Human Rights as Crisis Morality – a reply

If Anthony will forgive my presumptuousness, it seems that the crisis of human rights that worries him is that while critics have much to offer by highlighting the limitations, paradoxes, silences and aporias of human rights, they fail to offer a moral vision that can inspire or a practical politics that might make the world better. This concern goes beyond the practiced rejection of philosophising as an indulgence in the face of human misery. Anthony is concerned with the deeper problem faced by those critics who identify human rights with the global exertion of Western authority and a depoliticised vision of the individual and society under the conditions of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. And that problem is that the process of critique itself risks overwhelming the possibility of political action for moral ends – to do good on behalf of, and in solidarity with, the “poor, downtrodden and despised”.

There’s a crude version of this critique that suggests human rights naysayers are obscurantist intellectuals, whose evasive politics demonstrate the bankrupt quietism of the contemporary left – or, as they would say back home, that they are “all hat and no cattle”. In his post Anthony is getting at something more substantive and, I think, very important, which is the difficulty of finding a critical ground for moral action in political life. If one admits the limitations and pernicious aspects of human rights as a broad set of political practices, what alternative justification can be offered for political action?

While supportive of human rights, Anthony is quite clear that the

difficulty here for human rights is that the very rhetoric of the movement, with its built in moralism and boosterism, makes it hard to consider that “human rights might be a bad thing”, or that they may not be the best – and certainly not the only – framework for considering serious problems and issues within the international system.

For this reason he respects the important role that critiques of human rights play in recognising the tendency for moral claims to be co-opted by political power, deconstructing the essentialised account of humanity, tracing the violence done to difference through universal claims and acknowledging the politics inherent in any account of justice. The key question, then, is what happens in the wake of our critical interrogation of human rights?

While I reject the argument that all rights are oppressive and hierarchical, I think it is undeniable that a politics of rights does construct its participants in certain ways, and that those constructions can undoubtedly mesh with other aspects of the contemporary global politico-economic systems in ways which make people extraordinarily vulnerable.

But recognising this, for Anthony, is insufficient and the potential excess of critique lies in the failure to recognise the good work that human rights have enabled through the work of dedicated individuals confronting serious political harms in the world; and worse still, the potential for constant critique to replace engagement while disabling our ability to pursue a substantive vision of the good that raises the quality of political action to a moral level. In the original seminar paper that Anthony presented last year he wrote:

The capacity to affirm a cosmopolitanism for today – rather than for the apocalyptic future – is going to require a philosophy which allows one to make claims, however nuanced, about the way thing should be: not everything can be subject to flux, contestation and agonistic difference if one is serious about claiming that certain ways of being are better than others (whether one wants to put this in the language of a philosophy of right (Schaap 2009), philosophical truth (See generally Campbell 1992) or of “provisional and strategically essentialised subjectivities” which might “enable a progressive politics” (Krishna 1993: 385)). A progressive politics needs some peg form which to hang.

The key issue here is not whether human rights are political – Anthony accepts that they are – but what kind of politics they represent and whether the vision of justice they support can be justified, whether we have good reasons for acting on our account of the good. This is also made clear in Anthony’s recent European Journal of International Relations article in which he critiques Chandran Kukathas‘ argument that we should not pursue global justice.

In the original seminar paper, Anthony focuses on the work of Costas Douzinas to illustrate the philosophical dead-end that the excess of critique risks leading us down. Because of his aversion to making any strong positive claims about what justice entails or how we can achieve it through political action, Douzinas cannot offer a “cosmopolitanism for today” but instead succumbs (to Anthony’s mind) to a utopian call for a “cosmopolitan to come” that is rightly (for Anthony) focused on enabling new visions of the good – or the right in place of mere rights – but which lacks any attempt at justification or a conception of how absolute hospitality for the other, and other similarly abstract claims, play out in practical terms.

Rather than providing the global justice movement with compelling arguments – practical and philosophical – for why and how global injustices should be tackled, resources for the fight against oppression and domination, Douzinas engages in a utopian philosophical fantasy which resembles a secularised retelling of the revelation of St John.

I share this central concern with Anthony, but I have reservations about how he understands the necessary connections between moral principle (justice, good, right) and political action – even as I agree that Douzinas’ “cosmopolitanism to come”, with its invocations of absolute responsibility to otherness and principled refusal to state principles to guide our actions, is insufficient – even as I accept that fulsome rhetoric and beautiful revolutionary dreams play an important part in ethical thinking.

Anthony asks if human rights are in crisis, he gives us a quick tour through recent texts that share a certain crisis-sensibility, and then goes on to suggest that there is something of a crisis of critique to be addressed – for my part, I’d like to think a bit more about the role that the invocation of crisis plays when we think about human rights – or political ethics more broadly.

Human rights are a crisis morality. “Something must be done.” “Never again.” “Acts that shock the conscious of mankind.” These are the words we invoke when we defend human rights, and one of the functions they serve is to halt critique, to call discussion and dissent to a close in favour of action. I don’t want to suggest that this function is illegitimate as such – in parliamentary debate or in the midst of a protest or while campaigning against government cruelty there are times when action rather than reflection is the order of the day, this is a truth of political life, even if it is among our most commonly debased truths. What I do want to suggest is that this crisis mentality affects our thinking on human rights beyond actual moments of decision and action – consider the various ways human rights are defended: “basic”, “minimal”, “necessary”. The implication of this framing is that while there may be some values, principles and rights that we should critique and question, there are others that are too important for such impertinence.

Anthony avoids the uncritical version of this dichotomy, but I suspect he still expects that a proper account of human rights requires foundations – that is justifications for why upholding human rights is a good thing, which negates the claims of political interest, expediency and necessity. More deeply, he accepts that this justification can only ever be partial but insists that there are more and less acceptable forms of partiality. A philosophical account of rights – it seems – can redeem and justify the political nature of moral claims in some resolute way, such that an account of justice (as an account of the right and the good) can relieve the burden of uncertainty in political action. We may not know or control the outcomes, but we can know that we act on the side of a worthy cause. This is a real desire, a true human need – to feel that one can act politically for worthwhile reasons.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the need for justification that Anthony is seeking. I suspect, however, that I am less sure that such certainty is possible and that I find this account of ethical action in politics more troubling. I agree our political action should be guided by ethical concerns. Are we pursuing good ends? Do our actions take account of others in a meaningful way? What justifies the things we do? But I do not think we should allow our best ethical reflection to blind us to the consequences of our actions or the ways in which they remain open to challenge – both of which mean that ethical action is never certain, that we may have good reason to regret our best intentions and that change of our ideals and principles is likely inevitable (and often positive).

My view – which is a mixture of Deweyan pragmatism and agonistic pluralism – suggests that Anthony is right that the critic of human rights risks rejecting too much if she fails to take account of the good that human rights enable, but it also leads to a worry that Anthony is too quick to assume that our vision of justice can be made compelling and authoritative without being a deeply political imposition. This then leaves me with two further lines of inquiry that, at least in the post and seminar paper, are lacking in Anthony’s critique of the critics of human rights.

First, we must be more attentive to what the claimed “good use” of human rights actually involves. This involves not only disaggregating human rights – are we speaking about UN human rights documents and institutions, the use of human rights in legal cases (particularly international criminal law), the place of human rights in the discourse and practices of peacebuilding, development and poverty relief, or the still more varied use of human rights by political campaigns and social movements? My own view is that the record is mixed and for those interested in human rights as a political practice that enables radical democracy, egalitarian economic structures and liberation from coercive authority, the place to look is to the reconstruction of human rights claims by social movements seeking to transform social and political relations by invoking new ethical ideals that require contested transformations of society.

Mark Goodale, who is part of a developing research agenda on human rights within anthropology, brings the importance of attending to the details of how human rights are used into stark relief in his recent work Surrendering to Utopia.

But as it turns out, it is much easier for people to appropriate the idea of human rights for specific legal, political, or social purposes than it is for them to embrace the – at times – radically alternative conception of the person that forms the basis for this idea. In other words, in many cases the coming of human rights demands something of identity that the practice of identity is not prepared (or able) to give.

This is an important warning that we cannot assume that the successful use of human rights as a political tool implies an embrace of the same vision of human rights – or that human rights do not remain problematic and oppressive.

If there is a way out of this box, it must be in terms of a practical framework of human rights that critically responds to the historical and political circumstances that gave rise to the postwar international system, and through the articulation of a human rights epistemology that reinscribes the socio-normative in such a way that the idea of human rights emerges from radically different forms of knowledge.

Developing this sort of practical framework requires confronting the political content and form of human rights more directly than Anthony seems willing to do – at least in the work I’m responding to here. It requires not only an acceptance that our ethical claims are always partial and contextual, but also that they are contestable and uncertain. This doesn’t mean my pragmatic agonism leads only to utopian flights of fancy – as important as these may be for opening up our field of vision – or that critique prohibits action; in fact it insists that critique is incomplete unless it is attending to the consequences of our best attempts to act ethically in political life.  My own crisis of human rights, then, is: how do we democratise human rights in terms of ethical ideals, social reforms, and visions for the future?

It is unlikely, and I think undesirable, that human rights could inspire a single vision of justice for the contemporary left to pursue, but I do think one place to start thinking about what human rights can be is by revitalising the meaning and politics of democracy – not as representation but as participation, not as a political form but as a social ethics. This would start by moving beyond bureaucratic institutions to a democratic reconstruction of social life – democratising structures of world politics; upholding the democratic will of the people over the interests of capital; supporting democracy where possible and deepening it when circumstance are favorable. This is not a fully developed political program – nor even my own vision of democratising human rights, but simply a suggestion of where the critically minded might start the work that Anthony rouses us to, while preserving space to raises the big questions, such as who acts to protect human rights, what actions can be taken, and whose actions are we able (prepared) to see?


One thought on “Human Rights as Crisis Morality – a reply

  1. Pingback: Human Rights In Crisis? | The Disorder Of Things

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