Natural Rights versus Humanitarian Concerns
January 7, 2011

Via Naheed Mustafa’s Twitter feed, Stephen Kinzer has a really thought provoking column in the Guardian regarding what he calls “human rights imperialism.” He writes:

For many years as a foreign correspondent, I not only worked alongside human rights advocates, but considered myself one of them. To defend the rights of those who have none was the reason I became a journalist in the first place. Now, I see the human rights movement as opposing human rights.

The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.

Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.

This is a symptom, I think, of the static and inflexible notion of “natural rights” bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. The descendants of Locke and Jefferson too often reduce the whole idea of liberty — a thorny concept if there ever was one — to a checklist that has remained basically unchanged for the past few centuries. And as if that weren’t strange enough, we pretend that these rights are self-evidently natural, as if freedom of the press somehow predates the written word.

To make this point is not to reject the importance of the Bill of Rights. I’m as big a fan of the ACLU as you’ll find, and I think my past blogging about civil liberties has pretty firmly established my pro-civil liberties cred. But while Enlightenment-era natural rights were a policy success to the extent that their wide acceptance demonstrably increased the basic freedoms available to the whole Western world, they’re still a mess as a philosophy of freedom. And our blind acceptance of their supposed naturalness has led us into embracing the sort of misguided and potentially catastrophic policies Kinzer describes above.

A truly humane philosophy of freedom must be more organic and receptive to humanitarian concerns. When our preconceived notions of “human rights” sharply diverge with humanitarian interests — or worse, precipitate humanitarian crises — there’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

(By the way: If you want to take this out of the realm of the abstract, I recommend reading Samantha Power’s excellent Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame). Its subject is the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, perhaps one of the greatest humanitarians in the history of the United Nations. Although de Mello saved countless lives, the tactics he often employed to do so — including choosing the forceful repatriation of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania as “the least bad option” available, and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge — often earned him the ire of international human rights groups. Even more interesting, he was both an academic philosopher by training and, eventually, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

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The Trouble With Utilitarianism
July 18, 2010

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...
Image via Wikipedia

Many of you who have studied philosophy in some capacity have likely heard these objections before, but let’s run through a couple of them quickly:

  • How do you measure utility? I haven’t heard a convincing account of what utility is, much less how it can be properly measured. And I think it’s psychologically unrealistic to think you can graph the same sort of linear metric of pleasure/happiness/fulfillment/whatever else onto everyone.
  • Disturbing human rights implications. Say you govern a small town in which all of the townspeople are united in favor of lynching one of their neighbors. You know the total amount of utility the townspeople will get from murdering their neighbor exceeds any amount of utility the potential victim might be able to obtain over the duration of the rest of his life. What do you do?
  • The utility monster. In a similar vein as the last objection, what would a utilitarian do with an individual who was simply capable of generating more utility out of the consumption of resources than anyone else in the whole village? Give him everything he desires, even if that leaves everyone else with nothing?

In response to those second two objections, a lot of modern utilitarians subscribe to something called “rule utilitarianism,” which puts certain constraints on what can be done to maximize utility. So, for example, the governor of the small town in that second example might be a rule utilitarian who favors maximizing utility at all costs, except when it violates his “no lynching” rule.

The problem is, once you start setting up rules outside of the utilitarian framework, you have to produce some metaethical account of where those rules come from—and suddenly, you’re in the same position as non-utilitarians, trying to locate some outside justification for your ethical code. The closest I’ve seen to a compelling justification for those rules is an appeal to intuition, which I find kind of laughable. “Intuition” as a final justification is the worst kind of hand waving in philosophy; it’s exactly equivalent to saying, I am pulling this entirely out of my ass, but shut up.

Anyway, setting up arbitrary codes to protect utilitarianism from its own logical conclusions doesn’t do very much to solve the underlying problem from which my latter two objections stem: this is a philosophy that does little to acknowledge the natural separations between persons. There’s no math in the world that can take all of our wants, hopes, desires and fleeting pleasures and add them up into some sort of aggregate value.

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Substantive Constructivism and Rights
May 26, 2010

John Rawls
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Clearly I didn’t do an adequate job of explaining my position on rights in this post, leading one commenter to suggest that my view came down to suggesting that rights and laws regarding rights are basically identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that the way governments respect human rights can be evaluated by an independent standard; I just think that evaluation needs to be done without reference to supposed natural laws of which we have no evidence.

In that post I referred to constructivism as “the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society.” What I left unsaid is what those terms are. And while there are a lot of different forms of constructivism, the one I tend to favor when it comes to political philosophy is the Rawlsian concept of the original position.

This is the view that John Rawls (pictured)—the founder of modern political liberalism (which is to say philosophical political liberalism, which is not the same thing as what we normally understand to be liberalism)—outlines in his landmark work A Theory of Justice. He writes that the ideally fair society is one in which all the laws and structure of government are decided and mutually agreed upon by its citizenry while this citizenry is in the original position. To be in the original position is to be behind something called the veil of ignorance; it means that while you are capable of rational reflection, you have no idea where you will fit into this society. You have no idea what your race, social class, income, religion, gender, sexual orientation (which I don’t think Rawls mentions, but I’m going to throw it in there anyway), etc. will be. Any rational individual in this position, Rawls argues, will advocate for laws and policies that are fair to even the worst off in the society, because they know that could be them.

I’m not completely onboard with everything Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, but I think the concept of the original position is a good starting point for thinking about what an ideally fair society, one that respects human rights, would look like.

Incidentally, Rawls’ original position is what Sharon Street—an NYU professor, and, I think, one of the leading explicators of constructivism—would call restricted substantive constructivism. In other words, it is a theory of ethics that applies to a restricted field (politics), and is substantive in that you can’t rationally try to construct ethics within this system without (or at least Rawls would argue) ultimately deciding that universal fairness and respect for everyone’s rights are good things.

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May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

Reader lulwa asks:

Where does freedom of speach starts and where does it ends ?

Like with every question in philosophy, there’s no single question to this. A lot of philosophers would even reject the premise—when we talk about freedom of speech, we’re talking about a right, and there’s by no means anything approaching universal agreement that rights even exist.

The very notion of rights is actually a fairly recent innovation, one that has its roots in Enlightenment-era thought. I think the first mention of rights as a concept was made in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (first published in 1651), in which Hobbes suggests that we have natural rights which we forfeit to a supreme leader in exchange for protection and various other benefits.

Personally, I’m a fan of the concept of rights, largely because I don’t think you can have a functional democracy without them. But the argument for natural rights is pretty dubious. Very few proponents of rights would dispute the existence of a universal right to a fair trial, but I don’t think it’s coherent to argue that this is a right that exists outside of human law and society, or somehow prior to the existence of courts that can provide for a fair trial.

So my own view on rights is a form of constructivism, which is the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society. Rights exist because there is a framework for them to exist in, and they expand along with society’s capacity to accommodate for them.

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