Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: April 2012

Human Rights for Disabled People

“Far am I from denying in theory; full as far is my heart from withholding in practice… the real rights of men… If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right… Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.”

Edmund Burke from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

There is a debate in political theory and in practical politics about the value of rights. There are at least two traditions opposed to taking rights seriously:

1. The radical statists – thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx didn’t like the way in which rights could be used to get in the way of whatever it was they thought was in the ‘true interests of society’. They saw rights as backward looking – protecting the interests of the few against their own enlightened concern for the many. The modern version of this is found in Fabianism and Neo-Liberalism.

2. The conservative tradition – thinkers like Edmund Burke were fearful of the unexpected damage that ideas like Human Rights might bring about in a society when they had not been tested by experience – looking over the Channel at the blood being spilled in the name of Human Rights one can have some sympathy with this point of view.

While both these sceptical traditions may have some merit it is also interesting to note that they almost cancel each other. Attacks on Human Rights seems largely to be a defence of privilege. For the radical statists the hidden assumption is that they (the new and emerging elite) know best how the rest of us should live. The conservative tradition is largely concerned to defend the privileges of the old and threatened elite. Both views are only useful to those who form part of the elite.

In reality rights are the vital lifeblood of civil society – and it is a mistake to try and separate them from piety, virtue or duty as some thinkers do. As Simone Weil notes duties are inextricably bound up with rights (even if duties are logically prior to rights – as I have argue elsewhere):

“A man considered in isolation, only has duties, amongst which are certain duties towards himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights….”

The big question is not ‘whether rights’ – the big question is ‘what rights’. This is a truth that Edmund Burke himself recognised. This is why the tradition of Human Rights is essential – even if it inevitably challenges existing patterns of civil rights. Human Rights are not a panacea, but they are a useful way of interrogating the existing pattern of rights – the actual laws, customs and systems of our society. As Burke recognised we need rights in order to distribute the “fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour” – this is never a simple matter and it is certainly subject to change.

A good example of this is the current debate on the application of human rights to the lives of disabled people. Our current law and systems are built on dreadful negative assumptions about disabled people. They provide for some cold charity and care, but they do not support people’s real Human Rights. They reflect two centuries of prejudice and oppression – so there is no reason to expect that the current patterns of civil rights are adequate protection for the real status of disabled people – as equal citizens.

We also know much more about how to combine “skill and force” to provide a “fair portion” for all citizens. For instance, we know that inclusion, citizenship and independent living create a better world for everyone. So we recognise – with even greater urgency – the moral case for the radical reform of our current welfare system – particularly the systems that impact on disabled people.

Human Rights are not enough, as Hannah Arendt noted when discussing the Eichman trial:

“For Israel the only unprecedented feature of the trial was that, for the first time (since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans), Jews were able to sit in judgement on crimes committed against their own people, that for the first time they did not need to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man – rights which, as no one knew better than they, were claimed only by people who were too weak to defend their “rights of Englishmen” and to enforce their own laws.”

It is time that the human rights of disabled people are turned into real civil rights – “the rights of Englishmen.”

Incentives Can be Badly Misused

The effect of high rewards or similar in creative jobs is thus very often to encourage people to misallocate their effort between tasks, to fixate on a given target, to take too much or to little risk, to have fore-shortened time horizons, to behave unethically in order to get what they want, and to experience debilitating levels of stress and anxiety. In short rather an accurate description of the culture of many parts of the current financial markets. 

Jesse Norman in The Big Society

The author is right – but he may have also added the whole of the political elite and their current efforts to ‘manage’ for public service improvement through over-complex contracts, cumbersome commissioning arrangements and fancy ‘social impact bonds’. The notion that somebody might just do their job properly because they loved it and wanted to do it well has entirely disappeared from contemporary policy-making.

The problem is profound. If you want to use incentives to achieve specific goals then you have to be really confident that you know what it is you really want. Within the context of one policy objective – reducing unemployment – it may seem natural to incentivise things that you think will meet that goal.

But reality is more complex than that.

In our own life we know that we have to balance many considerations and that no one thing is ‘the point’ of our activities. Often aiming at one thing has perverse consequences that we didn’t expect. If we can control our own circumstances then we adjust and regain balance. But if we are made to work to some overarching but primitive target we quickly find that balance is lost – and things fall apart.

How to Reduce the Riskiness of Trust

Confucius says “I do not see how a man can be acceptable who is untrustworthy in word. When a pin is missing in the yoke-bar of a large cart or in the collar-bar of a small cart, how can the cart be expected to go?”

Lao Tzu says “To give no trust is to get no trust”.

We all say we are eager together – to work in partnership others, to co-operate, to share ideas and talents. But often find it really difficult to actually make it happen. There are many good intentions, but often it is hard to follow through on those intentions; other things take over and so we carry on working alone.

There can be no partnership without trust. It is only when you trust someone that you are willing to put yourself in their hands. But trust is hard to achieve between individuals and between organisations.

Keys to trust are:

Time – the Chinese don’t use contracts (or so says Charles Handy) instead they start small and work over time to develop relationships – the contract is a threat – it is the actuality of mutual cooperation and mutual benefit that builds trust.

Values – of course we don’t trust people who we think have bad moral beliefs, we would expect them to let us down or do things that we think are improper. But trust also relies on a certain kind of humility – a willingness to learn – not to use values or political correctness as hammer to beat down the person. Often it is people who make a big fuss about their values who also feel they have the right to abandon ordinary moral standards.

Openness – a sign and a means to greater trust is openness. When developing the federation Altrum we developed a ground rule – you had to share any information you were asked for – this kept out organisations who only wanted to take and who didn’t want to give.

Humanity – trust grows through ordinary human contact, sharing time, food, talking, listening and touching. Only when the other person becomes real can you can start to trust them.

Trust is incredibly efficient. But it can be hard won. Taking the first step will always seem irrational and you will sometimes be let down.

Each time we punish people for problems that arise from misplaced trust then we risk weakening the fabric of society.

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