Lynn Hunt: Her new book on human rights is praised

Historians in the News

.... No doubt the definition of rights, and certainly the language of it, is slippery and easily exploited. The precise content of a right is always up for debate, as are the people who get to hold them. (Under the English Bill of Rights, Protestants were allowed to carry arms sufficient to defend themselves.) Rights are supposed to exist in all times and all places: the enslavement of the Spartan helots and apartheid are what we would call human rights violations. But, as Lynn Hunt's splendid new book [Inventing Human Rights: A History] demonstrates, rights as a political program came along relatively late in the day.

Hunt has written a provocative and engaging history of the political impact of human rights, mostly in the eighteenth century. The language of rights grew up in the early and high Middle Ages, and came of age with political theorists from Grotius to Locke. This is roughly the point where Hunt begins. In the late eighteenth century, for the first time, doctrines of human rights gained wide acceptance. In America, they took on political form in the Declaration of Independence in 1776; in France, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. These went a step beyond the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which was rooted in the particulars of English law and history, rather than universal principles that applied to all men--every single member of the human race.

Above all, rights themselves are supposed to be beyond debate. Nothing beats a right. After the middle of the eighteenth century, Americans and (somewhat more grudgingly) Britons increasingly talked about rights as universal, not particular to a given country. When the Americans and French solemnly declared, in 1776 and 1789, that their undeniable rights had been violated, they were trying to render uncontroversial a view of government that was in fact fiercely contested: that the point of government was to secure these rights of man.

Hunt grasps the novelty, and the preciousness, of this intellectual transformation. Although she clearly believes in moral progress even unto her own day, she does not allow herself the smug luxury of assuming the superiority of the current age. She properly condemns Jefferson for owning slaves, but she insists that the really important point is that the flawed Jefferson and his flawed contemporaries nonetheless rose far above the mores of their day: "How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?"

Hunt dwells on the shock of the violation of rights. One does not have a philosophical reaction to the photographs from Abu Ghraib, even if one's principles are offended; one first reacts viscerally. Hunt argues that "we are most certain that a human right is at issue when we feel horrified by its violation." As she notes, in the most famous articulation of the human rights ideal, Thomas Jefferson wrote only that the truth of rights is self-evident. But for rights really to be self-evident implies a widespread emotional recoil from their violation. Hunt is not troubled that Jefferson ducked the issue of rationally deriving rights from first principles. She thinks that the idea of human rights comes not from reason but from experience. What really counts, Hunt argues, is not so much the abstractions of equality and universality, but "the newfound power of empathy": the sense that the suffering of others is like our own....

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