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? Continue reading

A Slow Motion Moral Collapse, or, the Principle of Magic?

Belief in magic did not cease when the coarser forms of superstitious practice ceased. The principle of magic is found whenever it is hoped to get results without intelligent control of means; and also when it is supposed that means can exist and yet remain inert and inoperative. In morals and politics such expectation still prevail, and in so far the most important phases of human action are still affected by magic. We think that by feeling strongly enough about something, by wishing hard enough, we can get a desirable result, such as virtuous execution of a good resolve, or peace among nations, or good will in industry. We slur over the necessity of the cooperative action of objective conditions, and the fact that this cooperation is assured only by persistent and close study. Or, on the other hand, we fancy we can get these results by external machinery, by tools or potential means, without a corresponding functioning of human desires and capacities. Often times these two false and contradictory beliefs are combined in the same person. The man who feels that his virtues are his own personal accomplishment is likely to be also the one who thinks that by passing laws he can throw the fear of God into others and make them virtuous by edict and prohibition.

-John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct

Pragmatist Notes, part III

In spite of the fact that diversity of political forms rather than uniformity is the rule, belief in the state as an archetypal entity persists in political philosophy and science. Much dialectical ingenuity has been expended in construction of an essence or intrinsic nature in virtue of which any particular association is entitled to have applied to it the concept of statehood. Equal ingenuity has been expended in explaining away all divergences from this morphological type, and (the favored device) in ranking states in a hierarchical order of value as they approach the defining essence. The idea that there is a model pattern which makes a state a good or true state has affected practice as well as theory. It, more than anything else, is responsible for the effort to form constitutions offhand and impose them ready-made on peoples. Unfortunately, when the falsity of this view was perceived, it was replaced by the idea that states “grow” or develop instead of being made. This “growth” did not mean simply that states alter. Growth signified an evolution through regular stages to a predetermined end because of some intrinsic nisus or principle. This theory discouraged recourse to the only method by which alterations of political forms might be directed: namely, the use of intelligence to judge consequences. Equally with the theory which it displaces, it presumed the existence of a single standard form which defines the state as the essential and true article. After a false analogy with physical science, it was asserted that only the assumption of such a uniformity of process renders a “scientific” treatment of society possible. Incidentally, the theory flattered the conceit of those nations which, being politically “advanced,” assumed that they were so near the apex of evolution as to wear the crown of statehood.

– John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927)

The Politics of Austerity: Emergency Economics and Debtocracy

austerity |ôˈsteritē| noun – sternness or severity of manner or attitude

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.

– George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then that thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you?

Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

 I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise that you stop,

I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,

But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

– Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” Leaves of Grass

The Politics of Austerity – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that look at the political implications of the ongoing global economic crisis. I begin by examining the way that crisis is being used to attack the very idea of democracy through an assertion of the political imperatives of “the market” and the violation, bending and re-writing of the law by capitalist elites. I conclude by laying out how understanding the economic crisis in political terms shapes our ability to respond to it.

In the second post I’ll look at the ethos of austerity, which justifies the pain inflicted on largely innocent people, while suggesting that an affirmative democratic response to the economic crisis must begin with its own ethos, which I suggest should be an ethos of care for the world – which can provide orientation and inspiration for political struggles seeking to address the deeper causes of our current crisis. In the third post, I turn to the structures of the economy and of politics that define the current crisis, looking at the banking crisis, the bailouts, the politics of recovery/austerity and also reflecting of the structural imperatives of capitalism that led us to crisis. This, then, leads to the question of how to respond to the politics of austerity, and of what alternative actions are available to us, which is where the fourth and final post will pick up – with an affirmation of a caring ethos that supports a radically democratic economic vision.

Emergency Economics

In a previous post I briefly highlighted Bonnie Honig’s work, Emergency Politics, to examine the way that the ethical case for austerity is made; most basically, the existence of a supreme emergency, in this case economic, justifies actions that would normally be considered unacceptable. Honig’s work looks at how the appeal to emergency is used to reassert the exceptional political power of the sovereign over and against the law, with a focus on the reassertion of sovereignty witnessed over the past ten years in response to the threat of terrorist attack in the US and Europe.

Rather than accepting the necessarily intractable conflict between the power of the sovereign and the power of the law, Honig attempts to deflate this paradox by turning her attention to the always ongoing contestation that defines democratic politics, a contest over both the content of the law and the institutional embodiment of sovereign power. She suggests, then, that attending to the ambiguities of the “people”, who are both the democratic sovereign and a diffuse multitude, as well as the political element in the law – as new laws come into being through political action – enables us to avoid thinking about emergencies as moments of exception in which the rule of law is lost to the play of political power, while also acknowledging the limits of established law in moments of profound crisis. By undermining the exceptional nature of crises and emergencies Honig alters the challenge we face when circumstances force us to make choices or carry out actions we know are harmful and wrong by asking what we (democratic publics and citizens) can do to survive an emergency with our integrity in tact.

What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy.

I continue to find this a useful way to understand our current economic crisis. Appeals to austerity depend upon the exceptional state created by crisis in order to justify the pain inflicted upon masses of people and the priority given to private interests (the markets, investors and bankers) over democratic publics. So, as democratically enacted laws must bow before the sovereign power threatened by exceptional attacks, so economic justice and democratic equality must bow before the commands of market forces, of economic inevitability, in this time of crisis.

The economic version of this argument is stronger still. While the space of political contestation that remains open when we accept the framing of emergency politics is limited, it does exist in the clashing of opposing sovereigns. The prospect of a substantive alternative to neoliberal economic ideology is dim, a light flickering weakly on antiquated appeals for a return to Keynesianism or watered down triangulations of the moderate-middle that sell off dreams of a just economy bit by bit – capitalist realism in action.

Honig awakens us to an important aspects of our current crisis: that “the market” is not in fact supremely sovereign, and the move to re-establish and further neoliberal policies and push through austerity measures requires an engagement in democratic politics – albeit one that undermines the notion of the public itself and seeks to use the power of the law to subvert democracy. Recognising the current crisis in these terms not only challenges us to consider how to survive our current troubles without giving up democratic virtues, it also reinvigorates and clarifies the political challenge we face. Emergency economics – with its assertion of debtocracy over democracy – is not an inevitable response to the crisis, it is a political one that we can, and should, fight against.

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What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: The Politics of Humanity and The Ambiguous History of Human Rights – Part III

This is the final post in a series laying out a set of interrelated arguments I presented at this year’s ISA conference. The first post looked at the nature of human rights claims, while the second considered how rethinking human rights in terms of contestation over the ambiguous meaning of humanity as a political identity affects our understanding of the history of human rights. In the final post I suggest a positive ethos, enabled by attending to human rights in terms of agonism and pluralism.

Human Rights as a Democratising Ethos

In part 1, I analysed human rights as an attempt to offer a universal moral justification of political authority. This is a perennial political question, but one which is reconfigured by talk of “human rights”, as the political identity of humanity opens up question over who is included in political community, as well as the boundaries that define such communities. The stakes of the question of human rights – offering a universal account of who is included as a rights bearing member of the political community, and the legitimate order of that community – lead to a profound anxiety over justifications. The moral reasons we have to uphold human rights should be weighty, powerful and certain – or so the logic dictates.

What emerges from this logic is an essentially legislative understanding of human rights, in which moral principles give justification for the necessary and minimal law to grant legitimacy to the universal vision of both individual and community. If this moral law is to be more than an imposition of power, a merely effective positive law, it must involve a universal moral appeal that cannot be denied in order to secure human rights as the necessary law of legitimate authority. In this regard Habermas’ defense of moral universality and human rights are indicative and sophisticated examples. (Habermas 1992, 1998)

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Pragmatist Notes, part II

To be set on fire by a thought or scene is to be inspired. What is kindled must either burn itself out, turning to ashes, or must press itself out in material that changes the latter from crude metal into a refined product. Many a person is unhappy, tortured within, because he has at command no art of expressive action. What under happier conditions might be used to convert objective material into material of an intense and clear experience, seethes within in unruly turmoil which finally dies down after, perhaps, a painful inner disruption.

Persons who are conventionally set off from artists, “thinkers,” scientists, do not opperate by conscious wit and will to anything like the extent popularly supposed. They, too, press forward toward some end dimly and imprecisely prefigured, groping their way as they are lured on by the identity of an aura in which their observations and reflections swim. Only the psychology that has separated things which in reality belong together holds that scientists and philosophers think while poets and painters follow their feelings. In both, and to the same extent in the degree in which they are of comparable rank, there is emotionalized thinking, and there are feelings whose substance consists of appreciated meanings or ideas.

The psychology underlying this bifurcation was exploded in advance by William James when he pointed out that there are direct feelings of such relations as “if,” “then,” “and,” “but,” “from,” “with.” For he showed that there is no relation so comprehensive that it may not become a matter of immediate experience. Every work of art that ever existed had indeed already contradicted the theory in question. It is quite true that certain things, namely ideas, exercise a mediating function. But only a twisted and aborted logic can hold that because something is mediated, it cannot, therefore, be immediately experienced. The reverse is the case. We cannot grasp any idea, any organ of mediation, we cannot possess it in its full force, until we have felt and sensed it, as much so as if it were an odor or a color.

Whenever an idea loses its immediate felt quality, it ceases to be an idea and becomes, like an algebraic symbol, a mere stimulus to execute an operation within the need of thinking. For this reason certain trains of ideas leading to their appropriate consummation (or conclusion) are beautiful or elegant. They have an esthetic character. In reflection it is often necessary to make a distinction between matters of sense and matters of thought. But the distinction does not exist in all modes of experience. When there is genuine artistry in scientific inquiry and philosophical speculation, a thinker proceeds neither by rule nor yet blindly, but by means of meanings that exist immediately as feelings having qualitative color.

Santayana has truly remarked: “Perceptions do not remain in the mind, as would be suggested by the trite simile of the seal and the wax, passive and changeless, until time wears off their rough edges and makes them fade. No, perception falls into the brain rather as seeds into a furrowed field or even as sparks into a keg of gunpowder. Each image breeds a hundred more, sometimes slowly and subterraneously, sometimes (as when a passionate train is started) with a sudden burst of fancy.” Even in abstract processes of thought, connection with the primary motor apparatus is not entirely severed, and the motor mechanism is linked up with reservoirs of energy in the sympathetic and endocrine system. An observation, an idea flashing into the mind, starts something. The result may be a too direct discharge to be rhythmic. There may be a displace of rude undisciplined force. There may be a feebleness that allows energy to dissipate itself in idle day-dreaming. There may be too great openness of certain channels due to habits having become blind routines – when activity takes the form sometimes identified exclusively with “practical” doing. Unconscious fears of a world unfrienly to dominating desires breed inhibition of all action or confine it within familiar channels. There are multitudes of ways, varying between poles of tepid apathy and rough impatience, in which energy once aroused, fails to move in an ordered relation of accumulation, opposition, suspence and pause, toward final consummation of an experience. The latter is then inchoate, mechanical, or loose and diffuse. Such cases define, by contrast, the nature of rhythm and expression.

-John Dewey, Art as Experience

What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: The Politics of Humanity and The Ambiguous History of Human Rights – Part I

Men cannot live without seeking to describe and explain the universe to themselves. The models they use in doing this must deeply affect their lives, not least when they are unconscious; much of the misery and frustration of men is due to the mechanical or unconscious, as well as deliberate, application of models where they do not work… The goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark.

-Isaiah Berlin, The Purpose of Philosophy

Last month I presented two papers on human rights at the ISA conference in Montreal (both are available in draft form from the ISA website, here and here, please do not cite, but comments are welcome). Attempting to offer a summary of those papers, however, has made clear to me that they are importantly connected and perhaps incomplete as separate papers – hence the “should” in the title. Together, the papers offer a pluralistic and agonistic reconstruction of human rights as a political concept and an ethical ideal. I’ll try to offer a shorter version of the argument that connects these two papers here, though broken into three (relatively) short posts. My reconstruction begins (Part 1) with a theoretical analysis of human rights, which forms the basis for an argument (Part 2) about how we should understand the history of human rights and, finally, (Part 3) leads to a defence of a democratising reconstruction of human rights.

The Nature of Human Rights Claims

Human rights, I argue, are of central importance for contemporary political theory because they respond to the basic question of legitimate authority, which is most simply the question of what justifies the coercive power of political authority. Traditionally, the question of legitimate authority addressed to the modern state and it is from this line of thinking that we inherent the rights discourse – in which authority is rendered legitimate by protecting the rights of individual members of the political community, which is a group importantly distinct from those actually subject to the coercive power of the state.

The details of this can be filled-in in many ways, but the  logic of rights is central to modern political thought. These political rights, and the institutions of governance they support, in turn, are justified by an appeal to moral rights. The moral appeal is central to the rights tradition as it is the absolute and certain quality of moral principles that justify the limitations imposed upon political authority and the powers granted to political authority to exclude, harm and constrain. Human rights emerge from this modern rights tradition, but the conditions and consequence of their emergence are complex. Continue reading

Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage”

This is the second in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (3 Feb): Nick’s post is now up, to learn about material monism and the philosophical power of beards read it here.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now online, in which she threatens the stability of the matrix.


A broad definition of science, by design, does not provide us with any standards for good research, or indeed any specific advice for how to go about doing research, beyond the two basic admonitions to focus on factual knowledge of the world, and to separate this activity logically and conceptually from the promulgation of normative judgments and partisan-political stances. (25)

Patrick Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations

My comments on Jackson’s book need to be put in a personal context. I have no interest in claiming the title of “science” for my work or “scientist” for myself. Further, I do not consider my primary vocation the production of empirical knowledge. Instead, my work is “normative” and focused, most broadly, on how we think about the ethical dimension of world politics. Finally, I do not self-identify as a participant in the discipline of “International Relations,” nor as a “political scientist;” the tradition of scholarly work identified as “International Relations” is compromised by its statist foundations and the historically positivist pretensions that motivated the move to a science of politics are unsustainable in my estimation.

This raises an obvious question: why am I commenting on a book about the conduct of scientific inquiry in International Relations (IR)?

A Personal Anecdote

While at a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I had an argument with my friend, Laust Schouenborg, about the nature of social science. Sitting in a Soviet-era housing block converted into a budget hotel, watching the sun go down behind the park, I was rhetorically ejected from academia.

Our argument began when Laust, after reading Chris Brown’s International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, suggested (contra Brown) that because there are no standards of what constitutes a “good” normative argument, the study of ethics had no place in IR, and that scholars concerned with making arguments about how politics should be, had no place in academia.[1] The modern university is a place for scientific study and those who were not practicing science should, he claimed, be relegated to the political and cultural spheres.

This line of reasoning shocked me, but it was only the culmination of a disciplining process I experienced in my first two years as a PhD student in the International Relations Department at the LSE. Even as many members of faculty supported my work, I was constantly asked why I was studying in an IR department and some “colleagues” suggested that my research was value-less as scientific work – whatever its virtues as polemic or sermon.[2]

These experiences have left me with two abiding intellectual concerns about the conduct of social inquiry. The first is to challenge the institutional privilege bestowed upon those conducting their inquiry as “science.” On this concern, Jackson and I share considerable ground, as his critique of exclusive definitions of scientific inquiry deflates dominant pretensions and advocates for a more inclusive study of world politics. And I must give credit where it is due: Jackson doesn’t suggest that my kind be thrown from the ivory tower – just given separate offices. The second concern is deeper and more contentious: to challenge the notion that the ethical questions that interest me can and should be separated from scientific inquiry into world politics. On this point Jackson and I share less ground, and for this reason the bulk of my comments will focus on how and why Jackson separates the “scientific” and the “normative” in his pluralist approach to IR.

Aside from satisfying very personal concerns, I offer this response to Jackson’s book because his generous orientation, stated most forcefully in the concluding chapter, invites engagement. Along with analyzing Jackson’s essentially Weberian account of a pluralist science of IR, and suggesting that a fuller account of social inquiry should bring together ethical and empirical inquiry, my most substantive critique is that the pluralism Jackson defends is partial and continues to discipline the study of world politics in an unsustainable way – a critique that, if correct, undermines a central aim of his project.

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Cosmopolitan Moralism and Human Rights

Sometimes I have the impression that all intellectuals have become cosmopolitans. But there is an increasing gap between what intellectuals think and preach and what the ordinary people feel. There is a growing divergence between the demos and the elites, especially concerning the perception and the treatment that should be reserved to the “diverse”: immigrants, minorities, gays and so on are more and more perceived as a threat. When xenophobia is rising, the intellectuals have a responsibility to help to distinguish between the real and apparent reasons, even at the price to become isolated from great parts of the population.

– Daniele Archibugi

In this post I want to both feature and expand upon an upcoming special issue (Volume 12, Issue 1) of Human Rights Review, which I  guest edited with my colleague and friend Marta Iñiguez de Heredia. The special issue focuses on human rights as an ideal and practical politics, opening some initial space to consider why the interaction between moral ideals and practical politics is important, and provoking discussion of how the clear divide between them is unsustainable.

To set the stage, we find Daniele Archibugi and Seyla Benhabib discussing Cosmopolitanism at Open Democracy. For both authors the place of universal rights in cosmopolitan politics is central, but the moral principle expressed through universal human rights works in a very particular way. This approach to human rights prioritizes what, in the paper, we call the “philosopher’s” understanding of rights, which begins from rational moral principles already known before political action is taken.

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Pragmatist Notes, part I

It is no accident that American pragmatism once again rises to the surface of North Atlantic intellectual life at the present moment. For its major themes of evading epistemology-centered philosophy, accenting human powers, and transforming antiquated modes of social hierarchies in light of religious and/or ethical ideals make it relevant and attractive. The distinctive appeal of American pragmatism in our postmodern moment is its unashamedly moral emphasis and its unequivocally ameliorative impulse. In this world-weary period of pervasive cynicisms, nihilisms, terrorisms, and possible extermination, there is a longing for norms and values that can make a difference, a yearning for principled resistance and struggle that can change our desperate plight.

Prophetic pragmatism worships at no ideological altars. It condemns oppression anywhere and everywhere, be it the brutal butchery of thirdworld dictators, the regimentation and repression of peoples in the Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries, or the racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and economic injustice in the first-world capitalist nations. In this way, the precious ideals of individuality and democracy of prophetic pragmatism oppose all those power structures that lack public accountability, be they headed by military generals, bureaucratic party bosses, or corporate tycoons. Nor is prophetic pragmatism confined to any preordained historical agent, such as the working class, black people, or women. Rather, it invites all people of goodwill both here and abroad to fight for an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in which the plight of the wretched of the earth is alleviated.

– Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism