Why Do Horrid People Have Rights? (Part I)

Neera K. Badhwar

Individual rights to life, liberty, and property protect our freedom from others’ interference. Rights are claims on others to refrain from initiating physical force on us or defrauding us. Having and respecting rights implies, for instance, that we have a right to buy a house for ourselves, but no right to throw out the owners of a house in order to make room for ourselves. To do so is to invade (in this case, both literally and metaphorically) the occupants’ protected space of freedom to own that house. Rights are boundaries marking the extent of our freedom to act as we please, and both government and individuals are morally bound to respect them. Force is justified only in self-defense or, in the case of government, in defending our rights. On the libertarian conception of rights and the limits of state power, governments may not force us to do or refrain from doing things in order to make us more happy, healthy, or moral. Rights prohibit governments from passing and enforcing paternalistic or moralistic laws and policies.

What is it about us that grounds rights, in particular, our rights to life and liberty?  Most philosophers appeal to our nature as rational, self-directed beings, beings with the capacity to act on goals we set for ourselves. We own our minds and bodies the way we own our property, and no one may use our bodies or property without our consent. Another way of capturing this thought is to say that we are ends in ourselves (see, for example, Nozick (CE*) and Mack), with ends of our own, not mere means to other people’s ends. No matter how noble the goal to which the government or society want to sacrifice us, if we don’t consent to being sacrificed, it is wrong of them to do so. Rights prohibit them from treating us as mere means through physical force or fraud – they protect our ends-in-ourselves-ship. This is why they are morally important and worthy of respect.  

The mere fact that we have ends of our own, however, doesn’t seem enough to justify the importance of rights in libertarian theory. After all, our ends can be banal, such as mindlessly watching sitcoms and eating popcorn all day long. Some philosophers (e.g., Rasmussen and Den Uyl-CE*) argue that rights are important because they create the conditions we need to pursue our ultimate goal as human beings and individuals: eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness in a virtuous life,and we need to be left free to direct our choices as we see fit in order to achieve it. Without freedom of speech and action, we have little chance of achieving a mature understanding of right and wrong, much less of aiming at virtue and eudaimonia.

This argument, however, can’t explain why everyone who is commonly regarded as a rights-bearer ought to be so regarded. Most people are mixed in their character and actions. Although they don’t assault others, or steal their property, or defraud them (in a big way), many do engage in small dishonesties when they can get away with them (see Ariely). We are familiar with politicians lying to us in order to win votes or save face, and with businesses unjustly seeking favors from politicians in order to outdo the competition. There’s little reason to think that the rest of us would be much better if we were in their situation. The chief aim of many people is to avoid trouble with the law and get along with others. They are likely to be virtuous with those they love, and many earn their living in a worthwhile enterprise. But they are far from having the moral ambition to become better people overall, as they must to have rights according to the eudaimonistic argument.

The eudaimonist could say that if our rights are respected, at least some of us might improve morally, since we all have the capacity to do so. There is no way to tell in advance who will and who won’t. But this answer leaves out many categories of people.

Addicts who are incapacitated by their addiction do not and cannot aim for virtue. Indeed, they cannot even will to aim for virtue. Their natural capacity for doing so has been swamped by their ‘second nature’ – their addiction. Yet on the libertarian view, which the eudaimonistic philosophers share, they too have the right to act as they choose, so long as they don’t violate other people’s rights. Libertarians don’t think that it’s permissible for the government, or for the addicts’ relatives, to haul them off to an institution for treatment so that they can recover their capacity for trying to become virtuous. Again, children born with severe mental defects will never strive for virtue, and adults who develop dementia will never again do so.

Psychopaths, thought to constitute roughly 2% of the American population, are also a problem for the eudaimonist thesis. Full-fledged psychopaths are incapable of love or empathy, psychopaths inflict harm and psychological pain on family members, friends, and strangers, without guilt. They are rational in the sense that they can fit means to goals, and understand arguments for acting in certain ways and not others. But they are not rational in the sense that they can understand the significance of these arguments. Hence, they are not moved by their understanding. In other words, they have theoretical rationality, but not practical rationality. This is why the psychiatrist, Hervey Cleckley (CE*), who has seen hundreds of psychopaths in his practice, describes their appearance of sanity as a mask. Yet if they don’t violate others’ basic rights by assaulting, killing, robbing, or defrauding them – and many don’t – they are considered as having rights, and we are under an obligation to respect their rights. The same applies to other brands of trouble-makers, such as people with anti-social personalities. Extremely vicious, but non-psychopathic, individuals, whose aim in life is to create trouble for others, and who take joy in seeing others suffer, but without violating their rights, also pose a problem for the eudaemonist thesis. There is little reason to think that they can change for the better, and no reason to think that they can if they are close to death. Yet we don’t strip them of their rights as they approach the end.

Trying to justify rights on the grounds of people’s capacity to pursue eudaimonia implies that many people we think have rights, don’t. It seems that the more exalted our view of human nature and human action as a basis for respecting rights, the smaller the number of people we can justifiably regard as rights-bearers.  

In Part II I’ll consider a less exalted view of human nature as a basis for rights to see if it can justify ascribing rights to people who are excluded by the eudaimonistic justification. It will also become evident in Part II that the same justification does not work for everyone.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

What Art Scolds, Whether Conservative or Woke, Have in Common

I had a revelation this weekend, finally understanding something about what the woke left has in common with conservatives.  The revelation had to do with Plato and Aristotle, which won’t surprise people who know me well, but will require some explanation.

The insight was sparked by a long Facebook discussion about the controversy surrounding the French film Mignonnes, released on Netflix as Cuties.  The film’s promotional material featured 11-year-old girls dressed in skimpy dance outfits, and a clip circulating on the internet showing their dance routine was decidedly age-inappropriate, filled with twerking and assorted other sexually-suggestive moves.  Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about the exploitative oversexualization of young girls, calling for Netflix and the filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré to be cancelled, and in some cases brought up on charges of child pornography.  They seemed to be imagining defenses of the film involving the idea that girls were “empowered” by owning their sexuality, though I actually didn’t see anyone advancing that argument in defense of the film.  The defenses I did see were mostly along the lines of  “that’s a three-minute clip, maybe the film isn’t as smutty as it seems.”  But the response to that was “anyone defending this trash is defending sexual exploitation of children.  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

That’s a familiar script: woke critics of films like 16 Candles or 48 Hours criticize those films for sexist and racist tropes, and respond to any defense of the films with “you’re defending a racist film, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”  You see the parallels: conservatives accuse the defenders of Cuties of being soft on pedophilic exploitation of children, and the left accuses defenders of 16 Candles and 48 Hours of being soft on sexism and racism.   But are the defenders of those films defending the sexism or the racism?  Mostly no; they’re pointing towards some kind of contextualiztion, or differentiating between depicting an attitude and endorsing an attitude.  Nick Nolte’s character Cates calls Eddie Murphy’s character Hammond the N-word, for example, yet one of the key payoffs of the film is when Cates apologizes to Hammond for doing that, and upbraids his lieutenant for doing it, defending Hammond as smarter and braver than anyone else in the precinct.  So: 1, calling someone the N-word is bad.  2, a clip from a movie where someone does that looks bad.  But 3, the full context of the film may reveal that the story shows that doing it is wrong.   Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters talking like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

Similarly, conservative critics of Cuties point out that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  But is the filmmaker saying “no, it’s fine if 11-year-old girls dance in a sexually suggestive way”?   No. Turns out the filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, an émigré to France from Senegal, agrees with the conservatives that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  She says (I haven’t seen it, but several reviewers confirm this) that the film shows the young protagonist uncomfortably pressured into embracing this oversexualization, and rejecting it.  Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters dancing like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

What finally hit me this weekend was the realization that what the woke left and the conservatives have in common is that their view of art is Platonic, and they both oppose an Aristotelian approach.  On Plato’s view, certain artistic representations should not be allowed, as their very existence can have a baleful influence on impressionable minds.  To be sure, Plato gets a bad rap from people who overstate and caricature his view to imply that all artistic representation is bad – he can’t literally mean that no representative art can be allowed, since he himself expresses his theories in artistic representations.  But he does seem worried that art, because of its ability to communicate in a way that bypasses the intellect, can give people bad ideas.  By even depicting bad things, he thought, people might get the wrong idea – what they call today “normalizing.”

Aristotle’s theory was a little more nuanced.  He’s aware of art’s ability to influence, but he argues that it’s not depiction that is of chief importance, but portrayal.  I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but basically the artist can depict good people or things or bad people or things, and can portray them as good or bad, or leading to good or bad outcomes.  If a good thing is made to look good, or a bad thing is made to look bad, that’s morally correct.  There’s nothing wrong with depicting vice provided that the vicious do not flourish as a result of vice. The essence of tragedy, conversely, is when a basically good person meets a bad end due to some weakness or character flaw.   What would be morally bad, on this theory, would be when the artist makes the noble appear base or the subject of mockery, or makes the vicious flourish.  So a story about a racist character isn’t per se bad – if the character learns why racism is bad and rejects it, the story is morally edifying. 

American History X is a good illustration.  The film shows us vile, racist invective (and violence) from a neo-Nazi character.  But the point of the film isn’t to glorify these attitudes, it’s to condemn them.  The protagonist comes to renounce hate and try to redeem himself, but is (tragically) too late to save his brother.   Similarly, Cuties shows us lewd and age-inappropriate dancing from 11-year-olds, but the point of the film isn’t to glorify pre-pubsescent twerking, it’s to condemn a culture that makes young girls think they should sexualize themselves to get ahead.  A Platonist would respond to both by saying “these portrayals are made with good craftsmanship, therefore they’re dangerous, because people might get the wrong idea and emulate what they’ve seen portrayed.”  But an Aristotelian would say “these bad things are in fact being portrayed as bad, so no sensible person would draw the wrong lesson here.”  Although the racist speeches in American History X really are the sorts of things neo-Nazis say, and are delivered credibly and passionately by a talented actor, it’s plain that the filmmaker sees these as bad ideas, as indeed does the protagonist by the end of the film.  The film doesn’t “normalize” neo-Nazis.  No sensible viewer would see this film and think “yes, I should become a Nazi.”   John Hinkley seemed to be have been “inspired” to attempt to assassinate President Reagan by the 1976 film Taxi Driver, though most sane people would have no trouble recognizing character Travis Bickle as someone who is very disturbed and not the object of emulation.  In Cuties, the dance routine is indeed disturbing (a clip of that has been circulating on the internet), but it’s portrayed as disturbing in the film.  The in-film audience watching the dance is not cheering.  They look shocked and saddened and disapproving –  the same response as critics of the film.  And the protagonist realizes she shouldn’t act that way. 

So the woke critics of popular culture on the left, and the conservative critics who have been calling to jail the CEO of Netflix, share in common a Platonism about art that fails to adequately differentiate depiction and endorsement.   But Aristotle was right.  A film can depict bad people and bad things and still be a morally edifying film, if the filmmaker portrays them that way.  To be sure, some artists portray bad things in such a way as to glorify them or endorse them.  Criticizing those is one thing, but criticizing a film merely for depicting them is to have a mistaken conception of how art works.   

I should add that some of my interlocutors argued that unlike fictional portrayals of racism or violence, Cuties actually does have young girls engaged in age-inappropriate dancing, namely the child actors portraying the dance team.  That’s true of course: Joe Pesci was just pretending to shoot Michael Imperioli in the foot, whereas these young actors really are twerking.  But that argument proves too much: this would imply that child actors couldn’t do anything that would inappropriate to do in real life.  Child actors have portrayed victims of traumatizing crimes, as murderers themselves, as prostitutes, thieves, drug users, con artists.  Presumably, as actors, they’re clear about the distinction between real life and acting, and their parents support their budding careers.  The actors in Cuties, having read the entire script, would surely have seen that the filmmaker’s point is not that it’s awesome to have young girls oversexualized, but that it’s sad and dangerous.  Meanwhile, of course, there really are dance competitions for tweens that feature these age-inappropriate oversexualizations.  The difference between those young girls and the actors in Cuties is that the latter know it’s a portrayal of something bad.

The Platonic view has it that art has this tremendous power to influence, but simultaneously that it doesn’t matter how the story or movie portrays things. I think that’s self-contradictory.  The Aristotelian view on the other hand, accounts for art’s power precisely in its ability to make something look good or bad. If it makes good things look good and bad things look bad, there is no cause for moral concern. The problem arises when a movie makes good things look bad or bad things look good. Trainspotting is not morally problematic, because it makes a bad thing look bad. 1776 is not morally problematic, because it makes a good thing look good. If there were a movie that made the oversexualization of tween girls look like a desirable thing, that would be a morally bad film.  But it seems as though Cuties is not that film.  I say “seems” because I haven’t seen it – just like the conservative Twitter mob calling it pedophilia.  Reviews seem to indicate the mob is wrong, but the bottom line is, these conservatives are united with their counterparts on the woke left in sticking to a Platonic view: it’s enough to know something bad is depicted to know the art is bad.  Aristotle would disagree, and, on-brand for me, I’m going with Aristotle on this one.  It matters how people and ideas are portrayed, not just that they’re there.

Some more thoughts on education


Andrew Jason Cohen’s most recent post on education stimulated me to think a little bit more about some of the challenges associated with how we educate children.

We are a reluctant public-schooling family. Ideally we’d homeschool, but for a variety of complicated and personal reasons we are, for the moment at least, sending our two oldest children to school. This is despite significant misgivings about how traditional education in this country functions, including the concerns Andrew brought up in his post, namely a total disregard for the biological and developmental needs of children.

In addition to the reasons Andrew discussed in his post, there are a few other things that I think contribute to parental deference to educational authority in this arena. The most obvious is a lack of options. For many people, both parents need to work (or believe they do, which is perhaps the subject of another post) to keep the home fires burning, which makes homeschooling at least difficult and in some areas perhaps impossible. This is compounded by the expectation that has been created that schools provide a kind of “free” childcare (via taxation). Parents are then faced with the difficult decision to take a more active role in their child’s education while also paying taxes and presumably working fewer hours. This of course means that people who opt out of public schooling are often getting hit financially from both ends: fewer wage-earning hours while paying taxes for a service they are not using. This alone is a good reason to allow people to opt-out of coercive educational funding.

Second, the stakes of education now seem higher than ever, as the economy has become more competitive and parenting itself seems extremely high-stakes. In my own wealthy suburb, judging from parent demands at PTSA meetings and in local parenting groups, parents expect and want what actually constitutes terrible education: they want rigorous math and reading for elementary school students, which reduces recess and free play. They want competitive AP classes for every subject. They want less free play and more Zoom classes during a global pandemic. Many of the parents seem to care less about actual education itself (intellectual curiosity, exploration of the world) and more about a particular set of status markers (or means to achieve those status markers). In that sense education is very much bound up with bad parenting, but it is also bound up in our cultural expectations about what education is supposed to do. Is it supposed to develop creative, curious minds? Or is it supposed to provide a set of tangible status markers that assist students in achieving economic stability? In some areas of course it fails miserably at both of these things. But I think a lot of parents want the latter and are less concerned about the former, perhaps because they mistakenly see the two — intellectual curiosity and economic stability — as in conflict.

Finally, I think there’s something linking both of these things in that parents are generally very risk-averse these days and sending kids to a school with a vetted curriculum and trained teachers (even if the vetting and training are bad or even perverse) seems safer than homeschooling or screwing things up oneself. Steve Horwitz’s book Hayek’s Modern Family (also at Amazon-CE*) has a great discussion of what he terms “corner solution parenting”, which essentially describes the way this kind of parental risk-aversion leads to worse outcomes overall.

In general, I think there’s a demand problem, which is linked to a broader cultural deficit. Too few parents understand what children need to learn, too few feel capable of offering it (even though they probably are), and too many are scared to experiment with their children’s education in the high-stakes game modern parenting appears to be.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.