Human Rights Promotion (12): What Makes People Care About Human Rights?

Human rights are not like music or love, things people care about for their own sake or for the pleasure or happiness they provide. If people care about human rights they do so because they view those rights as means to achieve some other goals or purpose. I personally see the following reasons why people care about human rights.

Signaling

Human rights function as signaling tools (see also here). People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but perhaps only want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that. They may of course improve respect for human rights along the way, sometimes unwittingly (for example because their talk contributes to a culture of human rights), but human rights are valuable to them primarily because they allow them to communicate certain things about themselves. For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. This kind of reason to care about human rights is not by definition useless for the promotion of human rights – it can advance the cause of human rights – but it’s obviously not the best possible reason.

Self-interest

Human rights promote people’s self-interest. That’s obviously true for their own rights, but also for the rights of others. I’ve written here about the ways in which people may view the promotion of the rights of others as a means to protect their own self-interest. This reason to care about human rights is more beneficial to the cause of human rights than the signaling reason, but it’s still not the best possible reason. People’s self-interest does not advance all human rights of all other people.

Values

People may believe that human rights promote some of their cherished values or ideals, such as freedom or equality, for themselves and for humanity in general. Like the previous two reasons for caring about human rights, this reason will only advance the cause of human rights contingently: if freedom is what you care about, you will only promote human rights to the extent that they enhance freedom, and only those rights that enhance freedom.

It’s not true that freedom is served by all human rights all of the time, at least not if you adopt a restrictive definition of freedom. For example, those human rights that guarantee a basic standard of living are not clearly meant to enhance the freedom of poor people – within the bounds of a certain definition of freedom – and they may even limit the freedom of those who have to contribute the means necessary to guarantee a basic standard of living for others. Conversely, if you’re an egalitarian and equality rather than freedom is what you care about, then you may not feel especially attached to the right to property for example.

Humanity

People may cherish rights because they believe human beings are uniquely valuable creatures who should be treated in a certain way. For example, you may believe that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Or that they deserve to have their autonomy protected. Or that people have been created by God in His image and that this requires a certain treatment. Human rights are then viewed as means to achieve this treatment. Compared to the previous reasons to care about human rights, this reason is potentially more inclusive and wide-ranging and less contingent on facts about personal motivation. However, it depends on a substantive and inherently controversial philosophy about human nature, dignity or religion.

Evil

Conversely, people may cherish human rights, not because of their views about the inherent worth of human beings, but because of the evil inherent in humanity. Human rights are necessary not because they protect the good in people but because they protect people from the evil in others.

What Are Human Rights? (28): Or, in Other Words: When is Something a Human Right?

Human rights are exceptional, by definition. Not all rights or rules or aspirations can be human rights. A human right is a special kind of rule, right or aspiration, namely one that is particularly important. And if all rules or rights become human rights, or if all values, desires or possible improvements in people’s life are called “human rights”, then human rights are no longer important, because if everything is important, nothing is. Hence, the existence and utility of human rights depends on strong restrictions on the set of human rights.

However, that raises the obvious question: what are those restrictions, and how do we decide which rules or aspirations are properly called a human right, and which are not? When does a particular rule or aspiration become so important that it becomes a right? We can’t just simply claim that the “basic aspirations” or “basic values” of humanity, or those things that are especially valuable or necessary for a “real” human life should be protected by human rights. First, it will never be clear or uncontroversial what those basic things are, and secondly, it’s easy to come up with basic or important things that none of us would claim are human rights: love, kindness, longevity etc. Some things that are extremely valuable shouldn’t be human rights, and it’s often very unclear how and when to make – or not to make – the leap from “value” to “right”.

So it’s not just the importance of certain rules or aspirations that turn them into a human right. The fact that we all want our children to love us and that this kind of love is extremely important for human life is not enough to generate a right to filial love. So what other criteria besides importance should determine whether a rule or aspiration becomes a human right?

One could argue that something is a human right if the background aspiration or rule is extremely important, and if it is necessary, desirable and practically feasible to turn this rule or aspiration into a working human right. Remember that human rights should also and always be legal rights, so as to distinguish them from purely moral claims and make them enforceable. Among other things, it’s not practically feasible to have courts enforce a right to filial love (although there have been attempts). And it’s certainly not desirable. On the other hand, it’s relatively obvious that our aspiration to free speech, for example, is best protected when we have a legal right, courts and the like to help us protect this aspiration.

A related post is here. More on the link between human rights and values is here.

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (28): A Way of Life

He who is without a city is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man. The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore, a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort. Aristotle

Citizens in a democracy which allows some kind of direct participation, are active citizens. They can decide on issues and not only on their representatives. Because they have a right to decide, they will, in many cases, become automatically interested in the topics on which they will have to decide. Discussions will take place. Arguments are exchanged. And, as a result, people will be interested in public affairs and have knowledge of these affairs. They are able to transcend their private interests and to take part in community life and group identification, which are important human values. They also have some measure of control over their lives, another universal aspiration.

This means that democratic political participation is not only a means to an end (for example, the end of having decisions that are acceptable to the people). It is also an end in itself because some important values become real only when people participate. These values are not the result of the process of participation; they are part of the process itself. People participate for the sake of the things that happen while they participate (knowledge, activity and a feeling of self-control or control over the decisions that affect them), and not only for the sake of something which results from the process of participation after it has finished (for example, certain kinds of decisions).

Democratic political life is something valuable for human life. The ancient Greeks even considered political life as the essence of human life, as something that corresponds to the nature of man. Man, in their eyes, is a creature destined for political life, a “zo-on politikon”. This is expressed in the quote from Aristotle.

So democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, the life of the “homo democraticus”, the citizen who participates in politics, as directly as possible and as much as possible, in order to realize some of the things which he or she deems important in life.

The importance of political life shows how foolish it is to reduce democracy to a system in which people can give or take away the consent to be ruled. A form of government that only allows the people to express or withhold consent can never be called a democracy. A dictatorship can also rule with the consent of the people, can realize the will of the people and can collapse once this consent disappears. A democracy is more than just an elegant and peaceful way to change the rulers. It is also a society, which can determine the rules for and the conditions of its own life. It gives people control over their own fate and at the same time guarantees some other fundamental values.

Where democracy is end as well as means, its politics take on the sense of a journey in which the going is as important as the getting there and in which the relations among travelers are as vital as the destinations they may think they are seeking. Benjamin Barber

People do not engage in political life for the sole reason of regulating their non-political life. They participate in politics because something important happens when they participate. Political life realizes certain values, but these values are not a result or a product that political life leaves behind when it is finished. They are real only as long as political life takes place. Political activity is not purely instrumental; it is valuable in itself.

An individual actively engaged in political life is not only able to belong and to have an identity. He or she can also lead an informed and educated life (because participation and control require knowledge and education) and can be attentive to politics and to things, which he or she has in common with all the other citizens, and which transcend his or her own private needs.

Democracy needs communities and therefore, corresponds to the widely shared need to belong, to associate, to cooperate and to interact. Community life and common action are as important for democracy as for human wellbeing. We are dealing here with important human values, shared by most people across all cultures. These values are important as such, but are also important because they assist the development of an individual identity, another important and universal value. Membership of groups is an important source of identity.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).