Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I came into this class with a very clear idea of what I thought was a right, but many of my preconceptions about those rights have been challenged throughout the semester. While I feel that the definition that I began with is not incorrect, I have come to recognize that it was insufficient to cover the full range of possible discourse on the matter. Class discussions along with the making of the documentaries has lead me to the realization that it is not enough to simply know what a right is. Even within the realm of rights, there appears to be a built in distinction between rights that are labeled as either or human or civil. Although equality and fairness is the focus of many of the civil rights that I have come to appreciate as an American, these rights are not extended to all human beings; thus, a divide is created. On the other hand, human rights are intended to extend far beyond the borders of a single government. However, as we often discussed, even those recognized human rights are not necessarily obeyed or endorsed uniformly by those nations that recognize them. As we have seemed to highlight in our discussions, it is not the right that is necessarily in question so much as the corresponding responsibility to respect/protect that right that is not consistently recognized. On the state level, it has become questionable whether or not there is a responsibility to consistently respect and honor these rights even when dealing with non-citizens. One of my main questions in the examination of this point is what exactly is it that potentially removes moral agency from the state and how does that differ from any other gathering of self-interested people? Of course, I expect no answer to this question, and I have not intention of proposing my own at the moment; however, I thought that this would be a good example of some of the many issues that this course has made me begin to consider. Perhaps on a more personal note, questions such as these have forced me to reconsider the ethical standards that I place upon myself and how they may differ from the standards that I have for other people.


I am amazed at how quickly this semester has passed. Our much-anticipated documentaries are completed—and awesome. This class tackled many tough topics, and we definitely had some good laughs. I think human rights are important and I realize now that active effort is required in order to uphold these rights. We go Rhodes; we are some of the most privileged people in the world right now--not many people our age even have a laptop. This class showed me that we must capitalize on our position to make positive change. In crafting our documentary, I was able to approach and converse with a variety of people I would otherwise have never given the time of day. I heard some incredible stories, even got beat at Scrabble by a street person at the Manna House (he was good). What I uncovered was a vicious system of racism and oppression, the likes of which whites for the most part ignore, and blacks for the most part cope. Of course, it is not that simple. Many white people do not directly or at least consciously contribute to the system, and many black people are not oppressed. This is because the system is not directly tied to race; it is tied to wealth. According to Marx, the divide is between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Unfortunately the system has not changed to greatly since slavery; many blacks remain the proletariat. The cop at the beginning of our documentary emphasizes this point. He says he didn’t realize being a police officer meant enforcing class divisions.
I think everyone picked really interesting film topics, and the ones I’ve seen thus far have turned out really well. It amazes me after a semester of studying human rights just how flawed and insensitive people’s views can be toward the subject. I cannot believe, for instance, that churches, the alleged moral backbone of society, still condemn homosexuality. I can’t believe the gross human rights violations my country shamelessly commits on other countries. This class has opened my eyes to the vast amount of real problems plaguing our society. I look forward to addressing and overcoming these issues as we strive toward a better tomorrow.


This has been by far my favorite class of the semester and has help to further cultivate my philosophical interests. I took a class abroad on the contemporary theories of justice, which skimmed the surface of many topics that we discussed. There was a significant difference between the classroom discussions I experienced in Belfast, Northern Ireland compared to our weekly class meetings. In Belfast, our conversation focused mainly on the issues brought about by philosophers and their theories. There was little room for discussion about our own perspectives, and I found that the students “voice” was not original, but rather based on what they had learned. What I really enjoyed about our class was the broad variance of opinions on many issues that are currently affecting our world today. I don’t think it is good for all upper level classes, but I particularly thought it was great how we had a wide range of majors to contribute their background and knowledge. It is through having this broad range of perspectives that we are able to recognize the many personalities, characteristics, and further see how we can communicate despite the differences.

Many interests were portrayed through the documentaries that were made for our final. I really enjoyed how we could view everyone’s work, rather than just turning in a paper or taking a final. I think that through having to research a topic that we are interested in our work was significantly stronger than if a topic had been assigned to us. Also, we were able to bring to light many issues that may not have been discussed in class.

Through our discussions and through our readings a lot of my perspective on many issues has been altered. There are very few classes that I can say this about or that have made an impact on my worldview, but I definitely think this class has made me more aware and concerned with the world around me. This can be attributed to the students who helped to create a classroom where their opinions will be respected, but also questioned, which forces us beyond our comfort zone. We have to search to find our voice when it is being questioned. This class has forced to me find a perspective and an opinion based on something more than just my thoughts about it. Thank you for a great semester!

Humanely Human - A Reflection

My experience in this class was one of the more complicated ones that I have had here at Rhodes. Having my own fairly strong opinions about the who’s and what’s of human rights prior to the class, I can safely say that upon completion of the course, I may be a little less sure of myself. That is not to say that this class did not answer a lot of questions—it certainly did—but it more or less exemplified to me how difficult and complex the human rights discourse really is. To me, even the language of certain texts and documents was vague and, at times, even empty and rhetorical. However, that being the case actually led me to formulate my own definitions and interpretations, leading to a more personal journey through the material. While this may be good for my own individual and personal growth, I can see how, problematically, human rights for many people actually are more of an idealistic set of regulations that we strive for—rather than being actually guaranteed to all humans by virtue of their humanness. This issue of the unachievable ideal may indeed be the largest human rights violation of them all. To not see the validity and concreteness in guaranteeing those very basic, yet very foundational rights to all humans is the violation.

In dealing with human rights violations closely (re: the denial of homosexuals the right to marry), I was able to more clearly realize how involved I can and in fact should be. In creating a documentary film about these violations, I was forced to dive deep into human rights issues—why they exist, how people are really affected, and how other humans can step in to right these violations. Overall, the experience with becoming personally acquainted with real issues in real time helped me develop my personal views and morals more solidly. I have never been more awake to the issues of our world than today. I may not have all of the answers, but I certainly can point to places where we can begin to improve our world to become founded on a more humanly oriented principle.

As a closing blog-post for a humanism and human rights class, it would be hard not to bring up the recent, and undeniably controversial, dealings of the U.S. within Pakistan, specifically the killing of Osama bin Laden. While the ultimate symbolic meaning of bin Laden’s death is up for interpretation, it seems to me that, at least with my current understanding of the situation, there are certain issues relevant to human rights that need discussing. Chief of those issues are the invasion by U.S. forces of Pakistani borders as well as the assassination itself (in addition to the killing of five others). While there is no doubt to me that the world without Osama bin Laden is a better place, I am still unsure as to how much better. In addition, the breeching of borders will need to be addressed, and so will the reactions to the assassination. In my opinion, there is a difference between celebrating one’s death and celebrating the relief that one’s death brings. Seeing the reactions on the streets, college campuses, in front of the White House, and on various social media networks reminded me too much of the celebrations that were seen in parts of the Middle East when the twin towers collapsed in 2001 (as many have already pointed out). Perhaps I am bringing in too much perspective here, and not committing myself to the full meaning of bin Laden’s death, but that, to me, comes from my training in humanism—my training to do what it takes to grant humans the right to be human.

Open letter of reflection

When I first signed up for this course, I expected to talk mostly about torture, and the democracy surrounding the practice. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the class delved into a number of topics, not only torture, that were relevant and controversial in our society today. Being a young person in today's society has helped me, I think, to have a more open mind towards many of the issues that we talked about, and it was good to see so many people get charged up about these issues. I think that it is largely up to our generation to fix the things that we see as "problems" in today's culture, and without classes like this, I think that people would be much less informed.

What really struck me about the class, however, was how open everyone was to talking about these issues, debating these issues, in a non-confrontational and respectful way. I think that many of the topics that we covered were topics that easily flare tempers, and it was reassuring to see that our small class community could talk about things without coming to blows. Now, I understand that our classroom community is one that does not represent the majority of people in today's society. But if we can come together as a small unit, even, and begin to create change, then I think there is opportunity for the masses to follow.

Overall, I think this Humanism and Human Rights class was a brilliant mind-opening experience for myself, and I hope that I can take the values that the class seems to have come to accept, and use them in the future to create change. Now that I have been fully informed on so many of today's controversial issues, I feel that I can look back to the class, and the UDHR to better understand my own personal value system.


I am amazed at how quickly this semester has passed. Our much-anticipated documentaries are completed—and awesome. This class tackled many tough topics, and we definitely had some good laughs. I think human rights are important and I realize now that active effort is required in order to uphold these rights. We go Rhodes; we are some of the most privileged people in the world right now. Not many people our age have a laptop. This class showed me that we must capitalize on our position to make positive change. In crafting our documentary, I was able to approach and converse with a variety of people I would otherwise have never given the time of day. I heard some incredible stories, even got beat at Scrabble by a street person at the Manna House (he was good). What I uncovered was a vicious system of racism and oppression, the likes of which whites for the most part ignore, and blacks for the most part cope. Of course, it is not that simple. Many white people do not directly contribute to the system, and many black people are not oppressed. This is because the system is not directly tied to race; it is tied to wealth. According to Marx, the divide is between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Unfortunately the system has not changed to greatly since slavery; many blacks remain the proletariat. The cop at the beginning of our documentary emphasizes this point. He says he didn’t realize being a police officer meant enforcing class divisions.
I think everyone picked really interesting film topics, and the ones I’ve seen thus far have turned out really well. It amazes me after a semester of studying human rights just how flawed and insensitive people’s views can be toward the subject. I cannot believe, for instance, that churches, the alleged moral backbone of society, still condemn homosexuality. I can’t believe the gross human rights violations perpetrated on other countries’ people by my own country. This class has opened my eyes to the vast amount of real problems plaguing our society. I look forward to addressing and overcoming these issues as we strive toward a better tomorrow.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Poverty in the United States

John Gilderbloom discusses the economic, social, and political dimensions of the housing crisis in Invisible City: Poverty, Housing, and New Urbanism. Gilderbloom explains that, according to the Millennial Housing Commission, affordability is the single greatest housing challenge facing the United States. Federal programs such as the MHC define housing affordability in terms of the ratio of income to housing costs. The individuals who spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing are considered to have a “severe” housing problem. Over 28 million individuals who either rented or owned homes in 2000 fell into this category. Gilderbloom believes that there are many reasons households with this problem struggle to pay housing costs. The main reason, he explains, is that the income of these individuals is insufficient to cover even the most meager rents or payments. In addition, these households have problems maintaining enough income to afford housing costs due to “age, disability, or the lack of steady full-time work” (Gilderbloom 16). Having a full-time job, however, does not exempt households from facing housing issues; over a quarter of the 11 million individuals facing severe housing affordability problems in 2000 had full-time employment incomes based on minimum wage (Gilderbloom 16).

Although the quality of American housing surpasses the quality of housing in most parts of the world, available low-income housing in the United States is mainly located in poor areas that are isolated from opportunity and jobs. Gilderbloom explains that, even though there has been a sharp reduction in “the number of units that are overcrowded, lack plumbing and sanitation, or show signs of structural dilapidation” in the last two decades, low-income families in the United States are still faced with overcrowding in homes and higher transportation expenses (Gilderbloom 17). The U.S. Census Bureau defines overcrowding as “any housing unit that has more than one person per room” (Gilderbloom 26). Unfortunately, the rate of overcrowding increased by 5.7 percent between 1990 and 2000, an estimated increase of 6 million housing units. Gilderbloom explains that the rise of housing and rent costs in the past decade has also had a detrimental impact on family formation. The Federal Reserve Board found that the price of housing for married couples with children rose 79 percent between 1983 and 1998, nearly three times as much as it did for couples without children (Gilderbloom 29). Many young couples are presently choosing to either limit the size of their families or to not have children at all. James Surowiecki, a journalist for the New Yorker, argues that the cost of having children has risen much faster than the cost of being childless; the increasing burden of offspring is “attributable to housing and education costs (Gilderbloom 29).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The future of documentary film that has been opened to me

Dear Doctor J, my peers and the world,

Let it be known that this class has helped remove several veils that covered me before taking this class. First and most importantly I believe that human rights while extremely important are a losing battle when I look at the way not only the American government but other have specifically limited the fair treatment of all citizens and non-citizens in their own country. Even in America we continue to scape goat multiple groups inlcluding MUSLIM-americans, who only represent 0.8% to 2.6%, something compribale to the jewish-american population. Still they are a complex group consisting of the following ethnic backgrounds: (Below is from WIKI on Islam in the United States)--->

" Native-born American Muslims are mainly African Americans who make up 24% of the total Muslim population. Many of these have converted to Islam during the last seventy years. Conversion to Islam in prison,[10] and in large urban areas[11] has also contributed to its growth over the years. South Asian immigrants (from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) make up 26% of the Muslim population, and Arabs make up 26% of the population. The remaining 24% percent is from other groups."

SO we have to understand that when we scapegoat a religion we are actually attacking numerous ethnic groups, religious and economic classes and a mix of Americans who have been here for a 100 years or a 100 weeks. Either way, the post 9-11 world, has shown human rights of Muslims in the World and in this country have not been Protected.

SECONDLY, the lecture and preceding Q and A with Dan Savage was also deeply moving and in some ways saddening. I have been depressed on and off due to my procrastination in school, my visual injury, my general lack of a future before and after going through rhodes, but never to the extent that I would contemplate suicide. I moved a lot growing up as well and I got picked on so I could relate to that as well. But for 15 and 16 gay boys and lesbian girls to actually feel that their futures were not worth continued living made me realize that this society has lost its love of community and of the good other. When did we as americans really accept people for being different you might SAY, and I would respond that the fact that most immigrants have been accepted as American is a good sign, and most people accept your religion it be Buddhism or Judaism, still it is sad that my gay brothers and sisters have been given the short end of the civil rights stick, when all they want to do is have marriage and kids like the rest of America. SO my first solution, we make it easier for gay couples and infertile couples to adopts --- maybe a 2 page form and a cover letter, then someone talks with them and within a year they can get a child if its a good match.

Lastly, I have learned that documentary film is a tool and a form of academic expression that can easily be disseminated and convince others of the need for either addressing social injustice or positing potential policy solutions.

My last thing to say is thank you to all my peers and Professors for sometimes putting up with this crazy scholar here. I hope that someday whatever issue or idea we privledge above the rest can help get fixed or we can create more awareness and education in the next generations. Hopefully I will be teaching someone in Memphis Next school year and I hope to stay in touch with you all.


Jon Schwartz - Scholar at Large.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Although this article is not directly on topic, I thought it would relate to the physician assisted suicide documentary that a group showed in the last class.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Serious Issues with Human Rights Discourse (and more sweatshop talk)

A couple of weeks ago, Ben wrote a blog post concerning sweatshops and an economic defense of their existence and continued support. I began to formulate a comment in response to the post, but as I typed out my observations and counter-arguments, I came across some questions—big quesitons. Thinking about it further, I felt as if these questions were integral to our study of human rights, and merited a post of their own, thus…

One of the most convincing arguments in support of the defense of sweatshops is the claim that it is misguided and ignorant to hold businesses in the developing world to the same standards as those in the developed world. With this in mind, it is nearly impossible to define aspects of labor such as low wages and unsatisfactory working conditions in countries that are incredibly different from our own. Low wages and unsatisfactory conditions by American standards, although they may be troubling to us, do not necessarily translate into low wages and unsatisfactory conditions in the host country. Like Powell mentions in his article, sweatshops offer a considerable improvement from the state of abject poverty and/or unsteady, unreliable employment. He notes that sweatshop wages are more than double the national average in Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. When I hear this quantitative, measureable evidence as to the benefits of sweatshops, I find it hard to convince myself to support the upholding of so-called human rights in place of increased incomes for poor people (although I may still disagree with Powell's argument that sweatshops actually lead to overall development, but that's another conversation). The fact that sweatshop labor may actually be a step up from destitution merely solidifies what we should already know: the world is not fair. Although we're not often brought face-to-face with this fact, none of us should be surprised by this. If you live in the US, you are immeasurably "better off" than those born in any number of other countries. Opposing sweatshops by boycotting companies that employ sweatshop labor translates into a denial of increased incomes for desperately poor people for the sake of an idealized moral or philosophical standard— namely, the fact that you are personally uncomfortable with the idea of workers being paid what you consider to be low wages and working in what you consider to be unsatisfactory conditions to make your Nike kicks. Yes; wages and conditions in sweatshops can be considered "bad". But boycotting those companies may be worse. Although we feel better about retracting our support from companies who engage in this "bad" practice, I would argue that it is our true social responsibility to think through our actions all the way to their final outcome and the real-world implications of that outcome. In fact, some of you may agree with me in saying that it is not just our social responsibility, but our moral duty as well.

In spite of Powell's cogent argument in defense of sweatshops (and the supplemental case that I just finished arguing in the last two paragraphs), I have to recognize the fact that I fail to be philosophically, morally or socially satisfied by this approach. It seems to me that neither reaction to sweatshops (boycott such companies or increase support for them) goes far enough to redeem the dignity of the sweatshop laborers. Do I believe that the low compensation and poor working conditions of many sweatshops are an affront to human dignity and a violation of what I consider to be a human's inherent rights? Yes. I don't know whether or not underdeveloped economies would be better off without sweatshops, but I do know that the lesser-of-two-evils argument that defends sweatshops strikes me as pitiful and maybe even immoral. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, and our interactions—both economic and social—become more complicated, I still find it necessary to maintain our principles. We cannot sacrifice our conviction on the altar of economics or utility. But here's the trick: we must seek to maintain our principles in a socially responsible way instead of blindly appeasing our own consciences. If what mollifies our conscience leads to the calculable "worsening-off" of the very person we seek to help, I can't see how we've done any good at all.

All this talk brings me to my final question, and I think it's a good one. I think that Patrick hit the nail on the head when he suggested (in his comment to Ben's original post) that within the context of human rights discourse, there exists the notion of a "Wouldn't it be nice if…" world. This question has been gnawing at the back of my mind all semester, and I think it's time to ask: Is our definition of human right overly idealistic, so much so that it is not applicable to the world in which we live? By canonizing our conceptualization of human rights in the UDHR and other international norms, it seems to me that we are funneled into treating the world as if it were the world we think it ought to be, instead of the world that it truly is. Is there any country, state, or community in which the rights of the UDHR are fully upheld? How useful is this criteria, then, if even the model societies of the world cannot meet its standards? And further, how can we then expect to apply it to the parts of the world that fall so, immeasurably short of its idyllic ambitions? In a world with such vastly different societies, cultures, religions, traditions, socio-economic levels, ideologies, and politics, how helpful is it—really—to support human rights with one-size-fits all approach (credit, again, goes to Patrick for this phrase)? The difficulty of the sweatshop question highlights this inadequacy. I don't intend to pessimistically suggest that human rights discourse is entirely impracticable, but I think that if we ever want to extend the notion of human rights beyond the philosophy classroom and into the real world—a world of underdeveloped nations, sweatshops, and economists— then this must be seriously addressed. I must admit that I haven't yet found a satisfactory answer myself, so I'm hoping that one of you will have one.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is the right to healthcare as silly as the right to ice cream?

As many of you know, the GlobeMed chapter at Rhodes had a call for photo submissions in February, asking students and faculty/staff to complete the phrase, “Everyone has the right to ____,” and take a picture with their responses written on their hands. The purpose of the project was not for GlobeMed to weed through the submissions and pick out the ones that we thought reflected “proper” or “worthy” rights, but to spark discussion among the campus community around February 20th, the World Day of Social Justice.

After collecting the pictures and organizing them in an online gallery, along with the 31 other GlobeMed chapters that participated in similar projects on their campuses, we decided to put together an informal, video slideshow of the photos. The video caught the attention of Ben O’Neill, a formerly practicing lawyer and current statistics professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. In his article, “The Injustice of Social Justice,” O’Neill critiques the video’s portrayal of rights in order to argue that social justice campaigns are “intellectually bankrupt movements.”

I wanted to open this to discussion on the blog for a couple of reasons. Not only is the debate relevant to our class, but O’Neill claims that “most young people, at the age of undergraduate university students, have not been exposed to serious philosophical argument about the nature of rights...” That may be true, but we certainly have.

O’Neill argues that social justice organizations conflate desires with rights, and use the language of human rights to force governments to meet the needs of others. In retrospect, perhaps GlobeMed should have asked “everyone deserves ___” to avoid such misunderstandings. Yes, I agree that some of the “rights” depicted in the video are silly, such as the right to ice-cream. “An actual right is a moral prerogative derived from the application of moral philosophy to the nature of man,” O’Neill states. However, where I take issue with O’Neill’s argument is the claim that “it is actually no sillier to assert the right to rock-and-roll or ice cream than to assert the right to healthcare or education.” He argues that the differences between claiming a right to ice cream and a right to healthcare or education are “differences in degree, not in kind” because both are positive rights assertions that forcibly require someone else to provide a good for another person who is incapable of doing so by his or her own means. I think that the assertion for a right to health stems from a notion of fundamental human dignity, placing the right to a decent standard of health (Article 25, UDHR) in a completely different category from the "right" to ice cream.

Furthermore, O’Neill adds, “We see on the video an asserted right to ‘free education.’ We do not see the far more honest assertion of the right to ‘forcibly take money from others to pay for one’s own costly education.” Social justice organizations are not making this stuff up as they please. Article 26 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages...” Most social justice organizations are not arbitrarily inventing so-called rights as O’Neill argues in the article, but simply drawing attention to the already existing discourse and legislation on human rights.

O’Neill also argues that “there can be no such thing as a right to shoes, ice cream, or rock-and-roll, things that were once absent entirely from human invention.” One of many counter examples that stands out is from Article 15 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” In the scope of history, the concept of the nation-state, and thus the identity of nationality, is a relatively recent "invention." So, should we scrap Article 15 from the declaration because it asserts a right to an invented concept that has not existed from the very beginning of humanity?

Vulnerable Sovereignty

According to recent reports, the U.S. government is putting pressure on several of its allies to end the use of child soldiers. The countries in question are Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Yemen. According to the reports, the international community is expecting the U.S. to take steps to end the practice of these much smaller countries. Given our recent discussions of vulnerability and community I have begun to wonder what it is that makes us responsible for policing the actions of these countries. While I am aware of the reputation that the U.S. has given itself as an international policeman, I wonder if the expectations placed upon the U.S. by the international community are not more complicated than simply the fact that the U.S. has given itself a certain reputation. Could it be that the reason that we are expected the reform these smaller countries is that they are viewed as much more vulnerable than we are as Butler may point out? In other words, I wonder if the nation that is considered the least vulnerable suddenly becomes responsible for all of the those more vulnerable countries with whom it associates. Assuming that vulnerability is the difference that makes us responsible for the actions of these nations that we have allied ourselves with, what would the consequences be if we were seen as equally as vulnerable as these countries that we are expected to police? If our responsibility is based upon vulnerability, would that responsibility dissapear entirely as result of equality or would the responsibility fall upon someone that is outside of the group who has less vulnerability? Of course, underlying all of these questions is whether the recognition of vulnerability gives us more or less right to act upon the sovereignty of another country. In the current situation, I am curious both what the current system would say and what Butler system would propose for this problem of policing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another medical conundrum

In Manama, Bahrain, a group of guards is blocking the entrance to the city's main hospital. Inside the facility, there are very few, if any patients, because they have been arrested for participating in protests against the country's current civil conflict. Additionally, doctors, nurses, and EMT's have been arrested for caring for protesters who have been wounded.

It is believed by the Bahranian government that hospitals and clinics are hotbeds of Shiite conspirators, who are making attempts to destabilize the country and bring down the government. However, the problem now is that these hospitals have been blocked off by government officials, leaving the ill nowhere to go for care. The government has turned health care facilities into places of civil unrest and endorsed terrorism. Even ambulances have been followed by governmental agencies and have been blocked from aiding wounded protesters, many of whom were simply left to die in streets after violent outbursts.

The Bahranian government is assaulting the health care system, something that is necessary to promote the well being of a country's constituents. Through the attempt to gain control and power over the country, the government is doing far more harm than good. At what point does a nation state's desire for control become abusive? It seems to me that through the arresting of innocent health workers who simply do their job to protect citizens of the nation, the government is mandating ill care. The UDHR states that all constituents are entitled to security of person in all circumstances. Ill individuals now are limited in where they may go to receive health care because so many clinics have fallen under government scrutiny. What do you all think about this?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Revisiting torture

Torture; I know we spent a long time on it, however I found myself thinking about it today and discovering that I was still unsure as to what physical actions (or mental) qualify as this loaded term. Sure we sat outside in the sun and discussed what it could and couldn't be, yet I wonder about the video that we watched after, if it changed our collective view as much as it changed mine.

Originally I would have told you that humiliation in front of peers, while being degrading, unfortunate and unsettling, was most likely not torture. After seeing Ghosts of Abu Graib however, I wish to recant my previous view. I see the events that our government allowed and minimally punished as torture now, and it causes me to wonder where the boundaries really do lie. The boundaries that I refer to are not just those of our classification of torture but also of our perception of ourselves. I think that it is really interesting that we find ourselves in the precarious position of a hypocritical nation that is supposedly spreading peace and standing against terrorism while still behaving in this manner. (I hope that I am not alone in this sentiment)

The movie made me consider America's reaction to Japan after WWII when looking at how their army had treated the Chinese in Nanjing. Americans expressed such a wave of disgust at the horrid things (so horrid that I refrain from writing them here but I encourage anyone who does not know the particulars to look, as long as they promise not to blame me for the mental scarring that will follow) that these military men inflicted on the masses. Even more shocking was the Japanese response to the American wave of objection, which was that they were emulating our own government's handling of the enemy, which they based off of our previous war encounters. They thought that they were acting in the same way that "civilized westerners" acted. Even more disturbing is that they were not that far from the truth about us- one only has to look to the Spanish American war, or the U.S.A.'s involvement in squashing rebellions in South America to see this.

I had hoped that we had advanced in time from these brutal practices, yet this film shows me that the practices have only been switched torturing from the physical to the mental, totally reversing my standpoint on what torture is. So now I put it to you- am I the only one having this issue? What are your thoughts?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Does Butler Stretch too Far?

In class last Tuesday we did a very focused reading of one of Butler's arguments. However, we got so nit-picky that we never actually made it that far. For clarification's sake, here's my bare bones interpretation of her argument: We are all individual, autonomous beings who necessarily interact with each other. Here she moves on to describe the idea of community and its necessity for human beings. At the end, she wished for us to extend our idea of community to include those not in direct contact with us, not in our country, not hardly visible. Her reason for this seemingly small request is that many times in war, people from other countries become numbers in our eyes. They lose their humanity and become statistics. Butler believes that an extension of the idea of community to include human community would help terminate this problem.

Now I think Butler's argument sounds good off-the-cuff but, then again, what philosophy argument doesn't? In her argument, Butler admits that this version of community she is reaching for is indeed a weak version. No more than a community of humanity. My question then is: What's the point? Is turning a statistic into a Susan that easy? I don't think Americans are excluding enemies from the human community when they see statistics. I believe the reason for this is completely distinct from that and lies in the practical.

There are small communities, bigger ones, and bigger still on up the line. Communities frequently overlap or completely encompass others. There's my family community, my neighborhood, then my city, state, nation, etc... There is the college community, the community of a sports team, community business men. Now in all these everyone does not know everyone. However, there is generally some interaction, if only through a chain of people. Once one gets further and further from the core of one's personal life, the significance of community dwindles. The more effects tend to be of the butterfly sort, the less sense of community there is. Communities are practical occurrences, not convenient titles for philosophical nonsense. And a side note: In communities as small as cities, people still end up frequently being stats so how can we possibly hope to stop this at the global level?

An Interpretation of Derealization

“ …certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized, that they cannot fit any dominant frame for the human…” ( Butler 34).

These are Judith Butler’s words in regards to her conception of derealization of the human. As we studied in class, this process of derealization causes some humans to not even fit in the category of human beings because they are not recognized as being a human being. However, here is what I find confusing about this idea of derealization: can someone be more “real” and grievable over the time causing him or her to transform into being ungrievable and move into the category of unreal? Also, is it possible to be born ungrievable and then move into becoming “ real” and considered to have a life that is grievable? I am not sure if Butler means this conception of derealization as a process that can change overtime or if it is a definite placement outside the limits of humanity.

Franz Fanon’s theory about “ The Gaze” led me to wonder about the extent and limits on Judith Butler idea of derealization and the reality of the human. "The Gaze" for Fanon is the objectifying look or "The Gaze" that Fanon received that placed him into the category of an object. Thus, “ The Gaze” itself is the look that objectifies another person and takes away his or her subjectivity just through a look, without any words. “The Gaze” causes Fanon to be seen as an object by the other person. Objects are not considered humans therefore, Fanon is outside the realm of human because of this objectification. Thus, as Fanon move from the category of human to the category of object, does that equate in any way to Butler’s conception of derealization?

Also, throughout the chapter on “Violence, Mourning, and Politics”, Butler states, “The “I” who cannot come into being without a “you” is also fundamentally dependent on a set of norms of recognition…” ( 45). Therefore, because of the lack of recognition of Fanon as a human and just an object eliminates true recognition for him as well leading him go through derealization.

I might be interpreting Butler’s idea of derealization and qualification for ungrievability incorrectly. It may not be a life process that can move you from being unrecognized and ungrievable to recognized and grievable or vice versa. Butler might be claiming a person is born into the state of derealization and cannot escape or transform away from this state. Thus, with the example of Franz Fanon’s "The Gaze"in mind, do you think Butler’s derealization is a reversible transformation or a permanent state of being?

The Limits of Human Rights

As the semester draws to a close, I have had to confront a growing uneasiness about the discourse of human rights as a whole. Week after week on the blog, I see entries promoting or questioning the "Human right to _____",  and the entire constellation of human rights claims is most assuredly extensive and varied. To speak of some end as a human right has now become a standard means of achieving its implementation, wrapping one's cause in an aura of moral necessity. The total effect of these myriad claims is to advance a moral and political order in which virtually all norms are conceived of in terms of human rights: hence we see the case in the Britain where shop clerks were forbidden to post pictures of a wanted thief for fear it would violate her human rights (as to which right was being violated, I am unclear). 

Part of the problem seems to lie in confusion over the source of such rights. The traditional Enlightenment view holds that certain rights are written in the natural order and evident in human nature. However, the more specific and extensive claims to human rights become, the less they can be plausibly grounded in such abstract terms. It may be instructive to compare the content of the Declaration of Independence with the UDHR; one can foresee some difficulty in asserting that all humans "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are protection against unemployment, periodic holidays with pay, and a share in scientific advancement and its benefits." To take the Universal Declaration at its word, these are rights just as innate in all people as are life and liberty. 

Perhaps, rather, what we mean by human rights is no longer natural rights, but rather rights that all humans ought to have, or that the United Nations (as the closet thing to a world government in existence) has established for them. Even here, however, any claim to universal validity must have some sort of universal moral basis to back it up. If the issue is merely general utility or happiness, there are countless political ends of pursuing these goals. Indeed, we read this telling caveat towards the end of the UDHR:

 In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

I agree with this passage, for what it's worth, but "just requirements morality, public order, and the general welfare" can be taken to mean anything whatsoever. In other words, all the rights listed above must be totally respected, except when they musn't. The key political issue, of course, is working out what "just requirements" means. Politics concerns itself with balancing moral and material interests, not with pursuit of absolute goals (the absolutist polities are generally the most terrible).

Yet this is not to deny that certain moral claims on the state are universal. No state has a right to arbitrary imprisonment or execution, to torture, to persecution. Human rights may be a useful concept for constraining such bestial practices. Claims to rights against these abuses can justifiably said to be applicable to all persons based on the principle of essential moral equality. But because these rights are so abstract in foundation (as they must be, to apply universally), they serve best as to mark limits of what is morally and politically permissible. They cannot determine the content of the social and political order, which as Burke puts it "vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications".

The first problem with a "human rights society", then, is political. The second is moral. Namely, the egocentric nature of rights as something held by the individual  independent of others degrades the moral life the more it is permitted to define our lives. Rights, human or otherwise, have their place in creating rules of the game in our interactions with one another in society. But in truth they are most useful in allowing individuals to make rectificatory claims for wrongs they have suffered. No one can have a particularly admirable or satisfying life by making it his goal only to respect the rights of others while upholding his own. The more we are conscious of our "rights", the more the concepts of duty and obligation seem to fade into the background. The moral implications are serious; because rights are something held by the individual, they are easier to violate and ignore if the victim is incapable of asserting them.

Obligations, conversely, apply first and foremost to the moral actor and fit into a moral framework which is larger than any individual. If I were seeking to dissuade one of the hapless guards at Abu Ghraib from torturing prisoners, I would not say "you are violating that man's human rights!" Rather I would simply point out the action is immoral, despicable, dishonorable and (if the potential torturer is inclined to such terminology) sinful. These are appeals to moral obligations that go beyond the individual whose rights are being violated, who after all may not be very sympathetic, despite our appeals to his essential humanity. Or consider more positive moral actions; the homeless man on the street has no right to my assistance, in the sense of an absolute claim. Nonetheless I have a moral obligation (albeit an imperfect obligation, in the Kantian sense) to help those less fortunate than myself, and on a broader societal level the same holds true (though the implementation and particulars of any efforts to aid the distressed of society is a political matter, and cannot be reduced to moral bromides). 

Human rights, then, have their limitations. Both a proper political order and any kind of meaningful inner life cannot be guided primarily by appeals to humanity in the abstract. I suspect the promiscuous proliferation of human rights claims tend to undermine both.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Medical Marijuana, A Human Right?

As my group and I have gotten further into our documentary project we have been delving into the medical field and specifically, we have been facing the real life topic of terminally ill individuals. As described by Google Dictionary, “Terminal illness is a medical term popularized in the 20th century to describe an active and malignant disease that cannot be cured or adequately treated and that is reasonably expected to result in the death of the patient.” One of the most common forms of terminal illness that people tend to associate with terminal illness is cancer. Cancer is a type of disease, which is caused by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in any part of the body. Cancer has become a phenomenon and unfortunately most of us can say we know someone who has suffered from cancer or are currently battling against cancer. Since cancer is so predominant in our current society, one of the most debated topics involving cancer is medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana seems to have a long list of both pros and cons. Supporters of medical marijuana argue that it is a safe and effective treatment for symptoms of cancer. If medical marijuana has the potential to relieve cancer patients from potential pain or pain that already exists then is it a human right to be able to be free of that pain? Although marijuana is not a legal substance, should cancer patients or terminally ill patients be allowed to use the illegal drug as a means to rid themselves of pain they face because of their medical problems?

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not explicitly state that human beings should be free from suffering, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, people have the right “not to suffer.” Why do you think there is a difference between the Universal Declaration and the European Convention? Is suffering a human right violation, specifically for those who are terminally ill? If suffering is a human right violation, should medical marijuana be legal for people who desperately need relief from the pain they suffer from each day? Below I will include a link I found that directly deals with the controversial issue of medical marijuana. I encourage you all to look at the link then please let me know what you think. Although the UDHR would not find the case of medical marijuana plausible but it’s standards, do you think that this should change? Let me know that you think. Link

Monday, April 4, 2011

An argument against prostitution… and an argument for it

Although most people assume that prostitution is generally a bad thing, and that its participants are victims of some sort, there are some convincing arguments to the contrary. Instead of expressing my personal opinion or arguing for what I believe here, I want to briefly outline both cases and then pose some questions that relate this issue to our study of human rights.

AGAINST PROSTITUTION: Prostitution is not about women enjoying rights over their own bodies; on the contrary, it is an expression of men's control over women's sexuality. It is about gendered, ethnic, age, racial and class power relations. By no means can there be "consent of two adults", when one party is the buyer and the other the seller, especially when the buying party happens to be socially constructed as the better sex, race, or class. Prostitution is not a choice made by free will, but rather by social and financial pressures and desperation, and it is a violation of human rights.

FOR PROSTITUTION: Prostitution is the voluntary sale of a labor service. Individuals own their own bodies and their own labor services and have the absolute right to decide how those labor services should be used. As long as the prostitution transaction is voluntary, there is no justification for interference. Such interference would be an infringement of the privacy and personal liberty of the individuals involved. Everyone has the human right to work and freely choose their employment. Prostitution clearly does not constitute a violation of human rights.

So what do you think— Is prostitution a violation of human rights? If it is a human's choice to participate in activities that "violate" their human rights, are there human rights still violated? Are we morally obligated to respect their decisions as rational, free actors, or the UNHDR?

Thinking about this makes me also consider the obligations (if any) of the rights-enforcer. If a woman is "rescued" from human rights violations enacted against her while she is a prostitute, is her liberator responsible for remedying the social and financial situation which lead the woman to become a prostitute in the first place? Clearly, the UNDHR and international law suggests that a rights-enforcer's duty is to address the violated right, not the situation which breeds it.

Let's think of another example: Say you feel strongly that a baby's life begins in the womb, and that by aborting it, you are robbing it of its right to life. Because of this, you feel it is your moral duty to protect the human rights of the unborn, so you "intervene" by voting for Pro-Life legislation in your state. Say the law is passed. Is now also your moral duty to help provide for all of the children that would have otherwise been aborted—buying them formula and changing their diapers? Most people do not see "human rights enforcement" in this way.

It seems to me that herein lies one of the biggest problems with human rights and their enforcement. Human rights violations don't often appear out of thin air; they arise from circumstance that encourage and instigate them. Although we may feel it's our moral duty to intervene when human rights are violated, we rarely feel such conviction to respond to the circumstances themselves. What do you think? Do we have a duty to expand our notion human rights enforcement? To what extent? What if that infringes upon the will of the "victim"? Do we have a greater duty to respect the decisions of the individual?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Doctors in the prison system

I was thinking back to our discussion on torture, and specifically on the issues of Abu Ghraib, when a thought occurred to me. What sort of medical professionals were present in the prison? Very little mention was ever made of a physician, and the fact that prisoners were consistently denied the right to a health professional might indicate either the absence of such an individual or the of presence apathetic medical personnel.

 More and more cases are arising where prison or correctional facility physicians are having either their license suspended to practice medicine or where they are simply being relieved of duty. Many times (such as this case: http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/projects/prison3/lo010603s4.shtml), doctors are being charged with gross incompetence, and others are being charged with involuntary manslaughter. I agree, that at times, many physicians in the correctional facilities around the country (and world) do not practice under the same standards that regulate federal health care. What remains true, though, is that the life of a prison physician is far from glamorous. Many adverse factors gravely affect prison medical staff, ranging from lack of resources or funding, to the sadly frequent practice that many nation states use: utilizing the prison system as a dumping ground for marginalized individuals and those with mental illness -- the "misfits" of society, if you will. Are prisons places where those who are ill have lost their standing in humankind? Should national medical associations make certain that these physicians have the same requirements for certification as a regulatory practice medical professional?

Most correctional facilities are state-run, with the exception of little dots of private institutions here and there throughout the United States. After some thought, I'm beginning to wonder if the state has a huge bearing on the requirements and performance of correctional facility physician and perhaps even nurses. Additionally, the use of lethal injection is legal in many states. A case a few years ago arose in Washington state where a prison physician resigned because he refused to administer a lethal injection. Whereas the American Medical Association  condemns physicians from having any direct role in lethal injections, including "any action that would assist, supervise or otherwise contribute in any way to cause the death of the condemned" (AMA). My point in bringing this up is that the states that run these places seem to have very little thought in the healthcare of the prisoners and in the ethical guidelines that many doctors believe must be adhered to in correctional facilities.

What do you guys think?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Secret Prison Camps in Baghdad

In this article, Human Rights Watch describes an Iraqi detention center that participated in the active torturing of its ~175 detainees. Up until March 14, 2011, Camp Honor, as it was ironically named, held its prisoners in “horrible conditions” and investigators witnessed evidence of multiple torture techniques. Among other human rights infractions, Camp Honor’s interrogators actively used electric shock intervention all over the prisoners’ bodies, lashed them, placed bags over their heads until they asphyxiated, and hung prisoners upside down for days at a time. Upon the discovery of such conditions, the prisoners were moved to other detention centers in and around Baghdad and Camp Honor was closed.

While these prisoners have been moved from Camp Honor to other detention camps (i.e. Camp Justice), little hope is had as to whether or not the torturous conditions will end. In fact, it would be hard to believe that any progress has been made at all. Human Rights Watch said that, “in response to repeated allegations of serious abuse at Iraqi detention facilities, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement on March 19 reiterating that ‘there are no secret detention centers, and all prisons and detention centers are open to regulatory authorities and judicial authorities, which must report any violations found, if any, and notify judicial authorities to take legal action against the perpetrators.’” However a previous report filed by HRW outlined a newly discovered secret prison within one of the detention centers that those from Camp Honor were sent to—Camp Justice. What is more, though, is that this camp, as well as the secret camp within it, are “run by the same forces” that were in charge at Camp Honor—the 56th brigade and the Counterterrorism Service—“both of which report directly to the prime minister” mentioned above. What may not come as a surprise, though, is that the “Counterterrorism Service works closely with U.S. Special Forces.”

While this video is not particularly enlightening, it gives you an idea of where these camps are and what is being done (up until 2:44).

So, is torture within detention centers such as these a never-ending cycle? Will we only continue to uncover more and more of these treacherous places? In regards to our reading last week—of which I am still thinking about quite a bit—this article brings up perhaps some support for Dershowitz’s argument that torture is going to happen, and there is not much we can do about it. I for one still do not buy it. I feel as though this part of Dershowitz’s argument takes a lazy relativist approach: one that dismisses the possibility for change. It is in camps like these, which we have seen plenty of times before, where we need to ask ourselves the question, how? How do we make change? If torture is cultivated by the environmental surroundings of an individual, how do we make that environment change? How do we make these detention centers transparent? And, most importantly, how do we teach the governing officials of these camps what has already been proven: torture does not work? Do you all believe that torture is inevitable?

Do Sweatshops Fight Poverty?

This past weekend I attended a bunch of lectures on campus put on by the Institute of Humane Studies. It was advertized as addressing capitalism and its discontents, however it almost exclusively promoted capitalism and denied its discontents any viable position. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted those who oppose capitalism to have dominated discussion, but I would have made for a more profitable discussion for everyone if both sides had been able to adequately present their views.

One topic in particular really caught my attention. One of the speakers, Benjamin Powell, presented a lecture entitled ‘In Defense of Sweatshops’. I was interested in how Powell would surely redefine sweatshops such that they did not encompass the factories with terrible working conditions and low pay that usually come to mind. However, he did not. In his defense, Powell did stipulate that the sweatshops he was defending did not include those that coerced its workers to continue to work at the factory. The main theme of the entire weekend seemed to be liberty, so uncoerced labor is extremely important. Coercion aside, Powell argued that working conditions in 3rd world sweatshops were actually better than other occupations in 3rd world countries, and that Western companies were actually improving lives. By offering citizens of developing countries better alternatives than what they would have had otherwise, we are effectively making their lives better off.

As the lone philosophy major in a sea of economics and political majors, I did my best to defend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights of sweatshop workers. It was interesting to see the range of responses. Some simply laughed and said that such rights were too ideological, while others argued that such rights actually hurt workers by infringing on their ability to work overtime and make choices for themselves.

The position that enforcing some of these rights in the 3rd world is detrimental to the workers themselves seems to hinge on a very relativistic notion of ‘better off’. The economist argues that if a rational agent ‘freely’ chooses one option over another, then it makes him or her better off. This of course assumes perfect knowledge, as well as a very narrow definition coercion. The economist often uses these terms without defining them properly. However this does not refute the empirical evidence that workers in sweatshops make a considerable amount more than workers working in traditional occupations. Traditional work often is much more labor intensive and overall more strenuous than sweatshop labor. Are Western companies outsourcing jobs actually doing the 3rd world a favor? Is Powell correct in arguing that by spending more money on goods produced by sweatshops we are actually aiding in the fight against poverty?

Here’s a link to Powell’s online article about sweatshops: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2008/Powellsweatshops.html

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tortured State of Exception

In class, we discussed the issue of whether or not a state of exception of should be created for torture. While I presented an argument in class, I feel that it got a bit derailed and would like to clarify my position. The initial point that I wanted to make regarding the use of torture is that there is no fundamental difference between what we have already deemed an illegal human rights violation and be carrying out as a newly legalized human rights violation. While we do not hold the state and its agents to the same legal standards as non-state actors, we do not generally go so far as to say that a state may simply ignore human rights all together. As torture has already been identified as a human rights violation, I don't think it is right that attributing it to state actors is enough to justify its use. Furthermore, those cases in which we do make exceptions for things that we would normally consider illegal and immoral (whether for the state or non-stat actors) are highly qualified versions of the acts such that there is some significant difference in the conditions under which they would occur legally and illegally. For instance, we make a distinction between murder, killing in self-defense, and the death penalty; however, the already illegal form or torture as an interogation technique and the proposed legalized form do not appear to differ in any distinguishable way. Given these considerations, I see no reason to weaken our stance against governmental use of torture as an interogation technique.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Extreme patient care: Cooing at a baby a violation human rights?

When searching for some fresh human rights material, I came across a curious article in the British newspaper The Times titled "How do you infringe a baby's human rights? Just say 'coo'" (2005). According to the article, some hospitals have outlawed cooing at babies because it was decided that such behavior violates the newborn's human rights. In fact, the article cites a hospital in Halifax, West Yorkshire, where newborns are not allowed to be examined, fussed over or cooed at, and well-wisher have been banned from asking mothers about their babies.

The hospital expresses that a stringent commitment to human rights is at the heart of the issue—they are legally bound to uphold the privacy and dignity of every patient, so why should that of newborns be any different? They claimed that although people may be well-intentioned with their doting and questioning, a newborn is not respected when it is treated like produce in a supermarket. Throughout the maternity unit, signs have even been posted saying, "What makes you think I want to be looked at?"

This idea has, not surprisingly, been criticized by many. The article interviews new mothers who find the rules a ridiculous case of patient confidentiality gone wrong, claiming that they feel offended when people don't ask them about their new baby and fuss over him/her. One mother even goes so far to say that it is cruelty to ask visitors to ignore the newborns, as it deprives them of the attention that babies need.

I'll admit that when I first read this article, it seemed silly to me— crazy British bureaucracy. But the more I thought about it, the more it began to seem almost appropriate. Although a people group may not know about their rights or actively claim them, they still deserve such rights given their inherent humanity (this is pretty much the foundational thought behind human rights). So the same should apply to newborn babies, yes? And just because someone's parent or legal guardian does not agree with the extent to which human rights are ascribed to the person under their charge, are that person's rights no longer valid? Certainly not.

So what do you think? I assume that everyone in this class would ascribe human rights to a newborn, but is this kind of legislation a bit extreme? Although the babies themselves cannot express a desire to claim these rights, is it nonetheless our responsibility to ensure that they are upheld? And what happens when the consequence of these rights contradicts with the wishes of the baby's parents? Finally—and this may be where I disagree with the legislation— are the rights to dignity and privacy really violated by the cooing and questioning of baby-crazy strangers and relatives?

The Right to Lie

Kant claims that because lying somehow self contradicts itself according to the categorical imperative that lying is immoral. In class I asked if lying can be considered immoral in itself. Consider this: a sick man wants to find your puppy so he can harm it. He asks you where your puppy is and says that if you don't tell him where your puppy is he will cut off your hand (this guy is real messed up). Could lying possibly be justified as still immoral but permissible in extreme circumstances? Kant's imperative leaves no room for exceptions, how much do you value arm?

Lying allegedly produces a contradiction because a known falsity said, heard and consequently believed by the receiving party produces a false idea in the mind of the receiving party. Is there anything inherently immoral about another person not knowing the truth of something? What imperative do we have to stand by our word at all costs? It doesn’t take a genius to understand that in some cases telling the truth would be plain stupid.

In my opinion, lying can be a powerful and versatile tool for manipulating one’s circumstances—poker being a prime example. Associating an inherent value with an idea was dismissed when Sartre declared existence to precede essence. The immorality of lying may be factored into a utilitarian analysis, if one is so inclined, but perceived results should be considered as well. I propose that lying in itself holds no moral value, that its moral or immoral value corresponds directly to its positive or negative consequences. Lying does contain some innate negative consequences. Being regarded as an honest person has great benefits when aiming to be trusted. Lying, especially when unnecessary, places trust on the line because the hearer now has the lie to compare with the truth, should the truth come to his knowledge. This, along with any self-incurred guilt—Raskolnikov—is the only inherently immoral component in lying.

Other positive or negative consequences of lying strictly dependent on circumstances may be ignored; as it has been demonstrated, telling the truth is just a privy to adverse results. Lying and telling the truth are neutral in value. A prudent person knows the right way to lie. Don’t buy into Kant’s categorical imperative. Telling the truth benefits the receiver of the truth. Having the option to lie when appropriate benefits you. Don’t let Kant live you life for you.

Torture Warrants

In his article “Tortured Reasoning,” Alan Dershowitz explains that, while teaching and researching in Israel, he learned that the Israeli Secret Service employs a number of techniques on detainees in an attempt to prevent future terrorist attacks. Although he does not consider these techniques outright “torture” (he refers to their methods as “rough interrogation” in his article), Dershowitz argues that they violate core civil liberties and human rights (258). During his stay in Israel, Dershowitz presented the Israeli government and judiciary with an interesting dilemma: “is it worse to close our eyes to [torture] and tolerate its use by low-level law enforcement officials without accountability, or instead to bring it to the surface by requiring that a warrant of some kind be required as a precondition to the infliction of any type of torture under any circumstances” (257). If an investigator who believes that torture is necessary in order to save lives applies to a judge, Dershowitz argues, a judge would then have the authority and responsibility to determine whether or not (s)he should be granted a “torture warrant” (263). Dershowitz believes that this type of process could have eliminated the abuses committed in the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Dershowitz argues that, when “no lines are drawn, no guidelines issued, and no accountability accepted,” our leaders in Washington and our leaders on the field subtly sent a message to the police officials within the prison that it was acceptable to take any action that would allow them to obtain important information (276). If these officials were required to attain a “torture warrant” in this specific situation, Dershowitz believes that there would have been an authorized method for securing information through the use of extraordinary measures; judges would have gotten their “hands dirty” and high-ranking officials would not have been able to hide behind plausible deniability. “If the man with the hammer must get judicial approval before he can use it, he will probably use it less often and more carefully” (271).

If such a requirement is enforced, would it really reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of torture? Although Dershowitz argues that requiring a warrant would allow neutral and detached magistrates to decide whether or not torture is necessary in a given situation, it seems that Dershowitz fails to consider how the “magistrates” would respond when making these decisions. If these warrants could potentially save lives, would it matter whether or not judges dirtied their hands or high-ranking officials were unable to hide behind plausible deniability?

Saleh v. Titan: An Exception to the Law?

In a CNN interview with John King regarding a new CIA investigation, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell stated, “No one is above the law.” With that quote in mind and after our viewing of The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I was interested in seeing which court cases occurred in relation to the crimes that occurred at Abu Ghraib. It was terrifying to learn that the detainees were randomly taken from their homes on the basis of groundless suspicion and that the women and children were captured for emotional torture and tortured themselves without having committing any wrongdoings. While looking through the aftermath trials on Abu Ghraib, I came across the case of Saleh v Titan.

Saleh v Titan is fighting for 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against the dehumanizing actions of the CACI International Incorporated and Titan Corporation (now L-3 Services) at Abu Ghraib .This charge is composed of two separate suits against two corporations that are private military contractors who provided services to the U.S. government for operating the military prison camp of Abu Ghraib. In September 11th, 2009, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant, Titan/L-3 and CACI. The case is still in progress because of Circuit Judge Garland’s dissent on the case who claimed that this case should be further pursued as he was in favor of the prosecutors.

If you want more details on the case Saleh V Titan, here are the links to the case details:



It is important to note that Titan/L-3 and CACI were private military contractors who were participating in furthering acts at Abu Ghraib. With that said, do the private contractors who are sanctioning and furthering the dehumanization of innocent people through acts such as forced nudity and violent abuse, not guilty of that charge? I just find it hard to believe that a plaintiff group of 250 detainees claiming the same charge against Titan/L-3 and CACI is not enough witness based evidence for Titan/L-3 and CACI to be found guilty of torture. The large number of plaintiffs cannot simply be ignored; the Supreme Court has to acknowledge the evidence that lays in that number, 250, itself as this case continues.

The decision on Saleh v. Titan was counterintuitive to me. Thus I wanted to ask, one, are there different laws specifically applicable to the rights of private military contractors? Two, do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the defendants? Three, does such a court decision of not prosecuting the private military contractors,Titan/L-3 and CACI,place them, in a sense, “above the law”?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Regarding Pimps and Waterboarding

One has to give Alan Dershowitz credit for testicular fortitude, since I very much doubt his advocacy of torture warrants earned him many friends in academia. Furthermore, I found his framing of the argument for the effective legalization of torture to be somewhat novel; Dershowitz does not seek to defend torture on moral grounds, but rather argues that since its use is inevitable in certain cases, institutionalizing the practice will subject it to greater scrutiny and thereby limit the amount and severity of torture that would otherwise occur "under the radar". If you truly oppose torture, in this view, the best course of action is to bring it into the light of day, even if that means partially legitimizing it.

My astonishment at Dershowitz's sheer (if fairly well-reasoned) audacity diminished somewhat when I realized that the logical structure of his argument for legalized torture was much the same as the standard argument for legalized prostitution: in essence, "This is not going away, no matter how unpleasant it is, so we may as well make it legal in order to ensure transparency and prevent the worst abuses." Just as anti-prostitution laws have failed to eliminate the demand for commercial sex, anti-torture laws and treaties have failed to prevent governments from engaging in torture when they have found it advantageous. In Dershowitz's view, the sub rosa nature of torture leads to greater abuse, just as, in the view of proponents of legalized prostitution, the underground nature of the sex business aggravates its worst aspects (trafficking and abuse of women, spread of disease, etc.).

I would not favor Dershowitz's institutionalized torture for the same reason that I do not favor legalized prostitution: even if bringing the practice into official scrutiny would decrease its use (a contention of which I am dubious), there are some practices which are degrading and unworthy of a civilized society, and should not be condoned. No doubt in Dershowitz's view I thereby shut my eyes to the reality of torture, but I fully recognize that certain moral principles (such as an aversion to torture and the duty to defend the lives of innocents) may sometimes be mutually exclusive. I simply believe that leaving the resolution of such situations up to the consciences of the individuals involved is preferable to institutionalizing any recognition of a barbaric practice such as torture. 

Nor do I share Dershowitz's fetish for transparency; if the Wikileaks imbroglio has shown anything, it's that unbounded scrutiny of government action does not do unbounded good. Government should be held accountable, but that accountability must be balanced against the need of the agents of the state to navigate moral dilemmas in the service of the national interest. I have little doubt that the exigencies of extreme cases will always lead the state to do whatever it deems necessary; better to operate with that understanding than to legally debase our traditional aversion to torture; it reamains as a check on those who are tempted to stretch the boundaries of "necessity". 

Dershowitz refers to this view as "the way of hypocrites". So be it. There are worse things than hypocrisy, and it is preferable to sometimes fail to live up to our standards than to abandon them in the name of accountability.

Gray Lines in the UDHR?

Between our discussion of torture and my specific documentary for class, I am having to do a lot of evaluating of gray area. While we debated the legitimacy of torture last class, the plain fact is it is explicitly prohibited by the UDHRs and, therefore, no is the final word. In the same article that excludes torture the UDHR also prohibits cruel or degrading treatment. I'm not sure if these are supposed to be lesser forms on the torture scale or just other similar categories the document wanted to encompass, but I'm wondering what we are specifically supposed to take from this right? Degrading treatment. Is jailing a homeless man for loitering degrading? Or is it simply necessary? What about having social workers hound those on welfare, constantly evaluating their need? Is prohibiting someone without a roof access to sleep in our public parks cruel, or just necessary for the upkeep of societal standards?

Article three grants the right to security of person. What does that mean? Certainly, it implies some security from government intervention in one's private life, but security seems far more broad. Does security include shelter as a subheading? I certainly feel like a shelter is the most fundamental form of security. If so, how is it that homeless people are allowed to exist as such? If our country is in compliance with UDHR, shouldn't it homing the homeless left and right. Certainly there are shelters, but do those fall under the category of security really?

My last thought strain. These last two paragraphs I obviously lead the reader to understand I was a bit dubious of the relationship between UDHR and American reality. However, I also have to ask, "At what point is the government no longer responsible for a citizen?" These articles are rights, but this is also a country of personal liberties. Is the government absolutely responsible for a baseline standard of living for everyone, or can an individual lose access to that right through personal folly?

The International Red Cross and Gitmo

Though Ghosts of Abu Ghraib focused primarily on the torture practices within the Abu Ghraib prison, it also briefly mentioned the similar techniques in use at the Guantanamo Bay Military Prison. The film stated that the US government did not allow observers in Gitmo, which struck me as odd, for I thought that observers from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) had been allowed in (in fact, I had thought it was leaked parts of their report that had originally caused the Gitmo scandal).

I did some digging and discovered on the ICRC webpage that observers have been working at Gitmo since 2002. But they refuse to speak about the conditions they have observed, preferring instead to work directly with U.S. officials to solve any problems (though the ICRC admits there are problems).

This is policy for the ICRC. As the official protector of the Geneva Conventions they observe prison conditions worldwide, but they refuse to report their findings to the world at large, for reasons of neutrality. They contend that by maintaining absolute neutrality on political issues, they are ensured continued prison visits. And were they ever to break that policy, their access would be denied.

I've always found this part of ICRC policy a little problematic. I understand the argument: we can do more for prisoners if we have continued access to them. But couldn't the world do more to stop torture if we knew about it? Wouldn't pressure from America's allies, from other international organizations, from her own citizens be more likely to end torture than pressure from the ICRC?

What do you think? Is this policy of absolute neutrality a good one? Is there a better policy?

Wow, Latinos and Jews are the Real American Threat

This morning I was reading the internet, when this article was sent to me by a professor. I thought that in light of the documentary we watched about Abu Ghraib, this article tries to debunk the common fear of Islamic terrorism. Overall this article is an interesting examination of who has most frequently has made attacks on US soil, breaking terrorists into the ethnic, political or religious group they belong to.
Some on the Military Police in the film mentioned that they had to kill these people before they killed Americans. Little did they know but while 9-11 maybe have been the worst case of terrorism in this nation's history and though it was perpetrated by Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, this was truly an anomaly even among US terrorism.

From the above article I found that indeed Islamic terrorism has occurred, but it only accounts for 6%. The data is based on the FBI database of terrorism, so it includes eco-terrorists, narco-terrorists, religious terrorists and political terrorists. Still it was surprising to find out that the Latinos account for 42%, while this is surely an exaggerated number. Overall this should make us (America) rethink the supposed common sense that it is Muslims and Muslim-Americans who pose the biggest threat. Look at the chart below to see who actually attacked US soil between 1980 and 2005. It puts things in perspective. What if instead of Muslims we scapegoated all Latinos, incarcerated them and profiled them?
Wouldnt we find a handful of bad guys, drug terrorists, maybe a youth who made few friends and wanted to seek revenge on a nation who did not accept his Latino people? YES we would, just like we have found maybe 50 suspected Muslim terrorists, we have to realist about how we profile and fight terrorism.

Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil by Group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Psychological Rights

After viewing the documentary on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, I felt overwhelmed with emotions of embarrassment, anger, severe sadness, and an urge to figure out why the United States would reprimand the soldiers that were following orders, yet honor the man that had commanded and urged their actions. The HBO documentary showed the irony of the situation regarding General Geoffrey Miller and his “service” to the United States. The paradox that is found in the United States reaction to the reports of torture seem to be centered around the accountability for psychological influence or manipulation. To further clarify the situation, the soldiers were held responsible for their actions that were inflicted upon the detainees. They were taught ways of torture that do not create pain, but rather psychological repercussions and psychological pain. After doing further research, I found that the CIA has constructed numerous studies on the proper ways of managing torture victims to make them feel as though they are inflicting pain upon themselves. Through this, they are able to beat the detainee down enough psychologically that they succumb to the interrogator. The psychological pain and manipulation is a lot harder to overcome in comparison to physical torture. The inability to simply overcome psychological torture reiterates the power of the mind and the way experiences can alter psyche of a person.
The soldiers were held accountable for the manipulation of the detainees’ psychological stress, yet it seems their own psychological reliability should have been in question. The Stanford Prison Experiment in conjunction with the Milgram Experiment reiterates human beings willingness to comprise their moral obligations when put in a position of authority and instructed on how to behave. These two studies are easily accessed and readily known nation wide.
The soldiers are held responsible for their behavior towards the detainees, yet why was General Miller not considered the ultimate source of the behavior. It seems to me there is a double standard occurring here that may be completely political, yet morally corrupt and a violation of the soldiers human rights. If they are going to be held for the psychological distress they ensued under the presumption they are benefitting the country, would it not make sense to hold General Miller accountable for his behavior under the same principle. Psychological torture has not been given enough attention in our society and in the United States. It is evident that the amount of pain someone can endure without being touched may even exceed physical harm or pain. If this is true, why haven’t we taken greater action to figuring out a better way to judge psychological pain. What are some ways in which we could account for psychological issues? Do you feel like freedom from psychological torture is a human right? How could these problems be judged?

Do the Ends Justify the Means in Torture?

After watching the short documentary on Abu Ghraib I became curious about the psychology of the torturers. I stumbled across the article “The Psychology of Torture: Past Incidents Show Abusers Think Ends Justify the Means,” which I found on the Washington Post website. The article attempted to explain why people who tortured at places like Abu Ghraib did not feel as if what they were doing were violating human rights. The post explained that, “Torturers usually believe they are carrying out the will of their societies -- and feel betrayed when the public professes outrage after the abuses come to light, said a range of historians, activists and psychologists.” I think the Post raises a point that the soldiers might have thought they were doing their duty for the country and instead of questioning the methods they were told to inflict on the people, they did them and adjusted to their assigned “duty,” for the “good of the country.”

The Post claims that, “Human rights activists said such arguments stand on a slippery slope: Once captors are given license to torture, the abuse of large numbers of prisoners usually becomes standard operating procedure.” However, with this point, the Post raises another position that reflects how Americans react to torture. The Post acknowledges that Americans were shocked about the reports from Baghdad, yet in a poll taken in October 2001, 45 percent of Americans claimed they were willing to use torture, “if it were necessary to combat terrorism.” Although the poll was taken with the support of “hypothetical scenarios in which a terrorist had knowledge about an attack planned on the United States,” Americans still thought torture would be an acceptable method to extract information to help the greater good. Although the Americans in this case seem to use a Utilitarian position to justify their logic to torture terrorists, do the ends justify the means in torture? The Post says, “The U.S. troops who abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely not pathological sadists but ordinary people who felt they were doing the dirty work needed to win the war, experts in the history and psychology of torture say.” I am by no means trying to rationalize the behavior performed in Abu Ghraib prison (actually I was quite mortified by the video), but I want to ask the class where do you think psychology comes into play with torture? In what situations would torture be acceptable? Is the utilitarian approach the only approach to rationalize the abuse of others to gain information? Ultimately, do the ends justify the means in torture?

I encourage you all to look at the article, it isn’t too long but it is interesting!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Human Nature

Our discussion last Tuesday reminded me of a video I had seen recently on RSA Animate, a website with a series of short, animated lectures (which are often pretty funny). If you can spare 10 minutes, I’d highly recommend watching this talk by Jeremy Rifkin on “The Empathic Civilization.”

Rifkin begins by arguing that human nature is not based on materialism or self-interest, but empathy. Humans are “soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves,” Rifkin says, citing the phenomenon of mirror neurons. Here’s an example of mirror neurons: if you see someone touch a hot stove, the same neurons in your brain would light up as if you had actually touched the stove too. Studies have shown that chimpanzees and some other animals may also possess the capacity for mirror neurons.

If we are “soft wired for empathy,” then how can we explain the occurrence of blatant and horrendous human rights violations? Rifkin offers an explanation, saying that our capacity for empathy is repressed by various institutions, and when empathy is repressed, we become materialistic and narcissistic.

The video also traces changes in consciousness throughout history, arguing that historical trends suggest it is feasible for us to extend feelings of empathy not only to all of humanity, but also to other creatures as well as the entire biosphere.

So I’m wondering if the feeling of empathy necessitates action. Although we may feel empathy and experience a sense of solidarity, I can think of many cases in which an individual does not have (or doesn’t think that he or she has) the means to redress the injustice. Also, going back to our discussion on Tuesday, when defining what it means to be human, do we need to agree on human nature? Do you think it’s possible to define “human” from a behavioral perspective like human nature?