Why Do We Need Human Rights? (37): The Right to Life

Of all human rights, the right to life is probably the least controversial. It’s almost universally accepted and it’s supposed to have absolute or quasi-absolute power: most of us have a hard time accepting or even imagining justifiable limitations of this right. Hence, the question of the justification of the right to life seems relatively uninteresting. Compared to some other rights, it’s clear why we need it: we all want to live, or at least decide for ourselves whether or not we want to live.

If, for instance, you ask people why we need the right to free speech, or why violating this right is wrong, then they’ll have a much harder time coming up with a solid answer (even though there are solid answers). They’ll also assume that they would somehow be able to live without it. Life would perhaps not be pleasant or fulfilling, but it would go on. Not so without the right to life.

So why talk about the justification of the right to life? Well, because on closer inspection things aren’t so simple. If you ask yourself why killing is wrong, the answer is surprisingly difficult. The best attempt to answer the question has some unappealing results. We can argue that killing is wrong because living allows you to do things, be someone, become someone etc. (See here for instance). It’s because life is this fundamental prerequisite and this necessary condition for everything else that a right to life is basic, quasi-absolute and easy to justify in the minds of most people. It’s a justification without which there are no other justifications. It’s axiomatic. You can’t not take it for granted.

But if killing is wrong not because it takes away a life – living in itself is not valuable – but because it takes away the ability to act and be, then it’s OK to kill off people in an irreversible coma, harvest their organs etc. The harm imposed by killing can’t be the mere fact that life stops; a person whose life is ended by way of killing can’t experience the harm of absence of life. This person can’t experience anything. A dead person can no longer have any experiences, and taking away people’s ability to experience, in other words their ability to do things and to be someone, is indeed an imposition of harm. A special harm, yes, but a harm nonetheless. Contrary to the usual type of harm, this harm does not imply the experience of harm – how can it? – but rather the harm of absence of experience.

So it’s the imposition of complete and irreversible disability – the complete and final lack of the ability to do things and be someone – that is at stake, that makes killing wrong, and that justifies a right to life. Not the absence or the taking of life as such: the mere absence of life is not a harm. The disability has to be irreversible, because anesthesia for example has the same disabling effect, but in a reversible manner. That is why killing the anesthetized and harvesting their organs is still wrong.

This answer to the question of the wrongness of killing is discomforting. Many of us would shudder at the conclusion that killing off people in an irreversible coma is right because it doesn’t mean imposing harm (the harm – complete and irreversible disability – has already been done). It doesn’t sound right. We sense that we would still impose a harm. But which harm? It can’t be a harm that they can experience, given that they can’t experience anything (so we’re not talking about cases of locked-in syndrome here). Hence, irreversible coma is the same harm as death. Killing people in an irreversible coma does not mean imposing extra harm. It’s not the loss of anything valuable that hasn’t been lost already by the event of the irreversible coma.

And yet, this still sounds unsatisfactory. Many of us would try to keep comatose people alive. After all, what looks like irreversibility may not be so in the future. But even if irreversibility is a certainty, we still wouldn’t be OK with pulling the plug. I’m afraid I have no solution. I’m stuck. And the absence of a solution complicates the justification of the right to life: if killing off irreversibly comatose people is not wrong, then the right to life loses part of its meaning.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (8): Human Rights in the U.S.A.

The United States is far from the worst violator of human rights, but neither is it the Shining City on the Hill that many take it to be. See what you make if this:

  • America, where people get into a frenzy about personal freedom when someone wants to limit the maximum size of soda cups, and yet consistently accept world record incarceration rates.
  • America, where felons can more quickly recover their right to bear arms than their right to vote.
  • America, where white people with a criminal record are more likely to get a callback after a job interview than black people without a criminal record.
  • America, where the depiction of naked people making love is less a matter of free speech than the depiction of people killing each other.
  • America, where the right to life of the unborn is more important than the right to life of the living.
  • America, where the courts express themselves on issues such as the appropriate hotness of coffee but remain strangely silent about the extra-judicial execution or torture of U.S. citizens.
  • America, the “land of opportunity”, has less social mobility than many of the so-called “socialist” countries of Europe.
  • America, where the Supreme Court has decided that anyone can be strip-searched upon arrest for any offence whatsoever – this is the same Supreme Court that doesn’t allow its proceedings to be televized.
  • Etc.

And then remember that a large majority of countries is even worse than this. Have a nice day.

The Ethics of Human Rights (60): Absolute Human Rights and Threshold Deontology

There’s this difficult contradiction between two moral intuitions about human rights. On the one hand, we tend to feel very strongly about the extreme importance of a particular subset of human rights. Especially the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to be enslaved are among those human rights which are so fundamental that their abrogation or limitation seems outrageous. Other rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to privacy, are hardly ever considered to be absolute in this sense – which doesn’t mean they are unimportant (something can be a very important value without being a moral absolute). Some restrictions on those rights are commonly accepted.

On the other hand, the horror that is provoked by the mere thought of limiting the right to life or the right not to suffer torture and slavery doesn’t preclude the fact that there are few consistent pacifists. Most of us would decide not to submit to a Nazi invasion and to fight back. Hence, the horrific thought of abrogating the right to life does not stop us from conceiving and actively engaging in killing. There’s also the Trolley Problem: experiments have shown that most people would sacrifice one to save many. The same is the case in ticking bomb scenarios.

True, there are some consistent pacifists, as well as some who oppose torture under all circumstances, whatever the consequences of failing to kill or torture. But I’m pretty sure they are a small minority (which doesn’t mean they are wrong). The more common response to the conflicting intuitions described here is what has been called threshold deontology: faced with the possibility of catastrophic moral harm that would be the consequence of sticking to certain rules and rights (catastrophic meaning beyond a certain threshold of harm) people decide that those rules and rights should give way as a means to avoid the catastrophe.

Threshold deontology means that there are very strong and near-absolute moral rules, which should nevertheless give way when the consequences of sticking to them bring too much harm. Threshold deontology can also be called limited consequentialism: rules may not be broken whenever there’s a supposedly good reason to do so or whenever doing so would maximize or increase overall wellbeing; but consequentialism is the only viable meta-ethical rule to follow when consequences are catastrophically bad or astronomically good.

If this is correct, then why not simply adopt a plain form of consequentialism? Do whatever brings the most benefit, and screw moral absolutes – or, better, screw all moral rules apart from the rule that tells us to maximize good consequences. This solution, however, is just as unpopular as strict absolutism. We don’t torture someone in order to save two other people from torture; and we certainly don’t torture someone if doing so could bring a very small benefit to an extremely large number of people (so that the aggregate benefit from torture outweighs the harm done to the tortured individual).

Unfortunately, threshold deontology is not as easy an answer to the conflict of intuitions as the preceding outline may have suggested. The main problem of course is: where do we put the threshold. How many people should be saved in order to allow torture or killing? It turns out that there’s no non-arbitrary way of setting a threshold of bad consequences that unequivocally renders absolute rights non-absolute. At any point in the continuum of harm, there’s always a way to say that one point further on the continuum is also not enough to render absolute rights non-absolute. If we agree that killing or torturing 5 for the sake of saving one is not allowed, then it’s hard to claim that 6 is a better number. And so on until infinity.

We can also think of the threshold in threshold deontology not in terms of harm that would result from sticking to absolute principles, but in terms of harm done by not sticking to them. The threshold then decides when we can no longer use bad actions in order to stop even worse consequences. For instance, we may verbally abuse the ticking bomb terrorist. Perhaps we can make him stand up for a certain time, of deprive him of sleep. At what moment should our near-absolute rules or rights against torture kick in? At the moment of waterboarding?

However, the same problem occurs here: a small increase in harm done to the terrorist can always be seen as justifiable, as long as it is very small. Again no way of setting a threshold because of the infinite regress that this provokes. Also, how should we evaluate the following case, imagined by Derek Parfit: a large number of people inflicts a small amount of harm on the terrorist, who is in immense pain as a result, and it’s impossible to tell whose infliction of harm has resulted in the pain threshold being passed. His absolute right not to be tortured is violated, but no one is responsible. This also sucks the power out of our moral absolutes.

Still, the problem of setting the threshold in marginal cases doesn’t mean that there are no clear-cut cases in which harmful consequences have clearly passed a catastrophic threshold. Nuclear annihilation caused by a ticking bomb is such a case I guess. That’s a catastrophe that may be important enough to abrogate the near-absolute rights of one individual terrorist.

However, this means that threshold deontology is useful only in a handful of extreme cases, most of which will fortunately never occur. In the real world, beyond the philosophical hypothetical, most cases of harmful consequences don’t reach the “catastrophe” level. Hence, in the case of a number of rights simple deontology is often the best system, at least compared to threshold deontology – which is most often irrelevant – and plain consequentialism – which would make a mockery of all rights and sacrifice them for the tiniest increment in wellbeing (see here). If we want to protect the right to life and the freedom from torture and slavery in day to day life, we might just as well pretend that they are absolute rights and forget about the catastrophic hypotheticals.

I should also note that although I rely here in part on the ticking bomb case in order to make some which I believe to be important points, the case in question is a very dangerous one: it has been abused as a justification for all sorts of torture with or without a “ticking bomb”. (After all, once you can establish that torture is not an absolute prohibition in catastrophic cases, why would it then be a prohibition in less than catastrophic cases? See the difficulties described above related to the threshold in threshold deontology). And not only has it been abused: one can question the practical relevance of the extremely unrealistic assumptions required to make the case work theoretically.

More about threshold deontology here.

What Are Human Rights? (36): A “Right To Something” Always Includes a “Right Not To”

The claim that a right always includes the inverted right is obvious once you start to look at examples. The right to free speech is a right to speak but also a right not to speak and to remain silent. Evidence for this can be found in practice and in intuition. Many systems of law specifically grant a right to remain silent in certain circumstances such as criminal prosecution. However, such a right isn’t or shouldn’t be limited to specific circumstances. A general right to remain silent is intuitively appealing: the absence of a right not to speak would imply the legitimacy of compelled speech, and compelled speech is problematic in different ways. We don’t like it, and we don’t think it’s meaningful. Examples of compelled speech such as loyalty oaths, flag salutes etc. clearly show how pointless compelled speech can be. Loyalty or promises can’t be compelled, and hence it’s better to let people opt out of them if they so desire. (In the U.S., the West Virginia v. Barnette case created a First Amendment right not to speak precisely in the context of such loyalty oaths).

In addition to the factual and intuitive evidence in favor of a right not to speak, there’s also some logical support: it seems incoherent to have the freedom to speak your mind and then be compelled to say what is not on your mind.

A lot of this reasoning applies to other rights as well. Take the freedom of association. This right also includes the freedom not to associate (the freedom to stay out of groups or to leave groups). In this case, the actual phrasing of the right in human rights documents is explicit – which is not true for the right to free speech. Take article 18 of the Universal Declaration:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief [my emphasis].

Or article 20:

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.  No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

There’s also the intuitive appeal of a right not to associate. Absence of such a right would legitimize some forms of compelled association, and compelled association undermines the whole purpose of association, like compelled speech undermines he purpose of speech: people associate because they want to, and they want to because association brings certain benefits – identity, belonging etc. None of those benefits can be produced by compelled association.

However, this is as far as the analogy to free speech goes. Contrary to free speech, the inverted freedom of association seems to allow exclusion. The freedom of an association not to associate with certain persons – e.g. the Boy Scouts of America refusing to associate with a gay scoutsmaster – restricts the right to associate and perhaps even the freedom to associate of the excluded persons, and is often a violation of the right to non-discrimination. Exclusion has a bad ring to it, but I think that’s a pill we have to swallow. Without exclusion rights, association rights don’t mean a thing. If associations can’t decide who to include or exclude, what is the point of having associations? So what we have here, potentially, is a conflict between rights: a conflict between on the one hand the inverted right to free association (inverted because it’s a right not to associate with certain people) and on the other hand the right to associate (and possible also the right to non-discrimination) of the excluded.

And in many cases, there’s no easy way out of such conflicts. Decisions about the supremacy of conflicting rights have to be decided on a case by case basis taking into account the relative damage done by different decisions. In our example, if there are many different “scouts” groups and just one of them wants to exclude gays, then gays have ample opportunities to go elsewhere and the inverted association right of the bigoted scouts group should be upheld. If, on the other hand, exclusion of gays is so widespread that gays have seriously diminished opportunities in life, or if exclusion of gays is limited to scouts groups but this is still a serious limitation of opportunities (if, for example, joining a scouts group is fundamental to human life), then the inverted association right of the excluders should give way.

So these are two rights for which it is clear that they contain their inverted versions. I could make similar arguments for other rights (the right to life includes the right to suicide, the right to privacy includes the right to publicity, the right to property includes the right to live naked in the woods etc.), but I don’t want to force those of you who haven’t already stopped reading to do so now.

That’s because I still have some important general remarks about inverted rights. First, we can only talk about inverted rights for those human rights which do not already take the “not to” form. For example, it doesn’t make sense to say that the right “not to be tortured” or “not to be a slave” includes the inverted version. Second, inverting rights looks a lot like waiving rights, but it’s not quite the same. Waiving a right means that you don’t want others to enforce your right. Inverting a right means that you claim a right not to do what a right allows you to do. In the former case you give up a right, in the latter you claim an additional right.

A final remark: when people claim a “right not to” or when they want to waive their rights, we want to know that they do so freely and that their choice is an informed one. Otherwise we could simply be dealing with a covert form of oppression in which the oppressor has somehow convinced a victim to abandon his or her rights or to claim a right not to do something that annoys the oppressor.

When is Something a Human Rights Violation? E.g. Is Poverty a Human Rights Violation?

Suppose an asteroid is heading for earth and the calculations indicate that it will hit my hometown, Krasnoyarsk Krai, in Russia. There’s no time for me to flee, and I’m subsequently killed by the impact. Did the asteroid violate my human right to life? Everyone did everything to help me, but there wasn’t anything that could be done. And it was the impact that killed me, not a scramble for safety or whatever. Hence, no one is complicit, and no one can be blamed for failure to assist. No human beings are therefore in the least bit responsible for my death. Responsibility rests wholly with the asteroid.

But there lies the problem: an asteroid in a non-sentient being that can’t be responsible or irresponsible. It can’t “violate” a right since – according to the standard view – violating a right implies not just that there’s someone suffering a harm but also some kind of purposeful and conscious action on the part of a sentient being that

  • is aware of the possible consequences of certain actions
  • is capable of acting otherwise
  • and yet decides to act in a way that causes harm, and a particular form of harm that is also a rights violation.

Indeed, not all causing of harm is a rights violation, but all rights violations are a causing of harm. The asteroid impact would then be a harm that is not a rights violation.

However, I had a right to life, and my life was taken away from me. To me, it doesn’t matter a whole lot in which way exactly I came to my end: I’m as dead as I would be if my neighbor had killed me. My life was valuable to me, and the value it had was the reason why I had a right to life in the first place. It seems strange to claim that my right to life is only violated if my life is taken away in a certain manner. Still, I guess most of us wouldn’t say that being killed my an asteroid implies a violation of the right to life. In order for a right to be violated, there must be both a victim incurring some kind of harm (and not just any kind of harm) and a perpetrator inflicting the harm (a perpetrator who has the characteristics described above). No rights violations without rights violators.

So, the rather silly example of the asteroid boils down to a more general and more interesting question: what exactly does it take to call something a rights violation? When is a harm just a harm, and when is it also a rights violation? That is a more interesting question because it touches on some very relevant problems, more relevant at least than the asteroid problem. For example, many people believe poverty is not a rights violations (which means that the framers of the Universal Declaration were wrong since they included a right not to suffer poverty). They believe it’s not a rights violations because poverty isn’t caused by certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators; it’s just the unfortunate but unintended outcome of economic processes, much like the loss of life following an asteroid impact is an unfortunate and unintended outcome, and nothing more. Poverty eradication may then be a goal or an aspiration, and perhaps even a requirement of morality (e.g. the moral duty to engage in charity), but it is not, according to this view, required by the rights of the poor.

However, we can chip away at the standard view of rights violations as it is described above, in a way that makes poverty more like a human rights violation. For example, the capability of acting otherwise doesn’t really seem to be a necessary condition for a rights violation. The U.S. government was purportedly convinced that it had no alternative but to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to view those events as rights violations. The same is true for the other condition, the awareness of possible consequences: if I drive my car at high speed down a road which I believe is deserted, I also believe that my actions don’t have any possible consequences that can be harmful. And when I kill a girl crossing the street which I believed to be deserted, people will still think I’m culpable. And finally, there are many cases in which it’s impossible to define a purposeful and conscious actor but which we nevertheless label rights violations. Take communism for instance. Most of us would agree that communist rule in Soviet Russia was a massive rights violation. And yet, it’s impossible to single out the set of perpetrators.

Hence, the cut-off point between rights violations and unfortunate harm is actually a rather large gray zone. This zone probably doesn’t include asteroids, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that it does include an economic system of highly complex human interactions that leads to the poverty of some participants.

Moreover, poverty is often the direct result of purposeful and conscious actions on the part of sentient beings that are aware of the possible consequences of their actions and capable of acting otherwise. That’s true for many third world dictators, but also for westerners shielding their markets and restricting immigration. The point of this post however, is that poverty is not only a human rights violations when it’s the direct result of certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators.

There are two related posts here and here.

What Are Human Rights? (24): Absolute Rights?

One of the great puzzles in human rights theory is the possible existence of absolute rights. It’s commonly accepted that most if not all human rights are “relative” in the sense that they can be limited if their exercise results in harm done to other rights or to the rights of others. Freedom of speech for example doesn’t offer “absolute” protection for all kinds or instances of speech (see here).

If there are any human rights that do offer absolute protection without exception, the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to suffer slavery would be good candidates. Whereas it seems quite reasonable to silence someone when he or she incites violence or hatred, it’s much harder to imagine cases in which it’s reasonable to kill, torture or enslave someone. I’ll focus here on the right to life.

How would you go about justifying the absolute nature of that right? First, you could claim that life is the supreme value. Life is indeed supreme in one sense of the word: it’s lexically prior as they say. It comes first. You can have life without freedom or equality, but not vice versa. (Of course, there are also other more or less promising ways to argue for life’s supremacy in the universe of moral values. I won’t go there now, and neither will I point to the fact that people often sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the lexical priority of life suffices, in general, to ground life’s supremacy in the system of values).

If life is the supreme value, that means that no life can be sacrificed for an inferior value. You can’t go about killing poor or handicapped people for the sake of aggregate wellbeing. And neither can you execute criminals in an effort to deter future attacks on people’s security rights.

So life is then the supreme value in the sense that it can’t simply be traded against another inferior value. That already makes a lot of potential limitations of the right to life unacceptable, and the right to life therefore moves a significant distance towards absoluteness. However, if life is the supreme value, it’s still theoretically possible to trade the lives of a few for the lives of many others. So not life as such, as an aggregate or abstract concept needs to be the supreme value, but individual life. If individual life is the supreme value, the lives of some can’t be put on a scale to see if their sacrifice could protect a higher number of other lives. Robert Nozick gives the following example to make this point salient:

A mob rampaging through a part of town killing and burning will violate the rights of those living there. Therefore, someone might try to justify his punishing [i.e. killing] another he knows to be innocent of a crime that enraged a mob, on the grounds that punishing this innocent person would help to avoid even greater violations of rights by others, and so would lead to a minimum weighted score for rights violations in the society. Robert Nozick

So, if you accept the argument made so far, does this mean that you have established the absolute nature of the right to life and that this right therefore can never be limited? It would seem so. If life is the supreme value, it’s hard to find a reason to limit it, since this reason would then have to be a superior value. And if individual life is the supreme value, you can’t play a numbers game to conclude that the sacrifice of some is necessary in order to save a higher number of other lives.

However, categorical claims like this always seem to me to make things too easy. Something else is necessary. Take four cases in which lives are commonly sacrificed without universal or often even widespread condemnation:

  • individual self-defense
  • war as national self-defense
  • capital punishment and
  • the murder of a terrorist (and perhaps his hostages) about to kill many others (e.g. the shooting down of a commercial plane hijacked by terrorists and about to be used as a weapon).

In all these cases, the lives of some are sacrificed for the lives of others (assuming that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, which is probably not the case). If the right to life is really absolute, none of these actions would be morally or legally acceptable. In order to make them acceptable, there has to be something more than a mere quantitative benefit in terms of numbers of lives saved. I believe the sacrifice of life is acceptable if in doing so one doesn’t violate these three rules:

  • we should only sacrifice life in order to save life, and not in order to promote other values, and
  • we shouldn’t treat other people as means, and
  • we shouldn’t diminish the value of life.

In the case of one of the four actions cited above, namely capital punishment, we do treat other people as means and we diminish the value of life. Murderers are used as instruments to frighten future murderers. Capital punishment is supposedly intended to further respect for life, but in fact normalizes murder. (See here for a more detailed treatment of this issue). In the three other cases, we don’t necessarily use people as means or diminish the value of life. Hence these case can be acceptable limitations of the right to life.

So the right to life is only quasi-absolute: limitations are possible but extremely rare because a number of very demanding conditions have to be met:

  • you can’t kill for the promotion of values different from life
  • you can’t generally count lives and kill people if thereby you can save more lives
  • and if you do want to kill in order to save lives, you have to do it in a manner that doesn’t instrumentalize human beings or diminishes the value of life.

The Ethics of Human Rights (36): A Human Right to Existence?

Can people have a right to exist? If there is such a right then it has to be distinguished from the right to life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right to be conceived and/or born, not a right to continue your life after you’re born.

The supposed right to exist is sometimes used to invalidate abortion, and indeed we should distinguish between two possible meanings of the right to exist: the right to exist of a fetus and the right to exist of a merely potential or possible human being (e.g. a human being as the potential child of parents considering conception). I personally would argue that neither a fetus nor a potential human being have a right to exist.

  1. A fetus doesn’t have a right to exist in the sense in which we understand that right here, not because we are allowed to “terminate” it at will, but because it is already an existing human being (life for me starts at conception, which doesn’t mean that I rule out abortion completely). However, other people who are more willing to tolerate abortion often equate a fetus with a mere potential human being and for them the distinction I make here may seem to be irrelevant.
  2. Potential human beings, as I understand them (see above), don’t have a right to exist either, in my opinion. If you want to argue the opposite, you would have to claim that all or most possible human beings (given some exceptions) should be born, and that’s physically and biologically impossible. All combinations of sperm and egg should then exist, but once a sperm fertilizes an egg it can’t fertilize another egg. Protecting the right to exist would also mean outlawing spontaneous abortions and male masturbation*, and that’s wildly counterintuitive. It would also mean a correlative obligation to procreate, which is also counterintuitive.

The Ethics of Human Rights (34): Human Rights, Moral Universals, and Cultural Relativism

The universality of human rights is arguably their most important attribute. I won’t repeat my arguments in favor of this claim. “Universality” here obviously means something like “universal value”, “universal importance”, “universal moral claims” or “universal desirability”, not factual universality. Human rights aren’t universally protected. If they were, we would hardly need them. I also won’t repeat what I’ve said before on the means to go from merely moral or legal universality to actual universality.

Now, I’ve gone so far as to claim that human rights not only should be universal values (for reasons specified elsewhere), but in fact are universal values. The fact that they are regularly violated doesn’t change the equally salient fact that they are universally recognized as important moral goals.

However, claims of the existence of so-called moral universals, and especially claims that some moral values should be universals, immediately provoke the counter-claim of cultural imperialism. Supposedly, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is a more important goal than moral universals. This counter-claim is often categorized under the heading of cultural relativism.

Personally, I believe that moral diversity and cultural identity are indeed important values, but also that moral diversity and relativism can be and often are used as a justification for rights violations that are contingently rather than culturally motivated (see here and here for my criticism of cultural relativism). And anyway: the existence or the promotion of moral universals in some areas of life doesn’t have to exclude moral diversity in other areas. It’s not because some values are or should be moral universals that all other values, cultures or identities are in danger of disappearing altogether. We can have both: moral universals and moral diversity. And both can reinforce each other if we manage to argue convincingly that some moral universals aren’t just export products, or the result of colonialism or of the omnipresence of the western type of state. Indeed, I believe that globalization, assimilation, colonialism, trade and universality of the modern nation state all contributed to the existence of moral universals, but also that some universals are the product of a global convergence of genuinely local moral rules. (I’ll try in a future post to give an overview of the origins of human rights in different cultures of the world). If we can show that all or most cultures in the world have independently arrived at the same or similar moral rules, then we have moral universals that are build on respect for moral diversity and not just on the export and imposition of one morality on the rest of the world.

However, that’s extremely difficult to prove. It’s relatively easy to show that some moral values are in fact moral universals, but it’s much harder to show why they are moral universals: are they because they have been imposed through colonization, promoted through trade etc. or because they have grown “organically” from within the different cultures that have converging rules? Still, what we can argue is that when there are universals, the burden of proof is on those wanting to argue that they are not genuine but the result of external imposition. The existence of universals is a prima facie argument for their “genuineness”. Also, what’s genuine? Even values that have been imposed or imported a long time ago can have become the genuine morality of the people concerned.

Some evidence of the actual existence of moral universals comes from a paper about a comparative law investigation into the universality of the prohibition of homicide. Such a prohibition is an indication of the moral value of the right to life. The paper shows that this prohibition is in fact universal. Of course, the paper focuses on the law, and the law is at best an imperfect witness of morality (Marx would argue that it is rather an instrument of immorality). But the law is easier to find than morality. And – again – the burden of proof is on the opposing side: if the law indicates universality – as it does in this case and in many others – then it’s up to those claiming non-universality to give counter-evidence.

Crime and Human Rights (9): A Human Right to Possess and Carry Firearms?

Well, possessing and carrying firearms certainly isn’t a human right since it’s not mentioned in any global human rights treaty or declaration. Neither is it a right that’s demanded by the majority of people in the world. It seems to be an exclusive preoccupation of many in the U.S., where the Second Amendment to the Constitution declares:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. (source)

Guns and violence

Whether or not this is an example for other countries to follow, or whether or not this is a good thing for the U.S., are questions worth pondering. The fact that Americans kill one another at a much higher rate than do residents of comparable western European nations, and that this gap persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in the US homicide rate in the last 15 years or so, is a first indication the answer to those questions is likely to be negative. Gun rights in the U.S. has led to widespread gun possession:

The United States has the largest number of guns in private hands of any country in the world with 60 million people owning a combined arsenal of over 200 million firearms. (source)

And it so happens that this widespread possession is correlated with high crime rates. However, this correlation between gun ownership and violence doesn’t have to be causal. Both numbers can have a third factor causing them both, such as high levels of endemic aggression. Reducing the number of guns would then perhaps fail to reduce the levels of violence. However, I don’t believe in such a third factor and there is proof of a causal link between guns and aggression:

Do guns make men more aggressive? Looks like the answer is “Yes, unless they handle guns a lot.” … We tested whether interacting with a gun increased testosterone levels and later aggressive behavior. Thirty male college students provided a saliva sample (for testosterone assay), interacted with either a gun or a children’s toy for 15 min, and then provided another saliva sample. Next, subjects added as much hot sauce as they wanted to a cup of water they believed another subject would have to drink. Males who interacted with the gun showed significantly greater increases in testosterone and added more hot sauce to the water than did those who interacted with the children’s toy. Moreover, increases in testosterone partially mediated the effects of interacting with the gun on this aggressive behavior. (source)

Deterrence

On the other side of the argument, you have people claiming that more guns mean less crime. Gun possession is supposed to have a deterrent effect on criminals. At first sight, that sounds convincing: when potential criminals know that there’s a high probability that their potential victims carry or possess guns, they may think twice before deciding to rob someone. Still, how does this square with the correlation mentioned above? Why is there so much crime in the U.S. if gun ownership deters crime? The only explanation is that crime rates would be even higher in the U.S. without gun rights:

Because … while we hear about the murders and accidents, we don’t often hear about the crimes stopped because would-be victims showed a gun and scared criminals away. Those thwarted crimes and lives saved usually aren’t reported to police (sometimes for fear the gun will be confiscated), and when they are reported, the media tend to ignore them. No bang, no news. It is quite clear that we have not seen any massive increase in crime, even though we have shifted from a situation where about 10 states allowed nearly every law-abiding adult to get a concealed carry license to a situation where 40 states do. So the fears of gun control proponents certainly have not materialized. (source)

The argument is that while guns may be dangerous and lead to murders and violence, gun ownership for self-defense purposes often prevents violent crime and thereby saves lives. Gun rights activists claim that on balance the gain is larger than the loss. Moreover, they argue that other rights can also cost lives (free speech for nazis can lead to authoritarian rule, rights ensuring that people have a fair trial can result in criminals escaping jail sentence etc.).

Supposing all this is true, the question is then what on earth is wrong with the American psyche that even a supposedly massive deterrent effect still produces crime rates that are higher than in other comparable countries that don’t have the same deterrent? I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with Americans, and hence this deterrent effect is probably largely imaginary (as are other deterrent effects).

I should also mention that the “more guns, less crime” narrative that claims that the number of lives saved by guns is larger than the number lost, often relies heavily on some seriously flawed research by the notorious John R. Lott (read more about this guy’s methods here and here). If you see or hear anyone defending gun rights and using Lott’s work, you can safely move on.

Self-defense

However, even if it’s not clear that a consequentialist or utilitarian defense of gun rights can work (that in other words gun rights produce overall higher utility levels that gun prohibition or gun control), it’s still possible to make a rights-based case for gun rights. You can argue that people have a right to the means of self-defense, whatever the overall balance of violence. I personally think that this is the strongest of the arguments in favor of gun rights. If you can connect gun rights to existing human rights such as the right to life and the right to physical security, you can make a strong case.

For decades, liberals have insisted that the Constitution assumes—even if it does not explicitly spell out—a right to bodily autonomy. This right, long disputed by conservatives, is a basis for arguments in favor of abortion rights and gay rights. Liberals who support gun rights find a similar implied right to own weapons: after all, they say, what is the right to bear arms but the ability to protect your body from criminals as well as the government? The right to bear arms gives you a mechanism to protect your bodily autonomy from attack. (source)

This link to abortion is an interesting one. Both abortion and gun rights can be defended on the basis of bodily autonomy, self-determination and self-defense. But then again, it’s rarely the same people who defend abortion rights and gun rights. On the contrary, gun rights activists are often decidedly against abortion. There’s an interesting story here about a campaign against abortion in black families.

“BLACK CHILDREN ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES,” the billboards proclaim. Posted in dozens of locations in Atlanta’s black neighborhoods, they direct readers to a Web site that denounces abortion as a racist conspiracy. Through them, the pro-life movement is sending a message that it cares about the lives of black people. But does it?

The Web site plays every race card in the deck. It says “abortion is the tool [racists] use to stealthily target blacks for extermination.” It calls on readers to “expose the insidiousness of the pro-abortion agenda and its real target: the black community.” It touts the support of “Dr. King,” a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. “I know for sure that the black community is being targeted by abortionists for the purpose of ethnic cleansing,” she asserts.

What’s the basis for these charges? The campaign points to eugenic ideas and influences in the early birth-control movement. But its chief evidence is abortion rates. “Abortions in the black community occur at 3x the rate of those among the white population and 2x that of all other races combined,” the site points out. “The truth screams loud and clear—we are killing our very future.”

The numbers are provocative. But there’s something odd about the billboards. The child who appears beside the text is fully born. Abortion doesn’t kill such children. What kills them, all too often, is shooting. If you wanted to save living, breathing, fully born children from a tool of extermination that is literally targeting blacks, the first problem you would focus on is guns. They are killing the present, not just the future. But the sponsors of the “endangered species” ads don’t support gun control. They oppose it. … Maybe that’s why blacks, unlike whites, strongly favor gun control. (source)

This example of how gun control can help the black minority in the U.S. is often countered with another example of how it has been used to work against blacks. Gun control does indeed have a history as a tool for subjugation of blacks.

After the Civil War, the defeated Southern states aimed to preserve slavery in fact if not in law. The states enacted Black Codes which barred the black freedmen from exercising basic civil rights, including the right to bear arms. Mississippi’s provision was typical: No freedman “shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition.” (source)

Gun control left the freedman defenseless against the KKK and unable to form militias to resist white terrorism. However, I fail to see how a very specific and largely closed period in American history can justify rights more than 100 years later, especially if there are contemporary examples pointing the other way.

A final self-defense argument against gun control is the possible revolution against a dictatorial government. The “people” may need firearms to rise up when government becomes tyrannical. Now, I know that there’s currently a lot of right-wing anti-Obama hysteria and paranoia doing the rounds about a supposed dictatorial plot. However, I think it’s very unlikely that any U.S. government can ever achieve tyranny, even if it very much wanted to. And suppose it did, how can you be so foolish to believe that handguns would allow the people to defeat the superior firepower of the U.S. government?

Regardless of your position on the Second Amendment, whether the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is “fundamental” to “our scheme of ordered liberty” is severely questionable.  Certainly other countries are able to have something that we would call “ordered liberty” without ironclad protection of firearms ownership rights.  And while historically there may have been instances where the ability of the citizenry to safeguard or expand “ordered liberty” via ownership of firearms, the restrictions that are allowed on the Second Amendment under Heller ensure that the government’s advantage in firepower will be insurmountable in such hypothetical circumstances nowadays. (source)

Gun control

What I personally would favor is not prohibition but extensive gun control, including bans on gun possession by felons or minors etc., bans on the open or concealed carry of guns in certain places such as schools etc. I can understand why some people think they need a gun for self-defense. The question is, however, if restrictions on gun rights will still be possible after the recent Supreme Court case, McDonald v. City of Chicago.

The argument that gun control laws don’t work and don’t bring down the number of crimes isn’t necessarily correct. You would have to measure against the counterfactual, which is very difficult: without gun control laws, crime would perhaps have gone up, so a failure to reduce crime isn’t necessarily a failure of gun control laws. Maybe they simply reduced the growth in crime rates. Also, failure to bring down crime rates may be not the fault of gun control laws but of the way they are designed or enforced. And anyway, there is evidence that gun control laws do bring down crime rates.

The Ethics of Human Rights (30): Organ Donation and Presumed Consent

Health and survival are human rights. Many people’s health and survival depend on organ transplants. However, there are more people requiring organs than people donating them. Hence, the question of how to increase organ availability, which I have discussed many times before on this blog (see here for instance). My favorite policy is presumed consent : if people during their lifetime don’t explicitly opt-out and deny the use of their organs after death, it is assumed that they consent to this use. There’s evidence that presumed consent raises donation rates by perhaps 20-30%.

However, presumed consent may perhaps not be enough to eliminate the shortage. And although it may solve part of the problem, it may also create some problems. Some people might feel uneasy when the state can automatically decide what happens to their bodies or to the bodies of their loved ones after death. The public might also start to wonder whether surgeons would become too eager to harvest organs, stop life support somewhat early and move the border between life and death (the definition of the moment one dies isn’t an unchanging variable throughout human history). But that’s also a problem with opt-in systems.

Another problem with presumed consent, but also other types of cadaveric donation such as opt-in, is the constraint imposed by the number of people who die in a way that makes their organs available for transplant.

Does all this mean we have to abandon cadaveric donations in general and presumed consent in particular? And rush towards a free market in organs for the living? That could perhaps eliminate the shortage completely, at least for those able to buy the organs and on the condition that there are enough desperate souls “willing” to sell. The latter is of course a condition that’s easily met when we allow international free trade – many places in the world are vast resources of desperateness.

(If you doubt the risk of free trade pushing desperate people to sell their organs, look at Iran. Most donors in Iran are extremely poor. Maybe you think it’s good that poor people have options to do something about their poverty. I agree, but I prefer that they have other options and aren’t forced to commodify themselves, especially when this commodification entails health risks).

I don’t think free organ trade of live donations is a good idea, given the problems with that option outlined here. (Although I might be persuaded by the argument that prohibition of a widespread activity is always futile and a regulated market a lesser evil; e.g., one could offer tax credits for live donations). There’s still a lot of elasticity in presumed consent and the few problems it raises can be solved, in my opinion. The horror story of doctors switching off life support and plundering bodies is precisely that, a story. Countries that are reluctant to implement presumed consent because of such reasons can be convinced, I think, especially given the success of other countries that have it.

Even in countries that have presumed consent and that have therefore increased organ availability, things can be improved. The rights of relatives to veto could be restricted. (Personally, if I would have made the conscious choice of opting in or of not opting out, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the possibility that my relatives have the right to disrespect my will after death). In addition, the transplant system (logistics, transport, availability, procurement etc.) could be made more effective, including in countries that decide to stick with opt in.

Beyond presumed consent of cadaveric donation, live donation of certain organs could be encouraged (though preferably not through market systems). Countries that don’t want to go to presumed consent could make it more likely for people to opt in in a system of cadaveric donation: Israel for example allows opt-in donors and their families to jump the waiting line for transplants when they should need an organ themselves. That’s an interesting idea, but it could throw up some other problems. Also, technology could come to our aid; perhaps in some time we can make organs from stem cells.

The Ethics of Human Rights (18): A Right to End Your Life

There’s currently some controversy over the Swiss Dignitas clinic where people can receive help in their attempt to end their own lives.  This is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding “Doctor Death”, Jack Kevorkian, in the U.S. some time ago, and the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

The issue of assisted suicide or euthanasia usually arises in discussions on terminal illnes and suffering, but it is part of the wider problem of self-determination: do human beings have the right to determine and chose the time and the method of their own death, irrespective of health issues? And do other people have a right to assist them if they can’t execute their will themselves?

I’ll focus on the first question here, and I’ll avoid the legal issues for the time being, apart from this: in international human rights law, there is no right to end your life, hence no right to suicide, assisted or not, and hence no right to euthanasia (the differences between assisted suicide and euthanasia are negligable according to me).

Should there be such a right? I don’t know. I certainly support the moral right, based on some arguments which I’ll mention below. A legal right would remove some of the prohibitions on assisted suicide and euthanasia in some countries. In such countries, people have to travel abroad – to Switzerland for example – to end their lives, at least if they want to do it in a painless and guaranteed way. This means that there is discrimination: rich people have a painless way out (the Swiss ask a lot of money), whereas other people have to use painful or riskier methods or – worse – have to continue their lives involuntarily if their (medical) circumstances don’t make it possible for them to take matters into their own hands.

Why should there be a moral right to end your life? We own our own body. Our body is part of our private property. It is something that is ours; it is the thing par excellence that is our own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning our body means that we are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of our body; they should not use it, hurt it or force us to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. But it also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. We should therefore be able to cimmit suicide without interference, at least as long as we are able to determine our will independently, and as long as our suicide doesn’t harm other people’s rights (e.g. if we throw ourselves in front of a moving car, or if we believe that our suicide leads us to heaven on the condition that we take a few infidels along with us in the grave).