What are the origins of human rights? This question, rarely asked before the end of the Cold War, has in recent years become a major focus of historical and ideological strife. In this sequence of reflective and critical studies, Samuel Moyn engages with some of the leading interpreters of human rights, thinkers who have been creating a field from scratch without due reflection on the local and temporal contexts of the stories they are telling.
Having staked out his owns claims about the postwar origins of human rights discourse in his acclaimed Last Utopia, Moyn, in this volume, takes issue with rival conceptions—including, especially, those that underlie justifications of humanitarian intervention.
“An intensely readable journey … Moyn reminds us that the idea of human rights did not begin with the Second World War and is not an American invention; that individual rights and human dignity are not the same thing; that torture is a relatively recent taboo; that humanitarian intervention (the use of military force to ‘civilise’) offers certain dangers; and that newly arrived ideas of international criminal justice and courts will not offer an easy salvation. Moyn’s impulses are critical yet he recognises what he calls the ‘global radiance’ of human rights in our times. There have been failures but also successes, so he seeks a ‘reinvention’ rather than a replacement. If human rights are to make a practical difference, to be more than an ‘ornament on a tragic world which they do not transform’, he wants them to be able to mobilise people, to be less centred on judges and more attentive to real economic and social needs. At a time of growing inequality, within and across borders, the last point will surely resonate, along with the broader underlying message: that the ideas underpinning modern human rights have become a fundamental part of our political culture, and that we ignore history at our peril.”
“A brilliant scholar, and in Human Rights and the Uses of History he shows his intellectual heft.”
“Tidy, coherent, and invigorating … Moyn is undoubtedly correct to assert that ignoring the dark side of human rights ideology is both irresponsible and dangerous.”
“There is a struggle for the soul of the human rights movement, and it is being waged in large part through the proxy of genealogy … Samuel Moyn … is the most influential of the revisionists.”