Tag Archives: international law

The Need for Compassionate Law

As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life.  On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.

When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another.  However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action.  Empathy is personal, individual, and private.  When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed.  Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings.  Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful.  It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most ability to exercise compassion.  Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion.  The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion.  As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.

Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions.  Are institutions capable of compassion?  Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible:  institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends.  It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws.  Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated.  The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy.  To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law.   Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice.  In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness.  The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.

The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical.  Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion.  Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism.  Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.

The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.

Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness.  Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective?   As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion.  Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure:  what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving.  Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands?  Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws?  The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving.  It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point.  What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action?  There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.

Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation.  In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.  The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality.  Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize.  Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive.  The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune.  The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history.  This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others.  For starters, you might consider sharing this post!

 

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.

 

The End of Impunity: Two Pathways to Justice

No Mubarak Egypt Uprising Photo Feb 2011 by Takver (Flikr)In Egypt this past summer, former president Hosni Mubarak and former interior minister Habib El-Adly were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the murder and attempted murder of protesters in the 2011 uprising that removed Mubarak from power. In Liberia, Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 50 years for aiding Sierra Leonean rebels who raped, maimed, and murdered tens of thousands of civilians (Harper’s Weekly Review June 4th, 2012). In March 2012, the International Criminal Court delivered a guilty verdict against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who was found guilty of the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. At present, the ICC has publicly indicted 30 people, and has proceedings ongoing against 24, including against the top five members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, including Joseph Kony, for similar crimes.World1

With human rights increasingly in the news, and the activities of multilateral agencies like the ICC at the forefront, it seems that two distinct pathways to criminal justice for egregious violators of human rights are now becoming evident. In the first pathway, former heads of state are held to account using the bodies of law of the country they once led. Under this pathway, the process can yield successes (as in the case of Mubarak) but it also has flaws. Judges appointed by the former leader may be reluctant to apply the rule of law, or, alternatively, too severe outcomes can actually undermine the rule of law by placing the whole process under suspicion. This is especially true if the society has a history of sectarian violence. In the latter case, for example, I’m thinking of the sham trial of Saddam Hussein following the US invasion of Iraq, which probably set back the rule of law in that country by decades and opened the door to a vicious sectarian war. It should be noted that until recently, with the establishment of the ICC as a legal body, national prosecution of such cases was, essentially, the only available route to justice.

The ICC was established to fill a gap in international human rights law that addressed some of these flaws. The gap lay between the politics of sovereignty and the universal laws of human rights. But the ICC was to be derivative of sovereign law, a supplement, and decidedly not a force for subversion or displacement of national bodies of law. Far from it. International law steps in where national law and politics fail, but fail first they must. It is through this pattern of repeated failure that the full justification and realization of the importance of the ICC to the system of sovereign law will emerge. For this reason, it is entirely wrong to criticize the ICC as toothless or helpless in the face of national power. It also entirely wrong to criticize the ICC for overstepping sovereignty The body of law upon which the ICC draws is the logical and reasonable outgrowth of sovereign law itself. For this reason, every case brought to justice by the ICC strengthens, not weakens, the force of sovereign law to protect human rights and bring violators to justice. Even though there are two pathways to justice, they are heading in the same direction, towards a world where violators will have nowhere to hide with impunity.