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