Human Rights Promotion (13): Human Rights, Pareto Improvements, and a Difference Principle

Human rights activism is rarely zero-sum, in the sense that we can only improve the rights protection of some through the imposition of an equal loss on others. More commonly we selectively improve protection for some without reducing protection for others. For example, if a judge protects a journalist’s free speech rights against government censorship, no one else’s rights protection is proportionally reduced. (This is zero-sum in the sense that more free speech means less censorship, but it’s not zero-sum on the level of different rights).

Zero-sum rights activism does occur, but only in the case of conflicting rights. For example, the journalist’s free speech rights may require restrictions on the right to privacy of public figures (or vice versa). However, most violations or restrictions of rights are not the result of conflicts between rights but rather the result of the non-rights motivated actions of governments or private agents.

We can rephrase this in economic terms. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made (source).

This is common in human rights activism. We regularly intervene very selectively to improve the rights of some while leaving others unaffected. This is because there’s always a lack of resources and a lack of power to intervene non-selectively.

However, even if Pareto improvements can be a way forward for rights protection, they are not the ultimate goal of human rights activism. This ultimate goal is equal rights, and that’s not something you can reach with Pareto improvements. Inherent in Pareto is that you don’t leave anyone worse off, but equal rights may require that some people give up something: an equal right to private property may imply redistribution for example.

Another reason why Pareto improvements aren’t really compatible with human rights is the lack of urgency, priority or fairness in Pareto terms. Pareto improvements can make those who are already better off even better off. If you make the richest person in society better off or improve the rights protection of the best protected person in society, this can be a Pareto improvement, but that’s hardly the best way forward for human rights. Human rights would require making first the worst placed person better off, even if this means making the best placed person a bit worse off (which, however, is often not even necessary).

Pareto efficient is therefore not the best way to achieve a society with full respect for human rights, although a society that is not Pareto efficient – in the sense that some Pareto improvements with respect to rights protection are still possible and some people may be made better off without anyone else being made worse off – obviously does not fully respect human rights.

If we first need to make the worst off better off, then a better principle for human rights may be a variation of Rawls’ difference principle:

enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is already better is only justifiable if it also leads to enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is relatively worse.

For example, one could argue that a very bright person has a right to more education if it turns out that her enhanced education ultimately benefits others who are less educated (perhaps because this person will become a rights activist or because she will transmit her knowledge). Or one can argue that a higher standard of living for someone already well off will increase economic productivity which in turn benefits the poorer members of society. However, this difference principle will not, by definition, make everyone equally well off or guarantee everyone’s equal rights. But perhaps it will do a better job than Pareto efficiency.

More about human rights and zero-sum games here. More about the original difference principle here.

What Are Human Rights? (34): Different Things

Another way of phrasing the question in the title of this post: how do human rights exist? They can exist in many forms:

  1. They can be part of the law. For instance, they can be included in a country’s constitution, in the international treaties a country has accepted, in customary law etc.
  2. Human rights can also exist as part of a moral tradition of a certain culture, nation or civilization. They are then shared norms of actual human moralities.
  3. They can exist as part of a religion, or better as part of a religion’s teachings, scriptures etc. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”).
  4. They can exist as part of a justified morality (as opposed to an actual human morality). E.g. some human rights are part of John Rawlstheory of justice. A justified morality is not the existing morality of a group; it’s a moral theory that justifies moral norms such as human rights by way of argued reasons.
  5. They can be facts of life: rather than merely moral, legal or religious norms (justified or not), they are part of everyday behavior. Rather than aspirations or goals they are real capabilities. If that’s the case, then people don’t just have a legal right to free speech, or a right to free speech granted to them by their cultural or religious norms. And they don’t just have this right because a justified moral theory gives it to them. They have free speech, period.

Depending on where you live, human rights – or certain human rights some of the time – can exist in all 5 forms or in just one. Human rights exist everywhere in form 1: the Universal Declaration has become part of international customary law and is therefore binding on all countries in the world, even the few that haven’t accepted any human rights treaties and that haven’t incorporated human rights in their constitutions. Hence, human rights are part of the law everywhere.

Of course, that doesn’t have to be of much use. Several countries don’t care about the enforcement of this part of the law, or of any part for that matter. Or they are unable to enforce the law because they don’t have the resources, the institutions or popular support for rights. Perhaps the reason why the law is not enforced is the unwillingness of their dictatorial governments. Perhaps the reason is the absence of rights in form 2 and/or 3.

Rights in form 1 are important, however, and it’s preferable that the type of law that includes human rights is more than merely international customary law. That’s a notorious weak form of law. Better to have a country accept human rights treaties and, on top of that, include them in its constitution. If this can be combined with

  • an effective and non-corrupt government – including a good police force and judiciary
  • and with human rights in form 2 or 3 – which gives rights public support

then rights can exist in form 5. Not of course all rights all of the time. There will probably always be rights violations, even in ideal legal, political, governmental, moral and cultural settings.

Regarding rights in form 2 or 3: no existing moralities or religions include all human rights, or at least all rights properly and broadly defined. The full existence of rights in form 5 can therefore not follow simply from their existence in form 2 or 3. A particular disadvantage of rights in form 3 is that they’re unconvincing to non-believers or members of other religions in the community. Or sometimes the rights granted by God are only granted to believers.

A disadvantage of rights in form 4: no two moral theorists seem to be able to agree. They all think their reasons are supported by the best arguments. It seems naive to believe that there will one day be scholarly agreement on political morality. Not even a sincere commitment to open-minded, rational and serious philosophical inquiry seems to make that possible. And without rights in form 4, it’s much more difficult to correct the deficiencies of rights in forms 2 and 3. Or maybe that’s me being naive about the power of philosophy.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.

Religion and Human Rights (24): Why and How Do We Separate State and Church? And What Are the Consequences for Religious Liberty?

A bit more about the proper role of religion in a modern democracy (see here for the original post I’m building on). I know it’s making things more simple than they actually are, but one can see the history of modern democracy as a continuing and progressive effort of the law and government policy to escape from religion. The religious wars of 16th and 17th centuries convinced the states of Europe that they had no choice but to put themselves above the factions. Only by loosening their ties with a favored religion and guaranteeing a free space for every religion and for equal liberty of worship, were they able to channel religious competition away from violence. As religion had become a dangerous and dividing power, it became clear that the state had to separate itself from the church, not only to keep the peace, but also to maintain itself.

The U.S. constitution later followed, inspired by the characteristic religious diversity of the U.S., itself the result of imperfect religious liberty in Europe. In the U.S., the separation of church and state was instituted in the First Amendment, more specifically the part of the Amendment called the “establishment clause” (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”). Religious liberty and the equal respect for all religions was also instituted in the First Amendment (more specifically in the part called the “free exercise clause“: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”). Obviously, separation and religious liberty interact, but I’ll focus first on separation, and then later I’ll discuss how separation influences liberty.

So the effort of western democratic states to separate themselves from religion is not based on a negative value judgment about religion as such, but simply on the need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect between religions, and this tolerance and respect should promote the rights to equal liberty of all religions. Separation of church and state is therefore a means to protect religious liberty. By removing its ties to a favored religion, a state is no longer tempted to impose that religion and persecute other religions. It will also stop favoring the official religion and imposing a competitive disadvantage on non-official religions.

And this need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and respect will only become more important in an age in which global mobility and globalization encourage coexistence of and hence competition between different religions. If a multicultural state today aligns itself with one particular religion, even in a very loose way, it will squander its authority as a neutral arbiter between religions and as a peacemaker, and it will undo equal religious liberty because its association with one religion will necessarily favor this religion and give it more power and hence more freedom.

The question whether there should be separation is settled in all modern democracies, precisely because of the salience of these reasons. Sure, other reasons for and justifications of separation are cited as well, and can be just as convincing to some: laws based on one religion should be rejected because they show disrespect to people adhering to other religions, or these people will fail to see the legitimacy of these laws; in the words of Rawls, laws should be grounded in reasons that are accessible to “common human reason”, i.e. secular reason; religiously inspired laws often imply violations of fundamental rights etc.

Whatever the reasons given, most democratic citizens accept that there has to be some kind of separation. The only dispute that remains is the degree or type of separation. Should religion be completely banned from public and political discussions? Should religious reasons for legislation be completely and always unacceptable? Or can they be accommodated when other, secular reasons are also available (i.e. the Lemon test) and when the law in question doesn’t harm fundamental rights? Those and other questions remain essentially controversial. Below I offer an admittedly crude typology of forms of separation that democracies can and do apply. But before that I want to make another point that is important to keep in mind when discussing separation of church and state.

And that point is the remarkable similarity between legal and religious modes of thought. It is this similarity that has led to the original and historical entanglement between religion and politics and that has therefore initiated the attempts to dislodge politics from religion. Both religion and politics are about the realization of morality. They both encourage people to engage in some forms of action and to disengage from other forms of action, and the distinction between forms of action is a moral one in both law and religion. Both law and religion differentiate between right and wrong actions, even if they may not always use the same adjectives (the law doesn’t talk about sinful behavior for example). Both use ritual and judgment. Of course, some religions – notably the Abrahamic religions – tend more towards the legal mode of thought than others. Confucianism, by contrast, sees the law negatively, as a impediment to the internalization of norms of conduct, and therefore an obstruction to virtue.

Let’s now return to the modes of separation. In an effort that’s clearly bordering on the simplistic, I count 6 types of relationship between politics/law and religion, in descending order of separateness, from complete separation to complete lack of separation:

1. Secularism or strict separation

According to this view, there should be an impregnable wall between church and state (Jefferson’s “wall of separation”), and the government should be essentially secular. The archetype is of course French laïcité (often translated as “secularism”), the product of centuries of nefarious involvement by Catholics in French public life. It entails the rejection of religious involvement in government affairs (as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs, by the way). That includes rejection of religion in public education, for example. Secularism implies a restrictive understanding of “private life” where religion is supposed to belong. In “public” (which includes for example public schools) religious people should act as citizens (“citoyens”) and also appear as such (hence the controversy over Muslim dress in France, see here and here). Secularism produces a reasonable level of religious freedom in society and private life but often relatively harsh restrictions on religious activity in government, law, politics and public life.

Another problem is that it seems impossible to avoid that religious values and religious moral sensibilities influence the law. And even if it were possible, it would be undesirable, in my view. Religion can be a valuable source in public discourse (and I say this as an agnostic). And neither should one underestimate the power of religious argument to appeal across religious divides, or even across the divide between religion and non-belief.

2. Neutrality

Neutrality, compared to secularism, also separates church and state but imposes a less severe form of exclusion of religion from government, legislation and policy. It forbids governments from favoring or advancing a particular religion over other religions, but it also forbids favoring secularism over religion. Notwithstanding the words of Jefferson quoted above, neutrality rather than secularism is typical of the current interpretation of the U.S. constitution. Religion is allowed a far greater role in U.S. public life than in France. Elected politicians in the U.S. regularly invoke religion, and religious reasons are often used as justifications for legislation (as long as the Lemon test is respected, see above).

Yet, the U.S. government cannot provide tax money in support of religion, for example, or impose school prayer in public schools, not even if students can excuse themselves (of course, prayer while at school is not forbidden as such; on the contrary, it is protected by the free exercise clause).

3. Accommodation

Accommodation, compared to neutrality, is still a system in which church and state are separated, but to an even lesser degree. Accommodation permits a government to acknowledge that religion is an important force in society, and only prohibits laws that either coerce religious activity or fail to treat different religions equally. A state can favor a religion without coercing it. Examples of government interference with religion that accommodation would allow are: the use of public (i.e. government) school facilities by religious groups, government aid (financial or otherwise) to religious schools, or school prayer if students aren’t forced to attend or if different religions get equal prayer time.

Some say the U.S. is slowly moving from neutrality to accommodation (partly because of the influence of Justice Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court).

4. Establishment

An even lesser form of separation occurs when one church is the established church (e.g. the Church of England) but other religions are still tolerated and have a measure of freedom. Establishment can mean either a “state church” or a “state religion”. A “state church” is created by the state as in the cases of the Anglican Church or the Church of Sweden. An example of “state religion” is Catholicism in Argentina. In the case of the former, the state has absolute control over the state church, but in the case of the latter, in this example, the Vatican has control over the church.

The problem here is that non-established churches, although they may be tolerated and even enjoy a large measure of freedom, aren’t treated equally, perhaps not by the law but simply because of their lack of equal recruitment power. So they are disadvantaged and hence there’s no equal religious freedom. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when one religion is established because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

5. Entanglement

This takes establishment a step further. The state’s favorite religion is no longer a “primus inter pares”. Other, non-official, non-established or non-favorite religions suffer not just a competitive disadvantage because of their non-official character, but also relatively severe restrictions of their religious liberty (of their recruitment efforts, their freedom of worship etc.).

6. Fusion/theocracy

Law and religion are the same, and separation is effectively and completely undone. The law is an instrument in the realization of religious law and morality. Rather than merely competitive disadvantage or restrictions on worship and recruiting, religions suffer outright prohibition and persecution. Of course, the same can occur when a state has adopted atheism as its official ideology, and actively persecutes religion as such, rather than some religions in particular. However, this has become the exception since the demise of communism, and only occurs in countries such as China, Cuba and North Korea.

Some claim that certain modern Islamic republics or countries that have implemented Shari’a law are examples of theocracy (see here). But is a pure theocracy possible? Not even the most totalitarian interpretations of a religion will unearth rules for everything. Hence, some laws are bound to be rooted in something else than religion. We see that theocracy, like the other extreme (secularism), finds it difficult to remain pure.

Separation and liberty

Now, if you agree that a separation between state and church is necessary for the protection of religious liberty, as I argued at the beginning of this post, then it may be useful to compare these 6 different types of separation (going from complete separation to complete absence of separation) with regard to the respective consequences for religious liberty of each type.

Secularism performs slightly less well with regard to religious liberty than neutrality or accommodation, but better than establishment, and obviously also better than entanglement and theocracy (the latter receiving a zero score). Difficult to say whether neutrality offers more religious liberty than accommodation or vice versa.

Some data

[T]wo-in-three people in the world today live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion. The report gauges the level of restrictions due both to government actions and to acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations and social groups. … 64 nations, about one-third of the countries in the world, have high or very high restrictions on religion. The brunt of these restrictions are often felt most directly by religious minorities. … Among all world geographic regions, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. … In 75 countries, or four-in-ten countries in the world, national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith. In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, and in 117 (59%) countries the registration requirements resulted in major problems for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths. (source)

More on religious liberty here.

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)

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (9): Free Speech, Democracy, Socrates and the Search for Truth

Just a few additional remarks on the way in which the equal right to free speech, and democratic deliberation based on this right, improve the quality of “knowledge” and of political decisions. (Continuing where this and this post left off).

Of course, “knowledge” and “truth” not in any absolute or objective sense, but in the sense of the best kind of thinking a given society at a given time can achieve.

Before arguing how Socrates is relevant in this discussion, allow me to cite a few 20th century thinkers. Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v California, stated that the

freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. (source)

Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

The freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on an issue. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality. Unfounded opinions or opinions that are open to sound criticism are not likely to survive this process. Free speech in general, and free speech as it is implemented in democratic decision procedures, initiate such a process. That is why opinions in a free society and political decisions in a democracy have what we could call an epistemological advantage. They are of better quality. At least as long as we contemplate the ideals. Real free societies and real democracies may fall significantly short of this ideal.

Again, epistemological advantage doesn’t equal “truth” and “knowledge”; just the best thinking we can get. Unfortunately, I’m not being very original here. This is obvious when we return to the Ancient Greeks. The Athenians especially believed that democratic deliberation (which for them was the same as free speech) was essential for wise decisions because it sheds the light of diverse opinions and criticism on policy options. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, said:

Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

None of this is limited to highly participatory systems of direct democracy such as the Athenian democracy, or to politics. The process can occur in modern, representative democracies and in any setting, political or non-political, guaranteeing free and equal speech. The scientific community for example heavily relies on peer participation. It’s fair to say that freedom of speech is essential for any collective search for of or advancement towards truth. In fact, the word “collective” is superfluous here, because the process is by definition collective. No one thinks more or less correctly in isolation.

We normally assume that an ideally conducted discussion among many persons is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusion (by a vote if necessary) than the deliberations of any one of them by himself. Why should this be so? In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from their standpoint and the limits of our vision are brought home to us … Discussion is a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments. At least in the course of time, the effects of common deliberation seem bound to improve matters. John Rawls

I know, I know: “what about Socrates!”. Well, the Socratic method is a type of discussion with adversaries which is intended to expose the adversaries’ pretensions, prejudices, dogmas and conventional beliefs. In other words, it targets opinions which are accepted as such, without having first passed through a process of examination and criticism. Socrates is a one man democratic agora, launching different criticisms and counter-arguments at an opinion, and shining the light of many perspectives.

The Ethics of Human Rights (13): Justice and Merit According to Aristotle and Rawls

No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. … The natural distribution of talents is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that men are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. John Rawls

The natural and social lottery – the good or bad fortune of being born in a wealthy or poor country or social class, with or without certain talents and biological/genetic assets or liabilities – has nothing to do with justice. Justice is what people and society decide to do about these inequalities of fortune.

Obviously, Rawls and many others – including myself – believe that doing nothing about them and simply leaving them as they are, is unjust. And we believe that the reason for doing something is merit or desert. None of us deserves or merits the genes we have, the fact that we are born in a certain place or group, and the opportunities that we receive from these facts and our genes.

Merit is central to the concept of justice, at least since the time of Aristotle. I think Aristotle gave the example of a teacher and his or her pupils. Would it be just for the teacher to give all pupils an equal score, regardless of the merits of each? He says no, because justice isn’t simply about equality. Justice is giving each what he or she deserves. The best pupil would have a sense of injustice if he or she would receive the same grades as all the rest, while the worst student would not necessarily have a sense of justice.

So justice means, in part at least, that people should get what they deserve (hence the derivative use of the word “justice” in the sphere of the judiciary). Matters over which people have no control, such as the place or environment where they are born or the genes that they carry, determine their quality of life, their prospects in life, their opportunities and capabilities and their stock of resources (material and other). It follows that the distribution of prospects and capabilities is to a large extent beyond the control of individuals (not completely because we can do a lot to develop and change these prospects and capabilities), and therefore also beyond merit or desert. As Rawls puts it, we don’t deserve our starting place in society.

If merit is to play a part in the determination of whether a situation is just or unjust, we have to correct for the unequal and undeserved distribution of talents, genes and prospects linked to the places where we are born and the families in which we are born. Justice therefore requires that we help the less fortunate, those who are unfortunate to have been born in the wrong country or class, with the wrong genes or in the wrong family. Contrary to what libertarians want us to believe, justice is not merely a matter of avoiding to harm people and to make them worse off. It is also about helping them to be better off. And more specifically, helping them to be better off than they are as a result of the lottery of nature and birth.

Those who win from this lottery are under moral pressure to give to others who, through no fault of their own, have fared less well. It is in this context that economic human rights for instance have to be understood. These rights impose on the rich the duty to part with some of their riches and hand them over to the poor.

What is Democracy? (27): Independent Political Parties

Disadvantages of private funding for political parties

What is necessary is that political parties be autonomous with respect to private demands, that is, demands not expressed in the public forum and argued for openly by reference to a conception of the public good. If society does not bear the costs of organisation, and party funds need to be solicited from the more advantaged social and economic interests, the pleadings of these groups are bound to receive excessive attention. John Rawls

The financing of political parties in a democracy is a controversial matter, especially in a democracy such as the US where parties and candidates have to spend huge amounts of money on advertising and promotion in highly mediatized campaigns. If parties and candidates’a0have to rely on private donations, there is indeed the danger of unequal influence: parties are likely to listen more closely to the requests and opinions of private groups, and these groups then acquire more influence than the ordinary citizen. A democracy should try to achieve the ideal of equal influence.

Moreover, the unequal influence of donors is likely to be self-interested and non-transparent. And it can become corruption.

Party financing scandals have rocked countries in every region of the world, generating increased contempt for and public disillusionment with parties and politicians, and undermining public confidence in the political process. (source)

Disadvantages of public funding for political parties

On the other hand, when you don’t allow private donations you probably alienate the public from politics. A donation is an expression of a political opinion and of support for a candidate, and should be protected by the freedom of speech. Most people want nothing in return, except for the keeping of promises. If the system is widespread and popular, the risk of favors in return for donations is small. Also, government subsidization of political speech may be as unfair as private funding: how shall the state decide which candidate to fund and which not? And, finally, it seems unjust that citizens’a0are forced to subsidize with their tax dollars candidates and political speech with which they disagree.

Mixed and limited system

So perhaps a limited system could work:

  • maximum amounts of donations
  • income disclosure obligations for politicians
  • general transparency of the system including expenses by candidates
  • bans on some kinds of donations (for example donations from racist organizations)
  • a mixed private-public funding system
  • prohibition of “indirect funding”, funding to front organizations not legally linked to a candidate or a party but promoting their election nevertheless (e.g. the infamous Swift Boat Veterans)
  • rules on equal media access as a limit on the publicity opportunities of the wealthiest candidates
  • anonymous campaign contributions
  • voting with dollars“: voters would be given a $x publicly funded voucher to donate to federal political campaigns’a0as they please (see here as well)

This is a good database of the funding and spending situation in the US.