Human Rights as Democratic Conversation Starters

Omri Boehm has written a troubling op-ed in the Stone summarizing the failure of human rights discourses to actuate political institutions, entitled “Can Refugees Have Human Rights?” Boehm worries the answer is “No.” Citing the most famous lines from Hannah Arendt’s discussion of refugees ( “If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who … are nothing but human beings.”) Boehm diagnoses a failure of modernity to find a metaphysical grounding for human rights, and suggests that this metaphysical failure is the blame for the institutional failure to protect refugees:

The truth is that we have never managed to vouch for human rights in sensible modern terms. One common strategy has been to appeal to nature rather than to God — on this view, human beings have inalienable natural rights — but in order to accept this alternative one must ascribe to nature qualities that science tells us it doesn’t have. […]

Modern political thinkers can meaningfully speak of the state as an instrument for defending the interests of its citizens. When they speak of the state as defending justice, or universal human rights, they are missing the necessary concepts.

This is a common refrain, and indeed it seems to have motivated more than its fair share of philosophical articles and monographs arguing for a return to metaphysical foundations long since rejected. But as I read Boehm, he does not mean to call for such a return. Rather, the failure of political theory in this regard has led to the failure of rhetoric and action. Indeed Boehm seems to regret that these categories can find no purchase among human beings who understand themselves to be the result of evolution, that there is no political theology worthy of the grand gestures of institutional inclusion declared as universal human rights. Call this tragic naturalism: after millennia of supernatural universalism, we can no longer delude ourselves. But we’ll probably always pine for the good old days.

Responding to Boehm, Eric Schliesser argues that the human rights tradition has offered itself as an alternative to democratic politics, calling human rights “political conversation stoppers.” He goes on to explain:

“Once they are invoked matters of principle are settled, and put aside, and all that remains is the technocratic discussion of solving the means by which to implement them. That is, while we often claim that rights generate duties, politically they are designed to generate obedience.”

On Schliessers’ view, human rights (unlike ordinary political rights) are meant to be uncontestable barriers to further inquiry; we must not quibble about slavery or bodily inviolability, but instead get busy abolishing slavery and securing bodily inviolability. Whereas ordinary political rights are constantly the subject of contestation and no entitlement is absolute.

This seems wrong to me. On my view, human rights aren’t political conversation stoppers, they’re a prerequisite for certain kinds of political conversations at all. Indeed, human rights are so foundational to certain kinds of political conversations that many people lay claim to them even where they don’t exist so as to begin or continue a difficult political conversation.

Let’s return to Arendt for a moment: in her analysis of the origins of totalitarianism, she spots a fervor for nation-states the was supported in part by the conviction that “people
 rights.” If the only would-be “human” rights that exist are actually national rights, justiciable in one or another courtroom, then every human being needs a nation-state to protect her. “Human” rights sound nice, but they’re not the sorts of things that a lawyer can win a case on, and when you’re fighting the political head-winds of populist anti-migrant rhetoric, you need the courts.

So human rights are metaphysically ungrounded and politically ineffective. Too often we’re only able to give them salience retrospectively, in the context of historical genocide. Worst of all, just where you need them most, like when you belong to a group that has lost its political power–and must seek recognition for your vulnerability and powerlessness–you will find that no one is listening.

Now, it’s not at all clear why philosophers bemoan the metaphysics in situations like this. No one believes that the lack of a metaphysical ground is causing the political inefficacy of human rights. In the hypothetical world where a God exists to supply normative justification for a divine moral law that demands refugees be fed, sheltered, and protected, we would still have a Syrian refugee crisis. We would still have collective action problems, and states trying to avoid their fair share of supporting their burden of stateless persons, and budget limitations, and the fundamental fact that we only half-heartedly want to do the thing God demands. “Make me a humanitarian, Lord, but not yet! (And not before you make my economic competitors humanitarians, too.)” And we would still have difficulty determining which rights God intended to write into the structure of reality and who was charged to protect them.

Meanwhile, tragic naturalism may have some glimmers of hope. For one thing, it draws our attention to the ways in which many rights-claims start off ungrounded and develop institutional and political efficacy over time and through effort. The rights-claims in the Declaration of Independence are rhetorically grounded by God’s creation, certainly, but they were just as obviously not rights that any group of Christians has been able to find the normative purchase on previously.

It has become common, then, to point out that most rights-claims are self-founding. It’s the rights-claim that grounds the right. Of course, this suggests that human rights-claims are not actually universal  or human rights but instead political rights-claims that seek to sidestep the claimant’s lack of the appropriate codified legal status. But it’s not clear why we’d reach for politics (and its “rights of citizens”) in those instances, since most who require the protection of a scheme of universal human rights are equally well barred from political participation.

Ayten Gündoğdu gives an excellent account of this in her recent book Rightlessness in an Age of Rights. Human rights have always had an aspirational quality, as we have seen among the Sans Papier movement in France where those designated economic migrants (and thus ineligible for refugee-status) continue to demand documentation and regularization. The movement has all the signs of a successful set of ungrounded rights: it is a political movement whose very existence assumes the capacity to engage in politics is not simply a matter for citizens.  It is an illegitimate demand that seeks to legitimate itself and the demanders. In this sense, human rights-claimants are always engaged in a kind of political foundation, creating the institutional basis for their own eventual juridical protection.

Of course, such efforts at political foundation often fail. This isn’t a triumphalist account of human rights, as if the problem was resolved in 1948 and need not be revisited. We shouldn’t ignore that the refugee who points to her own vulnerability to justify her rights-claims (while failing somehow to qualify as an asylum-seeker) currently lacks institutional grounding, and that the migrancy crisis will only grow: 232 million people belonged to that category in 2013, and an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their home since the beginning of the crisis.

When stateless migrants interrupt previous metaphysical and institutional conceptions of human rights by making unrecognized human rights-claims, this interruption does not stop a democratic conversation but start one. If what we want out of human rights is a way to bend democratic polities to some “higher law,” we’ll be disappointed. There never was a real conflict between democracy and human rights, and this goes back to the reason naturalism seems tragic: we’re disillusioned because the story was better than reality could ever be. But there’s no tragedy if we treat human rights as an opportunity to exchange reasons (including ungrounded reasons!) with our fellow-citizens (documented and undocumented) and engage in powerful acts of institutional co-creation with our vulnerable neighbors.

Are gun suicides gun deaths?

After the President asked news organizations to compare deaths by firearms with deaths from terrorism, many did. It’s pretty striking, here’s the chart from CNN:



But not all of the charts looked the same. Vox’s chart excluded suicides, and thus came to a much smaller (though still striking) result:

gun homicides v terrorism deaths

And this raises an important question. Should we include suicides with a gun in our calculations of gun deaths? Asked that way, the answer seems obvious: of course they should count, a gun death is a gun death. But I think there are important reasons to exclude them. Suicides make up 2/3 of all firearms deaths, but those deaths are probably not preventable by restricting access to guns.

Here’s the argument in outline: people commit suicide with guns because that’s the dominant image of suicide in our culture. Serious restrictions on gun control would change the dominant image of suicide in our culture, and potential suicides would choose different methods.

And yet there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, so it’s important to think that evidence through. In many cultures, targeting the means of suicide led to major reductions in suicide. We know that when we interview survivors, we find that 70% spend less than an hour planning, so they’re mostly using ready-to-hand methods. Britain reduced its suicide rate by changing the kinds of gas they used to power their ovens. San Francisco hopes to prevent suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge with a steel net.

And yet there are many differences between survivors and successful suicides. Successful suicides plan more carefully, and for longer, choosing deadlier methods. Successful suicides are generally older and maler than survivors. In short, successful suicides seem to mean it more than unsuccessful ones, they make determined choices based on social facts rather than psychological whims. So they won’t be deterred if forced to change methods; we need to change the social facts instead!

The National Academies of Science concluded much the same thing when last they evaluated these questions: “Some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population.” The difference is between micro-reductions (fewer deaths at the Golden Gate bridge) and macro-reductions (fewer deaths per 100,000 people.) We can make lots of changes at the margin without touching the infra-marginal causes of suicide, which are likely not tied to method.

This is an example of Simpson’s Paradox: you can reduce the marginal propensity to commit suicide, even make small, local reductions in those numbers, but without affecting the overall rate of suicides. And the same thing goes in the opposite direction: increasing access to guns might lead to short-term and local effects on suicide, but we compensate in various ways. Otherwise, it would be hard to make sense of the fact that our suicide rate is quite low while we have more guns than anyone in the world. We’re in the middle of the pack for the OECD, and France, Finland, and Japan all beat us:

suicide rates

Why is the US suicide rate so low, given the overwhelming number of guns we have? Guns seem to massively increase our homicide rate but not our suicide rate, so what’s going on there? For the largest group of suicides: people basically understand the lethality of the method they choose, and they use less-lethal methods if they don’t want to succeed. So suicide success mostly tracks desire, not access.

Around the world suicides use different methods:

“Poisoning by pesticide was common in many Asian countries and in Latin America; poisoning by drugs was common in both Nordic countries and the United Kingdom. Hanging was the preferred method of suicide in eastern Europe, as was firearm suicide in the United States and jumping from a high place in cities and urban societies such as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China.”

So while of course, there’s some feasibility to reducing access to pesticides and firearms, there’s little hope of eliminating access to drugs, high places, or potential nooses.  Britain removed a major non-violent method, and saw serious reductions. We can do the same by targeting non-violent suicide methods. But the big group of suicides have a high transition rate among violent methods (hanging, firearms, jumping) while the smaller group of suicides have low transition rates among non-violent methods (ovens, drug/pesticide poisoning.)

So you can best reduce suicide by regulating access to pesticides and drugs, but regulating access to firearms leads to substitute violent methods. There’s even the risk that though relatively few people will transition from non-violent to violent methods, they’ll do so at a much higher success rate. Britain avoided that fate with its coal gas oven transition, but further targeting prescription drug poisoning might yield different results.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to make suicide more difficult; I endorse strategies that might force rethinking, like waiting periods. But I’m not convinced it’s possible to deter the determined. So in that sense, we should probably treat gun suicides more as suicides and less as gun deaths. The best evidence is that policies designed to reduce our (already low) suicide rate will target social facts, about masculinity, bonding social capital, mental health and self-worth, while the policies best tailored to reduce our (quite high) homicide rates should target a single variable: access to firearms.

An American With a Gun Kills Students, Again

I have a two year old daughter, and I’m overwhelmed every time this happens with fear and anger. I teach at a university, and I feel special fear every time there is an active shooter reported, though I quickly cover it with bravado and statistical arguments. (There were two on my old campus in a single semester a few years back.) Guns make me scared, I don’t want to be anywhere near them. I even think it’s creepy that police officers carry them.

And yet, I’m never very happy with the way these discussions go. More than perhaps any other policy discussion, there’s a palpable sense of paralysis; I have more hope for a basic income guarantee than for substantial and effective gun control. For one thing, everyone who talks about gun control of any sort has to recognize that most there are almost as many guns as people in the US. The horse has left the barn, Pandora has opened the pithos, the djinn has escaped the lamp, etc. Plus it’s impossible to amend the 2nd Amendment under anything like current partisan political conditions. So our response has to be geared towards that. It’s got to involve action and organization and policy savvy.

The NRA’s power is not primarily money: it’s a large, active, and single-issue-voting membership list. The money is comparatively small and irrelevant: all you can do with money is buy ads to affect votes. The NRA already *has* votes, and gun control advocates don’t. For instance, most liberals who want more gun control would still be happy to have Bernie Sanders as President, despite his stance on guns.

So when the President says we should become single issue voters, he’s saying we should choose guns over finance sector regulation, campaign finance consistency, real attention to inequality, pro-choice judges, funding for Planned Parenthood, climate change, and many other things that matter.

That’s what a single-issue voter is: would you vote for a member of the other party if she had a stronger pro-gun-control record than the incumbent from your party? Because NRA members will, even if they mostly don’t have to: they will primary out a viable candidate and accept a loss, which comes to the same thing.

Despite the fact that gun control proponents are in the majority, we just don’t want it enough. We have a minor desire to see fewer mass shootings; gun owners have a strong desire to support untrammeled access to guns. Forget what people say: look at what they do. And we just don’t do much about guns.

And even if we did take that single-issue stance, there’d still be a gun for every man, woman, and child in the US for decades. So we’ll continue to be a country where assholes with guns kill our children and neighbors. And Black men will continue to die at twice the rate of whites, because we talk about school shootings and automatic weapons, but not handguns used in assaults and homicides.

I want to hope that someone will give an answer to the question of what we should do–what my readers and neighbors and friends and I should do–to actually change the terrible, atrocity-ridden status quo. And yet a sober calculations suggests that despair and impotent anger is the appropriate response. The love and hope we nurture can’t reach these issues: the guns will always be a background condition of our lives, a potential risk, yet–if we are white and comfortable–a statistically unlikely one.

It’s like Camus describes in La Peste:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Arendt’s Considered View on Evil and its Banality

“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality.’ Only the good has depth and can be radical.” (Letter to Gershom Scholem July 24, 1963)

Kierkegaard on Assistant Professors

“Yes, you assistant professor, of all the loathsome inhumans the most loathsome….”

“A ludicrous sullenness and paragraph-pomposity that give an assistant professor a remarkable likeness to a Holberg bookkeeper are called earnestness by assistant professors….”

“When an assistant professor, every time his coattails reminds him to say something, says de omnibus dubitandum est [everything must be doubted] and briskly writes away on a system in which there is sufficient internal evidence in every other sentence that the man has never doubted anything-he is not considered lunatic.”

But the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that.

“There is nothing at all for assistant professors to do. The assistance of these gentlemen is needed here no more than than a maiden needs a barber to shave her beard and no more than a bald man needs a barber to ‘style’ his hair.”

“It can be assumed that in the present generation every tenth person is an assistant professor….”