The Causes of Human Rights Violations (39): The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Widespread Human Rights Violations

Sorry for the strange title, but there is a logic behind it: it’s more difficult to end human rights violations the more widespread they are, and not just in a logistical sense. If rights violations are widespread, then they can become the moral norm. How does this happen? First, if everyone or a large group of people is victimized, victims start to believe that there’s nothing special about their predicament. Why would they make a fuss about something that happens to so many people, all of whom also don’t make a fuss. People don’t want to be crybabies and tend to align their behavior to that of others. They may suffer in silence or even fail to conceptualize their suffering as suffering. (This is similar to the bystander effect: if bystanders witness a crime, they first look at the reactions of other bystanders in order to see if the others judge the situation as one which requires intervention. When all bystanders do this simultaneously, then no one interferes).

A next step turns all of this into a vicious circle. When a certain practice is widespread, those who engage in it tend not be held blameworthy. Blame is always and only linked to practices that are more or less exceptional. It can’t be a perpetual and universal condition, because then it loses its meaning. This lack of blame then reinforces the sense that certain practices are normal, which again makes blame impossible. And so on. Hence, widespread human rights violations are their own cause.

Take this interesting story about sexual harassment at the Oxford University around the middle of the 20th century:

[A] group of remarkable [female] philosophers … were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment. What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behavior seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never “after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behavior seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us”. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, “Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…” (source)

At the time when sexual harassment was widespread behavior, it became the normal thing to do, nothing special and therefore also not blameworthy.

The obvious question is then: how do we escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of human rights violations? The easy answer would be that we can’t. This answer fits nicely with the fashionable idea that our morality isn’t a rational thing but rather a rationalization of universal, innate and ingrained moral emotions such as disgust – in other words, a fancy story built on gut reactions. This idea in turn corresponds to the recent finding that even very young children – as well as primates – have a sense of morality even though they don’t have the full ability of reason.

However, this answer won’t do because it’s obvious that we can escape from the cycle and that we can change our moral sense. History is rife with practices that were once considered normal and yet somehow became abnormal and blameworthy: slavery, gender inequality, sexual violence etc. Many of these changes have come about through a mix of reasoning, deliberation, storytelling and appeals to honor. To some extent, it’s true that morality is a reflection of common practice and determined by it. But fortunately it’s more than that.

More about catch 22 in the field of human rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (7): Statistical Discrimination v. Background Checks?

Employers often use background checks before deciding to hire someone. For example, they may check the criminal record of job candidates, their credit scores, health history etc. It’s somewhat understandable although not always acceptable that they are reluctant to hire someone who has been in jail, has been sick for a long time, or has proven to be undisciplined by not paying her bills.

Let’s focus on ex-convicts for the moment. These people have a hard time as it is, sometimes even for no good reason because they shouldn’t have been incarcerated in the first place (I argued here that many countries, and especially the U.S., put too many people in jail). So, allowing employers to use criminal background checks can force ex-convicts into a vicious circle: unable to find a job, they may be forced to go back to crime.

Furthermore, there’s a racial aspect to all of this: in the U.S., African Americans are more likely to be ex-convicts. According to some, this racial discrepancy is precisely the reason to allow criminal background checks. If employers aren’t allowed to check individual candidates, they will resort to statistical discrimination: they know that blacks are more likely to have a criminal record and so they won’t hire any blacks at all, just to be safe.

However, if you espouse this argument in favor of background checks, you essentially want to make things better for one disadvantaged group – blacks, who are generally disadvantaged in employment – by making things worse for an even more disadvantaged group, namely ex-convicts. And that’s assuming that employers will hire more black people if they can use criminal background checks; but assuming that means assuming there’s no racism. Helping a disadvantaged group by harming an even more disadvantaged group is plainly absurd, and you can only fail to see that it’s absurd if you have an overriding fear of government regulation. Regulation should be kept in check but not at any price. I think in this case regulating businesses and outlawing background checks is the appropriate thing to do.

Let’s turn briefly to another type of background check: credit scores.

[M]illions of Americans, as a direct consequence of looking for work, have lower credit scores. … The use of credit checks in employment decisions should be banned. It is a form of discrimination against the poor — the codification and enforcement of class barriers. It is therefore a form of discrimination against those groups more likely to be poor. (source)

It seems there’s a

growing tendency of HR departments to check the credit scores of potential employees apparently deeming this data to be an important predictor of employee behavior. This creates a Catch-22 scenario for the unemployed where you can’t improve your credit score unless you get a job and you can’t get a job until you improve your credit score. (source)

Apart from the obvious fact that credit scores seem to be a type of knowledge that is much less useful for an employer compared to a criminal record – if your house burned down and your credit score is low as a result, does that make you a bad employee? – there’s a real issue for the poor here. They shouldn’t be discriminated against just for being poor. It’s not just a lack of conscientiousness or discipline that can lower your credit score. Back luck and poverty won’t help either. Some say the free market and competition will take care of this: employers stupid enough not to hire good poor people simply because they have a credit problem will lose out. Their competitors who don’t engage in credit checks will hire them, and those businesses will acquire a commercial advantage. I don’t know. Seems awfully optimistic to me.

The Causes of Poverty (26): Hereditary Poverty, Another Poverty Trap

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. Mark 14:7

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land”. Deuteronomy 15:11

As a result of having parents who are poor, children

  • receive substandard education because they enroll in substandard schools (if at all)
  • may be forced to quit school early and start working
  • do not receive quality healthcare (because of the costs)
  • are more likely to be obese, with negative consequences for their health
  • have a lower birth weight, something which also has a negative impact on health.

Growing up in poor families has negative effects on children’s education and health, and these effects in turn make it more likely that these children grow up to become poor as well. And their children will go through the same process, and so on. Hence the concept of hereditary poverty.

Just a few more words on the effect of substandard education. The quality of schools (or better the cost of good schools) and the element of child labor aren’t the only factors limiting the education levels of children in poor families. An interesting article in The Economist points to effects discovered by neuroscience. It seems that stress, induced by poverty, lowers memory capacity, and this lowered memory capacity makes it more difficult to learn and to obtain a good education as a means to escape poverty traps. It’s been well known for a while that stress lowers memory capacity (it reduces the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with memory). However, Evans and Schamberg (see the paper here) showed that stress caused by poverty reduces memory capacity. First they showed that poverty is correlated with higher stress, and then that higher stress is correlated with lower memory capacity. Comparisons of the memory capacities of poor and middle class people showed indeed a difference in memory capacity, and this is caused by poverty induced stress rather than other elements of poverty. Poverty causes stress, which reduces memory, which in turn makes it harder to learn, which in turn makes it more difficult to escape a poverty trap. How does poverty cause stress? Well, there’s the obvious cause: financial insecurity. But low self-esteem caused by poverty (including for children in poor families) also seems to contribute. See this paper for instance.

The poor indeed will always be with us. At least if we don’t help them to get out of the traps in which they find themselves.

The Causes of Poverty (9): Poverty Traps

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

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

1. Individual poverty traps

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

2. Regional poverty traps

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

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

3. Racial/ethnic poverty traps

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

4. Social poverty traps

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

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

5. National poverty traps

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

6. International poverty traps

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

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

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