Human Rights & Existential Risk


When we talk about Global Super Power Rivalry as a cause area, we connect it to CBRN or other emerging risks such as space mining or geoengineering, all of which are existential risks where humans can literally become extinct. Therefore, a natural solution seems to be to avoid conflicts between great powers, despite differing ideologies. Yet let me tell you why human rights should be considered an existential risk under this umbrella as an existing problem. 

Definition of existential risks: the risk of an existential catastrophe, i.e. one that threatens the destruction of humanity's longterm potential.

Logic 1: Humanity’s longterm potential is key here - if most of the population is living in a controlled state without human rights, innovation decreases. Once innovation decrease, the development of civilisation decelerates and may even come to a stop. The longterm potential is then destroyed. Having people literally existing but not thinking or creating does not prevent us from existential risk.

Although examples where states violate human rights and show extraordinary development exist, history has repeatedly shown that such regimes do not sustain as they lead to greater conflicts and perish. 

(There are multiple theoretical models that explain how authoritarian regimes may flourish in the short-term yet eventually fail in the long term, one of them being the comparative studies on Wang Dao and Ba Dao, or check out this article [1]. Examples include most authoritarian regimes in the 20th century.) 


Logic 2: Going through this graph 


 

This is William MacAskill’s envisioned graph for humanity’s development. Let’s go through the examples he gave for our future potential.


Example 1: No human lives in extreme poverty

The third article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) suggests “[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” 

No human rights therefore = some don’t have the right to live, which includes for it being a result of extreme poverty.

Therefore , this first potential cannot be reached in a world without human rights.


Example 2: Everyone more well-off than the richest today

A person in the poorest country in the world today, Burundi, earns $270 US dollars (2020 GNI per capita). This country has an 8.9 Human Rights and rule of law index [2], out of 10. The wealthiest person in the 14th century, Mansa Musa, had an estimated $400 billion in wealth, divided by his 57 years of life, an annual income of roughly $7 billion. Although 700 years seems minuscule compared to the model of humanity’s full-span potential, still the sign of everyone being more well-off than the richest person once upon a time is nowhere to be seen. If people are being controlled by the elite with a lack of human rights, the rich would only become richer as the poor become poorer. But we already see a positive tendency in this as the world develops, accompanied by a rise in both democracy and human rights. [3]

Human rights promote human development by providing protection in which the elite cannot monopolise development processes, policies, or programmes. Hence, not only do human rights matter in ending poverty today, but it also helps achieve this envisioned potential in the longterm.


Example 3: Discovery of fundamental physical law?

Based on the already established link between human rights and development - 

Basic human rights lead to development, leads to higher living standards, lead to higher education, lead to more innovation or discoveries. 

The link between human rights and innovation/discoveries is clear - check out the following stats:

Country (Top 5 and bottom 5 on Global Innovation Index out of 132 countries)Global Innovation Index [4] (the higher the number the more innovative it is)Human Rights and rule of law index (the lower the number the lower the amount of human rights violations) [5]
Switzerland64.60.5
United States of America61.84.5
Sweden61.61.2
United Kingdom59.72.4
Netherlands58.00.6
Yemen13.89.9
Mauritania12.46.6
Burundi12.38.9
Iraq11.98.1
Guinea11.67


 

1 clarification: 

It’s quite easy to see on rankings where some countries are ranked top in innovation/scientific research, even though their human rights index aren’t exceptionally pretty figures. It’s crucial to remember that a lot of these rankings aren’t per capita - even if it was something like the number of scientific citable documents as an indicator of scientific progress:

 ChinaUSAUK
Total Scientific Documents

8254736

14408686

4235739

Scientific Documents per capita

0.00579

0.0433

0.0616

Human Rights Index

9.70

4.50

2.40


Simply looking at the number per country is not representative of the data. Further variables include the country’s political volatility and its stance towards human rights and democracy.


Logic 3: The above three examples evince a positive correlation between development and human rights, yet is development/potential as significant as the literal extinction of human species (i.e. From nuclear war, AI-alignment, biorisk etc)?

Although when highlighting longtermism, humanity’s potential becomes exceedingly important, I agree that the literal extinction of the human species is more important simply because although we can’t be sure whether the survival of homo sapiens can create a “big”, developed future, we are definitely sure that nothing “big” can be created if we were extinct.


But why should human rights be considered as one of the sub-cause areas within existential risks? 

 Because the other factors only consider what might happen in the future, but human rights consider both what might happen in the future and what is happening now.


https://ourworldindata.org/human-rights


This is a graph showing the level of human rights from 1900-2021. The massive dip occurred before and during the Second World War when inhumane atrocities were carried out. Yet it is shocking to see the downward tendency of the curve from 2012 till 2021 - the magnitude showing little difference from that of the war period. This should be extremely alarming. Back in 2016, the Thomson Reuters Foundation estimated that more than a third of the world’s population was under human rights abuses [4], just imagine the increased scale in 2022 with the newest advancements in international situations. (Scale)


Neglectedness - I’m sure you’ll be thinking: I’m not sure this is a very neglected problem; I see it being reported in the news almost every day! 

True, there is awareness, yet the problem is still being neglected as not much has been done for fear of conflict and the huge costs.

Or should I say there was awareness - with the increased global resurgence of nationalism and the costs/hardness for addressing this issue, we gradually consider the atrocities we see on news as common, and therefore redirect our attention to other problems that are arguably not as important. (This will be very controversial, but personally, I don’t see why we consider factory farming as a high priority when much more than a third of the people on earth are still suffering under, arguably, the same level of control and treatment as those animals - don’t get me wrong, I am an animal rights activist myself. But at the same time, I am a human rights activist as well, I just think that we should include human rights as at least a sub-cause area under the big cause area of existential risks)

Nevertheless, awareness is not the same as not-neglected, because not much that’s useful has been done to address the issue.


Tractability - as I said before, this is a tough one to solve as it is the most directly linked with international politics. However, because so much is at stake, I believe more research and funding should go into this cause area, just like most of the other sub-cause areas under the existential risks umbrella.


A final note on longtermism -

Some argue that under the cause area of existential risks, we should be prioritising other problems that may happen in the future to serve the idea of longtermism, which is often neglected by people today.

  1. the human rights issue has its longterm value in terms of human potential and development as explained above
  2. From another perspective, isn’t avoiding human rights crises in other parts of the world another form of short-termism as we enjoy our current peaceful state? In the not-even-so-“long-term” future (as the world today has globalised so much, it is hard for countries to return to the same level of nationalism pre-globalisation), bigger conflicts or problems will erupt as a result of today’s concession, giving a higher probability for the other emerging problems (e.g. CBRN) to occur on a larger/global scale. Therefore, if we can’t even consider the not-so-“long-term” in the future, how are we able to consider the real longterm across the lifespan of humanity?


Disclaimer-

My argument does not mean that I advocate for violent methods such as war to settle human rights issues - peace is very important. However as history has shown, again and again, short-term peace in the form of appeasement will only lead to greater not-so-“long-term” catastrophes in the near future, which will exacerbate other cause areas related to global power rivalries increasingly.

 

Notes

  1. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/economics-and-finance/are-authoritarian-states-better-at-delivering-economic-growth
  2. The Human Rights and Rule of Law Indicator evaluates the correlation between the country and its population insofar as fundamental human rights are upheld and respected.
  3. Further reading on the relationship between development, democracy and human rights see: Donnelly, Jack. “Human Rights, Democracy, and Development.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, 1999, pp. 608–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/762667. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.
  4. measures the pace of technological progress and adoption, and captures key innovation trends within the four stages of the innovation journey. For full data visit: https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
  5. Full data visit: https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/human_rights_rule_law_index/#:~:text=Human%20rights%20and%20rule%20of%20law%20index%20%2D%20Country%20rankings&text=The%20average%20for%202022%20based,available%20from%202007%20to%202022.
  6. https://www.reuters.com/article/global-rights-idUSKCN0V50HH 

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