Samuel Moyn


On his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

Cover Interview of October 24, 2010


Though I am a historian, I have often been asked what the present-day implications of my argument are.  One, clearly, is that thinking that international human rights have been God-given or naturally occurring, or even that they were a legacy of continuous moral insight after the great catastrophe of World War II, is mistaken.

Human rights make sense in a world of decolonized states, but in which not all states are trustworthy.  And they were discovered by masses of people only after those people had first tried other things, and gave up on them in despair.  Our idealism is one born of disappointment, not of horror or of hope.

But this suggestion does not translate easily into a set of specific consequences. If I am right, even when it comes to some of the beliefs people cherish most, history shows that they are always up for grabs.  They may crystallize for a while, but even then are never stable.

And this also means the burden falls on the present not to turn to the past for reassurance—but to decide for itself what to believe and in what way to change the world.  History at its best liberates, but does not construct.

Yet perhaps there is a lesson in the history about what sort of idealism people should or at least could seek.

For the longest time in modern history, programs for bettering the world mattered, especially if they were divisive.  The achievement of the nation-state required dispensing with kings and aristocrats, just as the “rights of man movement” of the twentieth century that was decolonization required that empires finally end.  Human rights, in the 1940s, were bypassed because they offered the mere fiction of a moral consensus that plainly did not match the need for political choice.

The 1970s began an exceptional period in which the morality of human rights made sense; if and when that period ends, the need for divisive political options may once again seem the most relevant one to meet.

© 2010 Samuel Moyn