Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

9 Human Rights: Historical Learning in the Shadow of Violence

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

9 Human Rights: Historical Learning in the Shadow of Violence

Article excerpt


Introduction: How Are Human Rights Historical?

HUMAN RIGHTS are typically understood as norms that hold universally across historical time and social space, bur it is important to remember that they are also a recent addition to our ethical discourse. It was not until after World War II that the term "human rights" gained general currency. (1) And this is not just a matter of vocabulary either, since, despite the universalism of modern moral discourse, ethics dealing with the realities and possibilities of actual societies had previously concentrated on practical issues within specific societies rather than on international or trans-societal questions. (2) The emergence of human rights, then, is part of a wider change in ethical discourse, one that may help us make ethical sense of issues posed by those processes of expansion and integration we today speak of as "globalization."

At the same time, we need to recall that the emergence of human rights was and continues to be for the most part a response to the terrible explosions of violence that marked the first half of the 20th century and continue to haunt our world. The language of human rights belongs to the same epoch as the language of crimes against humanity. (3) But it is not clear how best to characterize the relation between human rights claims and resistance to violence. The egregious character of mass violence lends these claims a compelling force that they may lack in other contexts, but that does not show that their scope as norms should be restricted to ethical responses to violence. On the other hand, since with human rights we are interested in norms that have real effectiveness, the conditions for their general acceptance and enforcement must be weighed in philosophical reflection on them as ethical as well as legal principles.

Such considerations figure, too, in making sense of the respects in which we are to understand the historical character of human rights. Are historical facts about their emergence, including their association with the resistance to violence, merely contingent matters that must be kept independent of our understanding of their meaning and validity? Or do historical considerations point to something inherent in human rights as such? In what follows, I offer reasons to explore the second possibility. In particular, I suggest that we think of the emergence of human rights as a process of social learning that operates on multiple levels--conceptual, linguistic, cultural, and political--and involves struggles over the embodiment of these norms in institutions and practices. Those historical aspects of the emergence of human rights that are part of this process of learning are inseparable from the rationality of these rights and cannot be relegated to the status of contingent background.

If this thesis holds up, it will in turn affect our sense of the significance of violence issues in the evolution of a human rights ethic. Before we can get very far with considering these implications, we need to say more about the relevant notions of learning and violence, the themes of the two succeeding sections. The theme of learning will be developed by borrowing from Jurgen Habermas's development of this theme with his conception of rationality. We approach the issue of violence by way of the example of the bombing of Hiroshima, which helps us see that the problems faced by ethics cannot be grasped by isolating violent acts from questions about technology, injustice, and social conflict. Violence issues, we argue, are inseparable from broader questions of power. With this in mind, we then emphasize the role of social movements in the historical learning that has yielded our current understanding of human rights. These movements are important in part for combining rights claims with demands for recognition and the achievement of new kinds of cross-national reciprocity, a crucial aspect of the process of a human rights ethic as conceived here. …

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