I want to return briefly to the topic of rights violations that are inflicted, not by others or by the state, but by people on themselves. (See here for a previous post). One example is self-inflicted poverty, or poverty that’s the result of people’s own misguided actions (although I hasten to add that I’m convinced that other causes of poverty are more important and more common; and yes, poverty is a human rights violation).
However, it’s interesting to note that when people inflict poverty on themselves, they don’t merely do so by way of misguided, irrational or self-destructive actions. Poor people may engage in preference adaptation, so as to cope better with their poverty. They may also stubbornly believe that their situation isn’t so bad after all, and that many others are even worse off, even if they are among the worst off. This belief helps them to feel better about their lives. (Read more about this here and here). Both preference adaptation and “counting your blessings” won’t do much to help you pull yourself out of poverty.
The problem is indeed that such coping mechanisms tend to perpetuate poverty, and hence they are part of a process of self-inflicted poverty. People who adapt their preferences and satisfaction levels become less prone to fight for their rights.
This problem isn’t limited to poverty. Oppressive circumstances usually stunt people’s ambitions. If the risks of engaging in protests against a powerful authoritarian government are high, then people may settle in their submission and thank the Lord that they at least have some freedom within their homes. Their lack of protest then helps to maintain their submission, and hence they are partially responsible for the violation of their rights.
By the way, the inherent malleability of preferences – which are elements of the examples given above – discredits all theories of justice that are based on equality of preference satisfaction. Given that circumstances may form preferences and that people may revise their preferences downwards in order to achieve at least some level of satisfaction, equality of preference satisfaction will result in lives of very unequal quality.
More posts in this series are here.