Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Are Human Rights a Philosophy of History? the Case for the Defense

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Are Human Rights a Philosophy of History? the Case for the Defense

Article excerpt

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a response--at least in part--to the horrors of the Second World War. (1) The motivation for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is represented in the phrase, "whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." (2) The first seven sentences of the preamble to the UDHR begin in a declaratory fashion, starting with, "whereas." They then trail off into sets of statements with undoubtedly appealing sounds (for example, "freedom, justice and peace in the world"). However, upon reading these lines, one realizes that the UDHR is dictating the nature of the human being to other human beings (its reader). Occasionally, human rights are accused of imperialism. (3) Such wordplays might be the basis of at least some of those claims.

Indeed, human rights do tell us about the nature of the human being--at least human rights' view of the human being. The UDHR's first article is provocative: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The tone itself does not surprise. One would be surprised if human rights betrayed an allegiance to oppressive political ideologies (or perhaps any political ideology at all). (4) However, it is not just the political state of the human being, at least "originally," about which human rights tell us. It is also about the existential characteristics of the human being. Those characteristics are political--"free" and "dignified." However, those existential characteristics are also intellectual; they involve some level of cognitive process. Human beings, claims Article 1, are "endowed with reason and conscience." Humanity has some kind of thinking machine. Article 1 also states that human beings should "act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood," or fraternite. It appears, somehow, that brotherhood is connected to reason and conscience. Though reason and conscience may be baseline human characteristics, humanity appears to have had a difficult time realizing them. Indeed, as the UDHR phrases it, it appears that humanity has spent more than a small amount of time involved in "barbarism." (5)

Interesting about all this is the idea that human rights may involve a philosophy of history. Clearly, human rights are sometimes thought to involve stories. Rights scholar Joseph Slaughter compares human rights to Bildungsroman, for example--stories of individual development in which people are socialized to learn what "everyone presumably already knows." (6) Rights, argues Slaughter, are romantic, enlightenment stories. It has also been suggested that specific narratives--usually of traditionally oppressed groups--have to be injected into understandings of rights. (7) This also does not surprise. It feels logical that imaginations of the past would play into senses of the injustices rights are intended to address. However, stories, imaginations, and philosophies of history may not be the same. "Stories" might be about the past or might not. One can say the same about imaginations; they might be fictional, or they might be real. (8) Philosophies of history, however, presumably are about "reality"--the "past." At least philosophies of history involve projects concerned with making sense of the past, or interpreting projects of human development. Hence, in addition to a story (as well as law, international norm, institutional practice and dimension of foreign policy), human rights might "be" a philosophy of history. At least a particular philosophy of history might play a role in the imagining of rights. This might help accord rights a particular place in today's world--a contemporary world we somehow inhabit and take as connected to a past.

The aim of this paper is to explain what a human rights philosophy of history might be, how such a philosophy of history might function, and why it might be important that human rights maintain, or reflect, a philosophy of history. …

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