Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

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9780691088938: Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry


Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens.


Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.


Based on the Tanner Lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2000, the book includes two chapters by Ignatieff, an introduction by Amy Gutmann, comments by four leading scholars--K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher--and a response by Ignatieff.


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Review:

Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry may raise some hackles for its controversial approach to a sacrosanct subject, but Michael Ignatieff's arguments are carefully wrought and compassionate. Ignatieff is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and his work is part history of the evolution of human rights in international politics and part caution that it not become a new religion. He writes, "We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation."

The book centers on two essays by Ignatieff. In the second, "Human Rights as Idolatry," he identifies three main challenges to the universality of human rights: Islam, East Asia, and, most interestingly, the West itself. According to Ignatieff, the West is forsaking its political heritage of individualism and thereby eroding the foundations upon which a truly universal system of human rights may be built. In addition to the author's intriguing essays, there is an introduction by Amy Gutmann, as well as comments from K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher. The critical reactions to Ignatieff, together with a short response of his own, have the makings of an intelligent and accessible debate. --Eric de Place

From the Back Cover:


"These essays make a splendid book. Ignatieff's lectures are engaging and vigorous; they also combine some rather striking ideas with savvy perceptions about actual domestic and international politics. They spark lively and distinctive discussion among the distinguished respondents. Ignatieff's response to them is also vibrant. Ignatieff presents a sharp and vital argument for human rights that can be reconciled with state sovereignty, that can defend against charges of imperialism without caving in to the moral relativism bandwagon, and that can navigate reciprocal respect between people and between nations."--Martha Minow, Harvard University


"These essays are superb: elegant and thought-provoking. The literature on human rights is growing, both on the practical side and the theoretical. But this book combines both, with Ignatieff's nuanced grasp of real-world politics meshing with his impressive knowledge of political theory. There is no one I can think of who combines the two so well. The scholarship is first-rate, the writing is splendid, and the commentaries are excellent."--Gary Bass, author of Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals


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Michael Ignatieff
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Michael Ignatieff, Amy Gutmann (Editor), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Commentary), David A. Hollinger (Commentary), Thomas W. Laqueur (Commentary), Diane F. Orentlicher (Commentary)
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