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rights at the ISA conference in Montreal (both are available in draft form from the ISA website, here and here, please do not cite, but comments are welcome).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