Samuel Moyn


On his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Cover Interview of October 24, 2010

The wide angle

I originally got started on this topic as a young idealist then as a neophyte teacher.  While in law school, I interned in the United States government, out of the conviction that the notion of human rights had the chance to remake the terms of international relations.  Then, as a newly minted teacher, I began offering experimental courses on the history of the subject—surprised to find there were no books about it.

Then things changed.  I got older and my thinking became more complex—or at least I hoped so.  And meanwhile, new proposals began to proliferate about the origins of human rights.  All of them sought the deepest of historical roots for the contemporary enthusiasm.

Surveying both the scholarly and popular attention to the history of human rights, I found a shocking mismatch between common attempts to attribute the concept to the Greeks or the Jews, early modern natural law thinkers or French revolutionaries, and the far more recent crystallization that my evidence suggested. (One book even went back to the stone age!)

Now it’s true that a thousand ideologies across history make morality and humanity central.  But they do so in starkly different ways than in human rights movements today.  Even as late as the revolutionary era, when “the rights of man” became a watchword, it was universally assumed that the goal was that a state—even a nation-state—would protect them.

Then there were fights within these states to define the entitlement of membership.  For this reason, as I like to say, there was a “rights of man” movement before there was a human rights movement, and it was called nationalism.  Yet human rights today are neither revolutionary in their associations nor offer entitlements based on common membership in a space of protection, whether within or beyond the nation-state.

And while it is true that a critique of national “sovereignty” bloomed during and after World War II, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was framed, I also found the extraordinary attention this era gets among scholars and pundits is misplaced.  It is not even clear how many people who talked of human rights in the 1940s had in mind the creation of supranational sorts of authority on which “human rights” are now based.  Anyway, almost no one appealed to human rights, either in an old or new version.

Far more significant was that human rights were introduced in the midst of World War II as a replacement for the liberation from empire of which most around the world dreamed—a kind of consolation prize that was therefore spurned—while in the north Atlantic world contests over a fraying wartime welfarist consensus took pride of place.

The problem most confronted was not how to move beyond the state but what sort of new state to create.  And in this situation the fiction of moral consensus of “human rights” provided no help.  Instead, everyone accepted the political battle.

Ironically, in the 1970s, the very moralistic consensus that once provided no help offered salvation. With the exhaustion of reform schemes in the East behind the Iron Curtain, and in the West with the collapse of student dissent, it did not seem feasible to dream of a better world the old way—by proposing a genuine and controversial political alternative.

In the East, dissidents recognized, such programs would be crushed.  A morality of human rights provided an “antipolitics” to the communist state.  In the West, a moral alternative beckoned too: especially for idealists who had tried other things first and found them failures too.  It also made sense in an America seeking recovery from the self-imposed disaster of Vietnam. For a brief moment, and to liberals most of all, Jimmy Carter’s moralistic criticism of politics seemed heaven-sent.