Human Rights and Gender Equality I

The Ethics of Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality

Sustainable development targets three broad goals for society. We’ve seen that economic growth is within reach for all parts of the world. Even those few places that have been stuck in poverty until the early 21st century. The second broad goal is to respect the planetary boundaries, that is, to combine economic growth and the choice of technologies and behaviors and policies so that we don’t trespass the Earth’s boundaries and create a terrible. Environmental crises of climate change or acidity of the oceans, or loss of biodiversity. The third main goal of sustainable development is social inclusion. The idea that an economy should serve all of its people. That the benefits of economic growth should be widely shared. That everybody should have a chance at prosperity, at proper health care, education, and we know that that challenge is also an unfulfilled challenge in many parts of the world. Throughout history, many of the gains of an economy have been concentrated at the top. And throughout most of history, the gains of an economy have been highly concentrated in one half of humanity, the men, with women facing discrimination and an inability to participate equally and productively in society. Social inclusion therefore is like the challenge of ending poverty and the challenge of environmental sustainability: an unfinished goal but one that is within reach. For us to make progress on social inclusion. We need to have a framework of values and ethics. We have to ask ourselves, and analyze, in fact, what are the standards that should apply in terms of fairness in society? Why do we care? Why do most of us feel that when there are vast inequalities of income, or when there are people that have billions of dollars and then there are people who are starving, somethings not right with that seen. In order to understand that we have to not only analyze the nature of inequality and social exclusion. But we have to think about the underlying values that give, at least for most of humanity, and for the governments that have signed many charters and declarations, the motivation for social inclusion in the first place. When we think about the questions of inclusion, there are many dimension of moral or ethical choice that we should face. One set of issues is about income and wealth inequality. There are, even within that category, many different issues. First the question of the existence of extreme poverty in societies of plenty. The question of the huge gaps between the rich and the poor. And the question of social mobility. The chance for a poor child to be able to escape from the poverty of one’s childhood and become a middle class or even rich person and household within the society. So the first category of ethical or value thinking we should look at is inequality from those various dimensions. The second related but not identical issue is the question of discrimination. Even our laws in most parts of the world continued to discriminate and of course in most of human history the legal framework of the state. Allowed for slavery allowed for complete discrimination against women’s rights to hold property or to inherit property. In other words the law itself builds in discrimination. And so a second dimension of our ethical or value thinking should face the question what do we mean, what should we mean by equality before the law, by equal protection of the laws, by the role of the state that respects civil and political rights. A third aspect of our values is about cultural norms. Sometimes things are not strictly illegal, but the attitudes in society, discrimination against minority groups, not hiring particular kinds of people, particular races, ethnicities people from different parts of society is often a cultural attitude sometimes backed up by the force of the state, but sometimes prolonged mainly by our cultural and social views. What should be done about that? How should we think about the relationship of morality or ethics and culture? So, there are many different aspects of values and value systems that we really should explore when we investigate first and then promote the concept of social inclusion. Of course, throughout human history and human thinking, there have been many schools of thought about these questions. It’s important for us to understand some of those schools of thought, though in a brief foray into philosophy we can only just touch the surface of some of this thinking. But let me mention five different kinds of value or ethical approaches to the questions of social inclusion. If you look back to the ancient sages, I like to look back to the Buddha, to Aristotle to Confucius as three examples of ethical thinking. The Buddha of course with influence all throughout south and east Asia, Confucius with a huge and lasting influence to this day on ethics in China. And with Aristotle having a long and deep legacy of influence on western thinking about values. We could say, that in all three of those great sages thinking. We find a kind of virtue ethics, as the philosophers nowadays call it. Virtue ethics means that ethics from the point of view of the Buddha or of Aristotle or of Confucius is about how we, as individuals, should act virtuously. For Aristotle, the idea of virtuous living was the key to happiness and was the key to being a good human being. For Buddha, it was the key to escape suffering. For Confucians it was the key to social stability. So virtue and a right kind of living, was the core and part of that virtue was the way that individuals should approach others. For example, in a spirit of compassion as the Buddha emphasized. And it’s true, that lends a virtue that we can try to glean some notions of what a true kind of social inclusion might mean. Now, a second kind of philosophical approach comes from the great religions. Of course, many of those draw upon the secular or non religious philosophies as well. But, if you think about the philosophical underpinnings of ethics in the great monotheistic religions Christianity, Judaism Islam. At the core is the notion of the golden rule. To not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. And that also is a major theme for example, of Confucius. But the golden rule underpinning many religious doctrines basically is a principle of equality. And sometimes it’s put in that negative way, don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do back to you, sometimes put in the positive way, do to others what you would like them to do to you. Be charitable to the poor because, if you were in need, you would want that help from others. And of course, these great religious traditions deepened that core principle into ethical systems in Christianity and especially in the social doctrines of the Catholic church the idea of the preferential option for the poor is emphasized. Which means that we should direct our attention and our help and policies according to the social teachings of the Catholic church to the poor. A third kind of ethical system is a secular kind that came much more recently at the end of the 18th century. But very important because it is part of a lot of current day thinking and it has a lot of interest, and that is the philosophy called utilitarianism. This is a philosophy that was propounded first by a a political activist and philosopher, named Jeremy Benton at the end of the 18th century.  He said that the goal of society is happiness.  And the goal of an ethical system, and a moral philosophy, and politics should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. And so, Jeremy Bentham said that society should maximize its utility, the word that he used as a term, to mean, in essence, happiness of the people. Now utilitarianism gives many different motivations for social inclusion and I’ll look to those shortly. A fourth philosophy that arose also in the Western world in the 19th century, with strong roots in England first, and, then especially strong political roots in the right-wing I could say of the U.S. political spectrum. Is a philosophical idea called libertarianism. Libertarianism is a little bit different than utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number. Libertarianism in shorthand, is a philosophy that says, leave me alone. I don’t want the state, the government imposing on me. I don’t want others imposing on me. I have my rights to liberty, that’s the preeminent right in that philosophy. And don’t interfere. So libertarianism is a in extreme free market, or laissez-faire philosophy, leave me alone. You can see that is has it’s attraction in the context of authoritarian or totalitarian government, because the main doctrine of  libertarianism is liberty. And when liberty is being wholly violated, that’s a denial of basic rights and it becomes a very powerful doctrine. But libertarianism goes farther in some ways in our society to what many, including myself, regard as an extreme conclusion. It says that it’s not even right to say that a rich man should give a small part of his wealth to a poor and starving person, because it’s his liberty to do what he wants. And so libertarianism tends to oppose the use of taxes for example, to redistribute income in society. A fifth philosophy, very much part of our international culture in the 20th century and now 21st century, is a human rights philosophy. This is yet another approach to the question of social inclusion. The human rights approach, which one can see, has its roots in some of the religious traditions as well, says that every human being on the planet has basic human rights. Political rights, civil rights as a citizen. But also economic, social and cultural rights, so five categories of rights. And the idea is that because a person is a human being, being a human being is enough to say that human being has rights including the right to a decent life, the right to be able to meet basic needs in society. The right to call on society to ensure that those basic needs are fulfilled, you see the difference for example, with the libertarian idea. The libertarian idea says government has no right to impose on any citizen, even a rich citizen. Government’s only right is to create a framework of law and order and security, not to redistribute income or property, for example, for the benefit of the poor. Whereas the human rights approach says, No. A poor person has rights, some basic rights to health, to education, to a means of livelihood. And society must be organized, including, for example, through taxation, to help meet those basic needs. This I think helps us to see in thinking about those five different dimensions and of course one could mention others, that throughout human history we’ve thought about these ethical issues in quite different ways. The great sages thought about us having the responsibility to be virtuous in our behavior. The religions about our responsibility to others according to the Golden Rule. Utilitarianism to our responsibility as a society or collectivity to maximize happiness within the society. Libertarianism emphasizing the dangers of an over reach of government. And human rights as part and parcel of the global legal environment. As defining basic standards that should apply to every human being on the planet, no matter what kind of political social system he or she lives in. I want to pursue this issue of the human rights because it is our dominant framework, It’s the one that the member states of the United Nations have signed onto. It says that we should meet the basic needs of everybody on the planet, at least progressively meet them. If we’re not able to because of technology or other limitations there should be what is called a progressive realization of those rights, in other words we should strive to end extreme poverty, even if we can’t do that all at once we should strive to ensure that everybody has access to education. We should strive to ensure that everybody has access to decent healthcare. Economist sometimes give a name to some of the targets of those basic needs, calling them merit goods, education and health are merit goods in the language of economists. Because everybody in society merits them. They merit them in the human rights approach, simply by virtue of being human beings. They may merit them in an economist’s broader approach by saying that society benefits by ensuring that everybody has that kind of access or coverage. Let me give you an example. Adam Smith, who we mostly think of as a free market economist, said that education is a merit good. Now, the human rights community would say, right on, it’s the right of people to have education. But Adam Smith said it’s also a good idea for society because it will produce better outcomes not only meeting the rights of individuals, but produce more social stability let me just quote what Adam Smith said in 1776. He said the state meaning the government and the society derives no inconsiderable advantage from the peoples instruction, in other words education. The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition. So he’s saying by educating the population, society is safer, it doesn’t go off in crazy ideas of superstition or or other kinds of delusions. And Adam Smith went on to say that the expense of the institutions for education and religious instruction, is likewise, no doubt beneficial to the whole society, and may therefore without injustice be defrayed by the general contribution of society. He’s saying that since education is a merit good, society should pay for it. In other words public education. We have tended to view healthcare in the same way. It’s a merit good partly because individuals have a basic right to health. But also because helping people to remain healthy helps other people too we don’t want to say aw doesn’t matter whether those people are vaccinated or not. Because when a significant part of a population does not have a basic vaccine, then an epidemic disease can spread through the community and endanger everybody.

And so, health is a merit good in the individual sense of a right but also in the sense of providing a broad benefit to society. One could say therefore that the focus on basic needs especially health and education, can be viewed as a human right according to the human rights approach. Or it could be viewed as a wise and useful kind of policy. A bit like the utilitarian idea of producing the greatest good for the greatest number. I want to underscore the role of ethics and values and the need for us to have more discussion, more public awareness, more debate about these underlying ethical choices, because sustainable development, as a set of goals, depends on ethics. It depends on how we view the right thing to do. We have thousands of years of deep human thinking on this. We can draw upon it, we can draw upon these different facets and approaches. And I believe we need to, to help mold a global ethic for the 21st century.


Pedro Pereira Leite

Researcher and professor. He had his PhD. on museology in 2011, with the title “Muss-amb-ike Homeland: The commitment on musicological process”, that was published in 2011. In 2012 he finishes a Post-PhD Research on "Biographical Glances: The intersubjectivity poetry on museology, at Lusófona University (Lisbon). Presently he is working in his Post PhD. Research about: “Global Heritages" with the aims to build a network on local cognizance and memory manager has a tool to build the will of action in 3 different communities, linked by past communed heritages.” He works at CES. He participates on different Research network, presented papers in national and international conferences, and had published books on research subjects.

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