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  • Making Human: World Order and the Global Governance of Human Dignity by Matthew S. Weinert
  • Benjamin Gregg (bio)
Matthew S. Weinert, Making Human: World Order and the Global Governance of Human Dignity (University of Michigan Press, 2015), 265pages, ISBN 978-0-472-05249-3.

The perennial questions of human rights advocacy include: What are human rights (hence where do they come from), how can they be deployed, by what or whom, where and under what circumstances? Politicians presume answers to these questions; scholars seek them. In Making Human, Matthew Weinert seeks answers in intriguing ways. Central elements of his approach feature in other approaches, such as his emphasis on dignity as the ground for any plausible notion of human rights. His practical concern focuses on institutions specialized in the delivery of dignity-reinforcing conditions and treatment. That is, he seeks an international institutional response to “egregious human suffering” at the level of individuals.1

Weinert’s choice of these elements is not original. Of interest are the connections he draws between the individual victim of human rights abuses and the promise of certain international organizations to redress those abuses. His interest is less in applying human rights than in generating them for the first time, and in generating human rights in practice rather than theory. He sees himself as “refram[ing] the cosmopolitan declarative ‘We are morally equal’ as the interrogatory ‘How do we become morally equal’”? His title anticipates the question: How are we made human?2

Many contributors to the literature regard persons as human rights-bearers a priori. By contrast, Weinert would show how persons damaged, excluded, or oppressed first become bearers. The agents of transforming the individual from victim to rights-bearer are institutions, particularly the United Nations and international law. The agents of transformation do not include the nation states in which the individuals reside, let alone ordinary men and women themselves.

Any approach to human rights, practical or theoretical, must choose among many alternatives. Any given choice excludes others; every choice is self-limiting. Weinert’s choices are not implausible. Still, the reader wonders: How well does his particular approach succeed in integrating a human-centric view of community (the individual’s dignity) with an institution-centric field of practical application (the United Nations, international law, and international courts)?

Weinert develops a human-centric view of community in Chapters 1 and 2. His approach is social constructionist in several ways. (By social construction I mean an understanding of human rights not as theological or metaphysical givens of otherworldly provenance but rather human rights as the historical achievements of enlightened politics and in Weinert’s view, of particular institutions.) First, Weinert grasps humans as evolved [End Page 1101] organisms who become available to each other through cultural expressions: “the human being, being human, and humankind are not objective, natural realities. Rather, they are constructions stemming from networks of discourse and practice that produce and are produced by specific meanings of the terms shaped within context.”3 Second, Weinert views human rights as the politics of communities constructing social statuses and attributing these statuses to members, indeed as functions of those members: “Identity may be the predicate of being human, but the real grammar lies in the underlying mechanics by which we accord the status . . . of human being to diverse others.”4 Third, Weinert’s view of cosmopolitan norms is not a view of norms universally valid a priori. He thinks of universal validity as an aspiration to be achieved by constructing particular norms in particular communities and then seeking their ever wider embrace within and across communities: “Cosmopolitanism’s moral aspirationalism may attract some, but in practice, most people remain wed to particularities of identity and space.”5 Fourth, Weinert treats dignity itself as a social construct, tied to belonging to political community, whereby “[b]elonging can only be the starting point of dignity.”6 Thus dignity cannot be defined “prior to social relations”; dignity can only be conceived and possess meaning “within them.”7

Weinert’s concern with what he calls a “process of making human” reflects his constructionist approach. In this he is inspired by approaches that begin not from some...


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pp. 1101-1104
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