Inventing Human Rights - A History (Book Review)

  • Gunjan Bhagchandani (Intern)
  • March 5, 2017

Content :

The Author Lynn Hunt (Univ. of California, Los Angeles), former president of the American Historical Association, is one of the most distinguished historians of French history in the US. She is the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at UCLA. She is a specialist on the French Revolution and lives in Los Angeles. This book is a brilliant, highly original book, one of the most important ever published on the origins of the concept of "human rights." The Concept developed with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The book deals with the Invention of the Human Rights and their turbulent history. Human Rights is a concept which came for the first time in the 18th century. This journey began when the American Declaration of America declared “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUALLY” and during the French Revolution there was a proclamation related to the Rights of the human and bringing a new guarantee into the world. In the world of cultural, tradition and intellectual history the author included the grounds of the creation of the Human Rights which was found in the Literature initially. At that time the rejection of torture and prohibition to cruelty was treated as a means of finding out truth and the spread of Humanity and Empathy. In this book, there is a mouthful rise of the rights, their momentous eclipse in the 19th century and their culmination in the principles of the United Nation in 1948.

The work done by her is an amazing diagnosis of the State human rights at present. Hunt has used the historical mechanism in writing this book with both US and French materials prevailed during that period. The book comprises of the 272 pages and divided into Introduction- “WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF- EVIDENT” and subdivided into 5 Chapters which deals with the development at different period and environmental surroundings. Hunt has detailed dealt with the concepts like "rights of man," "natural rights," and "rights of humanity" which led to the first modern declaration of human rights, the Bill of Rights. There was a rise in the portrait pattern in the 18th century. These art forms fostered a sense of individuality in their audience and empathy for their subjects, most frequently "regular folks" rather than nobles, royalty, or saints. The Journey of the book is through 250 years of rights legislation, covering the French Revolution\'s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, various anti-torture measures and 20th century campaigns against human rights violations, among others. Hunt viewed that between 1740s and 1780s Western attitudes changed dramatically and there was rise of contemporary issues. There was emergence of newfound feeling for others and an appreciation of others as self-directed entities. This sensibility was due to the new epistolary novels of Jean-Jacques, Rousseau, Samuel Richardson, and others.

 Concurrently, there was a growing abhorrence of torture or public punishment. This led to a concept incorporated in America\'s Declaration of Independence (1776) and France\'s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). Though women were still excluded from political (but not civil) rights, the door was at last open to religious minorities, the Jews, and free blacks. 

 Despite use of the word “citizen” in the title of the French declaration, both in that document and in the American one the rights listed applied to everyone with the understanding that for political participation “all men” did not necessarily include property less males, slaves, free blacks, women, or at times religious minorities. In Inventing Human Rights: A History, Hunt asks: If rights were self-evident, why was it necessary to declare them, and why was the claim made at this particular time? For Hunt, the particular time and place are important. She stresses that use of the phrase “rights of man” began in the eighteenth century. At that time the translations of American constitutions circulated widely in France in the 1770’s and 1780’s, influencing its 1789 declaration. The rights claimed in 1776 and 1789 had a lengthy history. Beginnings can be traced as far back as the law codes of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century B.C., in the political speculation of Greek philosophers, in the commandments of all major religions, and in changing views of human individuality that arose during the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.

Hunt objected the study of all possible sources of the declarations, objecting that it would involve writing a history of Western civilization (others would say of world civilization) and would not explain what changed in the eighteenth century. Although two of the Ten Commandments anticipated parts of John Locke’s trilogy of rights the injunction not to kill clearly implied a right to security of life, the charge not to steal recognized a right to property not until the political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did anything resembling modern concepts of liberty emerge. Hunt praises Hugo Grotius’s De iure belli ac pacis libri res (1625; On the Law of War and Peace, 1654) for asserting the concept of natural rights independent of religion and applicable to all humankind, not just one country or legal tradition. Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui elaborated Grotius’s ideas in his Principes du droit naturel (1747; The Principles of Natural Law, 1748), widely translated into English and various European languages. Even more influential in America was Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), with its claim that states were formed under a social contract subject to natural law guaranteeing inalienable rights. Hunt viewed that the addition of a growing emotional identification with others, or empathy, to reasoned arguments transformed abstract speculation on politics to a revolutionary movement. The attitudes like that recorded of Madame Duchâtelet, “who did not hesitate to undress in front of her servants, not considering it a proven fact that valets were men,” had to change. In the second half of the eighteenth century, epistolary novels became popular in France and England, people began listening to the opera in silence rather than walking around to converse with friends, and efforts were made to prevent theatergoers in Paris from disrupting performances by coordinating their coughing and farting. For Lynn Hunt, these changes in the daily lives of Europeans are intrinsically related to the development of universal human rights. Human rights rely upon our ability to empathize with strangers. The changing habits and experiences of late-eighteenth-century Europe adopted new understandings of individuality and empathy, which would support the expansion of rights.

Important points laid by Hunt in her book: 

1. Hunt said that in these decades something happened which taught people to empathize “across more broadly defined boundaries” (p. 38). Novels played an intensive role in conveying the importance of individual autonomy. The expansion of empathy would address a problem posed by individualism and the erosion of sacred conceptions of moral community: “What would provide the source of community in this new order that highlighted the rights of the individual?” (p. 64). Hunt contends that the rise of the novel served to widen the scope of empathetic identification, while simultaneously teaching readers to see “the capacity of people like themselves to create on their own a moral world” (p. 58).
2. Inventing Human Rights develops an intriguing meditation on the relationships among art, morality, and political change. The novel served as a powerful vehicle for reshaping ideas about morality, in Hunt’s view, because it did not moralize, but rather “cast a spell” over its audience, engaging readers in the complexity of inner moral struggles. To illustrate this point, Hunt focuses on three works written by men and about women: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela. Hunt suggests that reading these novels enabled men to identify with female characters, yet acknowledges that the expansion of rights in the eighteenth century did not encompass women’s rights. Far from receiving an empathetic reaction for her efforts to attain such rights, the writer Olympe de Gouges was vilified and guillotined. Hunt also observes that the contemporary spread of literacy and global communications should, in theory, generate more empathy and thus greater support for human rights. What are we to conclude then, she asks, from “the resurgence of torture and ethnic cleansing, the growing use of rape as a weapon of war, the growing traffic in children and women, and the remaining practices of slavery?” (p. 209).
3. Hunt’s primary response to this question centers the hope for human rights on the model of eighteenth-century declarations. Once declared, Hunt argues, rights claims had a tendency to cascade, as with the expansion of political rights in France to Protestants, Jews, and some free black men between 1789 and 1792. Hunt sees in this expansion an “inner logic of human rights” (p. 150), whereby granting rights to some groups leads inexorably to demands by excluded groups.
4. “The promise of those rights can be denied, suppressed, or just remain unfulfilled,” she writes, “but it does not die” (p. 175). What is striking about these chapters is that Hunt seems to assign agency to the very idea of rights.
5. She argues that the logic of rights has a “bulldozer force” that drove eighteenth-century change (p. 160) and characterizes this logic as “implacable” (175). Here, Hunt’s focus implicitly shifts from the empathy of the privileged to the outrage of the excluded, yet her grammar suggests that the gaps between human rights rhetoric and reality will eventually demand their own closure.
6. Whereas the chapters dealing with the “inner logic” of rights declarations suggest an unambiguous path to progress, Hunt later argues that this logic also inspired more virulent forms of nationalism and racism. In contrast with her initial celebration of novels, she later observes that novels also sensationalized violence against women. These observations raise interesting and difficult questions. When is the representation of suffering and degradation an act of empathy and when is it merely exploitative? What are the limitations of liberal rights as responses to the brutalities that Hunt lists in her conclusion? Although she insists that we recognize the “dualities” of rights (p. 212), she does not address scholarship on the limitations of civil and political rights as a response to racism, gender based violence, and economic inequality. Nor does she address a common contention among such scholars—that public rights can function to obfuscate or legitimate private forms of domination.

Hunt focused on willingness to aid or avoid harming others must be premised upon essential and enduring human sameness and that one model of justice must apply to all contexts and peoples. Hannah Arendt proposed an alternative response to the claim of “self-evidence.” Instead of asserting our moral positions as truths beyond dispute, Arendt suggested that we explain why we hold them as opinions and communicate them through means of persuasion to others with different views. Although the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was influenced by power politics, the process was also marked by an effort to engage in dialogue across political and cultural traditions as part of the postwar process of reinventing international human rights. Hunt makes a good case for thinking about how such efforts are limited when they appeal only to abstract reason, yet appeals to emotion and outrage will also be limited or violent when they do not acknowledge and respect human differences. Hunt thus raises questions of profound importance to the contemporary human rights movement. Her book makes a valuable contribution to the history and philosophy of human rights and should also appeal to a wide general audience. This book is “tour de force of compression”- Gordon S. Wood, New York Times Book Review.

Hunt has no full explanation for how this new sense of selfhood came into being. She devotes one chapter (out of five) to arguing that an explosion of novel reading in the period contributed greatly to the development of empathy across class, sex and national lines. Hunt devotes a chapter to torture and cruel punishments because their abolition helps her better illustrate the complicated character of the changes that took place. Torture and cruel punishments ended, she says, not because judges gave up on them or because Enlightenment writers opposed them, but because “the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individual recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments and sympathies as in themselves.”
 “It took two devastating world wars,” Hunt writes, “to shatter this confidence in the nation.”
Human rights, Hunt concludes, have now become “our only commonly shared bulwark” against the brutalities and cruelties that still afflict much of humanity. In the final chapter imperialism is considered, though Hunt avoids making the connection between the infectious spread of human rights with Europe’s project to conquer every corner of the globe. The popular status of Inventing Human Rights must be stressed to account for Hunt’s strategic glossing over of competing narratives that might undermine the triumphal position given to human rights marching into the twenty-first century. As befits a ‘new cultural historian’, she cares less about providing an intellectual genesis of a concept, or following its particular political uses, than about asking why, at a certain moment, it became widely accepted – indeed, widely recognized as wholly and irrefutably obvious. A better title might have been how These Truths Became Self-Evident; because that is the problem that actually concerns her (she starts with Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence). I will rate this book 8 out of 10. Hunt thus raises questions of profound importance to the contemporary human rights movement. Her book makes a valuable contribution to the history and philosophy of human rights and should also appeal to a wide general audience.

In Inventing Human Rights, Hunt has shifted the focus from revolutionary democracy to human rights but retained something of the earlier book’s thesis. Once again, she argues that a key modern political phenomenon sprang out of changes within the supposedly private, intimate sphere in mid-18th-century Western Europe. At first glance, the move seems perilous, not because the personal and the political aren’t linked (something historians accepted long ago), but because of the chronology. Can we really say that human rights were ‘invented’ in any single time and place? Ludger Kühnhardt, in his 1987 study The Universality of Human Rights, began as far back as the Greeks. Such historians generally devote considerable space to Thomas Hobbes, who had much to say about ‘natural rights’, and carefully follow the labyrinthine debates among Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke and Wolff on the same and related subjects, before even reaching the late 18th century. Hunt has little to say on any of this material. And having established the ‘invention’ of human rights in the age of revolutions, she finishes off the rest of their history, to the present day, in a breezy 38 pages, concentrating on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. 

If you want to understand the origins of modern human rights legislation, Lynn Hunt claims, the place to start is not the philosophical background, or the crises that the legislation addressed, but 18th-century fiction. Hunt has invited this criticism by giving her book the title Inventing Human Rights, but the criticism is partly misplaced. As befits a ‘new cultural historian’, she cares less about providing an intellectual genesis of a concept, or following its particular political uses, than about asking why, at a certain moment, it became widely accepted – indeed, widely recognised as wholly and irrefutably obvious.