On the Genealogy of Morals

On the Genealogy of Morals

Inventing Human Rights traces the roots of humanitarian concern back to the eighteenth century. But there’s a world of difference between then and now.


The enterprise of writing the history of human rights has become a widespread activity only in the past decade. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights is its most prominent result so far, identifying the Enlightenment and the age of democratic revolutions as the moment when the cause was born. Yet if human rights history is now chic, it is also confused. A few months ago the president of the main American professional association of historians announced to all students of the past–whatever the place and time and subject of their research–that they “are all historians of human rights.” But what could such a claim possibly mean?

The most troubling shortcoming of the contemporary attempt to give human rights a history is that it distorts the past to suit the present. And in this gambit, it is late, fatally late: The current wave of human rights history is the tardy fruit of the fashion of human rights in politics, and contributors to the genre clearly set out to provide backstories to the vogue of human rights just a few years ago, when they exercised a literally millennial appeal. But the vine withered as the fruit ripened. The sad fact is that historiography has not caught up with history, and even the professionals–especially the professionals–are still providing the prologue to Clinton-era idealism.

The shift in political debate has been impossible to miss. Even those who retain an investment in human rights cannot treat them as an unquestionable good, mainly because the America that once seemed to many enthusiasts to be the prospective servant of universality abroad all too quickly became the America pursuing low-minded imperial ambitions in high-minded humanitarian tones. The effect on human rights as a public language and political cause has been staggering, and it is not yet clear whether they can recover.

If radical apostasy is the sign that times have changed, then the ideological journey of the writer David Rieff provides the most spectacular evidence. Once a paladin of human rights–and a champion of American humanitarian intervention–Rieff has now turned on the politics he once embraced. For Rieff, human rights, far from the universal panacea he and writers such as Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Power once considered them, now stand revealed as an ideology perfectly designed to cloak the “military humanism” of empire. Agree with him or not, Rieff’s evolution shows that Communism is not the only god that can fail.

The conversion of Tony Judt has been less radical but more interesting. He made his name excoriating French left-wing intellectuals for their failure to champion rights–a failure he saw as rooted in their nation’s revolutionary tradition, especially when measured against Anglo-American political wisdom. Rights have an “extrapolitical status,” he wrote thirteen years ago, diagnosing as French pathology the error of making them “an object of suspicion.” Now he says that universalistic invocations of rights often mask particular interests–and never more so than in America’s current wars–even though he once chastised opponents of rights who took this very position. Formerly treating them as an intellectual talisman, Judt now complains in passing about “the abstract universalism of ‘rights’–and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name.” He warns that such abstractions can all too easily lead those who invoke them to “readily mistake the US president’s myopic rigidity for their own moral rectitude.” Of course, Judt still understands himself to be a committed liberal intellectual, at a time when he thinks practically all other liberals have disappeared. But not just the world has changed; he has too, and most strikingly in his acknowledgment that his old standard can hallow many causes.

The travails of rights today mean there is more, not less, at stake in excavating their history. Hunt’s account falls neatly into two parts. The first deals with Enlightenment humanitarianism. She argues that the early modern explosion of novels, especially the wildly popular sentimental novels of Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, led people beyond aristocratic and religious frameworks to see one another as fellow humans worthy of empathy. In this connection, Hunt devotes an interesting chapter to the eighteenth century’s rejection of torture–a topic that gives her book obvious contemporary relevance. Since the majority of human cultures have valued or at least tolerated bodily violation, the repugnance it now inspires has to be explained. Hunt suggests that the rise of sentiment purveyed by the novel combined with a new view of the integrity of the body, with potent results. Torture–together with other corporal violence like honorable dueling, beating wives, spanking children and baiting animals–began to fall from favor in Western culture (save in exported form in colonial rule).

It is true that a rise in compassion for suffering humanity was one ingredient in the explosion of claims for political rights. As Hannah Arendt once observed, in Roman times to call someone a “human” meant referring to him as “outside the range of the law and the body politic of the citizens, as for instance a slave–but certainly a politically irrelevant being.” Of course, the eighteenth century had a foundation on which it could build in conferring meaning and value on being human alone. Monotheistic religions always made room for notions of common brotherhood. The source of “empathy” with suffering humanity, for its part, has most plausibly been located in changes in medieval spirituality: Jesus began to be valued as an exemplar of corporal suffering, and Mary became central to Christian piety for having practiced the virtue of compassion. Meanwhile, it is familiar to credit the Renaissance for discovering (or rediscovering) the dignity of man; in his famous study of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt claimed that this period elevated humanity from a “logical category” to a morally resonant force. Probably, the eighteenth century did more to strengthen and secularize the emotive appeals to dignified and suffering humanity than it did to create them. Still, Hunt is surely right about the crucial significance of the Enlightenment–an age of feeling as much as it was an age of reason–for spreading the value of humanity as an end in itself.

If there is a connection between the eighteenth-century rise of humanitarian sentiment and the new wave of rights claims, however, it is only a very loose one. The close relationship Hunt asserts between the two is overly general because humanitarianism did not and need not always take the form of revolutionary rights assertions or the search for legal guarantees, whether domestic or international. It is also questionable because “rights talk,” rooted in ancient Stoicism, Christian natural law and seventeenth-century contractualism, had historical lineages completely different from humanitarianism. The most sensible conclusion to take away from Hunt’s book is that the rise of humanitarianism affected and broadened the rights tradition. But it hardly determined it completely.

Hunt links the rise of the phrase “rights of man” in France after the 1750s to the efflorescence of sympathy as a cultural imperative. But, as she shows, the older language of natural rights persisted, notably in the United States. More important, in spite of her claims that this transformation was also essentially connected with the creation of a new kind of autonomous individual, the humanitarian lineage does not and cannot account for many of the central notions of the rights of man, ones that Hunt ignores: other sorts of judicial guarantees, the right to practice one’s religion, the liberty to speak one’s mind or publish freely and, above all, the protection of private property.

The second half of Hunt’s book turns to some of these subjects, in a highly readable story of the revolutionary declaration of the rights of man. She gives Americans credit for announcing human rights first (even though, again, they used the phrase “natural rights” and did not accord bodily suffering the same centrality). To their discredit, Hunt argues, the Americans did not keep the faith with their own contribution. Luckily, the French soon took up the torch, especially in their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. Hunt is most interested in what she repeatedly calls the cascading logic of human rights, whereby those who announced rights were compelled to extend them to Jews, blacks and women (or at least to consider doing so). And when groups initially excluded from humanity were not brought into the fold, as Hunt points out, they sometimes forced the issue. Early feminists like Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft declared the rights of women, while slaves in the French Caribbean demanded liberation.

Even restricting attention to what Hunt does cover, her massively disproportionate emphasis on bodily violation in general and on torture specifically is revealing. Hunt’s book is for an audience for whom torture–and other visible state action–is the most grievous affront to morality. But humanitarian sentiment will seem less praiseworthy for anyone who suspects that the focus on visible forms of cruelty obscures structural wrongs that are less easy to see–even when they sometimes also cause the body to suffer, as with the pangs of hunger or the exhaustion of work. This is the sense in which Hunt’s narrative is structured to provide background and authority for 1990s humanitarian idealism–and its recent aftereffects. There is a relationship between George W. Bush’s justification of the Iraq War as a humanitarian campaign against “torture chambers and rape rooms” and the single-minded focus on America’s own torture sparked by the Abu Ghraib images. Only very recently could outrage so tightly focused on Abu Ghraib shift to deeper questions, whether about the morality and plausibility of the war and the global relations that permitted it or the inherently violent nature of occupation. Hunt’s exclusive concern with spectacular wrongs like torture therefore comes at a price. It leads her to overlook, among other things, the central place held by the right to private property in the declarations of the era, as well as the countervailing pressure for social and economic rights. Strangely, for a book about the revolutionary invention of human rights, Hunt fails even to mention either the “right to work,” which first appeared in the French Revolution, or the very different declaration of rights of 1793, which first featured it.

But in the end the main failing in Hunt’s book–and the contemporary agenda of human rights history–is not selectivity. In a highly summary concluding chapter, Hunt indicates that the point of her tale is to explain how it later became possible for the United Nations to base itself on human rights in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and for a global movement to form. But this is to forsake an authentically historical treatment of rights in the age of revolution. And if historians miss how different rights were in the past, they will fail even to recognize what it would take to explain rights in the present.

Hunt often treats “human rights” as a body of ideas somehow insulated from history–as if they were a set of beliefs analogous to heliocentrism or relativity, needing only discovery and acceptance. The protagonists of her book are not people thinking and acting on their convictions but rights themselves, which do things like “creep,” “thicken,” “gain ground,” “gather momentum,” “reveal a tendency to cascade,” have a “bulldozer force,” “make their way ineluctably,” “take shape by fits and starts,” “take a backseat” and “remain in need of rescue.” Hunt provides historical details about the recognition of human rights but ultimately seems to think of them as timeless. In a few mysterious asides, she suggests that rights have biological foundations, in spite of her own demonstration of how chronologically and culturally specific they are.

But a series of interlocking contexts for the revolutionary rights at the center of Hunt’s book shows that they need to be differentiated from contemporary “human rights” rather than seen as paving the way for their eventual triumph. So the difficulty is not just that many of the rights of the era are left out of account but that those that are examined need to be put in the proper context.

The first crucial fact is that humanitarianism could underwrite violations of rights as well as their defense. Forty years ago, Arendt argued that the explosion of pity was the source not of rights but of terror. The most important text for critically analyzing emotion in the politics of the period, Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), interpreted Maximilien Robespierre’s Terror not as an act of demented criminality but as the first politics based on feeling others’ pain. But for Robespierre, the alleviation of suffering required what he called “a compassionate knife,” to lance the dangerous pustules on the body politic, purging the enemies of virtue without and within. The results were catastrophic: “Par pitié, par amour pour l’humanité,” petitioners from the Paris Commune wrote to the National Convention, “soyez inhumains!“–out of pity and love of humanity, you must be inhuman. Hunt briefly acknowledges some of the dark sides of a culture of sentimental virtue like sensationalism and compassion fatigue. But the Terror is not in her book, and so she does not confront Arendt’s disquieting contention that “pity, taken as the spring of virtue, has proved to possess a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself.” (It is not for nothing that Communist parties, particularly the French one, have always seen 1917 as the logical successor of 1789.)

If humanitarianism could have ambiguous consequences, so could rights themselves. Some historians have attached great significance to the fact that the French, even in 1789, did not proclaim the rights of man alone; they declared the rights of “man and citizen,” as part of a paean to the general will. From the outset of the French Revolution, there was a conceptual and political dilemma between membership in humanity and membership in a collective. And what if a choice arose between honoring the rights of men and preserving the community of citizens? The doyenne of the field, Hunt has for a few years been insisting that the French Revolution needs to be defended as a progressive victory against those skeptics who would reduce the event to its violence and terror. She deserves great credit for doing so, but it is rather disappointing that she fails to address how revolutionary-era rights might be salvaged from their implication in the bloodshed that so swiftly followed upon their announcement.

The abolition of torture, climaxing in the Revolution, also needs to be understood in a larger context of the changing deployment of violence. In her study of the campaign against torture, Hunt echoes Michel Foucault’s view in Discipline and Punish that modernity forced the state to relinquish its hold on the body; but while Foucault famously argued that this departure involved more insidious forms of control, Hunt defends it as a good thing. Yet both overlook the fact that the violence involved in what Hunt calls the “sacrificial rite” of punishment under the Old Regime–in which the criminal’s public torture provided communal expiation–persisted in novel and magnified forms. As historian David Bell spells out in a fascinating new book, the invention of total war over the revolutionary years, whose explosion swamped the world with more devastating violence than ever, is the new and often more frightening guise that public sacrifice could take. In her last pages, Hunt acknowledges that the rise of humanitarianism and the upsurge of carnage are historical twins, thanks especially to the quintessentially modern penchant to sacrifice oneself and others in war waged for humanity’s sake or at least in humanity’s name. But she seems not to grasp that this admission amounts to a considerable qualification of her thesis, and she follows this insight with the anodyne reassurance that empathy “has become a more powerful force for good than ever before.”

In contrast to Judt–not to mention Karl Marx, to whose critique of the language of rights she devotes only a page–Hunt is not sensitive to the way that formalistic invocations of rights can sometimes mask narrow agendas. For her, the true significance of this same “abstract universalism” is that it can permit proliferating rights claims. But what is at stake in interpreting the unintended consequences of abstraction is nowhere more in evidence than in recent shifts of views about the meaning of the Haitian uprising of the time. Until recently, the standard interpretation of the “Black Jacobins” of the Caribbean–in the phrase C.L.R. James gave to his 1938 masterpiece on the subject–saw them as presaging an era of revolutionary nationalism, decolonization and even Third World socialism. Today, in the work of Laurent Dubois and now in Hunt’s book, Caribbean antislavery insurgencies are seen as human rights causes. But this idea seems as much a reflection of contemporary passions as the old filiation it displaces. It is true, as Hunt insists, that Toussaint L’Ouverture and others were spurred by the French Revolution to seize citizenship when Frenchmen did not live up to their rhetoric. But when the “cascade” did not happen by itself, it had to be forced through violence, and what these radicals insisted on was mainly their right to be masters of their fate. Hunt pays homage to “the soft power of humanity.” Toussaint, for his part, found it necessary to resort to weapons. In any case, the new image of Caribbean insurrection makes one wonder why twentieth-century anticolonialism, the movement from which James took his inspiration, most often disdained the language of human rights, even though the Universal Declaration had only just been propounded.

The Haitian case suggests another reason the connection between the revolutionary “cascade” and contemporary rights needs to be questioned. For slowly over time, but decisively by the post-World War II era, rights became separated from the revolutionary ambience in which they were originally articulated. As Arendt emphasized, rights in the late eighteenth century were part of revolutionary foundings. But it was nationalism, and even more so socialism, that inherited their radicalism, as well as their tolerance of violence. This is what makes it so difficult to assert any real link between the French Revolution and “human rights” of today. The immediate aftermath of World War II, when the Universal Declaration appeared, partook more of the spirit of restoration than it did of revolution (and the fundamental role of Catholics in the postwar promotion of talk of human rights extended this spirit).

Thus, when Eastern European dissidents made it possible for “human rights” to be reclaimed by liberals and the anti-Communist left in the 1970s, they asserted that what mattered most about those rights is that they were antirevolutionary. Václav Havel and Adam Michnik retrieved human rights precisely against the tradition of revolution–as an “antipolitics,” in Hungarian dissident George Konrád’s influential phrase. So human rights arose on the ruins of revolution, not as its descendant. That these figures later played a role in “velvet revolutions” of liberal democracy only reinforces this point. And their fervent support of Bush’s war, precisely as a human rights cause, raises new doubts about the defense of rights as an extra-political moral code that made them famous, and not just about their recent peregrinations.

But the most glaring difficulty in placing the French Revolution at the origins of human rights today is that–unlike dissidence–it gave rise to nothing like the international human rights movement so central to the contemporary moral imagination. It is worth pondering in what ways the campaign to abolish slavery, which began in the years Hunt covers, anticipated contemporary human rights movements. But to do so one would have to move beyond her way of defining human rights so as to see in them a set of institutional practices, prominently including international mobilization, information gathering, public shaming and so forth. Otherwise, there simply was no “rights of man movement” in the nineteenth century–or if there was, it was liberal nationalism, which sought to secure the rights of citizens resolutely in the national framework.

Hunt’s position is that nationalism sank the rights of man after their announcement, but from the first they were seen as overlapping or even identical commitments. (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen insists that “no body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation.”) True, there were occasional proto-internationalist moments in the era, as for example in the presence in the National Assembly of the amusingly named Anacharsis Clootz, a German baron who considered himself the voice of non-French humanity. (Among other things, he begged for military action against his own people.) But such innovations hardly pointed ahead to the United Nations or anticipated the contemporary realities of international law and international groups sprouting in civil society to pressure governments to obey it. Clootz surfaces in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in fact, as the symbol of multicultural humanity united on shipboard in a metaphysical quest, not for prophesying an international legal regime.

If rights had an internationalist pedigree flowing from the French Revolution, it was, alas, mainly in Napoleon Bonaparte’s claim to be spreading the flame of the rights of man as he engulfed the world in the conflagration of his imperial designs. “Oh ye Egyptians,” Napoleon proclaimed in 1798 in advertising his conquest as a benevolent act, “they may say to you that I have not made an expedition hither for any other object than that of abolishing your religion…. But tell the slanderers that I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors.” Omitting the longstanding imperial entanglements of both humanitarianism and rights simply will not do; history shows how frequently they have been offered as justifications for invasion, expansion and annexation. This isn’t to say that the revolutionary rights of man anticipated George W. Bush and neoconservative empire rather than a universalistic regime of international law. It is that one cannot embrace rights in the distant past without acknowledging their radically different futures.

Each of these diverse perspectives on revolutionary-era rights forces the same recognition. In order for the contemporary human rights movement to emerge, old meanings and associations had to be dropped and new ones formed. What Hunt presents as an epilogue to a creation long ago turns out to be what really needs to be explained. This is what Marc Bloch meant when, in The Historian’s Craft, he indicted “the idol of origins.” Did Thomas Edison invent the Internet? He created some of the conditions for its much later possibility, but that is about it.

When, then, were human rights invented? As Hunt acknowledges, the phrase hardly ever shows up in English in her period. And while it percolated in diplomatic and legal circles beginning in the 1940s, it was not until the 1970s, with the emergence of dissident movements in Eastern Europe, that it entered common parlance. This is the period that historians need to scrutinize most intently–the moment when human rights triumphed as a set of beliefs and as the stimulus for new activities and institutions, particularly nongovernmental organizations. Yet the minds of human rights scholars constantly wander backward–disinclined, it seems, to face up to the recent vintage and contingent beginnings of their subject.

Of course, with the founding of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration (along with related instruments like the genocide convention as well as the origins of intra-European rights protection), the 1940s were of obvious significance. But if there is little reason to locate the “invention” of human rights as we now know them in the late eighteenth century, there are scarcely more grounds for rooting them in World War II’s aftermath.

Currently, a powerful movement among US historians portrays contemporary human rights as flowing as directly and fully formed out of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wartime vision and planning as Athena sprang from Zeus’s skull. For this school, the internationalist rights agenda is an American invention that extended and supplemented the nation’s original commitment to liberty with more full-bodied social protection. In Elizabeth Borgwardt’s phrase, human rights were America’s “new deal for the world.” The wistfully nostalgic tones of the historians of an invigorating and well-intentioned American liberalism are poignant and can lead to insight. But there are serious objections–political and interpretive–to this story.

For one thing, it makes human rights seem like the natural outcome of the last consensual war, an uncontroversial good that emerged in response to incontestable evil (never mind that the assertion of rights bore little relationship to the Nazi genocide). Second, it Americanizes rights, evoking a time when the US government could be seen as a benevolent guarantor of universal norms of conduct. Self-evidently, the actual content of the portrayal of human rights as the product of a moment when America offered a genuine universalism is the contemporary moral it allows: that Bush’s worst sin is to have ruined the story line that began with America’s invention of human rights in the 1940s and was finally on the way to fruition thanks to Bill Clinton’s commitment to enforce them in the 1990s.

As David Rieff has argued in these pages, affirming America’s universalistic self-image in the past (as the city on a hill, the leader of the free world or the indispensable nation) is to fail to ask just how it was that Bush was able to succeed so easily in burnishing the morality of his adventures–as if what went wrong were a purely accidental perversion of America’s true and proper vocation. But there are also historical distortions. Scholars who return to the 1940s, like Borgwardt and Cass Sunstein, devote little or no attention to non-American contributions to “rights talk” in the era, and exaggerate its importance and impact at the time. They select and single out what now look like milestones because of their retroactive importance but fail to grasp their marginality in their own period, from which no broad-gauged international movement emerged. Once again, historians are choosing tunnel vision over historical sense.

None of this means that the new fashion of human rights history is entirely misguided. Only those who missed the last thirty years of ideological history–like Marxists who see in human rights nothing but a rhetoric that makes the cage of globalizing neoliberalism more bearable–could think so. But it does mean that we need to understand that human rights in their specific contemporary connotations are an invention of recent date, which drew on prior languages and practices the way a chemical reaction depends on having various elements around from different sources, some of them older than others. The explosion took place only yesterday, and we have to come to grips with why it happened and what the costs and benefits have been for us all. The fact that it occurred to historians to uncover the origins of human rights only recently is itself a sign that they should not seek to find them too long ago and far away.

But there is also a strategic consideration. Human rights norms and organizations remain the chief source of idealistic passion in the world–at least among its well-meaning cosmopolitan elites. Any future idealism will have to draw on the power of their current ethic and put it to good use. In this regard, Hunt is exactly right to stress the emotional charge of human rights. But besides lacking any coherent understanding of how human rights came to have their current power, we have not even begun thinking about how to reinvent the creed in ways that are progressive rather than brutal.

In closing what feels in the end like a creation myth, Hunt writes: “The human rights framework, with its international bodies, international courts, and international conventions, might be exasperating in its slowness to respond or repeated inability to achieve its ultimate goals, but there is no better structure available for confronting these issues.” For better or worse, the plangent reassurances have lost their power to comfort, and deep background–especially when brought to bear so instrumentally on our very different present–is of little use in responding to our confusion and dismay.

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