Samuel Moyn had a piece on human rights in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, in which he argued that the idea of human rights has lost the power it had when it was new (which, for Moyn, was the 1970s rather than the 1940s):
That human rights have come down to earth since the days of the glamorous dissidents doesn’t make them useless. But it does mean that the utopia they call to mind is now inseparable from the realities of the world as it exists — from states to international bodies to transnational movements.
In making his case, he compares the experiences of Russian dissidents Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his conclusion is that a rising China means that Chinese dissidents will have less leverage today than Russian dissidents had in the 1970s.
That’s all well and good, I suppose, but the real issue I have with Moyn’s piece is that he uses this argument about dissidents as a jumping off point for a much broader critique of the idea of human rights and states’ interests. Or at least I suspect that Moyn’s point is to make a broad critique. What he ends up arguing, I think, lacks any real force:
Human rights have succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities but have proved less able to promote the good life for people suffering less spectacular wrongs.
As a scholar of human rights, as well as an advocate of their general diffusion around the world, I’ll take this sort of criticism any day. What Moyn is saying is that the idea of human rights has succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities. He just thinks that the idea of human rights hasn’t done more than that. But this success, in itself, is pretty spectacular … especially if, like Moyn, you happen to believe that the idea of human rights really came into its own in the 1970s (in other words, well within the lifetimes of many people who will read this blog post).
Let’s also note that promotion of “the good life” is quite controversial. In other words, if the idea of human rights also managed to promote some version of the good life all over the world, some would certainly consider it a triumph but others would call it unbridled Western imperialism. It’s more difficult to level that charge — though many still do so — when the language of human rights is used to oppose totalitarian regimes and major atrocities.
In this sense, I’d argue that Moyn’s criticism is misguided. The idea of human rights has, by his own admission, done some pretty impressive work in a relatively short period of time. That it hasn’t yet done even more seems like saying, “This camera is pretty great at taking photographs, but the technology is limited if it can’t make phone calls.”
Cameras didn’t make phone calls twenty years ago, but some of them — like the one embedded in my iPhone — do exactly that today. The same might be true of the ability of human rights language to promote some vision of the good life for everyone. Or maybe not. We might decide, for a whole variety of reasons, that the main purpose of human rights language should be preventative of some bad things rather than promotional of some good things. That wouldn’t mean cameras that don’t make phone calls are bad cameras.