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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He obviously explains it better than I can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Causes of Poverty (69): Self-Destructive Behavior

One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.

Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.

It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).

However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.

Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons: 

  • poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
  • helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
  • helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and who deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.

Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).

It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.

While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.


Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.


Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.

What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.


Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.


That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.

So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.

Other posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.

Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.

If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)

An example:

scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)

How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.

If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.

More on free will here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (29): The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect can explain the persistence of certain types or instances of rights violations. If many people witness a person in distress, then it’s the less likely that any one person will help. “I could help, but I’m sure someone will”. Numerous experiments have proven the effect. Virtually all of them find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. The probability of help is indeed inversely related to the number of bystanders, although not necessarily one-on-one. More precisely, the effect occurs when bystanders are strangers; when bystanders are friends help is usually forthcoming.

What are the reasons for this effect? Hard to tell, but social influence may be one: bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If everyone first looks at the others, then you have a vicious circle of influence. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing – i.e. nothing – they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. Diffusion of responsibility may be another reason: when a lot of people are present, they all assume that others carry more responsibility to intervene, because others may be seen as closer or stronger or first on the spot (this is also the thinking behind the firing squad or the Japanese procedure for capital punishment). The fear of being harmed or of offering unwanted assistance may also explain the effect.

Increasing urbanization and improved knowledge of everyday events (by way of better information systems such as the internet) can make the bystander effect more common, and can therefore make it more difficult to stop rights violations.

There’s a peculiar reaction to the bystander effect described here. And here are some notorious cases of the effect. More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

The Causes of Poverty (47): The Undeserving Poor? Stop Moralizing Already

In certain circles, it’s common to hear the claim that the poor – or many of the poor – only have themselves to blame and that their poverty is the result of their own bad decisions, mentalities and lifestyles. It’s useful to deconstruct this claim because that will allow us to show that its appeal is based on a dangerous simplification.

Inherent in the claim is a very specific, unspoken and unconvincing understanding of the concept of responsibility: the poor are responsible for their own poverty because they have failed to meet certain standards of conduct (e.g. finish school, wait to have kids, be dedicated to your job etc.). However, responsibility should ideally be understood as much more than mere conformity with standards of conduct. In many cases, this conformity is not the result of responsibility but rather a matter of habit, fear of consequences, convenience etc. In other cases, acting responsibly means violating certain standards of conduct.

And even when responsibility equals conformity to standards of conduct, failure to conform may not imply irresponsible behavior. People need the capacities necessary to act responsibly and to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct. If they don’t choose and follow through with the right form of conduct, the reason my not be a choice to act irresponsibly, but simply a lack of capacity to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct.

In order to have the capacities necessary to act responsibly and to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct, people need to grow up and live in an environment that fosters these capacities, or at least doesn’t destroy them or nip them in the bud.

Take the example of people who destroy their forests for the purpose of agriculture or animal farming. They unwittingly or wittingly encourage desertification and the erosion of fertile soil. They act irresponsibly in a superficial understanding of the word, because they fail to conform to certain standards of conduct that would guarantee their prosperity, as well as that of future generations. In this case, we’re talking about the standards of conduct that prescribe sustainable development. However, the people in the example may not have the capacity to act responsible because they may not have an alternative to their self-destructive actions.

Likewise, someone dropping out of school may seem to act irresponsibly, and others may conclude from her actions that her subsequent poverty is her own fault. But maybe she didn’t grow up in an environment that fostered her capacity to remain in school.

Hence, looking closer at what it means to act responsibly often means softening our judgments about people. Obviously, there are people who have the capacity to act responsibly – or whose circumstances and upbringing do/did not substantially diminish or fail to foster this capacity – but who nevertheless act irresponsibly. They are rightly condemned for their own failures (a condemnation which, by itself, does not automatically remove all moral obligations to assist them – the removal of those obligations, as required by many conservatives and “luck egalitarians” – can only be justified by additional arguments which aren’t guaranteed to withstand criticism and which I won’t examine now).

The problem, of course, is our lack of ability to distinguish these people from others who genuinely lack the necessary capacities and who are therefore only apparently irresponsible. It’s easy to detect cases of bad or self-destructive conduct; it’s much harder to ascertain capacities or the presence or absence of an environment that fosters capacities.

I would like to ask those who go on about the undeserving poor, about their stupidity and lack of personal morality, and about how the welfare state only encourages bad behavior, the following questions: given

  • the fact that some of the supposedly irresponsible people are not really irresponsible, and
  • the fact that it’s hard to determine who’s who, and
  • that trying to determine this would probably require a state that is much more intrusive and opposed to liberty than current welfare states

would it not be better to risk helping some genuinely irresponsible people than to risk not helping some people who do not have the capacities to act responsibly? And would it therefore not be better to work on capacities? I think the latter would be more fruitful than the attempt to moralize people out of poverty.

More on the undeserving poor here.

The Causes of Poverty (41): Racism

There’s a clear discrepancy between poverty rates for blacks and whites in the U.S. (as between races in many other countries). The question is to what extent racism is to blame. I mentioned here, here and here that some of the irrational and self-destructive behavior of a lot of poor people causes many to believe that the poor are themselves to blame for their poverty and that one shouldn’t look for external reasons such as racism.

If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it. (source)

Opinions like this are very common. But are they correct? Is it true that “neither bigotry nor even structural racism” can explain why an individual does not make a few simple choices that will drastically improve her life?

At first sight, it does seem that a few simply rational decisions about life will allow you to escape or avoid poverty. But on closer inspection that’s just begging the question: if things are so simple, why don’t people make those choices? Hell, it’s so simple that it should be obvious even to the stupidest among the poor! But if it’s not stupidity that causes people to fail to take the advice of finishing high school and not having children early, and not bigotry or racism, then what?

[The] insistence that the failure of so many blacks to avoid the perils that come with not finishing high school and getting pregnant before marriage cannot be explained by structure or bigotry is too outrageous to let pass with no reply. In fact they can be easily explained by structure. …

The school systems in black neighborhoods are underfunded and undeniably worse on average than those in white neighborhoods.  The quality of the school, its teachers and leadership has a direct influence on graduation rates.  Sex ed and access to contraceptives are also far worse in black communities.  The public health failures come well before this for many black youth.  The failure to provide adequate health care and nutrition to black adolescents has been linked to the behavioral and learning disabilities so prevalent in black schools.  The diagnosis of a learning disability is one of the biggest predictors of eventually dropping out of school, particularly in poor urban schools. (source)

And having more trouble finding a job because you’re name sounds black obviously has an impact on your prosperity, also for your children. And growing up in a poor family has consequences for your adult prosperity. When we look at incarceration rates by race, and assume – wrongly – that there’s no racism in play, what do you think it does to a child having to grow up without a father?

This means that there’s one less parent to earn an income, one less parent to instill the sort of discipline all children need to graduate school and avoid unplanned pregnancies.  Even if the incarceration only lasts briefly, it still means that once the parent is out of jail he or she will find it much harder find employment. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

Crime and Human Rights (11): The Preconditions for Criminal Punishment

I know that the worst thing about crime is what happens to the victims of crimes, not what happens to convicted criminals. Still, I want to focus on the latter for a moment. Criminal punishment is almost always a limitation of the criminal’s human rights, so it is a legitimate area of concern, although perhaps not the most important one. Whether we put criminals in prison, kill them, flog them, cut off their hands or put their names and addresses on the internet, we limit some or even many of their human rights.

So, if we want to maintain a system of criminal punishment, and if we agree that people don’t lose their human rights simply because they commit a crime, then we have to formulate a justification of the limits we impose on the rights of criminals. When are such limits justified, and when are they arbitrary, excessive or dictatorial? I believe criminal punishment is morally justified if, and only if, at least the following 8 conditions are met simultaneously:

1. Criminal punishment is necessary for the protection of the rights of others

A particular punishment, involving very specific limitations of the rights of the convicted criminal, has to be necessary for the protection of the rights of others. No other goal can be served by criminal punishment, and no other means or punishments, less harmful to the rights of the criminal have the same effect on the rights of others.

Criminal punishment not intended to protect the rights of others is therefore unacceptable, as is criminal punishment which imposes harm on the criminal that goes beyond what is necessary for the protection of the rights of others. For example, putting someone in prison because she has a certain opinion, is unacceptable because this punishment doesn’t protect the rights of others. And putting someone in prison because she steals a newspaper is also unacceptable because this punishment goes beyond what is necessary to protect the property rights of others. Rights protection in this case can be achieved by other means which are less harmful to the rights of the criminal (a fine for instance).

So both the type of punishment and its severity have to be taken into account when judging whether the punishment is morally justified. Simple retribution, proportionality or lex talionis can, in some cases, satisfy this first condition of morally justified punishment, but only by accident. In many cases, you will not deliver a morally justified punishment when you think only in terms of retribution, proportionality or lex talionis because you won’t automatically consider the effect of the punishment on the rights of others.

For example, take the case of a jealous artist vandalizing the work of a rival. Lex talionis would recommend that the vandals art be also vandalized. However, this punishment may be proportional and adequate retribution, and the vandal will undoubtedly suffer from it like he made his rival suffer, but no one’s rights are protected in this way. On the contrary, if the vandal is a good artist the punishment may even violate the rights of large numbers of people.

A punishment should be designed in such a way that it protects the rights of the victims and possible victims of the criminal who is about to be punished. This is the case when incarceration of a sexual maniac will protect the rights of his victim (although not retroactively) and of possible future victims, and such a punishment does seem to be what is required while avoiding the imposition of excessive harm on the maniac. In other words, there isn’t a more lenient sentence available which would offer the same protections to the rights of others while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the maniac. And neither is the punishment too severe for the purpose it serves, namely the protection of the rights of others.

But these “others” are not only the victims or possible victims of the criminal. Punishment is also signaling: by showing possible maniacs what happens to actual maniacs, we want to deter crime. Deterrence, like punishment, also protects the rights of others, “others” meaning here not the victims or possible victims of an actual criminal but the possible victims of a possible criminal. There is room for deterrence, but only when the deterrent effect is real, in other words when it really helps to protect the rights of others. We should be careful with deterrence, because deterrence means the instrumentalization of human beings. When there is doubt about a deterrence effect, and when at the same time the proposed punishment is very harsh, we should avoid designing the punishment with deterrence in mind. For example, if a very high fine for shoplifting has been shown empirically to deter a high percentage of possible shoplifters, then it would be morally justified to impose such a high fine on a specific shoplifter, even if a much lower fine would suffice to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of this specific shoplifter. So this is an exception to the rule stated a moment ago.

On the other hand, if it can be shown empirically that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is doubtful, then we should not impose that punishment on a specific criminal, except when it is necessary to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of that specific criminal. But when is this necessary? Often if not always we can find a more lenient sentence which will offer the same protections to the rights of actual and possible victims of an actual criminal, while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the criminal (e.g. life without parole).

2. The criminal acted with free will

We should assume that people generally have free will. There doesn’t seem to be room for moral responsibility or criminal culpability without this assumption. There can’t be criminals in a world in which everything is governed by “blind” cause and effect. People have free will when they have the capacity to choose a course of action from among a set of alternatives. If a criminal’s will and choice of action are not decided by himself, we can hardly say that he’s responsible for his actions. Only if he could have acted differently can he be held responsible for his actual actions. Imagine a brainwashed spy being sent abroad by his totalitarian government in order to kill political opponents. This person couldn’t have acted differently and didn’t have the capacity to choose from among different courses of action. Hence he can’t be held responsible for his actions.

We should start from the general assumption that people normally act on the basis of free will, but if we find that this assumption doesn’t hold in a particular case, then either criminal punishment is not justified or the punishment should be less severe. People can be determined to will certain ends without having been brainwashed. A drug addict for example suffers from a compulsive and controlling desire and has lost his free will. Addiction impairs the will. If he acts on the basis of this compulsive desire and commits a crime along the way, it’s common to take the absence of free will into account when determining the severity of the punishment. Both external manipulation of our psychology and internal compulsions can force us to do things we don’t desire or choose to do, and they can even force us to desire or choose things we wouldn’t freely desire or choose. (Hypnosis can also be an example). In either case, we are not culpable, or at least the level of our culpability is reduced.

3. The criminal did not act because of “force majeure”

Force majeure is a term for an action that is caused by events or circumstances beyond the control of the agent. For example, someone kills another person because he was instructed to do so by gunmen holding his children hostage. Sometimes, there are external constraints on the range of options we have, and things beyond our control can force us to act (or not act) in a certain way.

This condition should be distinguished from free will. It’s not because some external causes force you to act in a certain way that you lose your free will. You act in a certain way but at the same time you don’t have to want to act in that way.

4. The criminal was aware of alternative courses of action and of the moral significance of those alternatives

For example, if a criminal was convinced that he had no alternative and had to commit the crime, then he may not be culpable, even if in reality there were alternatives. Imagine the same case of the father being forced to kill by gunmen holding his children hostage. Maybe there was an easy and safe way for the police to free the children. However, if the father was unaware of this and executed the demands of the gunmen without contacting the police, then he shouldn’t be found guilty of a crime.

However, the father may have been culpably unaware: reasonable people can agree that he should and could have been aware of the possibility to involve the police, but he failed to do everything possible to examine the alternatives. In that case, he should be found guilty.

5. The criminal acted with intent

If the consequences of an action were not intended by the agent, then either he is not culpable or his culpability is diminished. This 5th condition should be distinguished from free will: an action can be undertaken with free will but without intending all the consequences that occur. A woman who is not acting compulsively (who is not addicted for example), who is not forced by external powers to desire things she would normally not desire or to do things she doesn’t want to do, and who reasonably reflected on possible alternatives, acts in a chosen way. To her surprise, her actions lead to someone’s death. She didn’t intend this outcome, and hence she’s not culpable, or at least her culpability is reduced.

6. The criminal caused the crime

There should be no doubt about the causal link between the criminal’s actions and the crime. Let’s elaborate the previous example: the woman caused the death by hitting the victim with her car. The victim didn’t violate any traffic rules for pedestrians. The woman wasn’t speeding compulsively. She wasn’t under hypnosis or forced to hit the victim by gunmen threatening her children. And she wasn’t culpably unaware of the risk of driving a car in that particular street. Moreover, there’s some medical doubt as to the actual cause of death. It seems that the pedestrian was suffering from a heart condition and a heart attack caused the pedestrian to stumble on the road. Hence the woman driver isn’t culpable.

7. The criminal is found guilty after a fair trial

Only if the rules on the fairness of criminal trials are respected can we impose criminal punishment. A person accused of a crime should be able to use a defense lawyer to guarantee that the judge takes all the 6 previous preconditions into account when sentencing. The trial should be public so that we can all see that criminal punishment is imposed fairly. Etc.

8. The criminal is found guilty on the basis of proper laws

The laws which the criminal is supposed to have violated should be universal laws. In other words, they shouldn’t be targeted at the criminal specifically. The rule of law imposes this restriction. Laws that are not equally applicable to all, including the legislators, are not proper laws, but simply a disguised form of the rule of man. Other rules of legislation should also be respected (no retroactive laws etc.).


If both judges and legislators keep these 8 points in mind when deciding the type and severity of the punishment that has to be imposed for a particular crime and on a particular criminal, then we will, in all likelihood, be able to avoid some of the worst injustices in our current criminal justice system. We won’t have overpopulated prisons, we won’t incarcerate people for silly offenses or lock them up for years and years for a crime that merely requires a few months, and we won’t use capital punishment as often as we do now.

The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

The Ethics of Human Rights (32): Human Rights and the Chain of Causation

Who causes human rights violations? Causation is a key factor in the attribution of moral and legal responsibility, so it’s an important topic in human rights talk. The problem is that there is often not one single cause of rights violations, and hence not one single violator. Rights violations can be the collective responsibility of an entire group or a government for instance, but the issue I want to focus on here is another type of collective responsibility. It’s possible that there is a chain of causation: a series of events taking place over a period of time, and one event causes the next one until a rights violation occurs. The question is then: is it only the last moral agent, the last one in the chain of causation that results in a rights violation, who is the violator and the morally and legally responsible party? Or do some of the agents earlier in the chain of causation also carry some responsibility?

Let me give an example. Take the case of a drunk driver causing a fatal accident and thereby violating the right to life of his victim. Just before the accident, a pub-owner willingly sold the visibly intoxicated man more alcohol. You could argue that both persons caused the accident: the drunk because of his drunk driving, and the pub-owner because he sold the drinks. Both could have taken action to avoid the accident (assuming that the driver wasn’t sufficiently intoxicated before he bought the extra drinks from the pub-owner). And because they both could have acted otherwise, they are both responsible – morally and legally – for what happened. Both have violated the rights of the victim.

Causing something isn’t a sufficient condition for responsibility. You could go further down the chain of causation and claim that the pub-owner’s parents also caused the accident, because they had the choice of having or no having a child. By having the child, they initiated a chain of causation that led to the accident. They could have taken action to avoid the accident. However, no one would claim that they are thereby responsible for the accident. The difference between the parents on the one hand and the pub-owner and the driver on the other hand, is that the parents could not have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions. Hence, responsibility requires causation plus foresight rather than simply causation (some would say that intent should be added as well). (Of course, in some legal contexts, cause is sufficient for liability: if I drive my car into another one, I may be liable for the damages even if I didn’t intend what happened and could not have foreseen it. Product liability is another example. In other legal contexts, cause is not necessary: if my dog bites you, I’m liable, even though I didn’t cause the harm. But those aren’t the cases I’m interested in).

The pub-owner and the driver could have and should have foreseen the possible consequences of their actions, and probably did foresee them in some part of their brain. We all learn that some consequences flow from some actions, with high degrees of probability. And yet they still went ahead with their actions. Hence both are responsible for what happened because they caused it, because they could have acted otherwise, and because they could have foreseen the consequences. The chain of causation leading up to the rights violation goes back many steps (and many years if not centuries), but the chain of responsibility stops somewhere along the road. It stops with the first person in the chain of causation able to foresee the ultimate result of the chain and able to act otherwise. In our example, the pub-owner.

But, of course, this example is too simple. Often we have to go back more than two steps in the chain of causation to find the first point of responsibility. Suppose the pub-owner bought his pub from some other guy who knew at the time about the reckless way in which the pub-owner serves his customers. (Suppose the pub-owner did something similar before he bought his current pub). How far back in time and in the chain of causation should we be allowed to go in order to attribute responsibility? And do all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility? Probably not; that would violate our moral intuitions, which tell us that the driver carries the heaviest burden. He had many alternative options: he could have decided not to drink so much, not to go to the pub in the first place, or take a taxi home etc. The pub-owner could of course have decided to stop selling booze, but maybe he didn’t know that the drunk was intending to drive back home. And if he knew, how could he have stopped him driving back home? The person selling the pub also could have decided to sell it to someone else, but perhaps there wasn’t another possible buyer, and perhaps he believed in redemption and didn’t want to judge a person’s future on the basis of past mistakes.

But if not all responsible parties share the same “amount” of responsibility, how do we differentiate between the levels of responsibility of the different parties and calculate each party’s share? Does time play a role? Does responsibility diminish as time passes? Those are terribly difficult questions and most of the time we just forget about them and simply punish the last link in the chain and accord him or her the full weight of responsibility, whether this is just or not. One example in which we do try to answer these questions is when a judge or a jury takes attenuating circumstances into account when sentencing: for instance, a criminal may receive a more lenient sentence when it is clear that childhood neglect or abuse contributed to his actions. However, we rarely give the parents their part of the punishment in such cases.

These questions are relevant is a huge number of human rights cases. Take the more important example of world poverty. To some degree, one can argue that the West shares some of the responsibility for poverty in the Third World (Thomas Pogge is famous for this argument). It imposes trade restrictions, it supports corrupt dictators and deficient institutions, and it inflicted colonial rule. Some of these actions go back some steps in the chain of causation. For example, a corrupt dictator may be the last cause in the chain leading to poverty, but support for this dictator by the West is an earlier cause. In the case of colonialism, the chain of causation is complicated by the transgenerational aspect: to what extent are the people in the West who are currently alive responsible for the actions of their forefathers? More on this question here.

The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.

The Ethics of Human Rights (28): Private Charity vs the Welfare State

In a previous post, I wrote about my personal views regarding the best ways to help the poor. I favor private philanthropy or charity over the welfare state. Some of the reasons are:

  • The welfare state imposes certain costs on the economy, thereby damaging the prospects of the future poor.
  • Closeness and affinity imply a greater ability to help. And he or she who can do more, should do more (can implies ought). Citizens are better placed than the government to help poor people in their community/family because they better understand the needs.
  • Spontaneous mutual assistance fosters community spirit. Allowing poverty reduction to take place at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen feelings of belonging.

When all this fails – as it often will – and only when this fails, can a state intervene and can the welfare mechanisms and redistribution systems based on taxation begin to operate (these merely enforce deficient private philanthropy).

However, some claim that the welfare state crowds out private charity. If you don’t care about private charity and want a government monopoly on care for the poor, you won’t mind if there is crowding out. And if you don’t care about private charity or about government assistance to the poor, you won’t mind either. But I guess most people agree with me that both charity and the government have a part to play (although they may not agree with my chosen priorities). So it’s good to see that

government welfare programs [do not] appear to displace an equivalent amount of private charity. Private giving does not vary inversely with the size of government programs and there is little evidence for a “crowding out” effect. Many private charities, in fact, rely on government funding to some extent. Private charitable giving to the poor, defined in narrow terms, runs in the range of $10 to $15 billion a year [in the U.S.], and few observers believe that this sum is capable of significant augmentation in the short run, regardless of government policy. Tyler Cowen (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (31b): Certain Objections

Economic rights are a subset of human rights. Put very briefly and simplistically, they are what could be called anti-poverty rights: for example, there’s a right to a certain standard of living, to social security, to work, to fair wages, to healthcare, housing etc.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s no universal consensus on these rights. Some say that these aren’t “real” human rights (like Bill Easterly for example). Others say that these rights are useless or even harmful. Here are a few of the most common objections raised against economic rights.

The big state criticism

Economic rights are believed to require invasion of privacy and hence violations of an important freedom right (freedom rights such as free speech, privacy, habeas corpus etc. are usually distinguished from economic rights, political rights etc.). In order to verify whether people have a right to social security benefits or healthcare benefits, the state has to check people’s income (legal and illegal), their family composition, their health, their medical consumption, their lifestyle etc.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the state is the only or the main party responsible for the realization of economic rights. This is not the case. People in need can call on other people to help. And these other people have a moral responsibility to help. The duties of mutual assistance, charity and philanthropy point to a horizontal aspect of economic rights. People in need do not only have a vertical right to assistance, or a right directed at the state. Their economic rights can be addressed at their fellow citizens, and these have a duty to respect and protect these rights. It’s only when horizontal duties fail that the state should intervene. If we think of economic rights in this way, the dangers of an overbearing state don’t look that ominous anymore.

The rule that economic rights should – in part – be realized by citizens has another advantage as well: economic rights tend to foster community spirit and feelings of solidarity and belonging.

But this insistence on solidarity shouldn’t obscure the rule that people have a responsibility to help themselves and support themselves. This kind of independence is a part of freedom and an important good. Solidarity comes into play only when self-help is unsuccessful or impossible, and the state comes into play only when solidarity is unsuccessful or absent.

Different kinds of duties

Another objection: some say that economic rights, if they are rights at all, are radically different from “normal” human rights – also called freedom rights – and can therefore be given a lower priority (and maybe aren’t even real rights at all). Freedom rights imply duties of abstention or forbearance, whereas economic rights require duties of active help, involvement and intervention. In the case of violations of freedom rights, the remedy is easy: stop doing what you’re doing. In the case of violations of economic “rights”, the remedy is often very difficult if not impossible. If there is no work, no one can give it to me. If a country is poor, no one can raise the standard of living.

When freedom rights are violated, the victim can go to a court and a judge can force the violator to stop his or her actions. When economic rights are violated, it’s useless to go to a court. Not only isn’t there an obvious violator who can be stopped, there is often no one who can stop the violation from happening. Hence it looks like these rights are unenforceable and often have no remedy. Rather than rights, it seems that they are aspirations or policy goals, often long term policy goals.

However, there’s again an erroneous assumption underlying all of this. The distinction between the two types of duties – forbearance and active assistance – isn’t clean-cut. Freedom rights require active intervention by the state in order to enforce forbearance. They require an efficient judiciary and police force. For some states, this may be as unattainable as prosperity. In fact, it’s precisely because of a lack of prosperity that many states are unable to guarantee protection for freedom rights. Of course, the fact that economic rights are a prerequisite for freedom rights isn’t a sufficient reason to call them rights. But neither is it a reason not to call them rights.

Conversely, economic rights often require more forbearance than active intervention. Economic rights in China during the Great Leap Forward would have been better served by state forbearance. All types of human rights require forbearance and intervention. Perhaps economic rights generally need more intervention, but that is a difference in degree and not in essence, and it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the label of “rights” for the aspirations inherent in economic rights.

Ought implies can

There’s another criticism of economic rights, related to the previous one. Economic rights are said to violate a general rule for rights: ought implies can; there can be no obligation to do something if there is no capability to do it. You cannot have a duty to help someone who’s drowning if you can’t swim yourself. Hence the person drowning doesn’t have a right to be assisted by you. The same is said to be true of economic rights which therefore aren’t real rights. If a poor country doesn’t have the resources to help its poor citizens, then these citizens don’t have a right to be helped.

However, we don’t follow the same logic in the case of freedom rights. Freedom rights also require resources, as we have seen. When a state doesn’t have the resources necessary to protect its citizens’ freedom rights, we usually don’t say that the citizens of such a state have lost their freedom rights. People have rights irrespective of the probability that they can be protected. Or better: the less people’s rights are protected, the more important it is that they have rights. And anyway, violations of economic rights don’t occur because there are insufficient resources but because of an unequal distribution of resource, nationally or internationally. So the “can” part of “ought implies can” isn’t as fanciful as the critics of economic rights believe.

Economic rights are superfluous and useless

This is supposed to be the case because free markets should automatically produce a certain standard of living for everyone that is high enough to realize the goals inherent in economic rights. Free trade, deregulated markets and low taxes cause profits to rise, which in turn means more investments, which in turn means more and better jobs and higher incomes. All boats rise on a rising tide.

Now, it’s my belief that history – and especially recent history – has shown that this isn’t enough. Free markets are beneficial, but they don’t automatically provide high standards of living for everyone.

Economic rights are harmful and counterproductive

This is a stronger version of the “useless” argument. Economic rights are believed to require a big state (see above), high taxes and intrusive regulation. All of this hinders the economy and the creation of wealth. As a result of economic rights, there is less wealth to redistribute, and economic rights therefore undo what they want to achieve.

They are also harmful in another way: they violate freedom rights, especially the right to privacy and the right to property (because of redistribution). We’ve already seen that we can mitigate this risk when we include horizontal duties. But even if this risk is real, why should property and privacy automatically rank higher than the absence of poverty? If we assume that economic rights are real rights, then it’s not surprising to see that they can contradict other rights. Contradictions between human rights are very common. The right to privacy is often in conflict with free speech for example. Sometimes one right has to be limited for the sake of another. So why should this be a problem when dealing with economic rights?

Of course, one shouldn’t dramatize. Economic rights and freedom rights are generally not incompatible. On the contrary, they are interdependent. Freedom for the poor often doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, on the other hand, the squeaky hinge gets the oil: poverty has to have a voice if it is to be eliminated.

The Ethics of Human Rights (22): Caring for What Happens in the World vs Moral Indifference or Moral Apathy

I guess we all have, now and again, the feeling that it’s strange that we go about our business as usual, being content or even happy, when at exactly the same time in countless other places in the world, someone is suffering, being tortured, killed, raped or whatever. Normally, we don’t think about these facts, because that would make our lives impossible. Thinking about it causes feelings of guilt and unease. Even though we’re often not directly responsible for what happens to these people, there’s always the lingering thought that there may be something we can do to help. And probably there is something we can do, especially if we invested some more effort in associating with others. (Individually we may indeed be powerless).

And there’s an even more unsettling thought lurking deeper in the backs of our minds, namely that we are responsible to some extent, even for the suffering of people thousands of miles away, people we don’t know and will never know. Thomas Pogge for instance has claimed – correctly in my view – that in our globalized world we all contribute, to some extent,  to institutions, rules and processes that violate human rights. For example, we buy clothes from companies that use child labor or ban trade unions; we still profit from colonial exploitation that happened more than a century ago; we acquiesce in democratically enacted laws that exclude poor producers from our markets etc.

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

By the way, Pogge’s argument can be used to counter the claim that “poverty human rights” are substantially different from “normal human rights” such as the right to free speech etc. (are perhaps not even “real human rights” at all), because they impose positive duties instead of merely negative duties, duties to help instead of merely duties not to interfere. For Pogge, poverty is a negative duty: people aren’t poor because we fail to help them but because we actively – albeit often unconsciously – contribute to their poverty. Rather than focusing our efforts on how we can help the poor, we should focus on how we hurt them. This is reminiscent of recent debates on the continued usefulness of development aid.

OK, back to the main point. It’s all very well to encourage “caring”, and possibly also “helping”, but thinking about what we could call the “synchronicity of heaven and hell” makes it very difficult to get on with our lives. Hence we tend to suppress such thoughts. It’s a survival strategy, and quite understandable as such, but the consequence of not thinking is not helping. We know in the back of our minds that while we’re doing fine, elsewhere it’s hell, but we just don’t think about it too much. Only when we watch the news, donate something, or sit in the park and have nothing else to do. And then we’re amazed at how cold-hearted we can be. But at the same time and unconsciously, we continue to function in structures, institutions and sets of rules that underpin the problems that occasionally make us angry. And then we return to our normal mode of moral indifference. Much like the people in the “Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, a painting commented upon in a poem by WH Auden:

… In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (full text here)

Also like the father figure in the “Elf King” poem by Goethe, ignoring the suffering and anxiety of his own sun until it’s too late. We can try to rationalize our moral indifference in several ways. First, we may reject the claim that we have any part in the problems that occur far away. We may believe that poverty and dictatorship are home-grown, and not supported by globalization or our own countries’ involvement. Perhaps we believe that individuals failures are the only cause of their problems. Instead of being a bleeding heart Atlas supporting the misery of the world (as in the poem by Heinrich Heine below), we should simply “shrug“.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! Eine Welt,
Die ganze Welt der Schmerzen muß ich tragen,
Ich trage Unerträgliches, und brechen
Will mir das Herz im Leibe.
Du stolzes Herz, du hast es ja gewollt!
Du wolltest glücklich sein, unendlich glücklich,
Oder unendlich elend, stolzes Herz,
Und jetzo bist du elend.

We also rationalize our inaction and moral indifference by pointing to the distance between us and those who suffer. This distance makes action on our part difficult, we believe, and makes it more likely that actions by others who are closer and more familiar with what’s happening will be more successful. While it’s generally correct to state that closeness is a factor in the ability to help, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the causes of problems are very distant indeed, and hence the solutions have to be distant as well.

The Ethics of Human Rights (20): Why Are There Genocides?

How can there be genocides? Genocides, and especially the holocaust, seem to be impossible to understand. They leave even the most astute thinkers perplexed. What is it that makes ordinary people, people who have never before engaged in violence or crime, turn on their neighbors and even friends in the most extreme way, without any apparent rational reason or provocation?

Hannah Arendt has written a lot about this, and she made the following observation while watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

Eichmann committed his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (source)

Under extreme circumstances people seem to lose their “moral compass”. They are

swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in. (source)

This is what Heidegger called the “dictatorship of the They“: society, the general cultures or mores and the common practices force individuals to act in certain ways and undermine their independent judgment.

It is indeed difficult to tell right from wrong, independently, if almost everyone around you tells you that wrong is right. People’s sense of morality – or moral compass – is deeply influenced by the society they live in and grow up in. If you live in a racist society, chances are high you end up being a racist.

When this “dictatorship of the They” is purposefully cultivated by political elites, propaganda, indoctrination etc, and when, furthermore, it is combined with thoughtlessness or the willingness to give up on thinking – as was the case of Eichmann – then evil and genocide are just a small step away. Thinking, according to Arendt, makes it hard to engage in evil. Thinking is the silent dialogue with yourself. Since people generally want to be in harmony with themselves, it’s better to be the victim of an injustice than the perpetrator (in the words of Socrates), because the perpetrator has to live with the criminal. In this way, a conscience is a byproduct of thinking (Arendt), and the absence of thinking leads to immorality.

However, this explanation of evil, immorality and genocide is unsatisfactory, because it abandons moral responsibility and the possibility of moral and legal judgment. Arendt was acutely aware of this. If we again take the case of Eichmann, how can we possibly judge and convict him if his actions were the result of social pressure and his inability to think? Civilized legal systems as well as moral systems understand that the intent to do wrong and freedom of choice are necessary prerequisites for the commission of a crime.  No responsibility without mens rea: “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”.

It’s good to understand how morality is influenced by circumstances and culture, and how crime can result from education, society and thoughtlessness, but that’s not the whole picture. People aren’t just products of their environment. They can think and choose, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances (such as torture). And I don’t think Eichmann lived in such extreme circumstances. This element of moral freedom is shown by the fact that evil people can arise from the best of circumstances.

Human Rights and International Law (18): Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The “Responsibility to Protect“, or R2P in U.N.-speak, is a humanitarian principle that aims to stop mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It refers initially to the responsibility of states to their own citizens, but in case states can’t or won’t protect their own citizens, other states can step in, respecting the Security Council procedures. However, this is a last resort, especially if the intervention is of a military nature.

The concept is closely linked to, if not indistinguishable from, humanitarian intervention. Often it’s also called the principle of non-indifference, a sarcastic pun on the principle of non-intervention. Some for whom national sovereignty and non-intervention is still the main and overriding rule in international affairs, see R2P as an excuse for Western interference. Noam Chomsky is a notable if unsurprising example. You can read his arguments here. He is joined by a number of governments that risk being a future target.

However, most in the West aren’t jumping the queue to enter into a legal obligation that can force them to undertake expensive and risky interventions in the name of humanity. The fact that these interventions aren’t only expensive and risky but often also without collateral benefits, doesn’t help either. R2P is not yet a legal rule, more a quasi-legal rule. Some legal or quasi-legal texts include the concept. The Constitutive Act of the African Union includes “the right of the Union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the African Union assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The same is true for the Security Council of the UN. The concept was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, so it can be argued that the principle is part of international common law (i.e. international law established by coherent and unanimous state practice).

The Recession, the Economics Profession, and the Prediction of the Future

The current economic recession has cast a shadow on the economics profession. Economists are blamed for not having foreseen the recession. There’s for example this famous article by Paul Krugman.

Whereas many economists undoubtedly have encouraged wrong policies and harmful trade practices, I think it’s unfair to criticize them for failing to predict the future. Contrary to the natural sciences, human sciences (or social sciences) such as economics are constitutionally unable to predict the future. The reason is their subject matter: human beings. Contrary to celestial bodies, atoms or DNA, human beings have free will, which means that we can decide to change our goals and plans. And this kind of decision cannot be foreseen because the decision is our own free choice, a choice therefore that isn’t determined by other factors. Moreover, because we live in society with others, there’s necessarily interaction between people’s goals. Other people have different goals which interfere with our own goals. And because of their own goals, they often do not wish to cooperate with us or even actively oppose us.

There is therefore an uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in our goals. This seems to be an unavoidable fact of social life. An action causes reactions, and that is why the consequences of the action are often different from the ones we intend, expect, predict or desire. Consequences are often unknown beforehand, or at least uncertain. You never know if the result of your action matches your intentions, if you will reach your goal and if things turn out as planned, as foreseen, as initially desired.

That is also why you cannot and should not be held legally or criminally responsible for all the possible consequences or results of your actions. Only for those consequence which could reasonably have been foreseen. Part of the legal definition of a mentally ill person and one of the reasons why such a person’s criminal actions should be punished in a different way (if at all) is this person’s inability to judge the consequences of his or her actions.

Reality often does not live up to expectations. Events are not always anticipated events. Many events escape the power of those who have initiated them or wish to guide them.

“Siramnes the Persian replied to those who were amazed that his enterprises turned out so badly, seeing that his projects were so wise, by saying that he alone was master of his projects while Fortune was mistress of the outcome of his enterprises . . . What he undertakes is vain if a man should presume to embrace both causes and consequences and to lead the progress of his action by the hand”. Michel de Montaigne

We all have the experience that the future is not completely determined by the will of an individual or a group. The unexpected and unwanted is part of social history because history, and even many different parts of history – many “stories” – are the result of both action and reaction, of a game of action and reaction over which no one has complete control. This is the inevitable result of the plurality of social life. Demanding prediction and predictability – as is now done of economists – means neglecting plurality. Only in the absence of plurality can predictability be conceived, because only when there is one goal will there be no action and reaction.

Hannah Arendt has lambasted the equation between history and production. History is not made by man in the sense that an artifact, a cultural object or a technological application of scientific knowledge is made by man. It is not written beforehand like a blueprint or a production procedure. History, and every social story involving different actors, is written afterwards, in retrospection, and often not even by those who act in it but by an outsider. Everybody is the author of his own actions or reactions, but not of the complete story. The complete story – all interconnecting actions, reactions and consequences – becomes clear only when it is more or less finished, afterwards, when we can know how it was and what the reactions and consequences have been.

In the words of Hegel: the owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, only flies out at dusk. The actor, contrary to the author, looks forward or better tries to look forward, and by definition knows less than the author of history. It was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards.

Of course, history is not entirely unpredictable. We can guess. We can try, on the basis of the past, to identify some trends, patterns, regularities etc., and hope that they will hold for the future. Some guesses are better than others. Also, contrary to the criticism of Arendt, there is sometimes creation or “production” in history. Some actions do not encounter reaction and unfold as planned beforehand. These stories do not result from the game of action and reaction or from a plurality of separate and contradictory desires. They result from one desire and one goal. In some instances, people have a goal, a desire, and can realize it in a predictable and controlled manner, without or notwithstanding reactions. Life would not be worth living without such stories. Sometimes, people have a grip on the future. Politics is also impossible without a consensus on a purpose.

Suppose we think of ruling as being an exercise of power. For someone to exercise power is for their wishes to be effective. So someone is a ruler if it is the case that what happens happens because it is in accordance with their wishes. If, then, the people rule, this means that the people’s wishes are effective. (source

Somebody who is in power has a desire and realizes this desire. Otherwise it cannot be said that this person has power.

However, such kind predictability is probably the exception. History in its entirety and many parts of it can never be a creation, a simple purpose or the realization of a plan, a process or an evolution. History and most of its parts are the result of different and contradictory actions, reactions, desires and goals interfering with each other. Therefore, the idea of progress has to be limited. There may be fields of progress, but these evolutions are counteracted by reactions and other evolutions. Progress is never global or certain or predictable.

Not even one’s personal history is written or produced entirely by the person in question. And since our identity is perhaps the same thing as our personal history, our identity is not entirely the product of our own actions and decisions either. It is also the product of the things that happened to us and of the actions and reactions of others. We act, we strive to achieve goals, but there is a plurality of goals. The single, uniform goal, either in overall history (e.g. the overall goal of progress, communism or democracy dragging people along) or in many small or personal histories, is a pipe dream. Plurality results in things happening to us, things that we cannot control or foresee but which shape our lives, histories and personalities irrespective of our will.

History and most of its parts are not made by man, but they are not made by any other force either. I do not believe that God or Fate or the Economy or whatever makes history. History is to a large extent if not entirely the result of consciously chosen human actions and reactions. Consequently, people remain responsible for their actions, although not for all the consequences of their actions. They cannot claim that things happen because God or Nature (the genes for example) or Race or Culture (the unconscious national character) or Fate or whatever wants these things to happen or causes people to make them happen. People are relatively free. Most of their actions are not caused by some necessary force outside of them (or inside of them, for that matter, but beyond their power).

In order to remedy the defects of plurality – uncertainty, unpredictability and the powerlessness which this implies – one can try to eliminate plurality. Reactions and contradictions are excluded (and maybe “reactionaries” are persecuted) and all actions are focused on one and the same goal. Instead of the plurality of individual projects, we get a collective project. Individuality disappears.

“Le groupe en fusion” or “la volonté générale” implies that the individual individual is absorbed by the community. Everybody’s individual goals or desires must be harmonized with the collective one. Every action is forced into a coherent whole. The individual will is discredited. It is egoistic, focused on the short term, subjective, reactionary; it is useless and powerless because of the contradictions with other individual wills; or it is futile because contrary to the trend of History or the forces of Biology etc. If the individual is only a part of a whole, then he can be sacrificed for the whole. Individual rights become less important. At best, people are interchangeable, specimen instead of unique individuals; at worst, they are eliminated.

As many successful dictators have shown, eliminating reaction will indeed make it possible to control the future, to remain in control of an action, to enforce certain consequences, to realize goals, to make history like an artifact or to write history like a novel. It makes it possible to know the future, to know how things will turn out, to put a clear purpose in history, a plan which unfolds exactly as it was contemplated beforehand, a clean process rather than a volatile and uncertain multi-directional chaos. If there are no reactions and only one general will, then all actions go in the same direction and toward the same goal, and only nature or inactivity can thwart our plans (hence the dictatorial need for “mobilization”). We can with much greater certainty predict the future and the realization of our plans. The expected consequences are the actual consequences. We are masters of the consequences and we control the future.

This has always been the great selling point of authoritarian government. Compared to the chaos of democracy, the “strong man” can be very efficient. I’ve refuted this here. Democracy indeed doesn’t offer predictability, precisely because it guarantees plurality. The common will of a democratic majority can be undone by reactions of the minority, by the reactions of a future majority, or by some outside force. Predictability requires unanimity rather than majority, if possible global unanimity (dictatorships are therefore often imperialistic). Only a unanimous group can have power as it was described above: power means that wishes are effective, that things happen because they are in accordance with wishes. A majority can only have limited effectiveness, effectiveness limited by future majorities and by the reactions of minorities (in a democracy, minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). Of course, unanimity is often obtained by force: reactions are forcibly suppressed because unanimity of convictions and goals is a rare occurrence. Force then produces power, although Arendt, again, has something to say about the confusion between these two terms.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. On the contrary, it fosters them. But it does try to ritualize and soften them, take the violence out of them, because they can take a nasty turn. Democracy needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality etc. It is the game of action and reaction institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democracy embraces uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular and perhaps ineffective this may be.

However, democracy also needs some level of predictability. It wants to be certain of its own survival and that is why it accepts only opposition within the system. It tries to eliminate anti-democratic reaction and opposition and asks people to promise respect for democratic values. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom and free choice, which is not the case with certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime. This is the rationale behind the so-called “pledges of allegiance”. Promises are based on freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. Although a democracy wants to limit coercion as much as possible and tries to secure its future by way of promises, education, persuasion, judicial review etc., there has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of actions. Promises cannot be coerced. Coercion in this case is the use of force against anti-democratic reaction.

An anti-democratic reaction is a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Those who want to limit the game of action and reaction are necessarily anti-democratic. More freedom and more democracy means more reaction, more plurality, more kinds of actions which can interfere with each other, and therefore more unpredictability, less control over the future, and less certainty that goals will be achieved. Democracy does not only accept the game of action and reaction as an inevitable fact of social life. It also promotes this game, as long as it remains a game and does not become violent or a threat to democracy or to people’s rights and freedom.

Counter-intuitively, freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen. It’s when they want this certainty that they are tempted to destroy the freedom of society. When people want to be certain of their goals and want to be in control – when, in other words, they want to be free – they need to eliminate interference from other people and other goals. Other people with other goals become a nuisance, and their freedom has to be sacrificed. However, this may not result in control. It is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (5): Free Will

The concept of free will is usually viewed in a theological light. It’s the classical explanation for evil in the world. God has created the world. God is not evil (no one would want to live under the rule of an evil God). There is evil in the world. Why is it there, when a non-evil God has created the world? Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world, given that he is almighty? Isn’t the logical conclusion of the combination of omnipotence and evil that God must be evil?

Theologians traditionally use the “free will escape”: God has created man (and woman) with the capacity of free will. We have the power to do good and evil. When there is evil in the world, it’s our free choice, not the choice of God. Divine intervention in the affairs of the world and stopping evil things from happening, is undoubtedly what God, being good, would prefer to do, but doing so would mean taking away our free choice between good and evil and taking away our free will. The world would be a deterministic place where God drives everything. Human beings would be pawns in a chess play. It appears to most religious people (in the West at least), that this isn’t what God wants.

There has always been a tradition of determinism, but rather than God determining everything determinists nowadays believe it’s genetics, psychology, physics or whatever. People are said to be determined by their genes, evolutionary forces etc.

A strict determinism – all human actions, as everything else in nature, are determined by outside causes – is by definition religious, even if at first sight it seems incompatible with religious tradition (western religious tradition that is). If everything is determined by a pre-existing cause, then one has to go back to the beginning of the universe, to the first cause. Since determinism cannot go back indefinitely, to the infinity of the past, there must be a first cause. And this first cause, being the first, doesn’t have anything pre-existing causing it. Hence it is the causeless causer, the unmoved mover, the uncreated creator, the demiurge according to Plato. And this has to be some kind of God.

Strict determinism is a terrifyingly improbable idea. Imagine that the past rules the future, that we don’t have any choice in any matter. People would be mere billiard balls. It’s improbable because we all have the experience of making choices, of having had the possibility to do otherwise (there would be no regret without it). However, lack of probability doesn’t make strict determinism impossible. Maybe our experience and our regret are illusions.

A better argument against strict determinism is that accepting it would mean abandoning morality and criminal law. It is incompatible with responsibility – moral, legal and criminal. If you don’t control your actions and you cannot make a choice to do or not to do something – if, in other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise – then obviously you cannot be punished for having done something. It wasn’t you who did it. There was some pre-existing cause making you do it.

The fact that there is morality and criminal law indicates that people generally believe that we have at least some measure of free will. And the concept of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility in criminal law, points to the fact that there is also a consensus that some level of determinism is present in our lives and that individuals do not in all circumstances have a free choice (they may be forced into to doing something by reasons grounded in genetics, sociology, psychology etc.). We probably shouldn’t be absolutists on either side. In the words of Sartre, we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.

However, it’s not because something is abused that it doesn’t exist.

Strict freedom is as unlikely as strict determinism, so freedom and determinism seem to coexist. This is the theory called “compatibilism“, of which Thomas Hobbes is a known representative.

now, you may ask – if you remember the title of this post: what is the link with equality? Strict determinism is an extremely egalitarian theory. It makes it impossible to distinguish between people. Everyone is equally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In fact, we all have a praise and blame counter stuck at 0. There can be no praise or blame, no reward, desert, punishment or retribution, since nothing we do can be attributed to us. We are indeed all as similar as the next billiard ball. If we accept free will, then we accept inequality and the existence of people with different qualities and different levels of value and merit.

This, however, doesn’t mean that we can discriminate – discriminate in the legal and human rights sense of the word, not in the sense of “to distinguish” and “to make distinctions”. Or that we can treat certain people as without any value (that we can use them, abuse them, torture them, sell them as slaves etc.). There is a baseline, under which we shouldn’t go, and this line is defined by human rights. But above this line, the more distinctions, the better.

The Causes of Poverty (9): Poverty Traps

A poverty trap occurs when poverty has effects which act as causes of poverty, creating a vicious circle in which poverty engenders more poverty, a circle of cumulative causation leading to a downward spiral of ever more extreme poverty.

Poverty traps or poverty circles can be of different kinds: individual, social, national, international…

1. Individual poverty traps

A poverty trap can be limited to the purely individual: for example, a person being discouraged by his or her situation or misfortune, and thereby sinking deeper into misfortune because of inactivity.

2. Regional poverty traps

The poverty trap may also have a regional aspect: some parts of the country or the population may be poor because they are isolated geographically from the rest of the population and the main centres of wealth and prosperity.

Profitable business opportunities may be few, and thus productive employment lacking, owing to poor transport and communication links with those centres. But the low level of economic activity in the isolated region means that transport services are inadequate and that improved transport infrastructure cannot be economically justified, thus perpetuating the isolation. (source)

3. Racial/ethnic poverty traps

The isolation may also be racial or ethnic. This may harm their self-esteem or their sense of responsibility for their own advancement. The responsibility for their fate is, not without reason, projected on others, but this can become a fetish creating passivity and hence more poverty.

4. Social poverty traps

Poor people, because they tend to be more often sick, hungry and weak, don’t manage to get well paid jobs or – if they are independent producers – tend to produce less. As a result, they have less money, less food, and limited access to health care. And because of this, they get even more hungry, weak or sick, and the circle starts again.

Another example: an individual is poor because his or her parents are poor; because of this, a good education becomes problematic – the children may have to work instead of attending school; without a good education the individual does not acquire the tools and capabilities to escape poverty, may succumb to the temptation of crime, and as a result sinks deeper into poverty.

5. National poverty traps

Low income leads to low savings; low savings lead to low investment; low investment leads to low productivity and low incomes. Poverty leads to environmental degradation, which in turn undermines the assets of the poor and exacerbates poverty. Poverty can lead to violence and conflict, and the associated destruction of physical, human, social and organizational capital in turn causes poverty to intensify. (source)

6. International poverty traps

A poor country may have to rely on its natural resources for its exports and hard currency. As a result, however, other and more stable sectors of the economy are neglected and the resource curse may set in, creating poverty and forcing the other sectors even more to the background.

Some countries may find that they are regionally isolated from the global economic centres, much like some social groups can be regionally isolated within a country (see above). Their import markets are too far away from the main exporters, or too difficult to reach because of the poverty of the country and the resulting lack of investments in infrastructure and transport facilities.

Needless to say that the different kinds of poverty traps can exacerbate each other, and thereby creating a “poverty trap of poverty traps”, a vicious circle in which different poverty traps reinforce each other. This sounds quite apocalyptic, but fortunately seems to be only a theoretical possibility because globally poverty is actually on the retreat, but only on average. Many countries, many social groups and many individuals are still terribly poor, and the poverty traps are one reason.

What Are Human Rights? (9): Horizontal Rights

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. Hubert H. Humphrey

I completely agree with this quote, but what seems to be forgotten is that human rights not only depend on the state. Citizens have a duty to respect each other’s rights, and can do much to hurt or protect these rights. Here’s a post on the subject in relation to economic rights.

True, in many cases citizens do not have enough power to do so, and human rights then depend on judicial and political institutions that in turn depend on the protection of the state. This shows that human rights are more than just protective tools directed against the power of the state. They are part of the state. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” says the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Of course, protection against the state is an important function of human rights, and should not be neglected. Many violations of human rights are caused by state actions. Power corrupts, and that is why we need rights to limit power. However, without power, rights are useless. Human rights limit the actions of the state, determine what a state is not allowed to do or should refrain from doing, and define those areas where the state is not allowed to interfere. But human rights also, and positively, determine what the state should do. They demand positive action and interference from the state.

For example: the state should not only avoid torturing its citizens, it should also actively protect and help those citizens who are tortured, either by fellow citizens or by some part of the state.

Economic Human Rights (1): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers

It is probably correct to see in the policy to “outsource” social services to faith-based organizations an effort to undermine the division of church and state and to financially support radical christian organizations with taxpayers’ money. Very likely it is also an effort to promote christianity (by giving organizations money for social services they can more easily proselytize).

However, economic rights should not be viewed as primarily the business of the state, otherwise we will lose both the benefits of self-support (i.e. autonomy) and the community spirit which results from spontaneous mutual assistance. Allowing economic rights to be realised at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen the feeling of belonging. The fact that our economic rights are realised in part by our responsible fellow citizens, enhances community feelings and again supports the statement that human rights are not individualistic and do not only deal with the relationship between citizens and the state. Focusing too much on the duties of the state will create a mentality of passive reliance on government support (for yourself and for others) and a mentality of dependence (state help kills self-help). Egoism, isolation, irresponsibility and helplessness will become the main features of society. We will only have rights and no duties, rights moreover which only the government should respect and realise. In order to avoid this, people should be allowed to act responsibly. They should be responsible for themselves and for others, and the state should not take away this responsibility without good reasons (for example the responsibility of parents to care for their children or the responsibility of individuals to find a job).

The state is responsible for economic rights only if everything else fails. Only those who are helpless and who have been forgotten by private philanthropy can call on the state for assistance. In this case, the state does not abstain or does not make laws which forbid something; it executes policies that result in an equal supply of those goods and services necessary for the satisfaction of basic needs. These policies are mainly taxation, redistribution and development aid and can be seen as the enforcement of citizens’ duties. When the state forces you to pay taxes, it forces you to fulfil your duties arising from the economic rights of your fellow citizens (which is why tax fraud and tax evasion are particularly reprehensible crimes: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities). It is the duty of the state to force the people to fulfil their duties, their duty to be self-supporting if possible and their duties towards each other if necessary.