Monday, September 11, 2023

Review: Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt

I think of invention as a long, arduous process of trial and error, where, if you know where to look, it’s easy to see the bolts connecting previous pieces of technology and the design choices made due to historical conditions or material limitations. This book does not operate under the same definition of invention, and its handling of the invention of human rights is much the worse for it.

The picture that Hunt paints of human rights is one where humanity somewhat suddenly (over the 1750s-1790s) realized human rights were a crucial concept, and then somewhat bumpily implemented them, compelled by this contagious consciousness. Briefly, the narrative goes something like this: over the 17th century, the rise of the novel (particularly in France and England) led people to empathize across class and gender boundaries and recognize others to also be humans with their own inner worlds. Society then needed to change to reflect this new understanding of the individuality and equality of humans. Once these rights were declared (particularly in France and the USA), and one group got the individuality and equality they asked for, it was extended from on high to other groups:

The logic of the process determined that as soon as a highly conceivable group came up for discussion (propertied males, Protestants), those in the same kind of category but located lower on the conceivability scale (propertyless males, Jews) would inevitably appear on the agenda. (p150) 

It’s a very western-centric view of the “invention” of human rights. I think Hunt is correct to trace (at least some of) the emotional impetus for European bourgeois propertied male demands for individual rights and equality through the novel, but we should then see mirroring phenomena for other classes (or, to use her language, groups or categories of people). It seems unlikely to me that the slaves in Saint Domingue were inspired to demand their freedom because they were reading Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela or were enthused about the positive example of the Parisian’s right to freedom of religion. That the decree emancipating the slaves quotes the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is not sufficient to convince me it was a demand cascading from the French Declaration rather than a more spontaneous understanding that slavery really sucks, the negation of which was justified to the world with the hypocritical words used by its French oppressors. 

I think the root of my disagreement with Hunt about what human rights are is evident from this passage:

Human rights require three interlocking qualities: rights must be natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere). For rights to be human rights, all humans everywhere in the world must possess them equally and only because of their status as human beings. It turned out to be easier to accept the natural quality of rights than their equality of universality. (p20)

While the equality and universality of human rights form the backbone of the remainder of Hunt's narrative, the issue of the naturalness of human rights is discussed only once, when summarizing the critique by Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: 

Bentham objected to the idea that natural law was innate in the person and discoverable by reason. He therefore basically rejected the entire natural law tradition and with it natural rights. (p125)

This critique is not engaged with — his dismissal of human rights seems to be enough to stamp him as someone to ignore — and I’m left puzzled as to why it is so obvious that human rights are natural. After all, (paraphrasing Bentham) there is no gene that encodes the right to freedom of religion. If human rights are natural, then why is the book called Inventing Human Rights, rather than Discovering Human Rights

The title of the book is, ironically, an excellent way to frame this part of human history: human rights are indeed constructed. They are the product of the society that formulates them and enforces them, and they bear the marks of this process. This is a more useful lens: instead of a static, fully identified set of rules that society embarrassingly fails at applying sufficiently universally and equally, rights are the product of the battles and the concerns of the era.

Why was the era of capitalism the one that gave rise to demands for individual freedoms (the right to political representation, the right to freedom of religion), granted equally to all from birth? Those suddenly in power were no longer only men of noble birth. Their wealth came from the markets, and not from the pleasure of the King. Unlike the king, this new middle class had no need for the legitimation granted by the church, and so its authority too was weakened. Why were economic rights (the right to food and shelter, the right to work and to rest) added to the UN Declaration of Human Rights by the first ever Worker’s State? Those in power were concerned not only with political freedoms, which better enable the accumulation and enjoyment of wealth, but also with the economic freedoms, which enable the enjoyment of a fulfilling life without such wealth.

Because Hunt’s breezy overview of rights (excluding appendices, it is just 214 pages) emphasizes the slow stumbling process of recognizing the universality and equality of rights (rights in the abstract), the content of these rights and the specific relationships between these rights and the concerns and challenges of the people that demanded them is lost. It makes the invention of rights seem finished — in 1948 we declared there were 30 of them, and now we have only to implement them properly for a change. Why aren’t we adding to them to reflect our new understanding of what every member of society deserves, say, the right to a planet with an inhabitable environment?

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