Historian Devin Pendas visited the U of M on October 10 to discuss the origins of human rights with students and faculty. Although historiography can also provide insight into other human rights questions, Pendas noted, his current research delves into the three main origins hypotheses. Other disciplines, when investigating human rights both conceptually and practically, tend to give primacy to what, why, and how questions rather than when.
Human rights as a concept, as a specifically universal concept, presents a problem for history--in fact it often denies historical placement, for to be universal, it cannot be temporally placed. If a natural product of being a human being, then as long as there has been human beings, there must have been human rights. The notion that human rights have a historical placement raises important philosophical questions about universality. The precise point in which to locate human rights historically is also profoundly difficult.
Often, attempts to identify human rights as universal across time employ one of two modes of thought. The first is a teleological approach with a view that the present at end point in history, that it is the product of progress. The second approach is Hegelian in nature, seeing human rights as something that is coming to be what it always was, innate potential coming into being over time.
The more recent historiography is less sweeping in scope. Instead of trying to justify earlier and earlier starting points, this literature envisions an "invention" of human rights or the "coming into being" of human rights. The three most common theories mark the origins of human rights in the late 18th century, the mid-1940s, and the 1970s.
Briefly, the late 18th century argument places human rights as the result of Enlightenment thought. In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt further develops this view. Pendas noted that for human rights to be human rights conceptually, they must be seen as natural, equal, and universal. Enlightenment thought and the rights claims made using it did make appeals to the natural status of these rights and appealed to notions of equality, but they did not include a sense of universalism, argued Pendas. The 1940s argument sees human rights as primarily an American policy. Elizabeth Borgwardt argues for this view in A New Deal for the World. Pendas pointed out that rights discourse in the 1940s was full of dissenting, non-American voices. The 1970s argument, which regards the flourishing of international human rights mechanism as signaling the birth of human rights, is put forth most strongly by Samuel Moyn in The Last Utopia. Pendas believes that the decade of the 70s is too late to be the origins of human rights.
Pendas did argue that there was a significant broadening of human rights in the 1970s due to the global demise of Fordism. This economic rupture and the rise of activist networks, as well as the undercurrents of prior rights discourses in places like Eastern Europe, necessitated an expansion of human rights. Human rights have become a classic form of international politics in a post Fordist world. Jut like post-modernism, human rights seeks to appropriately respond to a changing world. The integration of human rights history and world or regional history is the next step in identifying the origins of human rights.
Devin Pendas is Associated Professor of History at Boston College and the author of The Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965.
Written by Whitney Taylor.