The Causes of Human Rights Violations (52): Not Enough Bias

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (66): A Sports-Based Selection Process For Politicians

I’ve already documented several ways in which democracy tends to malfunction. Democracy seems to be a system for

Here’s another one:

It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. (source)

Compared to some of the previously cited distortions of the democratic process, this one is particularly disturbing. You could still argue that the way politicians look or sound has at least some relevance to the political process, even though it shouldn’t determine elections. You could also argue, even if it means stretching your neurons to breaking point, that a long spell of bad weather has an adverse effect on the economy, that politicians should take countermeasures, and that they should be punished if they don’t. If you’re feeling very generous, you could even say that the order effect is a general human bias and that we shouldn’t single out democracy for condemnation when we see this effect appearing in elections.

However, there seems to be no possible excuse for voting in favor of incumbents simply because your local football team scores a win. OK, I can understand that the exhilaration makes you feel good about everything, including perhaps the performance of the incumbents and the status quo in general, but that means we should see the same distortions when people vote after having had sex or after having eaten a chocolate bar. And those latter distortions may have an even greater impact on elections, given the fact that eating chocolate and having sex is more common than watching football. Given the large number of possible distortions like these, I simply can’t convince myself that they really do occur.

Bonus malfunction:

In the summer of 1916 … a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (30): Strategies for Justifying Human Rights

When we try to answer questions such as “why do we need to respects human rights?”, “why are there human rights?”, “where do human rights come from?” and “what are the grounds of human rights?”, then it’s not beyond doubt that our answers will result in any practical benefits or real improvements in actual respect for human rights. One often hears the argument that all such answers are useless, since those looking for them are already convinced that human rights are important and are simply engaged in an intellectual exercise without practical consequences. These answers will – by definition – fail to produce beneficial consequences in practice, because those who violate human rights will not be persuaded by intellectual exercises.

I think that’s true for some violators. The Taliban for instance seem to be impervious to reason. Others, however, may be swayed. Hence, the exercise may be more than intellectual; there is a chance that good answers to questions about the grounding of human rights have some practical effect and can produce some improvements in levels of respect for human rights.

There’s an obvious and easy answer to those questions, but I doubt that it’s a very useful one. It’s provided by religion, and more specifically by the Judeo-Christian religion. If human life is sacred because all men and women are equally the children of God and created in His image, then there are certain things one cannot do to them and certain standards of conduct that apply equally to all human beings. With the help of some interpretation of the Bible, it should be possible to express those standards in human rights language. Some would even claim that there is no other way to ground human rights, since this grounding requires the concept of the sacredness of human life, and this sacredness can only be defended by positing a divine creator.

There are at least two difficulties with this approach. First, attempts to ground human rights in religion sound vaguely anachronistic: human rights have started their ascent during an era of increasing secularization. So it seems that they can survive and thrive without a religious basis and that there’s no need to use categories such as “sacred”.

The second difficulty with the religious approach is its lack of universal appeal: it will only persuade the persuaded. Adherents of other religions, non-believers or Jews and Christians who interpret the Bible differently will often find such a grounding of human rights hard to swallow.

So it seems that a proper justification of human rights – proper in the sense of being universally acceptable, at least potentially – has to be a-religious and purely rational. However, rational justifications also face some problems. A rational justification is limited by definition. Because you can’t appeal to the word of God, you have to use other values to ground human rights. And to some extent, you have to justify the grounds you use as a justification. However, this can’t go on indefinitely. For example, if you argue that we need human rights in order to protect human dignity or rationality, you also have to expound the reasons why we need dignity or rationality (at least, that is what you have to do when you can’t or won’t assume that our dignity comes from God). And then the same for the reasons why we need those reasons etc. At a certain point, you just have to accept circularity and admit that at a basic level of morality you need to do what is moral simply because that is what morality requires (and not because of some other reason).

Still, before you reach that point you can do useful work by linking respect for human rights to some other values that people deem important. Because people have already adopted those values, you don’t need to argue for them. Hence you can avoid the infinite regress of justification, and you can limit yourself to the reasons why the protection and realization of certain given values require human rights.

More on the justification of human rights is here and here.

Capital Punishment (38): The Truth About the Deterrent Effect

If I didn’t manage to convince you of the stupidity of deterrent talk in my two previous posts (here and here), then neither will I manage today. Still, I’m a hopeless optimist by nature, so I’ll try anyway. A vital presupposition in the deterrence argument in favor of capital punishment (or any type of punishment by the way) is the minimally rational nature of criminals: if criminals don’t weigh the costs and benefits of actions before they undertake them, an extra cost as heavy as death won’t make any difference to their actions. And they don’t:

The tenet that harsher penalties could substantially reduce crime rates rests on the assumption that currently active criminals weigh the costs and benefits of their contemplated acts. Existing and proposed crime strategies exhibit this belief, as does a large and growing segment of the crime literature. This study examines the premise that criminals make informed and calculated decisions. The findings suggest that 76% of active criminals and 89% of the most violent criminals either perceive no risk of apprehension or are incognizant of the likely punishments for their crimes. (source)

It seems that criminals, like the rest of us, are seldom the cold, mechanical and calculating types. And the best thing about this: even if it was all wrong and capital punishment could deter, it would still be unacceptable for other reasons.

More about deterrence here and here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (27): Harmful Moral Judgments

Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:

  • One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
  • Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
  • The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
  • Etc. etc.

The rational approach

It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.

You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.

That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.

One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.

The emotional approach

The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).

Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.

If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.

The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.

Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).

The diversity approach

Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:

  • In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
  • When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
  • Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
  • People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
  • Also,

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered.  Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)

Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.

Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.

Discrimination (5): Statistical Discrimination

Definition

Here’s the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics definition of statistical discrimination:

Statistical discrimination is a theory of inequality between demographic groups based on stereotypes that do not arise from prejudice or racial and gender bias. When rational, information-seeking decision makers use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics, individuals belonging to different groups may be treated differently even if they share identical observable characteristics in every other aspect. … group-level statistics, such as group averages, are used as a proxy for the individual variables. (source)

Statistical discrimination, also called rational prejudice (or rational racism), occurs when some stereotypes are considered to be statistically “accurate”. Accurate here in the sense of statistical generalization or average behavior (or characteristics).

Some examples

Young drivers are on average more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Hence, auto insurers impose higher auto insurance premiums on young people. This insurance discrimination is called statistical discrimination because it’s based on some level of accuracy regarding the stereotype, and not on plain prejudice of or disgust for young people.

Regarding life insurance premiums, the customer’s likelihood of dying is one of the most relevant variables affecting the insurers profitability. Since gender is highly correlated with life expectancy, it is therefore optimal for the company to adopt a policy setting higher premiums for men, even for those men who may be healthier and less risk prone than the average woman. (source)

Employers often use the average performance of an applicant’s group to determine whether to hire him or her.

You don’t hire a guy with a Mohawk as a receptionist at a law firm – even if he promises to get a hair cut. Why not? Because on average, … guys with Mohawks have trouble with authority. (source)

Similarly, people with facial tattoos are unlikely to be hired as CEO’s, perhaps because they signal an anarchic, counter-cultural, contrarian, nonconformist, bohemian and “wandering” attitude.

Why?

The reason people engage in statistical discrimination is the high cost of making case-by-case judgments and the relative accuracy of group averages. Given that it’s not a product of bigotry, irrational prejudice, hatred and dislike, is it correct to call it discrimination? It is in the sense that people judge other people simply on the basis of group membership, not individual merit, as in “regular”, “irrational” discrimination or prejudice. Yet it’s not discrimination because people engaging in statistical discrimination often don’t do so because of their dislike or hatred of the discriminated group but because of economic self-interest and risk avoidance, as is shown by the examples above. The stereotypes are not baseless as most stereotypes are (“Blacks are lazy”, “Jews are money hungry”, “women are only productive at home” etc.).

This discrimination is “statistical” because contrary to normal prejudice it acknowledges that a relatively large number of members of a group do not conform to the stereotype. Just as it isn’t irrational to claim that it’s statistically accurate that republicans in general are pro-life while at the same time knowing that many aren’t. “Irrational” prejudice doesn’t have so much tolerance for exceptions. “People see others as average members of their groups until proven otherwise”. (source)

Is it acceptable?

So we know what it is and why people do it, but is it morally and legally acceptable? I think it depends on the type.

While such discrimination is legal in some cases (e.g., insurance markets), it is illegal and/or controversial in others (e.g., racial profiling). (source)

The difference between acceptable and unacceptable statistical discrimination hinges on several facts, I think:

1. How accurate are the group generalizations? You can forgive profit-seeking insurers for imposing higher auto insurance premiums on young people. However, wage gaps between genders resulting from theories about lower productivity of women (said to result from higher female investment in child rearing and a focus on “caring jobs” as opposed to jobs that tend to pay well) are less acceptable because the generalization is more dubious and the category of “women” too broad. Generalizations may be more accurate when they are not about behavior but about more “technical” and less controversial things such as life expectancy.

2. What is the “weight of history”? Statistical discrimination of blacks or women is by definition less acceptable than statistical discrimination of young people, given the history (maybe that’s a stereotype about discrimination…). Differentiated treatment, even if it isn’t really discrimination, can still cause harm given a certain history. The harm can be feelings of insecurity regarding a possible repetition of the past, feelings of continued attacks on self-esteem etc.

3. What are the consequences of statistical discrimination? Paying a slightly higher insurance premium is a lesser harm than being pulled over by the police a few times a week because of your skin color, even if your skin color is a statistically “accurate” prediction of the probability that you engage in crime in your neighborhood.

4. To what extent is statistical discrimination self-fulfilling? To some extent it clearly is.

People think teen-age males are criminally inclined (and they are), this angers the teen-age males, leading them to commit more crimes. (source).

If everyone assumes that boys are not good at domestic work, the benefit of learning domestic work is zero because no one will hire you as a domestic worker. In some areas, this self-fulfilling process is obviously harmful, and hence statistical discrimination is harmful as well.

It is possible that, because employers are less likely to hire women in jobs that require labour market attachment, then women are more likely to be involved in child-rearing than men, and are less prone to acquire the skills that are necessary to seek and perform well in those jobs, confirming the asymmetric belief that employers hold regarding labour market attachment. (source)

This phenomenon is called the stereotype threat. On the other hand, there can be self-reversing prophesies at work as well. A-typical members of a group, who of course suffer from the prejudice in the same way as typical members, may incite the latter to change their behavior. E.g. responsible young drivers who pay too much insurance because of the typical behavior of their fellow group members, may pressure the latter to change their ways. In this way, statistical discrimination may work to undermine itself. The same result will occur because a non-typical member of a group may get relatively more exposure. A woman who’s relatively good at soccer – compared to other women – but just as good as an average male soccer player, may get more attention than the latter. This excess of attention may undermine the stereotype on female soccer players.

Capital Punishment (22): Deterrence

Many crimes, especially violent crimes and property crimes, are human rights violations. The fact that theft, assault, violent attack and murder are crimes in most if not all national legal systems, indicates a high degree of normative consensus on the importance of a subset of human rights, namely the right to life, the right to property and the right to physical security.

Moreover, there’s also a high degree of consensus across different national legal systems as to the best way to react to these rights violations and to stop them from happening in the future: isolate the perpetrators in prisons. We believe that this will prevent crime in three ways:

  • It stops the criminal from re-offending during the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops the criminal from re-offending after the period of his/her isolation.
  • It stops other people from following his/her example.

The last two bullet points are what’s called “deterrence”. We tend to believe that this deterrence effect correlates with the severity of the punishment. More years in prison means more deterrence. More brutal punishments – such as capital punishment – means even more deterrence. The belief in this correlation between degree of deterrence and degree of punishment rests on the “rational actor hypothesis”: people will take only those actions that produce more benefits than costs. If the punishment for a certain type of crime imposes a much lower cost on the potential criminal than the benefits the result from the crime – for instance a few weeks in prison for a theft worth several millions of dollars – and if the chances of being caught are reasonably low, than a “rational actor” is likely to become a criminal. Deterrence is therefore a function not only of the severity of the punishment but also of the probably of getting caught.

There are three problems with deterrence understood like this.

Irrationality

Many people don’t fit the rational actor description. They don’t make cost-benefit analyses before engaging in actions, especially not when crime is concerned (and certainly not in cases of certain types of crimes, such as “crime passionnel”).

Reductio ad absurdum

There’s an element of “reductio ad absurdum” in deterrence: if you want to deter certain types of crimes, especially crimes with very high potential benefits, you have to impose very high costs. Hence you may find that your logic leads you into acceptance of very brutal punishments: e.g. very painful, prolonged and public types of capital punishment, the killing of the family and friends of criminals etc. The danger with all cost-benefit logic in human affairs – and with utilitarian philosophies in general – is that you wind up accepting the sacrifice of some for the larger benefit of society as a whole. Rawls called this the failure to take distinctions between persons seriously. Utilitarianism means

extending to society the principle of choice for one man, and then, to make this extension work, conflating all persons into one through the imaginative acts of the impartial sympathetic spectator. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons. John Rawls (source)

It seems that if you want to defend deterrence, you have to stop at some point and accept that there are limits to it. There are certain things you just can’t do to people, and no amount of deterrence or other benefits can justify doing these things.

Doesn’t work, unless…

It’s not beyond doubt that deterrence works, probably in part because of the first point. There’s solid evidence to the contrary in the case of capital punishment (see here). But also for crime in general and prison sentences there’s doubt:

Although long sentences are now common and the incarceration rate is five times what it was during most of the 20th century, the crime rate is still two and a half times the average of 1950-62. … most criminals are not the dispassionate rational actors who populate standard economic models. They are more like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain punishment. (source)

Detention only seems to work when the odds of apprehension and punishment are very high.

The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their crimes. (source)

This would seem to undermine the argument for capital punishment. Of the two elements that are believed to cause the deterrent effect, only the odds of getting caught seem to matter, not the severity of the punishment. Hence, capital punishment is useless. What counts is the odds of getting caught, not what happens when you’re caught. In general, people take costs that are relatively modest but immediate and certain much more seriously than higher costs that may or may not happen in the longterm.

Experimenters have found, for example, that even long-term alcoholics become much less likely to drink when they are required to receive a mild electric shock before drinking. Many of these same people were not deterred by their drinking’s devastating, but delayed, consequences for their careers and marriages. (source)