Historicizing the idea of human rights
© The Author(s) 2018.
An adequate interpretation of our liberal and cosmopolitan traditions depends absolutely on an adequate understanding of the history of the idea of human rights. There is, however, deep disagreement about this history. In this article, I argue that disagreement about the emergence of human rights is resolvable and can be explained through attention to problematic methodological commitments within exemplary historical narratives. I first consider, and reject, Micheline Ishay’s claim that the concept of human rights can be found in the ancient world. I then move on to a detailed critical engagement with Samuel Moyn’s contrary thesis that human rights are a radically novel political phenomenon. I argue that Moyn’s analysis can only be taken seriously as an action-based account of human rights and therefore cannot sustain the dramatic conclusion he advances. I then defend an alternative, belief-based framework for approaching, and rethinking, the history of the idea of human rights.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from SAGE Publications via the DOI in this record.
Published online 20 February 2018.