What Rawls Hath WroughtIssue: Jan-Feb 2011
[amazon 0674048725 full]Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 352 pp., $27.95.
PEOPLE THINK of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” This observation from one of Philip Roth’s novels applies with particular force to the contemporary cult of human rights. Most people today believe that the prominence of rights is the almost-inevitable conclusion of a long process of moral development. Originating in Greco-Roman philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion, so the story goes, the idea of human rights expressed a cosmopolitan vision of universal humanity, which went on to find expression in modern times in the English Civil War, the French and American Revolutions, various antislavery movements, the Second World War, and the struggles against colonialism and racism. The history of the West is a continuous unfolding of this majestic idea, and if contemporary Western societies are superior to others, past and present, it is because of their respect for personal liberties.