Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On the Recent Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate About Basic Income

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail)

This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.:  The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.

The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many circles for co-authoring The Bell Curve, and labor leader Andrew Stern. These two make surprising debate partners, but of course, that’s part of the fun!

The debaters against the motion are Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economic advisors to the Obama administration, and both more on the liberal / progressive end of the economic spectrum, which also adds to the interesting contrasts between audience expectations and the arguments made.

Here’s the summary of the debate from the IQ2 website:

Imagine getting a check from the government every month. $600 guaranteed. It’s happening in Finland, where a pilot program is being launched to test what’s known as a “universal basic income.” As technology transforms the workplace, jobs and income will become less reliable. The idea is that a universal basic income could serve as a tool to combat poverty and uncertainty in a changing society, and provide a cushion that empowers workers, giving them latitude to take risks in the job market. But some argue a guaranteed income would take away the incentive to work, waste money on those who don’t need it, and come at the expense of effective programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?

I’ve written about basic income before in light of Thomas Paine’s case for a social welfare system, broadly distributed to the point that we’d call it basic income today, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice of 1796. I’m broadly sympathetic to the case for basic income especially insofar as I’m convinced by two of his major arguments.

One, Paine argues that the right to private property is not an intrinsic right or derived from nature, or even from moral convictions about deservingness or our duties toward those less fortunate. Rather, property rights are artificial rights we’ve created for efficiency’s sake: it’s a way to incentivize people to be as productive as possible to the benefit of both individual and society. But whatever efficiencies property rights promote, Paine observes just as we observe now, they too often deprive people of the very thing they promise to provide. Economies based on property rights deny most people direct access to the world’s natural resources while sometimes failing to reward them proportionally.

This is true not only of those who produce the most necessary, useful goods and services such as growing and preparing food, building and maintaining our cities, towns, and homes, and caring for the disabled and sick; they are often the ones who receive the lowest wages. In the meantime, others who create such frivolous and even arguably harmful things as casinos, violent video games, and poor quality trinkets that become trash almost as soon as they’re made can often make money hand over fist. Some people are not able to make money even if they were willing: they may be disabled or aged, or the skilled work they’ve done all their lives becomes obsolete. Worst of all, those who raise children, care for the disabled and aged, and otherwise keep the home generally receive no pay, though their work benefits society most of all. The amount of money we can bring in generally determines the resources we have access to, so if we have no money, we have no property. Property rights, then, guarantee us the right to property without any consideration as to whether or not we actually end up be able to obtain or keep any. Therefore, Paine argues, we owe every person compensation for denying them their natural right to equal access to the world’s resources.

Two, Paine argues that a universal income is better than discretionary welfare, such as that based solely on need, because it prevents the inevitable jealousies and complaints of unfairness that can erode social cohesion and undermine mutual trust. If everyone starts out at the same basic level, we may not have all of the same chances in life just as we don’t now, advantages or disadvantages that we can’t do much about: we may have rich parents, poor parents, or none at all; we may be able-bodied or we may not; we may be beautiful, smart, or have other attributes that society rewards. But, we’ll all have the same basic chance that we can give one another: the freedom and well-being guaranteed by a basic level of economic security.

But back to the debate…. Why this digression, you might ask? I return to Paine because he makes the first sustained modern argument (that I’m aware of) in favor of a basic income and because his basic points, or closely related ones, are brought up throughout this debate. In the question and answer session, Andrew Stern refers to the way perceived unfairness, such as Paine discusses, has long politically undermined need-based programs, from publicly-funded unemployment benefits to health care insurance for those with low income. Stern also points out that many people already enjoy ‘undeserved’ basic income, such as those born to parents who can afford to provide it. If we have no problem with those people reaping the benefits of work they didn’t do, why not everyone? Charles Murray adds the element of personal responsibility to the question of perceived unfairness of needs-based welfare. If everyone were given the same basic level of resources, people could no longer justly claim victimhood for not having the same chances as everyone else. If we collectively provide the same benefits to everyone, we can hold people to a basic equal accountability for all who could work and contribute more than they do.

Murray, as you may guess from his emphasis on opportunities for traditional marriage and the preeminence of personal responsibility, is much more conservative than the other participants in the debate, and introduces a free market argument that many political conservatives might like just as well as pro-labor liberals and progressives. This argument is founded on the importance of competition in a well-functioning economy. To harness the benefits of competition, Murray proposes that if people have ‘walking – away’ money, employers will have to compete with one another for employees, and in doing so, they will have to innovate to make jobs appealing. Employers would have to offer good wages, provide a pleasant and safe working environment, and make the work seem meaningful and appreciated. This is a sort of competition that serves drives wages, standards, and productivity up, not sending wages and working conditions spiraling in the race to the bottom that so many unregulated job markets, mostly competing to lower prices, have exhibited throughout the history of capitalism.

Jared Bernstein repeats the argument throughout the debate, like a mantra, that a dollar given to someone that doesn’t need it is a dollar taken away from someone that does. Many in the audience seem to find this argument convincing, but I don’t, at least without much more justification than he provides. For one thing, neither Bernstein nor his debate partner Jason Furman addresses the vast expenditures of time and money of a bureaucracy required to administer large-scale need-based welfare. It’s expensive for government as well as for individuals, who are required to provide proofs of their need, which is multi-dimensional and subjective and therefore difficult and time-consuming to demonstrate. (Murray does address problems with this kind of bureaucracy, but he emphasizes its unpleasantness and the way it re-introduces a form of serfdom, creating a class of people whose freedom is limited by this system.) For another thing, neither Bernstein nor Furman directly addresses the fact that universal basic income would vastly expand the number of people with disposable income for the first time, much more vastly than needs-based programs do. Most of this money, in turn, would go straight back into the economy, rather than into the ever-inflating bank accounts of the ever-fewer, ever-wealthier wealthiest individuals who are now gobbling up an ever-larger share of the economic pie. Our targeted redistribution system has been entirely unable to resolve this inefficiency, and in fact, may exacerbate it.

The side arguing in favor of the motion, which, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m more sympathetic to for aforementioned reasons, does not, in the end, convince the audience. They’re handily defeated, as the side arguing against the motion not only convinces most of the undecided but also wins over some of the basic income supporters. I suspect that Murray hurts his side a bit by spending too much time on arguments that I think are beside the point, such as whether more people could afford to get married (it doesn’t have to be expensive!) and on very subtle, not-very-well expressed arguments that were lost among the rest. But I would like to hear another major debate in which basic income is supported by stronger arguments, more convincing answers to objections, and most of all, better evidence. As Stern points out, there are small-scale and short-term experiments in basic income happening all over, in Alaska, Finland, and Toronto, for example, but the results are not in yet. I agree that such a major social program should be rolled out with some caution, given the potential fallout from unforeseen as well as foreseen potential side effects. But perhaps smaller experiments can’t reveal the benefits that a complete reinvention of a large economy would reveal, especially if effectiveness is entirely a matter of scale. For example, such a well-balanced, sturdy, and beautifully functioning thing as a termite mound couldn’t happen without an incredibly large number of factors contributing, namely the weather, millions of termites, many square miles of dirt, and so on. If you took a small pile of dirt and a small number of termites, a well-functioning termite mound would not result.

Our American re-invention of government was another such experiment founded on the idea that people can govern themselves and on the ideal of universal human rights (the ideal, mind you, not yet the reality). Many societies before and for some time since had tried to correct abuses and oppressions with one reform here, one reform there, or with a wholesale chaotic and violent overthrow after societal cohesion had already collapsed through famine and extreme corruption (such as, famously, the French Revolution). But it took a large number of fair-minded people to come together and lay the foundation for an entirely new system of government based on the ideal that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or as John Locke originally formulated it, life, liberty, and property. Or in the case of universal basic income, to actual property.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.

The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, March 22, 2017

Bad Things Happen for a Reason, and Other Idiocies of Theodicy, by Jason Blum

Ancient of Days by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

The problem of evil is a classic dilemma in the philosophy of religion. The relative ease with which the problem can be stated belies the depth of the challenge that it presents to traditional monotheism. Roughly, it can be summarised as follows:

If God is omnipotent, then He has the power to create a world without evil.

If God is omniscient, then no moment of evil goes divinely unnoticed.

If God is omnibenevolent, then He has the desire to rid the world of evil.

Therefore, the world should be perfect, or at least free of undeserved suffering. Yet, a cursory glance reveals a world that clearly is not inherently just or free from undeserved suffering.

Hence, the problem of evil: how can a perfect deity allow such injustice and rampant evil in the world that He created?

Many solutions to the problem of evil – called ‘theodicies’ – have been proposed. There is the argument of free will, attributing evil not to God but to humanity’s misuse of its own freedom. Others have argued that certain kinds of moral goodness – compassion, for instance – are not possible in a world without evil, and the value of these types of goodness outweighs the evils on which their existence depends. There is also what I call ‘the big-picture defence’, claiming that evil only appears as such from our limited perspectives. Were we able to see things from the perspective of God, we would see that, in the grand scheme of things, every apparent evil plays a necessary role in making the world more perfect.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s simple solution was to argue in 1710 that this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz depicts God assessing in His infinite mind all the various possible worlds that He could create. Because He is a loving God, the one He chooses to create is surely the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Leibniz’s argument suggests that it is ultimately meaningless to complain about this evil or that injustice; because this is the best of all possible worlds. We should take comfort in the fact that everything is, in the final analysis, as good as it can possibly be.

Voltaire derided Leibniz’s solution, writing a book to satirise it. In Candide (1759), the eponymous hero and his companions stumble through the world, constantly beset by bad luck and predations. They witness even greater tragedies in the world around them. Their troubles arise from the uncaring forces of the natural world, but also from the naiveté of Candide, who is constantly assured by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. In juxtaposing vivid depictions of myriad cruelties and Professor Pangloss’s blind insistence on the ultimate goodness of the universe, Voltaire demonstrates that there is a poignant reality to the experience of suffering that cannot be rationalised away. The claim that justice naturally inheres in the order of things does not bear scrutiny.

There is also a profound moral danger to certain types of theodicy.

The essential difficulty of the problem of evil is how to reconcile its apparent existence with a loving, all-powerful deity. One popular method has been to reassert the inherent justice of the world, implying, if not explicitly claiming, the righteousness of the suffering that we witness throughout it. The result is, essentially, a theological form of victim-blaming.

For example, the American evangelical preacher Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – which killed between 220,000-316,000 people, and injured another 300,000 – as the fault of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti had apparently sworn a pact with Satan in exchange for delivering them from French rule, and the earthquake was divine retribution for that bargain (delivered approximately two centuries later). Robertson similarly suggested that both Hurricane Katrina and terrorism were divine punishment for the fact that abortion is still legal in the United States. Robertson, of course, is not alone. An Iranian mullah has blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly; a New York rabbi blamed the advancement of gay rights in the US for another earthquake in 2011; many Burmese Buddhists blamed a 2008 cyclone that killed approximately 130,000 people on bad karma.

The desire that motivates these interpretations is understandable. Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are either random events in a chaotic world, or they are explicable events within a discernible pattern. In the former case, we inhabit an essentially amoral universe: bad things happen to good people, children die premature deaths, and tragedy strikes without remorse, all without rhyme or reason. In the latter case, we inhabit a much more hospitable universe where there is some sort of inherent order: a place where morality is inscribed into the very fabric of things, assuring us that, if only we play by the rules, evil will be punished, goodness will be rewarded, and justice will reign supreme.

It is easy to understand the attraction of that vision. But it has a substantial dark side. Like any theodicy, it cannot simply unmake suffering, and so it instead tries to justify it. The claim that the universe is inherently just then implies that those who suffer deserve it. The existence of a just God and a moral universe is gained at the cost of condemning victims of misfortune as blameworthy. And so, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the devil. Women and homosexuals agitating for equal rights are blamed for deadly natural disasters.

Such a worldview conveniently scapegoats someone, usually whatever population someone wishes to demonise: women, homosexuals, the poor, etc. It also normalises social ills that could otherwise be addressed and meliorated. In a dark irony, holding that the universe is ultimately a just place ends up condoning the suffering and injustice that happens within it, often on the backs of those most in need.

Visions of a just universe need not function this way. Theodicy authorises only the suffering of the less fortunate when it indulges in willful blindness and insists on justice as a foregone conclusion, denying reality in favour of comforting ignorance. Alternatively, when justice is construed as hope – as a vision of what the world could possibly be – it functions as a lodestar. This acknowledges the disturbing realities with which we are surrounded, and refuses to be disillusioned by them. By regarding justice as an ideal rather than a present reality, one’s vision of the inequalities and brutalities of the present moment remains unobstructed, allowing them to be faced. The just universe in which we should believe is the one that can be created only through dedicated effort and real action on our part. But that can happen only if we refuse to take shelter in soothing fantasies. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Blum is a visiting assistant professor on the college writing programme at Davidson College in North Carolina. His first book is Zen and the Unspeakable God (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blogLet’s remember and celebrate John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, the great political and moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness, on his birthday.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple tool for designing a just society. Imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed and at what kind of job or not at all; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

Here’s a short list of resources to learn more about the great John Rawls:

John Rawls – by Leif Wenar for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls – by Henry S. Richardson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A Theory of Justice – by John Rawls (Google book preview)

and my own work featuring Rawls:

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, prone to stealing over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Since the earliest days of her birth control activism, Margaret Sanger has been often accused of being a racist, among other things. To many of her critics, her birth control advocacy must be understood as a nefarious plot to undermine human morals and decency, and any means of twisting her message to convey this are fair game. As I discuss in an earlier piece, a favored method of attack, which persists to this day, is to present a sentence or phrase of Sanger’s out of context to ‘prove’ her ‘true’ beliefs about people of other races. Her detractors even claim that she was on a genocidal mission to reduce or even exterminate black people, Jews, and other immigrant groups by destroying future generations. Never mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her work on behalf of his beleaguered people. Never mind that she worked closely with civil rights leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois. Never mind that she opened clinics to serve black and other minority women because so many existing clinics refused to serve anyone but whites. Never mind that she wrote in 1944:

‘We must protect tomorrow’s Chinese baby and Hindu baby, English and Russian baby, Puerto Rican, Negro and white American babies who will stand side by side… to bring promise of a better future’.

Eugenics journal, photo 2017 by Amy CoolsNow, as a eugenicist, Sanger did make herself an easy target for her accusers despite her decades of work with underserved and marginalized people, first as a nurse in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City and then as a birth control pioneer. Eugenics, enthusiastically adopted by many who considered themselves scientific, progressive, and enlightened in the first half of the 20th century, is now recognized as pseudoscience, (mis)applying the evolutionary process of (unguided) natural selection to utopian social engineering theories. Eugenicists believed that the ills of humanity could be cured preemptively by breeding them out of existence while breeding in favor of ‘desirable’ traits. Despite the rosy vision of transforming humanity into the most vigorous, hyper-intelligent, and disease free race the world had ever seen, eugenics principles actually produced very ugly results when instituted as social policy. Here in the United States, government programs incarcerated mentally ill, disabled, and socially maladjusted people and forcibly sterilized them. Then the world’s most infamous eugenicists, the Nazis, took those principles to their most extreme logical conclusion, borrowing a page from the United States’ eugenics book in instituting the most horrific, murderous selective-breeding process the world has ever seen, inflicting untold and untellable quantities of human suffering and bloodshed.

Little wonder, then, that eugenics has a very bad name. Though the desire to reduce human suffering caused so many to embrace it, eugenics was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s great theory. Its proponents understood natural selection just well enough to appreciate its power for change but missed the greater point: the wide variety of human traits and capabilities is itself a long-evolved, complexly-balanced, and very very successful web of adaptations developed and attuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Human beings, necessarily self-centered and short-sighted, are very inept judges of trait selection in comparison with Nature itself.

Buck v Bell Virginia Historical Marker Q 28, Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of VirginiaSanger, like many other eugenicists, was inconsistent in her attitudes about who should have children, when, and who should decide. Generally, she advocated for the right to self-determination in reproductive matters, calling for mass education and for cheap, reliable, widely available methods of birth control. In many instances, however, she advocated coercive sterilization for violent criminals and for those who she believed could not make this important decision for themselves, such as the mentally ill and cognitively disabled. She backed away from the latter, though, as the Nazis rose to power and instituted coercive, violent eugenics practices on a grand scale. Sanger was an early, ardent, and very vocal opponent of Nazism, and its policies alerted her to the problems of her short-sighted views on forced sterilization for anyone. As the logical-extreme beliefs of Nazism revealed, eugenics had its limits, and even the most non-coercive, most benign brands of eugenics were discarded by most of its former proponents over time.

But there are two other things Sanger was very consistent about.

One was her dismay at the sheer quantity of human suffering in the world and her desire to reduce it if she could. I find that oft-cited Sanger quotes, particularly from her book Woman and the New Race, refer to her observation that poor immigrants were especially likely to have more children than they could afford, and her claim that they were more likely therefore to produce ‘unfit’ children. ‘Unfit’, as Sanger described them, are those who are malnourished, diseased, undereducated, and in countless other ways ill-equipped to lead happy, flourishing lives. Yet, as is often the case with politically- and ideologically-motivated attacks, Sanger’s words are presented out of the context in which she wrote them, inspired by the plight of the immigrants she had in mind, mostly the Eastern Europeans she worked with in New York City’s Lower East Side. Before her time as a birth control activist, Sanger worked for them as a visiting nurse. As a Socialist activist and as a health care provider, she was driven by her special concern for the working poor that she observed were abused, often taken advantage of, in their desperation, by rapacious employers who offered them meager wages and terrible working conditions in exchange for backbreaking hours of miserable labor. These families were broken down from disease, hard labor, malnutrition, and, for the women, numerous pregnancies that often ended disastrously from these very health-destroying circumstances. One of Sanger’s most infamous quotes from Woman and the New Race, ‘The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it’, so often used to ‘prove’ that Sanger was both racist and genocidal, is understood as a sarcastically-despairing remark when presented within the chapter in which it appears. That chapter describes the horror and suffering that preceded the all-too-frequent deaths of the immigrant poor, especially children and their mothers, and laments society’s lack of concern in preventing all this suffering and death. Even the next sentence alone will do: ‘The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members.’

Nurse's uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC

Nurse’s uniform, ca. 1905, of Lilian Wald visiting service to the Lower East Side tenements of NYC. Sanger would likely have worn an updated version of this uniform when she worked there in 1911

Second, Sanger believed all human beings should be given the same care and opportunities as everyone else. That’s why she opened her first birth control clinic in the racially diverse Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1916, opened clinics to serve black and Latina women in Columbus Hill and Harlem neighborhoods in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and expanded her mission to help black communities in the American South in 1939. While there might be more than a shade of paternalism (maternalism?) in these efforts, her own writings, as well as the support of black civil rights leaders, demonstrate that her motives were, at least on the whole, motivated by her concern that justice be done for these underserved people.

As Sanger wrote to her friend Albert Lasker in 1939:

‘You are quite right in assuming that poor white people down South are not much better off than the Negroes, but there has been at least a start in several states to help the poor whites and as there is not sufficient time for a nurse, nor the material left over, for the Negroes, they are just left out of the service in most of the states. That is why I was anxious to have a special fund directed for the Negroes…’

Returning to Woman and the New Race, Sanger gave another reason why she was driven to improve lives in the disadvantaged communities she worked with and advocated for:

‘They would not be here if they did not bear within them the hardihood of pioneers, a courage of no mean order… And they have something else. The cell plasms of these peoples are freighted with the potentialities of the best in the Old World civilization. They come from lands rich in the traditions of courage, of art, music, letters, science, and philosophy… The immigrant brings the possibilities of all these things to our shores, but where is the opportunity to reproduce in the New World the cultures of the old? What opportunities have we given to these peoples to enrich our civilization? We have greeted them as “a lot of ignorant foreigners,” we have shouted at, bustled, and kicked them… What hope is there for racial progress in this human material, treated more carelessly and brutally than the cheapest factory product?’

In other words, America’s immigrants carry greatness in their very genetics, which our factories and farms have too often exploited, quashed, and wasted over the centuries by treating them as little more than wealth-generating fodder before kicking them to the curb or the ditch.

And in her article ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?’ Sanger wrote:

‘The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair.’

Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois shared this view with Sanger: that if oppressed people were to overcome the social forces arrayed against them, they needed to forge their way from a position of strength: of health, of education, of increased wealth, and birth control was one of the ways to get there. And Sanger and DuBois both believed that they all could get there because they were just as capable of greatness as anyone else, given the same chances.

This doesn’t sound like racism to me.

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Sources and inspiration:

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project‘ The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001)

Ferebee, Dorothy Boulding, d. 1980, “Speech by Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, M.D. entitled “Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race,” January 29th, 1942,” Smith Libraries Exhibits

Margaret Sanger and the African American Community‘, compiled by Anna Holley, SisterSong Intern, July 2010,

Marlin, George. ‘Margaret Sanger: “Abortion is Dangerous and Vicious”‘ Dec 14, 2011, The Catholic Thing blog

A Negro Number, June 1932 edition of Birth Control Review, by various authors.

Reed, Miriam. ‘Margaret Sanger: Correcting the False Narratives of Racism‘, June 30, 2016. Church and State

Sanger, Margaret, 1879-1966, “Letter from Margaret Sanger to Albert Lasker, November 12, 1939,” Smith Libraries Exhibits, Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?‘ Source: Negro Digest, August 1946, pp.3-8, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Population – Everybody’s Business,’ Published Article. Source: Tomorrow, 1944, pp. 16-18, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:0480, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

The Truth About Margaret Sanger‘,

The Golden Rule

‘What is hateful to thee, do not do until thy fellow man; this is the whole Law. The rest is commentary’ – Hillel the Elder, ca. 30 BCE – 10 CE

This is a particularly beautiful iteration of the Golden Rule, as I remember hearing Christopher Hitchens point out. Rather than recommending that you do to others what you would want done to yourself, which assumes you know best what others would prefer, this Golden Rule is one of restraint and respect. Do not impose, it says: we do not always know what’s best, so live and let live, and do no harm.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Source and inspiration: 

Kloppenburg, James T. Towards Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 41.