Jordan Kiper

As a preeminent critic of human rights discourse, Samuel Moyn is known for raising important concerns over the uses of “human rights” for humanitarian intervention. Nowhere are his criticisms more poignant than in his last two books, The Last Utopia and Human Rights and the Uses of History. Both challenge the popular endeavor of contemporary scholars, such as Lynn Hunt, David Rieff, Samantha Power, and Michael Ignatieff to aggrandize the so-called “history” of human rights. Such aggrandizement usually entails claims that human rights began in antiquity and steadily grew until their full realization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at which time they engendered universal rights. According to Moyn the truth of the matter is that human rights originated in the 1970s, not before then; and the promise of human rights, as a powerful set of transnational ideals and movements, has yet to be fulfilled.

Besides critiquing popular paradigms in human rights discourse, Moyn does something more in his latest books. As with his other writings, Moyn seamlessly weaves together careful historical analyses with critical philosophical and legal investigations, delivering powerful arguments that advocates and scholars of human rights cannot ignore. The vantage points he provides are undoubtedly some of the most important outlooks in contemporary human rights scholarship.

Published in 2010, The Last Utopia explains how human rights were, in fact, born in the 1940s but did not arise as a meaningful discourse until the 1970s. In particular, it was in 1977 that the words “human rights” surged in usage—a usage that coincided with Jimmy Carter’s campaign and election, as well as the widespread desire for reforms in US foreign policy, due to post-Vietnam malaise. Although disagreeing with most historians of human rights, Moyn nevertheless provides a sound argument that is compelling and convincing.

Moyn begins by countering his critics’ most likely objection: human rights have clear historical foundations—for example, in events such as the French Revolution and in figures such as Hugo Grotius. On this point Moyn argues that many scholars, especially in human rights circles, have had the tendency to treat the past as if it were simply the future waiting to happen—that is the past as a pyramid of sorts that upholds the present, which is itself the apex of history. In the case of human rights, this has meant seeing various rights movements prior to the twentieth century, such as the French Revolution, as foundations for human rights. However, when one looks closely at the history of rights prior to the World War II era, there do not exist any solid foundations for human rights—a point that Moyn defends extremely well. One finds instead that “rights” were either framed in terms of the sovereignty of the state and actors therein or couched in utopian discourses. To illustrate this Moyn provides a fascinating look at the history of rights that shows, rather convincingly, that human rights were not a persistent stream leading to our time, but rather a shocking emergence that arose shortly after World War II and in earnest, only forty years ago.

Moyn then shows how the break in history came when human rights discourse was removed from the politics of the state to the moral discourse of intellectuals. But this did not come easily according to Moyn. Human rights as a political discourse began with British War sentiments and the rhetoric espoused by Churchill and Roosevelt in response to Hitler’s tyranny. However, once the war ended, that discourse fell out of favor among politicians and nearly died in the very political circles in which it was born. Evidence for this is the infamous Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944, where the allies deemphasized human rights for other political agendas. Human rights discourse nevertheless survived among religious scholars and intellectuals, such Henry Wallace, H.G. Wells, and Jacques Maritain, and lived to be expressed in the symbolic but largely ineffectual Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Of course, human rights covenants began to be forged in the post-war era, suggesting that human rights were burgeoning immediately after the UDHR. However, Moyn cautions against such an inference, arguing that human rights covenants actually began only after the Soviet delegation stopped attending the Commission of Human Rights. Moyn takes this as evidence that “human rights” were a political tool, especially for the US and other European states to counter non-democratic ideas around the globe, namely, communism. It was during this period that human rights discourse became compatible with the modern state and arguments for its sovereignty, security and freedoms—thus nothing new in the history of rights. Even among conservatives, Moyn argues, “human rights” became just another idealistic explanation for the defense of the West, not an ideology for universal rights, especially social and economic rights.

Still, from the 1940s to the 1970s, human rights discourse grew among scholars and activists as an ideology that mirrored other global utopias. As Moyn stresses, the mid to late twentieth century witnessed a surge in utopian visions. For many outside the US, such as Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, the most appealing vision was postcolonial; utopias along these lines included pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, and Marxism. Moyn shows that the most popular sentiment throughout the world was collective self-determination, which stood in agreement with the “human rights” advocated by Churchill to liberate people in Hitler’s empire. Yet many former colonies and colonized people after the war, including African Americans, lacked self-determination or complained that their human rights were not being realized. It was within such popular sentiments in the post-colonial environment that self-determination and human rights discourse came into fruition, culminating in the Helsinki Act of 1975, which provided a forum for North Atlantic rights activists.

Moyn explains that the breakdown of the many competing utopias in the late twentieth century came to an end with the emergence of new hopes in human rights. This came about with the advancements of several suffrage groups in the 1970s, such as the women’s rights movement, and the election and presidency of Jimmy Carter beginning in 1977. According to Moyn, Carter used “human rights” to reorient US politics and foreign policy after the devastation of the Vietnam War, Watergate scandal, War Powers Acts, and Cold War malfeasance.

Despite the surge in the use of the phrase “human rights” in 1977, Moyn shows that things did not change much on the political front. What did change, however, was the enormous growth and public awareness of the work of NGOs, such as Peter Benenson’s Amnesty International. One of the most influential movements, for instance, began with the extension of Amnesty International into the US. It was headed by Columbia University professor Ian Morris and likeminded New York philosophers, who met in the living room of Arthur Danto to advance human rights discourse. Other influential movements centered on the activities of Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and popular sentiments against the coups and military operations in South and Latin America, especially the “Dirty War” in Argentina and the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Yet the growth of human rights discourse during the late 1970s and 1980s did not come without a price. Moyn claims that “human rights,” soon after their surge in usage during Carter’s presidency, became bound up with a widespread desire for morality in politics and a popular aspiration among many in the West to renounce utopias. What is ironic about that, according to Moyn, is that human rights were becoming another utopia in themselves. Indeed, the human rights movement as advocated by many intellectuals, such as Thomas Buergenthal, Louis Henkin and Theodore Meron, focused on the practical endeavor to defend the individual against the state. Among most of the intelligentsia, however, “human rights” became another utopia in which the majority invested with nearly blind-faith.  

This started to become a problem, Moyn tells us, when human rights became a model for criminal adjudication in response to the ethnic cleansings and genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. On the one hand, injecting international law with human rights discourse was good. It was a breakthrough insofar as international lawyers prior to the International Criminal Tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda rightly considered human rights to be powerless. On the other hand, it opened the door for military humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights. This manifested itself in George W. Bush’s use of human rights, along with his “go it alone” philosophy, to justify the US invasion of Iraq. Thus, while human rights promised power for the powerless, it had become a tool for the powerful. For Moyn this is not surprising—using popular sentiments to support the actions of the powerful has been the fate of most utopias throughout history.  

Moyn concludes, then, by arguing that advocates of human rights face a fateful choice between expanding human rights’ horizons beyond politics or taking politics more honestly, where the world is truly made a better place through human rights discourse and practice. He concludes with the following remarks, which summarize his laudable book:

“Instead of turning to history to monumentalize human rights by rooting them deep in the past, it is much better to acknowledge how recent and contingent they really are. Above all, it is crucial to link the emergence of human rights to the history of utopianism—the heartfelt desire to make the world a better place.”

Moyn has continued this line of argument in his latest book, Human Rights and the Uses of History. As a collection of essays that originally appeared in the Nation, Moyn’s latest work is an assemblage of beautifully stand-alone chapters that, from different angles, drive at the same thesis: human rights scholars should stop ransacking the past to provide “human rights” with support. Instead, they should acknowledge that human rights are an international movement that arose only within the last few decades. Besides recognizing that the past is rather bereft of human rights scholars should appreciate that, amid all of their searching through the past for foundations, “human rights” are being used to reinforce realpolitik under the guise of liberation and the authorization of violence.

Moyn thus conveys a sense of urgency in his work. Yet unlike other harsher critics of human rights, he strives to understand how human rights can be, and have been, used for humanitarianism. This makes his historical analysis truly engaging and, arguably, more revealing than other historical accounts that distort the past to suit the present. Moyn shows that when one looks closely at the recent growth of human rights, one sees that human rights cannot be treated as an unquestionable good. After all, America has often used “human rights” over the last ten years to pursue low-minded imperial ambitions with high-minded humanitarian tones. This is no different, Moyn argues, than Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt for the sake of spreading the “rights of man” to Egyptians or Belgium’s King Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo in the name of advancing “rights” to Africans.

Moyn also expresses concern over the moral foundations verses the moral practice of human rights. He shows that since the end of World War II, dignity has become a popular concept among human rights advocates and scholars. According to Moyn, “dignity” was originally a theological principle that granted different forms of rank among human beings, with the king being most dignified. Yet thanks to Kantians, such as John Rawls, and post-Holocaust Catholics, humanity and rights for all of humankind have been placed on dignity, the alleged source of universal human worth. Moyn shows, however, that the very advocates of dignity have often failed to apply that standard to all humans. A good example of this is Virginian Gildersleeve, who altered the Preamble of the UN charter to hold the powerful words “the dignity and worth of the human person.” As the dean of Bernard College, Gildersleeve nevertheless barred Jews from her school and openly advocated against Zionism after World War II. Moreover, advocates of human dignity have rarely promoted intervention to stop true human rights abuses. What seems clear, then, is that “dignity” is used alongside rights to uphold the message: “Stop the violence—but only over there and when it’s in our best interests.”

Despite all of his criticisms, Moyn acknowledges some of the more persuasive ideas in human rights discourse over the last decade. One of these is Katherine Sikkink’s “justice cascade,” which holds that countries where there have been successful criminal prosecutions of human rights violations have witnessed the greatest realization of rights and declines in state-level violence. Moyn complements this idea by showing that human ideologies and interests, such as the desire for decolonization and self-determination, spread among populations due to human choices and population circumstances.

Similar to The Last Utopia, Moyn shows that the breakthrough in human rights as a popular discourse occurred in the latter twentieth century. However, in Human Rights and the Uses of History, Moyn examines a number of other breakthroughs that occurred alongside human rights, such as Holocaust awareness, torture, and liberal internationalism. He says that popular Holocaust memory coincided primarily with the emergence of the moral imagination of the 1970s. Likewise, torture became something taboo—that is, unapproachable—in the West long ago after governments no longer practiced it. Nevertheless when the West began to reconsider torture in the war on terror, the taboo was questioned and debated among politicians and intellectuals. And though liberal internationalism promotes the rule of law and the rights of individuals at home, it has rarely translated into the same politics abroad.

All of this leads Moyn to ask what the future of human rights ought to be. In answering that question, Moyn claims that human rights should find a compromise between utopianism and realism. Second, human rights should be couched in fewer moral terms, as moral ideology is prone to abuse, and more scientific terminology—that is, an empirical enterprise measured on outcomes. Finally, the politics of human rights must involve transformational steps, acknowledge its mobilization, transcend the work of judges, and seek power over the real conditions of enjoyment of formal entitlements.

Taken together, The Last Utopia and Human Rights and the Uses of History provide a critical vantage point for considering the history and future of human rights. They are undoubtedly essential books for anyone serious about the scholarship and advancement of human rights in the twenty-first century. 

Jordan Kiper is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. His research centers on human rights and the naturalistic study of religion and morality. Besides carrying out ethnographic fieldwork on human rights, conflict and post-conflict justice in the Balkans, he has undertaken experimental research on religion and morality in the Evolution, Cognition, and Culture Lab at the University of Connecticut.