Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is There a Right to Culture?

Last week I had a conversation with my thesis advisor, Dr. Harry Brighouse, in which we discussed an interesting idea which I think might prove important in one way or another, and which I think is worthy of elaboration here. The idea was that a big part of what people are concerned about in discussing climate change is that members of certain social groups will be deprived of the opportunity to integrate themselves into the societies in which they were raised, as a result of changes in the physical context in which those societies were able to flourish.

To illustrate, we might travel to Bangladesh several decades in the future. In my imaginary scenario, sea levels are rising around the low-lying country, and the property of the locals is suffering considerable damage. However, because I am the master of this imaginary scenario, I'll stipulate that we have fully compensated all of these property owners for the damage done to them (regardless of whether or not they would actually be entitled to this compensation). So everyone whose property is damaged by climate change is fine.

But imagine that there is a child, Nadia, who has grown up in Bangladesh and is beginning to plan a life for herself. Perhaps it would be possible for Nadia to live in Bangladesh, but with the environmental damage being done to the area, perhaps it would be unfeasible for her to do so. It's not that she has such great opportunities elsewhere, but rather that the prospect of living a good life in Bangladesh looks bleak. Accordingly, the best choice for Nadia and her peers might be to assimilate into another culture which would offer a more promising future. Would Nadia have been deprived of something to which she was entitled?

We have stipulated that Nadia owned no property which was damaged, or that if she did, she was fully compensated for it. Further, we have stipulated that Nadia had not yet even chosen a profession, or settled down anywhere. She was simply deciding what she wanted for her life, and she saw that Bangladesh offered scarce opportunities for the kind of future she envisioned for herself. Given the way we normally think about rights violations, it doesn't seem like we have wronged Nadia in any real way.

But at the same time, I can see why Nadia would offer an objection. She might say that as a Bangladeshi, she would have wanted to be integrated into Bangladeshi society. Now, as a result of the effects of climate change, it will be extremely difficult for her to make that happen. Nadia's claim, then, would seem to be that she had some kind of right which is infringed by other people making it difficult or impossible for her to become a part of the culture of her upbringing. And it does seem like a good portion of the concern aimed at climate change is directed at the idea that we would be infringing this kind of right by contributing to a state of affairs in which Nadia is forced to find a way of life which does not reflect her native culture.

It's easy to sympathize with Nadia, and see how she would be frustrated by the state of affairs in which she finds herself. But does Nadia have any right like this? Do we act impermissibly when we put Nadia in this position?

In a previous post, I discussed the possibility that in cases involving inheritances, the would-be inheritors of some valuable object might claim injustice if that object were damaged or destroyed, even if the person or people who owned that object at the time of its destruction were compensated. I said that while I understood why someone might see things that way, it would seem to go very much against the way we normally think about property rights, and I wasn't sure I could defend the position. However, I didn't think that the problem could be dismissed as easily as that, because there was something intuitively reasonable about the objection. But I'm not dealing with that issue here.

In our story, Nadia isn't inheriting any property. Therefore, we avoid all of the problems associated with Akiko's case in the other post. Here, we're dealing with a particular right not to an object, but to a kind of opportunity which is being denied to Nadia. Namely, the opportunity to become a member of the culture.

But in spite of the differences between Nadia's case and Akiko's case, I want to reintroduce an example I used in the previous post:
...we might point out that the above case sounds a lot like a story where an agrarian community is "destroyed" by industrialization and mass production. Small scale family farms can't keep up with the low prices generated by the advanced practices of a local agribusiness concern, and can no longer support their old way of life. It's a sad story, but we wouldn't want to claim that any injustice has occurred. Perhaps as a society, we would want to help these farmers get back on their feet and find a new place in the market. But we wouldn't want to blame the agribusiness for doing something wrong.

It seems to me that if I were the offspring of one of the small scale farmers, I might feel frustration towards the agribusiness, but I would have no legitimate claim against them. So if we're going to attribute to Nadia the kind of right we're talking about here, we need to give some reason for thinking that Nadia's situation is fundamentally different from the industrialization case. In the earlier post, I pointed out that the small scale farmers' frustration is the result of relying on something which they never had any right to: the support of their customers. But the source of Nadia's frustration is less clear.

We might say that Nadia simply wants to be offerred an appealing job in the location in which she wants to work, and a place to live which matches what she hoped for. If we phrase Nadia's frustration this way, then it is clear that she has no right to these things, as they too require something of others. But this seems unfair to Nadia's case.

It seems to me that Nadia's objection is more holistic in nature. She sees her cultural community as a distinct entity, to which we could coherently apply the concepts of stability and integrity. When healthy and vital, that community would provide her with a range of opportunities to try to make a life for herself without any active facilitation by any members of the community. Certainly she could choose to pursue other opportunities, and this would not be a problem for anyone. But the option would be available to her if she wanted it. By causing climate change, we degrade Nadia's community, and diminish her opportunities. Nadia's objection seems to be that the degradation of her community, which is the result of the actions of those who contributed to climate change, represents a wrong done to her.

This is an interesting idea, but is not one which I know how to handle. I think it would be best to take some time to digest it. So having set up this discussion, I'll leave settling it for another time.

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