. So the right that is affected by libel is not only the right to privacy, but also the right to a certain minimum living standard, the right to work etc.

Terrorism and Human Rights (7): Data Mining, Terrorism and Privacy

Data mining (also known as pattern recognition) is an anti-terrorist intelligence strategy. Data mining means bringing together different kinds of databases, linking them, and trying to identify suspicious patterns of individual behavior. The purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks. Suspicious behavior may indicate that such an attack is imminent, and data mining has been defended as the most important prevention tool.

If a Muslim chemistry graduate takes an ill-paid job at a farm-supplies store what does it signify? Is he just earning extra cash, or getting closer to a supply of potassium nitrate (used in fertilizer and explosives)? What if apparent strangers with Arabic names have wired him money? What if he has taken air flights with one of those men, with separate reservations and different seats, paid in cash? What if his credit-card records show purchases of gadgets such as timing devices? (source)

Intelligence services are routinely bringing together different data-bases such as

  • credit card and payment data
  • travel data, flight reservations, hotel reservations
  • census data such as race, religion, occupation
  • data on internet use, email and phone use
  • police information such as convictions, known associates, fines for illegal photography
  • CCTV data (e.g. from cameras situated close to extremist mosques)
  • etc.

When all these data bases are linked, the value of the information they contain increases significantly. When intelligence services learn that someone travels to Afghanistan or Pakistan, it may not ring a bell. And anyway, there are too many people travelling to these places. But if they filter on those people who also read extremist websites, visit extremist mosques, have extremists associates, travel in the plane as other suspicious persons, have suspicious payments etc., then they may be on to something.

However, data mining may lose some of its benefits to the extent that terrorists are aware that this is happening and fine-tune their behavior. They know that much of this data mining is, by necessity, automated in computer programs which assign a “suspicion value” to certain activities or combinations of activities (the data bases are too big to do it any other way). So they can lower their suspicion score by regularly visiting very non-Muslim websites such as porn sites, or call telephone numbers of brothels.

Data mining may lose its effectiveness and has also been criticized as an invasion of privacy and a criminalization of behavior that is perfectly legal even if sometimes somewhat strange. Normally, invasions of privacy such as phone-tapping require a prior suspicion. Data mining means spying on people without such as prior suspicion, because suspicion can only be established as a result of mining, not beforehand.

It means spying on people in two different ways:

  • The data bases used contain individual data that were not intended for use by intelligence services and that were often handed over by individuals on the assumption that the data would be treated confidentially.
  • When a suspicion is established on the basis of data mining, more traditional means of surveillance come into play (phone tapping, observation etc.), which also violate people’s right to privacy.

Of course, privacy is not an absolute value and different types of rights need to be balanced – in this case the right to privacy of some and the right to physical integrity and security of others. And an assessment has to be made of the priority of one right compared to another. But it seems to me that treating every citizen as a possible terrorist, and looking at his or her individual and private data as a matter of routine, is way over the top. I would like to see some information of the number of terrorist plots foiled by data mining.

But privacy is not the only victim. If someone is labeled “suspicious” as a result of data mining, he or she may end up on a “watch-list” and may find it difficult to travel or find a job in certain places deemed risky (hospitals, fertilizer producers, government agencies etc.).

What is Democracy? (30): Control, Transparency and Publicity

Plutarch believed that politicians should live in houses with big windows, so that the citizens would be able to check at any time the morality or absence of morality of politicians. One essential characteristics of democracy is indeed control. Politics and government must be transparent and public, and citizens use this transparency and publicity to verify the actions of politicians and the government. The citizens, more specifically, verify whether these actions are in accord with the elections promises and the will of the people as expressed in the elections.

There is a human right to privacy, and a democracy is hell-bent on protecting human rights, all human rights. But there is no contradiction between democratic publicity and the protection of privacy. Democratic politicians have a right to privacy. Control, transparency and publicity are limited to a politician’s official function, and do not extend to his personal life. Of course, if his or her personal life has an impact on the politician’s function, then intrusion is allowed, because a political function serves the realization of the will of the people, and the people must be allowed to check this realization (or the absence of it).

In an ideal democracy, one cannot govern against the will or without the consent of the people. Those in power are chosen by the people and receive from the people an assignment to rule in a specific way, an assignment given on the basis of an election manifesto. Power is temporary because it is a loan, rather than a gift. The loan is conditional upon the way in which power is used. Power continues to belong to the people and the people can take it back if they consider that it has not been used in a satisfactory way and that the assignment has not been properly fulfilled.

The people know whether or not they are pleased with government policy and with the way power is being used, because they ask those in power to give account of their actions and to inform the people of the way in which they use power. If, on the basis of this top-down flow of information combined with journalistic efforts, the people are not satisfied – for example, because the decisions taken by those in power contradict the wishes of the people, even though these decisions have been taken in the name of the people = then the people judge those in power in a negative way and decide to give power to someone else. If they are satisfied, then the loan is renewed for another fixed period of time.

This kind of accountability implies free flows of information and openness, transparency and visibility of power. Democracy and publicity are necessarily linked and all the actions of a democratic government must be public (except perhaps, for certain actions that cannot be successful when done in public, such as matters pertaining to national security; in these cases, however, publicity is only postponed, not eliminated).

Terrorism and Human Rights (6): The War on Terror

The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of their citizens and of citizens of other countries. This is a high price for an uncertain gain.

However, before I list these consequences, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be destroyed and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics.

I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.

The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning their values, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights, but the right to security has taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of all other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore. Some have called the war on terror a “war on freedom” (source).

1. Civil liberties

Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.

  • The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
  • “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
  • Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
  • “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
  • Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).

However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:

  • “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
  • Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.

2. Mentalities

The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.

  • The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy has turned them into uncritical supporters of the war.
  • Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
  • A “culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.

3. Preemptive war

The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war

waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)

The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.

In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).

4. Counter-productive

It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:

The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)

The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom and Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source).

5. Misnomer

There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. It is in essence crime prevention and law enforcement. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.

If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of ordinary citizens outside of the West.

I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for the executives in the West, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up.

What Are Human Rights? (16): Limited Rights That Need to be Balanced Against Each Other

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Some rights can cause violations of other rights or of the rights of others, which is why rights have to be balanced against each other.

In specific instances of rights that come into conflict ’97 for example the right to free speech and the right to privacy ’97 a judgment has to be made about the priority of one right or the other. The decision can be made by a judge, but also by the legislator. There can be laws that limit one right for the sake of another. The phrasing of human rights articles in constitutions and treaties often provides the possibility of such legal limits.

These limits are an almost daily occurrence, even in a perfect system. The system of human rights is not a coherent and harmonious whole.

Libel or expressions of racial hatred, for instance, are often illegal, and with good reason. Expressions of hatred are not only insulting (people should be able to live with insults); they can also lead to discrimination or even physical harm. It is a thin line between aggressive words and aggressive actions.

The problem of course is how to decide between rights. On what grounds do we give priority to one right or the other? Only if we have a rule for this can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate limits on rights, or better between limits and violations. Part of the rule could be that some rights are clearly absolute. It seems unacceptable to kill someone, even if doing so would allow us to protect some other right of some other person. Limits on the right to life will then never be legitimate and this right should always have priority and can in turn limit other rights.

However, this rule leaves most problems of conflicts between rights unsolved because most rights are not absolute. One cannot always avoid moral, philosophical and hence contestable reasoning when taking a decision between rights. Some subjective judgment on the harm we would inflict when limiting one right or the other might help. In the case of a journalist who divulges intimate details about the private life of an actor, what would be the harm inflicted on the journalist when we limit his or her right to free speech? Probably less then the harm he or she inflicts when limiting the right to privacy of the actor.

Again, a judgment may not always be as easy as in this example. Deciding between rights remains a difficult matter and one that is better left to professional judges.

Economic Human Rights (9): Homelessness

Without your own house, it is difficult to have and enjoy private property. Hence you are more likely to suffer poverty. Without a house or your own place in the world and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.

Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore freedom are capacities which rely heavily on private property and a private place. Private property and a private place are also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. When you have your own house and your own place in the world, you can live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community.

Therefore it seems that homelessness is not only a violation of a human right as such (the right to housing, article 25 of the Universal Declaration) but makes it very difficult to enjoy other human rights as well. Examples are the right to the absence of poverty (also article 25 of the Universal Declaration) and the right to private property (article 17 of the Universal Declaration), but it also hinders freedom in general, freedom in the sense of independence and autonomy.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (5): Property Rights

Private property often does not have a good press. It’s unequal distribution has often been criticized. However, there is a recognized human right to private property (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely) and this right is important for different reasons.

First of all, private property is a means to protect of the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.

Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights).

Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore, also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.

Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again.

Furthermore, property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.

Finally, it is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.

The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).

The right to private property is, just as most of the other human rights, a limited right. There can and should be redistribution of private property from the rich to the poor, if other human rights of the poor suffer as a consequence of insufficient private property (for example, the economic rights of the poor). Taxation and expropriation, however, should be used carefully, in view of the numerous important functions of private property. The more property a state acquires, the weaker the citizen becomes. Weaker not only compared to the state, but also compared to fellow citizens. His fellow citizens will find themselves in a position whereby they can control and intervene in his weakened private space.

You also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

The property of your body can justify private property of material goods. The power of your body and your labor is incorporated in the goods you produce. By working on an object, you mix your labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from you, he also takes away your labour, which means that he takes away the power of your body. He therefore uses your body, which is incompatible with your right to possess your own body. See John Locke for a more elaborate exposition of this argument. If man owns his body, he also owns the power of his body and the objects in which this power is incorporated, to the extent that he has not stolen the objects. This can also be used as an argument in favor of some form of communism.

The right not to be a slave is the negative version of the right to possess your own body. Those who commit slavery (but also those who steal) act as if the bodies of other people are their property, a property that can be bought and sold. Considering other people as your property diminishes the value and dignity of these other people. Other people should not be considered as a means.

Gay Marriage From a Human Rights Law POV

Do homosexuals have a right to marry according to the international human rights standards? Not explicitly. They do not even have the explicit right to be homosexual, but jurisprudence has established that homosexuals should not be discriminated. First of all, all human beings, whatever their convictions, practices, behavior etc., have the same rights. So killing or torturing or arbitrarily imprisoning people is always wrong. And if this is done because these people are homosexuals or something else is irrelevant.

Homosexuality is also protected by the right to privacy. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

And nothing is as private as sexuality.

Regarding the right to marry, article 16 states:

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned as an unwarranted limitation. So the use of this article is a weak defense of gay marriage. But Article 2 states:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The “such as” clause signifies that there may be other types of unwarranted distinction. See also Article 7:

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

And from a non-legal POV: gay marriage is not necessarily a threat to the institution of marriage. A gay couple can be as serious about marriage and about raising children as a heterosexual couple. Those of us who care about the importance of marriage have much graver threats to deal with.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (1): Thinking (the Public Space and Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Thought)

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. 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 themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. 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 and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. 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.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.