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.


  1. Kudos on a dangerous question considering how much Dr. J wants to ground human rights. I've been struggling with this same question. Even while the document itself (UDHR) aims to supercede cultural relativism, its less-than-concrete wording leaves it open to culturally relative interpretations. Certainly, its purpose is only that of what we, as fellow human beings, should have as the basest conditions. However, even these seem hard to obtain. "Cruel or degrading treatment." That could cover an incredibly broad range of things. However, as you noted in sweatshops, does it cover each of these things from the viewpoint of each society. It's a tough call and I'm still working on the answer myself.

  2. I thought your post was very thought provoking especially the last paragraph and its questions. To address your bolded question, I agree that the UDHR and our definition of human rights are idealistic but I think it was meant to be that way as well. We form our definition of human rights or those laws based on what should be changed and improved. It is hard to abide and follow each rule of the UDHR because of the amount of injustice in this world; however, it is permissble to set high goals to attain. If we are able to slowly start following those laws, we would move beyond what we have been in the past. The overreaching or too idealistic element of the UDHR of the definition of human rights is there for the purpose of trying to make this world improve and move past its unjust actions and mindset.


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