The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Ethics of Human Rights (38): Should People Be Equal or Should They Have Enough?

There are people who believe income inequality is a major problem – and I’m one of them – and there are others who say that the real problem isn’t a relational one but rather one of absolute means. Harry Frankfurt for example argues that it’s not important whether a person has less than another regardless of how much either of them has. What is important is whether people have enough of what they need for a decent human life.

Sufficientarianism

This so-called sufficientarian approach – as opposed to the egalitarian one – is supposedly not comparative or relational but humanitarian. It focuses on the alleviation of absolute suffering and deprivation instead of relative inequalities. Rather than diminishing the distance between the worst off and the best off, it wants to improve the situation of the worst off. The latter goal can be the result of the former, but doesn’t have to be. Or it can promote the former but doesn’t have to. For example, imagine a society where incomes are highly unequal but where none of the people at the wrong side of this inequality are below a threshold value of wellbeing (the threshold determines the difference between suffering and non-suffering). So, according to the sufficientarian approach, there’s no need to diminish inequality in such a society. There’s no need to do anything, in fact. Conversely, you can have a society – not so imaginary perhaps – with low levels of inequality but almost all of the people live below the threshold. Tinkering with inequality will not do much good in that society. What you have to do is raise the living standard of almost all the population.

Income inequality for sufficientarians is relevant only to the extent that the wealth of those who are better off is a useful means to alleviate the suffering of the worst off. Diminishing inequality isn’t a goal in itself, and inequality doesn’t do any harm in itself.

It’s an appealing view, and I have been tempted by it myself. Even if you believe, as I do, that inequality can be harmful no matter what the income levels of the worst off are (harmful to democracy for instance) and that more equal societies almost always do better, you may still agree that the most urgent priority is the suffering of those who are worst off. Income inequality should then only be tackled afterwards. Anyway, tackling that first priority is a good step on the way to more equality; helping the worst off will reduce inequality almost automatically I would believe.

However, appealing though it may be, is sufficientarianism really all that much different from egalitarianism? As soon as you talk about the “worst off”, you have already engaged in comparative and relational analysis, by necessity. Another problem with sufficientarianism is the setting of the threshold: that is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Of two people in very similar situations only one will receive help. You may say that cut offs are always inevitable, and perhaps that’s true, but sufficientarianism makes them painfully obvious to those concerned. People just above the threshold are told that they don’t matter, even if their neighbors who are just below matter a great deal. And finally, basic needs change over time, hence also the meaning of “suffering”. Will sufficientarians keep the threshold fixed, or allow it to rise over time? In the latter case, the difference between their approach and that of egalitarians is again rather small.

Prioritarianism

Some of these problems are sidestepped by a similar view called prioritarianism, made famous by Temkin and Parfit: benefiting people is more important the worse off they are. No need for a threshold here. When having to choose between two policies, you always take the one that is best for the worst off, whatever their level of well-being.

Benefits to the worse off matter more than benefits to the relatively better off. A benefit has greater moral value the worse the situation of the individual to whom it accrues. If we have some benefit to distribute, and this benefit has a value of x (no matter how we define “value”), it’s better to give this to the worst off than to anyone else. Strict utilitarianism, as opposed to prioritarianism, doesn’t care about who gets the benefit of x, because who gets it doesn’t change overall well-being. However, utilitarianism does take into account the possibility of the diminishing marginal utility of something: lots of money for a rich person isn’t as useful as the same amount of money for a poor person. But when comparing two people who would benefit just as much from such an amount of money, utilitarianism – as opposed to prioritarianism – doesn’t care who gets it; either person, the better off or the worse off, can get it. Prioritarianism doesn’t merely say that the worse off person should get it, but also says – contrary again to utilitarianism – that we should benefit the worse off even if that means diminishing total well-being; e.g. we can harm the interests of the better off if that means improving the well-being of the worse off:

Imagine choosing between two outcomes: In outcome 1, Jim’s well-being level is 110 (blissful); Pam’s is -73 (hellish); overall well-being is 37. In outcome 2, Jim’s well-being level is 23; Pam’s well-being level is 13; overall well-being is 36. Prioritarians would say that outcome 2 is better or more desirable than outcome 1 despite being lower than outcome 1 in terms of overall well-being. Bringing Pam up by 86 is weightier than bringing Jim down by 87. If we could move from a society described by outcome 1 to one described by outcome 2, we ought to. (source)

So prioritarianism avoids some of the counterintuitive implications of strict utilitarianism. And it also avoids the equally counterintuitive implications of strict egalitarianism. The latter may demand bringing everyone down to the level of the worst off while benefiting no one. Prioritarianism on the contrary does not propose a move toward more equality if that doesn’t benefit the worse off. And finally, it avoids some of the practical problems of sufficientarianism, while maintaining the appeal of the sufficientarian focus on the absolute deprivation of the worst off.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (16): You Always Hurt The Ones You Love

Inflicting suffering on people is wrong. This simple and basic moral rule is a large part of the justification of human rights (although there are many other justifications). And yet, the parents among us – the large majority of human beings – simply by bringing children into existence, guarantee that those children will suffer. No life is without suffering. And they do so wittingly and willingly. So ignorance or impotence do not excuse this imposition of suffering. These children don’t get born because they have a right to be born. Non-existent people don’t have a right to come into existence. The opposite sentence would have some really scary and dizzying consequences. They are born because of parents’ choices. And those are informed choices. We all know that no life, not even the best one, is without suffering. Hence, the parents are, to some extent, responsible for this suffering (read more about the chain of causation here).

The fact that people keep reproducing without so much as an ounce of remorse, indicates that the willful infliction of suffering is an acceptable part of life, even if it is an infliction upon those closest to you. Perhaps we can explain this strange fact by the generally rational belief that the good that comes out of life compensates for the suffering we inflict on our children. Life’s suffering is just the price to pay for a greater good. Overall, most people do indeed find life worth living, notwithstanding the occasional suffering. Otherwise suicide would be much more common, I guess. But that kind of cost-benefit analysis is something we usually find repugnant. Many of us shudder at the decision to incinerate thousands of Japanese in order to end WWII.

But perhaps this cost-benefit analysis is much more acceptable when the cost for one persons isn’t intended to benefit another person. In our topic, the costs and benefits that are weighed against each other are for one and the same person. And yet, it’s not this person that does the weighing; it’s her parents. This is a case of literal paternalism: we decide for another person that some harm we do to her is necessary for a greater good. Like we decide that people can’t smoke cannabis (doing so is imposing a harm) because we believe that it’s in their interest and for their benefit. And paternalism is generally only acceptable when dealing with children, and with children as long as they are children. When reproducing we of course also inflict suffering on our children when they are grown up.

Human Rights and International Law (14): Human Rights vs. Humanitarianism?

In this post, I want to look at some of the differences – and perhaps conflicts – between human rights activism and humanitarian action (or humanitarian intervention). Obviously, some definitions to start with. There’ve been enough discussions on the definition of human rights on this blog, so I’ll focus now on humanitarianism. (Note: I’m leaving aside the more problematic issue of armed humanitarianism).

Definition of humanitarianism

According to Wikipedia,

humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions.

However, the concept of humanitarianism has become more precise and restrictive over the last decades. In fact, it is now generally understood to be shorthand for “international humanitarian action“, which in turn means international emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises representing

a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. (source)

When you think about humanitarianism, you think about the Red Cross, the UNHCR, MSF, WFP etc. The focus is on the alleviation of widespread suffering and the saving of lives.

Hence, there is a close link between humanitarianism and human rights activism. Humanitarianism deals with rights violations. The absence of suffering is a human right, as is life. Of course, human rights are about much more than that. Free speech, democracy, religious liberty etc. are not about suffering or death, at least not normally). Nevertheless, humanitarianism shares its goals and ideals with part of the human rights agenda, and can therefore be understood as a subset of human rights activism.

Differences between humanitarianism and human rights activism

This link doesn’t mean that there are no differences between the two approaches. I’ll try to mention a few of them here. Apart from the more narrow scope of humanitarianism, compared to human rights activism, the main differences are:

Short term and urgency

Humanitarian agencies such as those mentioned above are by definition engaged in conflict zones or disaster zones. Their only objective is the protection of civilians against immediate harm resulting from war, famine etc. Hence, they are focused on the very short term future: making sure people survive, have enough to eat and are physically secure. Human rights activism, on the contrary, will also look at longer term results and less urgent needs, such as education, institutionalized (as opposed to emergency) healthcare, poverty etc.

Forward looking

Humanitarianism is mainly forward looking, whereas human rights activism reserves a lot of its attention to the past, and more specifically to justice for past human rights violations (including criminal justice).

Immediate causes

Humanitarianism also looks at the immediate causes of suffering, e.g. a war, a disaster etc., whereas human rights activism will tend to identify the root causes behind these immediate causes, e.g. bad governance, poverty, discrimination and other “structural injustices” which surpass the timeframe and the tools of the humanitarian.

Unconditional

Humanitarianism means unconditional action. Given the urgency of the suffering they want to alleviate, agencies will go in, no matter what. The war can still be going on, the disaster can be unfolding… The human rights activist, however, will often point to prerequisites which have to be present before some specific human right can be realized, and without which action is futile (e.g. the removal of a dictator as a prerequisite for freedom of the press). A related point: humanitarianism takes a few human rights in isolation, and works on those only. A human rights activist will look at the whole system of human rights, and stress the interdependence of all human rights.

Political neutrality

Humanitarianism tries to be neutral. It doesn’t take sides in a conflict or in a (civil) war. All suffering is viewed as equally deserving of alleviation, whether it is the suffering of the victim or the suffering of the aggressor (“a universal duty to act in the face of human suffering”). This isn’t moral relativism, but a practical necessity in many cases. If the humanitarian agencies want to have access to the people who are suffering, they often don’t have the luxury of criticizing any of the parties in the conflict, of outspoken public advocacy, and of “naming and shaming”.

The human rights activist, on the contrary, has to take a stand. Human rights aren’t politically neutral. They require, to a certain extent, democratic government, and non-democratic government is often a root cause of many rights violations.