Do Human Rights Do Too Much?

Equality And Partiality IX Chapter Thirteen

The chapter opens with a pair of dramatic assumptions: there are human rights, and they are currently well-protected. They include rights to medical care. These, as is well-known from the work of Buchanan and others, are in fact unfeasible. Either the level to be provided to everyone is low, in which case some will use private resources to improve on the public provision, or it is high, in which case it is unaffordable. In addition, some people are so unwell, indeed terminally so, that their health-care could cost infinite amounts. And all of that of course continues to ignore global inequalities. No mention is made of anyone’s putative right to retain their legitimately earned income and not have it arrogated by the state in pursuit of Utopian ends.

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[In general, my view is that the number of `rights’ is to be minimized in order to treat them properly as serious entities. Multiplying rights maximizes situations of conflicts of rights. We should aim instead for a small number taken very seriously, if we are to have any at all.]

Hume is cited with approval to the effect that it is `natural’ for people to uphold rights associated with personal security. [This may be true, but how would we distinguish between a situation in which they were upheld as a result of nature or were on the other hand a product of culture? Or more simply, just pragmatism. Maybe there are no rights at all, but I refrain from physical violence merely as a way of reducing the probability that such means are used against me.]

There are rights against undue interference by the state in the lives of individuals, and to have the state prevent such interference by one individual against another. The exact form of property rights will depend on the long-term economic benefits as well as the protection of individual liberty. [These of course may radically conflict, though one may hope not. It appears that strong individual property rights are a key to overall economic development; one issue hampering economic progress in developing nations has been lack of title to land. Improving this facilitates lending against collateral. But we still need to ask what would happen in the case of conflict. If there were a choice between protecting individual liberty and overall economic progress, would we not have to choose the former? To make the other decision would involve i). official certainty on the likely future effects of individual economic choices, which seems unlikely to be available and ii). mean that we vetted economic decisions for rationality. That might mean the officials would decide what was economically rational and what was unjustified risk-taking, and experience suggests that public officials are exactly the wrong people to make such decisions. Indeed, one might suspect that they entered public life precisely to avoid such an arena, seeing that their talents did not lie in the appropriate areas. Nagel does not say, but we can imagine that in such a conflict scenario, he would fall into the `official’ camp rather than the `individual camp’.]

The state has negative responsibilities to prevent violations it could have avoided. [This requires specification. Recently the British Prime Minister apologized for less than excellent situations obtaining in respect of the evacuation of Libya for UK citizens. Now, if those people were sent there by an oil company, one might expect that company to make arrangements for their return. But why should the state have a responsibility to bring people home who went there of their own choice aware of the risks? Why should we all cover everyone else for all risks?]

The test for limits is that they should be such as to not be capable of reasonable rejection by anyone who `honestly seeks to accommodate everyone else’s point of view’. [Why is this right? Are there not a group of people whose point of view is essentially that everyone else should support them and protect them from all risks despite the fact that they make essentially no contribution at all? Why should we accommodate that? If not, does not Nagel’s entire program fail because unanimity will never be available?]

Nagel `argues’ that no-one could reasonably reject a system that included taxation, because taxation is `not an intolerable violation’ of personal freedom. [Why is this not an argument of the form `p therefore p’? And do we not just accept taxation because it has always been there? And where are the limits? We already know that Nagel’s preferred system of providing — just — health-care to everyone at public expense is unaffordable so how would we provide the other goods as well?]

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There is no expectation in advance that a society will not restrict voluntary transfers. [Why not? Why is there not an expectation in advance that a society will not restrict anything voluntary unless it impinges on the freedom of someone else?]

Nagel on balance is against restriction of freedom of expression where this is ostensibly done to prevent expression of sexist, racist or contra-religious views. [These laws exist in the UK, which would presumably mean I was committing an offense when I stated in a previous post that in my view, religious people must suffer from some form of cognitive deficit in the area of evidence assessment and would therefore in general be less suitable for occupations involving that, such as scientifically-based ones. I again think there is a mistake made in lumping together responses to the religious views of persons, which they have chosen, with responses to their sex or race. Not only have they not chosen these characteristics, but there is little or no evidence that those characteristics will in general affect employment skills in a way that could usefully be taken into account.]

Nagel deprecates the involvement of the state in suppressing sexual behavior that is offensive to the majority. [I have a rare point of total agreement with him here — but surely it prompts the question as to why he is so enthusiastic about interference and suppression of the individual in the economic sphere where he accepts this is inadvisable in the sexual one. Presumably he would respond that sexual behavior does not harm or indeed affect anyone not involved, whereas my economic decisions will `harm’ others because everyone is `involved’ in some tenuous way.]

It is conceded that conservatives do have an interest in preventing the behavior of others that offend them because of the `cultural climate’ thereby created. [This is extraordinary, and dramatically at odds with the previous paragraph. We can see that Nagel’s brief conversion to liberty was at most skin-deep.] The conservatives needs the right cultural climate such that they can `inculcate’ their values in their children [ — this is deeply disturbing and totalitarian, and the whole idea that anyone can have anything like a right to control everyone else in order to protect their environment from pollution has already sold the pass.]

The question becomes one of whether the `control’ of sexual behavior should be for majority decision, or a protected area of individual rights. Homosexuality is the test case, and Nagel says persons could reasonably reject a system that prohibited it [ — with which we can agree without even going as far as questions of enforceability –] because of the personal costs to homosexuals. These costs are not outweighed by the benefits to conservatives [ — even if we accept this type of trade-off at all.] It is noted that the problem with conservatives is that they have convictions about how others should live. [This is the appeal through consistency to libertarianism, which suggests that the state should be equally uninvolved in interfering with the individual in both social and economic arenas. It is strange that conservatives wish to protect liberty in one sphere and not in the other. It is also strange that Nagel does not notice that he is making the counterpart error.]

It is stated that one murder may not be committed even to prevent five other murders. [Perhaps this is the type of case where argument is not the correct response, but other views do exist and the trolley problems produce plenty of discussion.] The argument for this is that such views lend a protected status to individuals [ — which nevertheless does not extent to their economic lives.]

Nagel will choose an increase in his likelihood of being murdered instead of abolition of his legal right not to be murdered. [This seems bizarre. Do dead people care about their legal status? Again, there seems to be a strange concentration on the abstract as against the real, the impersonal standpoint as against being alive.]

The stability of illegitimate states is noted. [The questioning of this is one of the major implications of current developments in the Middle East.] This stability follows from the tendency of people to follow rules. [Heidegger. Should we not fight against such tendencies? Otherwise we are assuming the status quo is always right.] And this leads to `the German problem’, to which the solution is democracy. [Hitler was elected though.] We should aim for a situation in which officials do not avail themselves of a `just following orders’ defense.

Chapter Fourteen

Different conceptions of value will lead to conflict over what the state should support [ — unless we side-step this by taking the obvious precaution of removing the state from enforcement of values.] And some of these conflicts are too severe to be resolved in the political arena, for example religious ones. This leads to the idea that some domains should be protected. [Again, why only some? And which ones? And can I have a religion that has `taxation is theft’ as a holy tenet?]

Defenders of toleration often in fact support the behaviors that would be banned by intolerant legislation, so those against a ban on homosexual behavior or contraception do not see any problems with those things. [This is true. And so the response should be that banning any behavior is to be avoided — right up to the point where someone else is severely affected by it.] This is `against religion and in favor of sex’. The contradiction for Nagel is that liberalism affects to protect religions. [Not my version. But Nagel is right to point up the inconsistency. The fact that some religions are opposed to homosexual behavior is an additional reason to ignore them and remove protections against discrimination for religious people that are deserved by persons who fall victim to sexism and racism.]

It is `politically suicidal’ to defend toleration by attacking religion [ — this may be a US-centered view. Toleration of religious intolerance is another reason why Nagel’s dream of finding a system that no-one could reasonably reject is hopeless, unless we agree that religious principles are unreasonable. Which seems fine, but again, hard to sell in the US.]

Why should I take the impersonal standpoint and accept the lending of some weight to religious or moral principles when I think these same principles are wrong? [Good question.] It implies impartiality between different conceptions of the good. The defense relies on Kant’s second formulation, that we should treat no-one merely as a means, and we would be doing that if we failed to obtain unanimity.

There are four reasons for coercion: i). those accepted, ii). those that would be accepted by the reasonable, iii), those that would be accepted under an accepted principle and iv). those that are not accepted by an individual even if everyone else disagrees. Type iv). is exemplified by enforcement of religious or sexual orthodoxy. [Is state enforcement of atheism an enforcement of religious orthodoxy? Let us worry about that once we have eliminated state support for religion.]

Nagel believes that there is a distinction between cases when opponents may be described as irrational. Those who do not accept the germ theory of disease are irrational, but atheists may not describe religious people as irrational. [Why not? Belief in the germ theory rests on evidence. Religious belief does not. Why is not respect of evidence evidence of rationality?]

The role-reversal argument is appealed to as a standard for judging ethical theories — how would I like it if someone did that to me? [I would not like it, presumably. But that happens all the time. So is not the answer to reduce the amount of interaction or required interaction with others? And that means more personal autonomy.]

Restriction of freedom of worship would indeed appear justified to a religious person, because those who do not follow the true faith are damned. [Is this not further evidence of the insanity of the religious and the inadvisability of taking any account of their views?]

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Is there a difference between accepting democratically decided-upon policies in defense, say, and accepting a similarly democratic policy opposing atheism? [Yes. The latter would be an argument against democracy. Why do we not have prayer instead of tanks? Alternatively, we could very simply insist that all democratic policies should be evidence-based. If a majority of a population is religious, that is another reason not to let them vote.]

Altruism generates conflicting standpoints. [Commit it then to the flames.]

Democracy is to be saved by removing conflict from the arena of discussion. [So how do we deal with what people care about?]

A common standpoint can be reached in some controversial areas such as defense because everyone sees some policy is needed. [No. A policy is arrived at despite immense disagreement because everyone sees that in fact their ability to do anything about it is effectively zero.] Religion differs from this and so everyone should be left to follow their own path. [Again, here but not economically.]

This tolerant regime could be seen as a form of coercion, being a kind of liberal sect. Would that not destroy its legitimacy? The answer is that a liberal state avoids imposing a conception of the good. [Why does this permit the state to employ taxation then?] Legitimacy trumps helping others when they may not want to be `helped’. [Why do I have to help them financially when they do want that?]

Liberal toleration may allow the spread of religious orthodoxy, and so it may not be neutral as between different conceptions of the good. [Is this not an argument for doing nothing, since we cannot choose a positive position if we cannot even be sure that avoiding taking a position is neutral? At least let us not be guilty of actively choosing something wrong, even if we are already.]

Public support of an established church is wrong. [So we have plenty of work to do here. Freedom from taxation of religious charities would have to go, and the current fashion for faith-based initiatives also.]

The state should not be involved in activity which conflicts with the views of citizens about the meaning of life. [This already takes a position by assuming that there is one.]

There are some things the police should not do because individuals should not do them. [The police, though, are trained specialists expressly intended to do just things that I should not do. The power of citizen’s arrest, while it exists, is used very infrequently for various reasons, but one of them will be the general lack of understanding of the law.]

The state cannot treat criminals harshly even where doing so would reduce crime. [How do we know this? What is the argument?]

Some conceptions of the good cannot be accommodated within the Kantian position, and Nagel hopes that such fanaticism will eventually die out. [I hope not.]

Next Section: The Opposition Of Value Systems

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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