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The Sacredness of the Person

A New Genealogy of Human Rights

Hans Joas

Publication Year: 2013

What are the origins of the idea of human rights and universal human dignity? How can we most fully understand -- and realize -- these rights going into the future? In The Sacredness of the Person, internationally renowned sociologist and social theorist Hans Joas tells a story that differs from conventional narratives by tracing the concept of human rights back to the Judeo-Christian tradition or, alternately, to the secular French Enlightenment. While drawing on sociologists such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Ernst Troeltsch, Joas sets out a new path, proposing an affirmative genealogy in which human rights are the result of a process of "sacralization" of every human being.

According to Joas, every single human being has increasingly been viewed as sacred. He discusses the abolition of torture and slavery, once common practice in the pre-18th century west, as two milestones in modern human history. The author concludes by portraying the emergence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as a successful process of value generalization. Joas demonstrates that the history of human rights cannot adequately be described as a history of ideas or as legal history, but as a complex transformation in which diverse cultural traditions had to be articulated, legally codified, and assimilated into practices of everyday life. The sacralization of the person and universal human rights will only be secure in the future, warns Joas, through continued support by institutions and society, vigorous discourse in their defense, and their incarnation in everyday life and practice.

Published by: Georgetown University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Readers may understand this book better if they know something about its lengthy genesis. The basic idea was directly inspired by the two books I wrote in the second half of the 1990s (The Genesis of Values and War and Modernity). I wished to test out the theory presented in the first of these books, which centers on the genesis of value...

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pp. 1-8

This book deals with the history of human rights and the problem of their justification. But it provides neither a comprehensive intellectual or legal history nor a new philosophical justification for the idea of universal human dignity and the human rights based upon it. Anyone harboring such expectations will be disappointed. This is not...

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1. The Charisma of Reason: The Genesis of Human Rights

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pp. 9-36

If we look at the vast literature on the prehistory and history of human rights, the defining impression is that “success has many parents.” The triumphal march of human rights is undoubtedly one of the great success stories in the realm of values and norms. Even those inclined toward skepticism in light of the many conspicuous cases...

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2. Punishment and Respect: The Sacralization of the Person and the Forces Threatening It

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pp. 37-68

The first step in developing my argument was to examine in detail the emergence of the first human rights declarations in the late eighteenth century. I suggested that while we must understand these declarations as concretely as possible in light of their highly contingent contexts of emergence, we will do justice to them only if we also grasp...

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3. Violence and Human Dignity: How Experiences Become Rights

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pp. 69-96

A commitment to values may stem from experiences that fill us with enthusiasm. When we have a sense of having clearly recognized what is good, we feel the urge to bestow this knowledge on others, to get them to rethink or change how they act; we also wish to translate our ardent belief into actions. But it is not just galvanizing experiences...

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4. Neither Kant Nor Nietzsche: What Is Affirmative Genealogy?

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pp. 97-139

I briefly explained the concept of “affirmative genealogy” in the introduction to this book. In the following chapter, which presents a number of intermediate methodological reflections, I aim to flesh out this concept and thus the method used in this book. Within the context of contemporary debates in the philosophy and history of human rights...

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5. Soul and Gift: The Human Being as Image and Child of God

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pp. 140-172

The key thesis underlying the three historical-sociological discussions presented in this book is that we should understand the rise of human rights and the idea of universal human dignity as a process of the sacralization of the person. Inherent in this thesis is a rejection of all notions that this rise can be regarded as the product of a...

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6. Value Generalization: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Plurality of Cultures

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pp. 173-194

So far in my attempt to construct an affirmative genealogy of human rights I have placed great emphasis on the importance of subjective certainty, the sense of self-evidence and affective intensity of the kind characteristic of the sacred. I have portrayed the genesis and development of human rights as a history of the relocating of such self-evidence...


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pp. 195-214


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pp. 215-217

E-ISBN-13: 9781589019706
E-ISBN-10: 1589019709
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589019690

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2013