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  • Foucaultian Ethics and Human Rights Education
  • Sarah Winter (bio)
Review of Alexandre Lefebvre, Human Rights and the Care of the Self (Durham: Duke UP, 2018), 249 pp.

Drawing a connection between Eleanor Roosevelt's influential 1948 definition of human rights as "a way of life," and Michel Foucault's late writings (1981-84) on "the care of the self (le souci de soi-même)," political philosopher Alexandre Lefebvre's Human Rights and the Care of the Self claims to "constitute a new object of inquiry" (7): human rights conceived not as a means "to protect people whose rights are at risk of violation" (3), but rather as an everyday therapeutic practice (2) of "ethical subjectivation" (18) by and for the sake of the individual. Lefebvre bases this approach on Foucault's distinctive notion of ethics, described as "the relationship the self establishes with itself through a moral code, and, more specifically, the work the individual undertakes on him- or herself in order to become a subject of that code" (12). For Foucault, Lefebvre explains, such care for the self is freely undertaken, transformative in aim and effect, and conceives of the self as "a self-sufficient moral end" (15). Rather than focusing specifically on Foucault and human rights or crafting a genealogy, however, Lefebvre's learned and original book creates a new itinerary within Western political and ethical thought based in Foucault's definitions. This seminar-like itinerary emerges as a discontinuous but shared preoccupation among a group of thinkers, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Alexis de Tocqueville, Henri Bergson, Roosevelt, and Charles Malik, who linked the actualization of universal human rights to the individual's undertaking a searching, ethical self-renovation or "self-constitution" that can be aligned with the Foucaultian conception of the car e of the self (12). Lefebvre explains that his "alternative narrative" is "one in which human rights appeal to generations of scholars, activists, and policy-makers as the right kind of tool to care for the self in light of problems that plague their own time and place" (17). As "diagnosticians" of endemic problems "that harm people to the depths of their souls" (25), Lefebvre's chosen writers recommend ethical remedies to divest each person of their attraction to these harmful influences. The book's argument is thoroughly grounded [End Page 509] in an interdisciplinary conversation with recent works of literary criticism, political theory, historiography, and pedagogy focused on human rights. Reorienting human rights away from both the legal domain as their primary field of action and from human rights ethics conceived as the care for the other, Lefebvre's goal is to enrich contemporary human rights scholarship and education by providing a greater understanding of the motives that can enable individuals to make human rights and values their own as a practice for everyday life.

In order to clarify how human rights have been invoked by modern thinkers as a subjectively motivated ethics, Lefebvre redefines the rights-centered component of human rights in the opening chapter by studying Foucault's late-career shift from a juridical to an ethical understanding of the subject of rights, based in his study of ancient Greek and Roman ethical practices. Lefebvre outlines Foucault's critical account of the modern juridical age and its political thought as characterized by the government of the self in conformity with a moral code or set of rules that privilege the subject of law while marginalizing ethics. Foucault's historical distinction between the subject of rights and of ethics, Lefebvre admits, means that locating care of the self within or as compatible with modern juridical conceptions of human rights suggests a departure from Foucault's way of thinking (26).

Written in a thoughtful and engaging style, the subsequent chapters guide the reader through a series of fresh interpretations of the selected authors' core focus on human rights as care of the self. As a pivotal case for his argument that human rights and care of the self have been compatible for some thinkers, in the second chapter Lefebvre contends that Wollstonecraft's most distinctive argument in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), based in her diagnosis of women's unhappiness as mere...


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pp. 509-512
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