Sunday, January 02, 2011

John Gray reviews Samuel Moyn's book on human rights

In "The National Interest" (January-February 2011), John Gray reviews Samuel Moyn's "The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History" (Belknap Press, 2010):

"What Rawls Hath Wrought"

"Undermining the narrative of a virtually inevitable human evolution, the notion that rights are the foundation of society came only with the rise of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls’s vastly influential A Theory of Justice (1971). In the years following, it slowly came to be accepted that human rights were the bottom line in political morality. [....] The belief that rights are fundamental in political ethics is a late twentieth-century fancy. [....].... it was Rawls’s work that was chiefly responsible for the triumph of the narrow type of liberalism that has since dominated Anglo-American political philosophy. The result was to promote a type of liberal legalism in which the rule of law was simply assumed, while politics was virtually ignored.

The most damaging effect of Rawls’s work was the neglect of the state that it produced. [.....] It is partly the loss of the insight that human rights can only be secured by an effective state that explains the failure of the regime-change policies promoted by neoconservatives and liberal hawks over the past decade. If rights are what humans possess in the absence of a repressive regime, all that needs to be done to secure human rights is to remove the despot in question. But if rights are empty without the state to protect them, then the nature of the government that can be reasonably expected to emerge when tyranny has been overthrown becomes of crucial importance. The political ideas that are taught in universities do not often shape political practice in any direct fashion. But there can be little doubt that those who promoted the Iraq War believed the removal of Saddam Hussein would allow something like liberal democracy to flourish in the country, and in believing this, they showed that their thinking had been molded by theories of rights that ignored the crucial role of the state. [.....]

Where the human-rights project has become harmful is in nurturing the sickly dream of a time when the intractable dilemmas of ethics and politics will be overcome, transcended in an empire of law. Human rights are not the last utopia — just the one we must presently live with. The pursuit of the impossible is too much a part of the modern Western tradition ever to be truly renounced. The idea that utopianism will disappear is itself a utopian dream. The most that can be hoped for is that the piety which surrounds human rights will be tempered from time to time with a little skeptical doubt. It is hard to think of a better start than Moyn’s seminal study."

See my post on Samuel Moyn's book here.

See Samuel Moyn's lecture on "The Last Utopia" (video, 48 minutes).

An excerpt from Moyn's book has been published in "The Nation" (August 30 -September 6, 2010), entitled "Human Rights in History". Also see his "On the Genealogy of Morals" from "The Nation" in 2007.

John Gray's latest book is "Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia" (Allen Lane, 2007).

No comments: