Saturday, April 7, 2007

Wood reviews Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History

Gordon Wood reviews Lynn Hunt, INVENTING HUMAN RIGHTS: A History (W. W. Norton & Company) in Sunday's New York Times. Wood begins:
According to many people in the West today, human rights trump all other claims and values, including those of custom, community and culture; everyone in the world, including every individual in strange faraway places like Darfur, has certain inalienable rights simply because he or she is a human being. As conventional as this claim has become for us, in the entire sweep of history it is quite extraordinary and of fairly recent origin. How did it come about and what has been its history? These are the questions Lynn Hunt has sought to answer in this remarkable little book. Indeed, because she covers so much ground in so few pages and with such clarity, “Inventing Human Rights” is a tour de force of compression.
Hunt, the Eugen Weber professor of modern European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a distinguished expert on 18th-century France, says that “human rights require three interlocking qualities: rights must be natural (inherent in human beings), equal (the same for everyone) and universal (applicable everywhere).” This conception of human rights, she explains, had its origins in the Western Enlightenment of the 18th century. Although the English had issued a Bill of Rights in 1689, that document derived from the particularities of English law and English history and did not declare the equality, universality or naturalness of rights. It was left to Thomas Jefferson and the American Congress in 1776 to issue the first notable human rights proclamation. But it was the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 that had the greatest impact on Western thinking.

Hunt readily concedes that many people, including men without property, slaves and women, were left out of these declarations of universal and equal rights. Thus “we should not forget the restrictions placed on rights by 18th-century men, but to stop there,” she says, “patting ourselves on the back for our own comparative ‘advancement,’ is to miss the point. How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” Answering this question, she says, will help us “understand better what human rights mean to us today.”

The short answer is that 18th-century individuals developed a new and profound sense of sympathy, or to use a more exact 20th-century term, “empathy,” for the autonomy and well-being of other human beings.

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