The Duck of Minerva

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Human Rights: The Last Utopia?

February 18, 2011

I’ve just finished reading Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and would highly recommend it to those interested in rights and norms.  I have written a review of it that will eventually appear in the American Historical Review.   Meanwhile, for those who just can’t wait, my main points:
Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia is an erudite and impressive intellectual history, portraying the core principle of contemporary human rights–that individual rights transcend state sovereignty–as a strikingly recent invention. . . .Moyn argues that early views of rights were welded to the state or the nation. . . . Moyn also dismantles the widespread notion that post-World War II revulsion at the Holocaust and formation of the United Nations gave birth to human rights. . . . For Moyn, the modern human rights movement rose only as other “utopias,” especially nationalism and socialism, fully revealed their failures. . . .He spends less time analyzing the sturdiness of this “last utopia.”  Not only has it attracted political movements it once eschewed, but developments of the 2000s make its triumph appear less secure than in past decades—something which in fact fits well with his argument emphasizing change and challenging teleology.  It is not clear that human rights are in fact the last utopia.  Particularly in the post-9/11 period, state-level utopias—or distopias—threaten the rights ideal.  Most importantly, renewed cries of “national security,” have called into question cherished principles such as freedom from torture and even freedom of conscience. . . . Within U.S. law and politics, international human rights remain an alien concept, even if domestic civil rights, grounded in the Constitution, are revered.  On both left and right, American exceptionalism and sovereignty still prevail over international rights principles. 

Overall, an insightful, challenging, and beautifully written book.
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Bob is a political science professor at Duquesne University who studies global norms, advocacy campaigns, and related subjects.