Friday, December 30, 2005

Why Rights Are Not Always Important

Consider this article. Excerpt: FBI is checking mosques with Geiger-Mueller counters to check whether they contain radioactive material. And of course, some liberals are very upset by this: "All Americans should be concerned about the apparent trend toward a two-tiered system of justice, with full rights for most citizens, and another diminished set of rights for Muslims."

The problem with such statements is that they are completely missing the target.

Let's go back to the roots: the ultimate goal of the values of modern society, democracy, human rights, civil rights etc. is trying to reduce human suffering as much as possible. Everything else is but a mean to achieve this end, the ultimate end is only the reduction of suffering and nothing else, never, ever. It is only the end that must not be changed, the means, the tools could should always change to reflect the changes in the circumstances and in the challenges.

Throughout the history, the majority of human suffering has been caused by other humans, and within this subset of human-caused suffering the majority has been caused by state oppression. This is why a few years, decades or centuries ago - it depends on which country you live in - people who wanted to reduce human suffering decided that because of this, let's protect people both from the state and from each other. Let's figure out concepts that assure that the state - or other humans - won't make people suffer. Let's define what neither the state nor others cannot do to you. Let's call these concepts "rights". Human rights, civil rights - you can call them whatever you want. These rights are the means they developed to attack the historically most prominent causes of human suffering.

These concepts, these rights are actually working quite well whenever they are upheld. It would be completely stupid to deny this: the whole fact that I can and may publish my thoughts here is due to these rights. They are important tools. I would never deny that.

Nevertheless, however important they are, they are nothing but tools. They are just tools, just means to reduce human suffering. They only have use value, they do not have an absolute value. Whenever their use value is in doubt, it is not a sacrilege to break them. They important thing is only the ultimate end - the reduction of human suffering. The tools, the rights are less important.

We should always look at the end and compare possible harm with possible benefit. When a mosque is searched with Geiger-Mueller counter, it is only a minor inconvenience for the believers. Actually, if my own home would be searched this way, it would also be a only a minor inconvenience for me too. It wouldn't exactly make me happy but I'd forget it in two days or so. It might hurt my ego but that would only mean I need to do more meditation. So, the possible harm is about zero. The possible benefit is preventing a terrorist from blowing an A-bomb and killing millions. (Of course, it is not an effective way to prevent them doing it: after the first mosque was searched, if any terrorists had some nuke in a mosque anywhere, I am sure they have quickly removed it and put it elsewhere.)

This is a situation where rights are failing: the possible benefit is a billionfold bigger than the possible harm, so the search should definitely be done. It means in this case the rights are a wrong tool to reduce human suffering. And whenever the tool is wrong, you should not use it. There are definite situations where rights are not important, because they are failing to reduce human suffering. I think we should look at things from the viewpoint of what (possibly) reduces suffering and what (possibly) increases it and always compare harms with benefits and try to find an optimal solution. If rights comform to that solution, it's nice.

If not, let's suspend some of the rights. There is nothing wrong with that. You don't have to stick to your tools when they are not appropriate.

No harmless breach of some abstract rights are as bad as killing millions with an A-bomb.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

um, so, like, you don't mind giving up your rights if you were the ONLY group suspected of terrorist activities. You should volunteer to take this on for the rest of us since you don't mind. I'm sure meditation would help you deal with this.

2:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben Franklin said it best: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety..."

And let's not forget George Santayana: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

And finally, George Orwell: "Big Brother is watching."

2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no question that violating people's rights can indeed save lives, and I would be all for this violation if there weren't potential for rampant abuse, which quite clearly, there is. Going above the law to fight "the war on terror" (another one of bush's meaningless platitudes to rally the proleteriat) poses a grave danger to us all because this war is a never ending. This administration is seeking to violate our rights indefinitely.

3:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes we can all feel safe while Big Brother takes our rights away and is protecting us. However, what do we do when he comes after us? Just lie down and hope the neck shot will be well-aimed? Mad dictators step up here and there every now & then, and should it happen in the US or in Europe, he'll find a massive surveillance system ready for grabs.

4:04 AM  
Blogger Shenpen (HUN) said...

Thank you all for the left-wing comments.

Personally, what I think is that if you think blocking the surveillance measures/methods/tools that a democratic state uses to protect it's citizens just because a dictator *might* rise to power and *might* abuse these measures against the citizens is a good idea, then this way of thinking leads to the idea of disarming the armies of USA/Europe because a dictator might abuse them too, isn't it? And now, *that* would lead to global impression and dictature.

You don't have to protect your freedom from a democratic state. It is the democratic state that protects your freedom from anybody who would take 'em away, terrorist, criminals, rogue states etc. Just make sure you state remains democratic.

I think the right algorithm is the following:

1) YOU make sure your state remains democratic, by voting or if a dictator rises to power, by revolting

2) It is the task of the democratic state to protect your freedoms from everybody else, because in most cased it can do it more effectively than you could. (OK, you should also carry a handgun for just in case.)

The state is not some kind of alien structure. The state is YOU: you elected the guys who appoint state officials and make laws. The state is nothing but the embodiment of you common will.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Shenpen (HUN) said...

"And let's not forget George Santayana: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.""

Exactly. The history of the XX. century shows us that the biggest problem was the good guys - America, Great Britain etc. - didn't dare to act in a powerful way when there was a need for their intervention.
Hitler could be easily killed in the early thirties. The revolutions of Budapest '56, Prague '68 etc. could have winned with help from the good guys: puting enough pressure on the Soviets. It did not happen. This is what we have to learn from history.

Basically, what you all say is you are afraid that Bush might become Hitler. While in truth it's Osama who might become Hitler and Bush plays the role of Churchill in this situation. Why do you confuse who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?

What we should learn from history is to don't stop the good guys when they go out to protect you from the bad guys. It's so simple.

And confusing who is the bad guy and who is the good guy is the most profound mistake you can make.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go ahead, dismiss the paranoia as left-wing comments. Have fun revolting when your every move is monitored. Democracies don't transform into tyrannies overnight. It takes time, time which is used to create secret services and revoke liberties. By the time you realize your democracy has turned into a tyranny, it's too late.

If you think the politicians and big corporations give a damn about our freedoms, you're in for a very nasty surprise. They only care about power, and they're increasing it with every USA PATRIOT ACT that is passed, every ID card that is issued and every camera that is mounted.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Shenpen (HUN) said...

I can understand this kind of paranoia, but I think you should be more paranoid about powers in the world that are *proven* to be oppressive - f.e. islamofascism - than your own leader that *might* become anti-democratic...

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't hold the illusion that we are any better than the so-called islamofascists. We're all bastards, from U.S. to Europe to Saudi Arabia to China. It's the petrodollar that gives power to the 'islamofascist' right? So we're actually giving money to the bad guys. How does that make us the good guys? Didn't Osama Bin Laden have a CIA training? This we-good-they-bad attitude is exactly what happened in Germany in the 30s. The only difference is that besides armies the state can now use all kinds technology to oppress.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Let me put the case in terms a government official would appreciate. Civil liberties are not just an ornament, or a quaint American tradition. Civil liberties make countries rich. If you made a graph of GNP per capita vs. civil liberties, you'd notice a definite trend. Could civil liberties really be a cause, rather than just an effect? I think so. I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people. Authoritarian countries become corrupt; corrupt countries become poor; and poor countries are weak. It seems to me there is a Laffer curve for government power, just as for tax revenues. At least, it seems likely enough that it would be stupid to try the experiment and find out. Unlike high tax rates, you can't repeal totalitarianism if it turns out to be a mistake."

(http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html)

2:31 PM  
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Anonymous Molnargoreny said...

Megbocsáss, te szemlátomást profi vagy a számítógéps dolgokban - még angolul is - no, én meg nem, és az angolom is elsősorban bridzselésre való. Az IE6 legalább magyarul beszél nekem, meg már kiismertem. Fene se ért a Firefoxhoz...Ráadásul láttam már olyat, de az igencsak angol volt, én meg kis kényelmes vagyok, jobban szeretem magyarul. Lehet, hogy ez off, de nem nagyon szeretek angolul olvasgatni.

10:12 PM  

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