Samuel Moyn

 

On his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Cover Interview of October 25, 2010

In a nutshell

The Last Utopia assesses how deeply rooted in history the notion of “international human rights” is.

I have long been fascinated by this question since human rights—together with the advocacy and mobilization that surround it—seem so appealing and prestigious in today’s developed world.  And while there are many arguments and much detail in my book, my hope from the beginning was that I could address a simple problem: when exactly a concept so central to the moral consciousness of so many idealists today became the highest cause for them to defend.

I offer an unexpected answer: it was born yesterday.

I show that human rights crystallized in the moral consciousness of people only in the 1970s, whether in Europe, Latin America, or the United States.

To make this argument I look back at prior meanings of rights claims, which certainly were made—but, I contend, worked very differently. I also examine carefully eras in which the notion could have spread in a broad-based movement, and could have crystallized as a touchstone, but failed to do so: notably the aftermath of World War II when many people dreamed of a new deal and during the decolonization of the globe that followed almost immediately.  I also look more carefully at international lawyers, to ask when they became so concerned with human rights; my answer is that it was around the same time as everybody else.

There were many reasons this happened.  The chief one, I suggest, is a widespread disappointment with earlier, hitherto more inspirational forms of idealism that were failing.  Human rights took their place.  Hence the book’s title: human rights emerged as the last utopia.