The Ethics of Human Rights (85): What is Tolerance?

Tolerance is another word for respect for human rights. You are tolerant when you’re confronted with people who exercise their rights in a way you don’t like and when you nevertheless allow or permit them to exercise their rights. The word “permit” implies that you could intervene with people exercising their rights if you wanted to – that, in other words, intervention is an option that is relatively costless to yourself and that is likely to succeed – but you refrain from intervention anyway. You are tolerant when you let people exercise their rights, not because you fear that intervention is costly or futile, but because you choose to let them exercise their rights.

That is also why tolerance of human rights violations is impossible and why tolerance is limited. We should tolerate people who exercise their rights but not those who violate the rights of others, and neither should we tolerate those who violate the rights of others while exercising their own rights. If tolerance is respect for human rights then tolerance of rights violations is by definition impossible. Hence, it’s more correct to say that tolerance is respect for human rights as long as those rights do not lead to violations of the rights of others.

People often view tolerance as no more than a convenient way to keep the peace, to co-exist with others and to avoid the possibly very high costs of trying to change the behavior or the beliefs of others. Making other people more like us would perhaps be better but it’s dangerous, especially if it requires the use of force. And when it does, it’s not just dangerous but also futile: forcing people to believe the right thing is impossible (correct beliefs come voluntarily from the inside). Hence the common view that tolerance is a fallback option when better things are impossible or too dangerous. When you can’t force people to change or when it’s too dangerous to try to change them, you have no choice but to tolerate them. Tolerance becomes a necessary evil.

However we could also view tolerance as an active and positive disposition rather than a passive declaration of defeat when faced with danger or an impossible goal. It can be seen as an active kind of respect for the rights of others. We are not really tolerant when we passively respect the rights of others simply because we have to, because violating those rights would be dangerous or because we can’t bring about the desired result anyway. We are tolerant when we actively choose to respect the rights of others even if we could easily and costlessly violate them. When you’re forced to be tolerant, when you have no better option and when you haven’t chosen to be tolerant you can hardly be called tolerant. In other words, tolerant people are those who believe they have a good reason to violate the rights of others (for example because they view other people’s exercise of their rights as immoral) but who decide not to violate them anyway for the simple reason that they don’t want to violate them. People who don’t violate the rights of the intolerable because they have no choice, because the risks are too great or because they can’t achieve what they want are not really tolerant.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (40): On the Relative Unimportance of the Notion of Human Dignity

The word “dignity” features prominently in most human rights treaties and declarations. For example, the Vienna Declaration of the 1993 World Human Rights Conference affirms that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person”.

I don’t buy it. Human rights derive from human values. We need rights, not to protect our dignity, but to realize our values. I subscribe to a value-based approach to human rights. I can’t and won’t explain this approach here – you can read this older post if you want – because what I want to do now is simply argue against dignity as a basis or justification of human rights. In fact, that sounds a bit too extreme: dignity can be a basis, at least of some human rights, but it’s not the one I prefer. It’s my view that there really is no analytical or practical need for the concept of dignity in the field of human rights.

Of course, if someone decides that he or she wants to believe in human rights because of an affection for the notion of dignity, why not. In the end, what we want is full protection of all human rights, and the things that produce this protection are of secondary importance. However, I’m convinced that progress towards that end is more likely when we focus on values rather than dignity. Dignity, compared to values, is an extremely vague and contradictory notion, one that has many meanings, few of which are practically useful in grounding or justifying human rights.

1.

Let’s start with the word’s inherent contradictions. Dignity implies both radical inequality and radical equality. Originally, inequality was central to the notion. Dignity was, and to some extent still is, the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, or better of a certain amount of honor or respect. Some people deserve respect due to their status, standing, position or function. For example, respecting the dignity of the queen means honoring her as a person having her function. A “dignitary” is defined as a person who has a high rank or an important position. A head of state or a government respects the dignity of foreign emissaries by giving them the proper privileges. All these and many other uses of the word “dignity” reveal the inequality that the word is intended to convey.

Another use of the word shows that it is about inequality not only of people but of things as well: “I will not dignify your question with an answer” means that your question is so silly and so far below an adequate level of quality that my answering it would give it more respect than it deserves.

On the other hand, dignity also has a radical egalitarian meaning. This is a relatively recent development. There is, it seems, something like human dignity, a dignity all humans share regardless of rank and position. This comes across in certain recent uses of the word. People are said to behave in an undignified manner when they fail to show sufficient self-respect: for example, a person who is about to be executed for a grave crime and who has be to dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows. Such a person certainly does not have a high rank or status and yet is still seen as behaving in an undignified manner. Why? Because that’s not how humans should behave. Humans should show self-respect.

People can also treat each other in an undignified manner: keeping a patient in a persistent vegetative state alive against her will and against hope is often described as undignified; the same is true for a failure to give someone a proper burial. “Aging with dignity” means being old and at the same time able to continue to perform normal human functions.

All these modern uses of the word “dignity” convey equality, and more specifically an equality based on a certain understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. Being treated with dignity means being treated in a human and non-degrading way, in a way that respects our common humanity, and in a way that all humans deserve.

Perhaps we have to thank democracy for this egalitarian turn in our understanding of dignity. Democracy offers all people the dignified prerogatives of kings. Jeremy Waldron has famously argued that the notion of human dignity comes from the democratization of the high social status once reserved for the well-born. There has been a “leveling up”: all of us deserve the same respect that was once reserved for high status people. We are all “dignitaries” now. Human dignity, as opposed to old-fashioned dignity, is considered to be “inherent” rather than given by class or status, by ritual, coronation, anointment, dress, office etc. However, while this egalitarian turn is to be commended, it looks like we have arrived at a point where dignity is no longer different from equality. It’s another word for the same thing. In what way is being treated with dignity different from being treated equally? Hard to say.

Another problem is that the two meanings of the word “dignity” – the egalitarian and the inegalitarian one – continue to exist side by side. This is confusing and it can lead to the idea that some people, on account of their actions, are no longer dignified or have lost their dignity and self-respect and hence no longer deserve their human rights.

2.

On to the matter of the practical utility of the notion of dignity. To what extent can the word be used to justify specific human rights and denounce specific human rights violations? If we understand dignity as the preciousness of each human individual then we are not allowed to treat humans in a degrading way or in a way that diminishes their humanity. Torture would be a clear case of degrading treatment in this sense. Hence, a right not to be tortured would receive strong support from the notion of dignity. A similar reasoning is perhaps possible for certain other human rights such as the right not to be enslaved and the right not to suffer poverty. A slave or a poor person can be said to be have lost his or her dignity.

But how do violations of someone’s freedom of speech violate his or her dignity? Or someone’s right to associate and assemble on the town square? That’s not clear at all. Dignity, it seems, is of limited use in the justification of human rights. Perhaps one can make the case that dignity requires respect for autonomy, and free speech protects autonomy (see the argument here). But why not focus directly on autonomy? What is the value-added of dignity here? Looks like a detour. If anything, dignity is important because autonomy is, not vice versa. More generally, it’s entirely possible to defend the claim that people have dignity because they are rights bearers (or, somewhat less ambitious, that they have dignity because they are autonomous persons able to make rights claims). That they have rights because they have dignity may be the wrong way around.

In any case, the sweeping claim that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person” seems to be untrue. Sometimes we can say that dignity requires a certain human right but more often than not dignity does not tell us anything useful. Given that there are many better reasons to promote human rights, including those rights that can if necessary be based on dignity, I fail to see the strategic advantages of focusing on dignity. Sure, if dignity can justify some but not other human rights, we should not dismiss it. Everything that helps is welcome. However, I have the feeling that dignity is often used as the ultimate and deepest ground for all human rights. And that is plainly wrong. Our common human values are the ultimate and deepest ground for human rights.

3.

A third problem with human dignity is its religious origins. If old-fashioned dignity comes from rank, position and function, then where does human dignity come from? What’s so special about human beings? Why do we deserve a certain treatment? Many would say that dignity comes from God. Because human beings are created in the image of God they have a certain value that needs to be respected if God is to be respected. However, the religious origins of the notion of dignity may make it unappealing to non-believers or adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions.

Of course, it’s possible to generate a plausible non-religious account of dignity. I mentioned autonomy a moment ago. Kant had an interesting view based on the idea that using people as means is an affront to their dignity. I’ve appealed to this view in the context of capital punishment and yet I’m not convinced that it is really necessary as a ground for human rights in general.

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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (21): Selfish Reasons for Respecting the Rights of Others

People usually have no problem acknowledging their own rights and demanding that others respect those rights. (I say “usually” because it’s not unheard of that people waive their rights. For example, some don’t want to live in a democracy). It’s the rights of others that are often a problem. One can try to foster benevolence, tolerance, mutual respect and humanitarianism as means to increase the level of respect for the rights of others, but perhaps that’s utopian, depending on your assessment of human nature. It’s true that the concept of human rights arose precisely because of deficiencies in human nature and an overall insufficiency of benevolence, tolerance etc.

So perhaps it’s better to try to find selfish reasons that may convince people to respect the rights of others. There’s a couple of those here:

  • To the extent that social stability and peaceful coexistence depend on some level of respect for certain human rights, and break down below that level, everyone has an interest in maintaining that level of respect. Massive and ongoing violations of certain human rights for a large enough subgroup of a population can cause social unrest that may ultimately affect the prosperity and security of all members of that population, including the violators.
  • I argued before (see here and here) that the optimal process for thinking and knowledge acquisition requires the free and public appearance of a maximum number of arguments for and against a theory or idea. Only those theories and ideas that survive this process will be of high quality. The multiplication of perspectives can, to some extent, be the result of solitary reflection (“imagination”) but is enhanced by the actual participation of others in the thinking process. It’s like you can’t know that a square shape is actually part of a cube rather than simply a square if you don’t look at it from all possible perspectives and if you don’t shine a “light” on all possible sides. Hence, if we assume that everyone has an interest in the quality of his or her own thinking and knowledge, then we can also safely assume that everyone has an interest in at least certain freedom rights being granted to a maximum number of other people (even people in other countries or cultures, since the marketplace of ideas should be extended as wide as possible in order to avoid national or cultural prejudice and to allow the appearance of unusual perspectives and arguments).
  • And then there’s reciprocity. If people cherish their own rights, it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity: others will to some extent return the favor. Respecting the rights of others can encourage them to respect your own rights. Conversely, if you claim the right to deny the rights of others, that sets the precedent that someone might deny your rights. This reciprocity operates on several levels: it’s probably a basic social instinct to answer respect with respect; and you may hope for reciprocity because your own practice of respect for the rights of others has contributed to a general culture of human rights.
  • Aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going. Hence their economic self-interest will convince them to be more positive about the freedom of movement and association of potential immigrants, something which will also be beneficial for those immigrants’ right to a certain standard of living.
  • Some other selfish reasons to respect the rights of others may seem a bit far-fetched but not completely unlikely. For example, people have an interest in art and want to consume art. Hence, they must grant artists freedom of expression.

The big question here is obviously the weight of these selfish reasons to respect the rights of others. There are, after all, numerous selfish reasons for violating the rights of others (for example, discrimination, like dishonesty, is an important producer of profit for the discriminators). And those reasons can easily be considered more important than the reasons to act benevolently. We wouldn’t need to discuss human rights if things were any different because the “invisible hand” would have eradicated all rights violations. Still, I believe it’s useful to emphasize some of the selfish reasons to respect the rights of others because those are clearly not understood well enough most of the time. A proper understanding could at least make things better at the margin, and in some cases.

Religion and Human Rights (22): The Proper Role of Religion in a Democracy

For me, as an agnostic, the question of the place of religion in a democracy is an important one, although I believe the question would be just as important if I held a religious belief or if I were an atheist. There’s no doubt in my mind that the full protection of human rights and civil liberties for all citizens can be jeopardized by misconceptions about the proper role of religion. Take, for example, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of non-believers or adherents of other religions, women’s rights etc.

At the most basic level, this is a problem of tolerance. We should not impose our beliefs, moral values and practices on others if these others don’t inflict harm, even if we think other people act immorally from the point of view of our religion. And neither should we discriminate people when they act or speak or think in ways that are incompatible with our own beliefs. These two prescriptions are based on the need for respect. We would show disrespect for other people if we were to force them to act according to our own beliefs. And the need for respect is, in turn, based, on the importance of freedom. Other people value their freedom to act according to their own beliefs. Let’s take two examples:

  • A Muslim father may, as long as his daughter is underage, impose certain religiously inspired rules of behavior on this daughter, and he can even hope that the girl internalizes these rules and respects them for the rest of her life. But when the girl reaches adulthood and chooses to live according to her own rules, she will be protected to do so by her human rights and civil liberties, even against the wishes of her father. The proper role of the religious beliefs of the father has reached its limit. The father should tolerate and respect (which doesn’t mean agree with) the choices of his adult daughter, and the laws of the democracy in which they live will enforce this tolerance and the girl’s freedom of choice if necessary.
  • A Catholic human resources manager in the recruitment department of the army of a democratic country, refuses to hire a perfectly qualified candidate because of her homosexuality. Again, this would be a sign of disrespect on the part of the HR manager and the law should intervene.

But the problem goes beyond the level of relations between citizens. The question about the proper place and role of religion in a democracy isn’t limited to the problem of how we treat each other in our daily lives, how we treat our wives and children, our gay or “infidel” neighbors or employees etc. In a democracy, the people translate their beliefs in legislation and government policy. Hence we should ask to what extent people can use their religious beliefs as the basis or reason for legislation.

Here I take a nuanced position between the two extremes: between a complete lack of restrictions on the role of religion in democratic legislation, and a complete exclusion of religion from democratic legislation. So the question becomes one of degree: to what extent can religion be the basis of law? When is it allowed, and when is it no longer allowed for religious reasons to be the reasons for government coercion?

I think that the problem arises when the legal coercion resulting from religious reasons violates the human rights and civil liberties of individuals, and that any religiously inspired legislation that stops short of such violations is acceptable. Some would say that even legal coercion based on religious reasons that doesn’t violate the rights of individuals is reprehensible, but I don’t agree. An argument in favor of this more restrictive approach could go as follows. Legislation based on religion automatically implies disrespect for people of other religions and for non-believers, since the religious reasons used as a basis for this legislation are likely to be exclusive to a particular religion. Only religious reasons which are sufficiently vague so as not to be exclusive to one religion can then be acceptable religious reasons for legislation. An example: charity can be an acceptable religious reason for legislation, because it’s not a reason that is exclusive to one religion, perhaps not even to religion as such. Laws regarding the sabbath, on the contrary, would not be an acceptable reason for legislation, even if it produces legislation that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Or the argument could be that only a law that is supported at the same time by religious reasons and non-religious reasons is acceptable, and that laws that are supported only by religious reasons are unacceptable, even if they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

I think that goes too far. Disrespect should be avoided, but I don’t see why the avoidance of disrespect should automatically override legitimate religious concerns. It’s not even clear to me that there’s necessarily disrespect involved in the use of exclusive religious reasons as a basis for legislation. It’s certainly not the case that such legislation necessarily means forcing one religion on people of other faiths or of no faith. If that would be the case, we would have legislation that violates the rights of individuals (namely the freedom of religion). And that would violate my own rule stated above.

However, legislation that is based on exclusive religious reasons does involve coercing people on the basis of a doctrine that they don’t accept. But, again, if this coercion doesn’t result in rights violations I can’t see what would be wrong with it. Laws by definition force people to do things they don’t accept or to abstain from doing things that are essential to them. I don’t see why there should be laws in any other case.

To summarize, religious people can advocate and – if they are in the majority – implement laws on the basis of their own, exclusive religious reasons, as long as the human rights and civil liberties of all are respected. A religiously inspired law banning same-sex marriage would therefore not be acceptable; a law instituting a religious holiday on the contrary would be acceptable. In the words of Habermas:

The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. (source)

On the other hand, religious people should also refrain from imposing a burden on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Some would say that even my rule is too restrictive on religion. For religious people, religion is not only a personal and private conviction but also the law of humanity. Forcing them to forsake the legal implementation of their religious views means taking away their identity, forcing them to be what they don’t want to be. Their religious beliefs are political beliefs and always trump opposing political beliefs. It’s intolerable for them to be forced not to implement their beliefs by way of legislation, or to submit to political decisions that are not based on their religious reasons. It’s indeed a good question: can religious people really accept democracy, given that God cannot be in the minority and God’s commands are absolute and trump opposing majority decisions? Democracy seems to be unacceptable from a religious point of view. However, catering to this view would mean forfeiting democracy, majority rule, the free choice of others, respect for others, freedom of religion, and human rights, and replacing all this by absolute theocracy. I don’t think that’s a price many are willing to pay, and not even many religious people as I argued here.

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

Cultural Rights (10): Tolerating Intolerance?

Some people urge us to accept and respect other cultures, other practices and beliefs unconditionally and without exceptions. Every cultural practice, whatever its content, is valuable and should be protected, even if this means giving up certain or all human rights. This means that rejecting intolerance in a certain culture is intolerant and rejecting discrimination is discrimination. Diversity should be tolerated, even if elements of this diversity are expressions of intolerance or discrimination. Otherwise, we would show a lack of respect for cultural identities and we would de facto return to the days of colonization and imperialism.

Respect is important, and human rights are created precisely as tools to make different people with different beliefs and practices or habits live together peacefully.’a0But they are not designed to protect practices which violate them. We can never tolerate intolerance and that we must always discriminate discrimination. One cannot force an idea to be self-destructive. A tolerant system tolerating intolerance or failing to discriminate those who discriminate, will never last very long. Those who are tolerant must be intolerant of those who are intolerant (and the latter include those who attack the institutions protecting tolerance, such as human rights).

This has nothing to do with “an eye for an eye”. It is purely a matter of consistency and self-preservation. We must accept and respect diversity, but not in an unlimited way. Some things are just unacceptable.