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Human Rights and the Material Making of Humanity: A Response to Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia
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Human Rights and the Material Making of Humanity
A Response to Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia

Samuel Moyn has written a provocative history of human rights that seeks to reveal their true origins in the political climate of the 1970s, where the disillusionment with anticolonialism and communism led to the need for an alternative universalism—namely, the moral utopia of human rights that transcended the contaminated politics of state regimes. As I understand it, one of the main aims of this true history of human rights is so that we can understand both the limits of this utopian vision as determined by its original historical function and the contemporary viability of this vision when current conditions have changed. Writing the true history of something requires that we first determine what that object truly is. I want to look first of all at how Moyn delimits the object he calls “human rights” through a series of demarcations and exclusions. Moyn characterizes human rights conceptually as the liberties of individuals. The true object of Moyn’s history, however, is a fair bit narrower than this already narrow concept of human rights. It is not this concept of human rights as it was articulated in the 1940s and codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) but rather a subsequent modification whereby human rights are regarded as having a transcendent quality insofar as they should [End Page 55] be protected across the boundaries of territorial states.1 More specifically, it is this modified concept in its wide dissemination in the 1970s: its adoption as a slogan by social movements and its taking root in popular public imagination. In other words, the human rights Moyn is concerned with is a construction of collective public psychology or the popular imagination that saw human rights as an alternative utopia.

To reach such a definition of human rights, Moyn has to first of all empty them of almost all normative philosophical content, to sunder them from the Western philosophical tradition of thinking about rights in which human rights have been located. This gesture is repeated throughout the book, most significantly, in the sharp distinction he draws between human rights as it emerged in the 1970s and the rights of man from the Enlightenment and the revolutionary period. The main point of distinction between all earlier philosophical conceptualizations of rights and what Moyn calls “human rights” is that the former involve the construction of citizenship and the struggle over citizenship as the bounded territorial domain in which rights can be achieved and recognized, whereas the latter aim to transcend and even undermine the sovereignty of the state and, later, the nation-state.2 A related argument is also made to distinguish the human rights of the 1970s from the doctrine of self-determination of peoples, which became formulated as a right, as well as the conceptualization of rights in the un Declaration, which remained within the frame of an internationalism that accorded priority to the sovereignty of states. In the case of self-determination, Moyn suggests that although human rights became an equivalent of self-determination, the link between the two is a subsequent historical link rather than a conceptual affinity because self-determination was closer to “the original, collectivist direction of earlier rights talk” (lu, 107).

Second, to the extent that the doctrinal content of supranational human rights instruments, which are part of the explosion of human rights in the 1970s, necessarily refer in one way or other to the philosophical tradition of thinking about rights, Moyn suggests that the more appropriate approach to understanding human rights is not to study the debates in the evolution of such instruments [End Page 56] and their philosophical bases but to focus on why such instruments suddenly enjoyed such great cultural prestige. He gives an external explanation for this: these instruments represented an apolitical pure morality in an age where earlier political utopias had failed.

I have no doubt left out the complex historical detail of Moyn’s arguments in my schematic summary. The questions I want to raise concern what his approach to human rights leaves out because it defines human rights in the...