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Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

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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 mono 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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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 mono 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.

30 review for Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Martijn

    Musings by Ignatieff and other prominent thinkers on human rights and geopolitics. Worth reading and absorbing the ideas around an important if often complex concept.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen McRae

    interesting

  3. 5 out of 5

    DoctorM

    Two essay/lectures by Ignatieff on the theme of when, whether, and how "rights language" and human rights institutions can be effective wthin the confines of a systm of state sovereignty. Although David Rieff has criticised Ignatieff elsewhere for being far too sanguine about the effect of human rights law, Ignatieff here strikes a very realistic and limited tone about what's actually possible. He makes a couple of very clear points: human rights law still requires states to put it into effect, Two essay/lectures by Ignatieff on the theme of when, whether, and how "rights language" and human rights institutions can be effective wthin the confines of a systm of state sovereignty. Although David Rieff has criticised Ignatieff elsewhere for being far too sanguine about the effect of human rights law, Ignatieff here strikes a very realistic and limited tone about what's actually possible. He makes a couple of very clear points: human rights law still requires states to put it into effect, and human rights language is not a trump argument. Ignatieff argues that we must be willing to see that rights claims can and will conflict, and that human rights institutions may need to become more and not less political in order to balance competing claims and mobilise global support.

  4. 4 out of 5

    todd

    Ignatieff does a good job of judiciously summarizing the most pressing challenges facing those who seek to further the establishment of an international human rights regime. A disciple of Isaiah Berlin, Ignatieff draws on Berlin's famous lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty" to argue for a human rights movement that better operates within the constraints of the Westphalian system. Because the book is based on the Tanner lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton in 2000, his prescriptions for ref Ignatieff does a good job of judiciously summarizing the most pressing challenges facing those who seek to further the establishment of an international human rights regime. A disciple of Isaiah Berlin, Ignatieff draws on Berlin's famous lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty" to argue for a human rights movement that better operates within the constraints of the Westphalian system. Because the book is based on the Tanner lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton in 2000, his prescriptions for reform are rendered in broad strokes. It would have been interesting to include commentaries from folks not so closely aligned with the author's views.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Leanne

    This is an interesting overview of how the concept of human rights came to be so widespread and there are lots of good points about how we define human rights and the difficulties intervention in other countries can cause. However, this is a very picky academic read and it was hard to get through. The language was not very accessible and the book tends more toward the abstract philosophical aspects of human rights than it does to the practical ones. I guess I just don't like academic language in This is an interesting overview of how the concept of human rights came to be so widespread and there are lots of good points about how we define human rights and the difficulties intervention in other countries can cause. However, this is a very picky academic read and it was hard to get through. The language was not very accessible and the book tends more toward the abstract philosophical aspects of human rights than it does to the practical ones. I guess I just don't like academic language in general, but if you do you will enjoy this more than I did.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This is a really solid read on how the human rights movement developed and how it impacts the world today. I truly enjoyed the author's commentary on the dangers of humanist idolatry. Ignatieff also addresses the core questions regarding the legitimacy of human rights "Where do rights come from?" "Can human rights exist without the belief in man as sacred?" An interesting (and quick) read for anyone interested in human rights. This is a really solid read on how the human rights movement developed and how it impacts the world today. I truly enjoyed the author's commentary on the dangers of humanist idolatry. Ignatieff also addresses the core questions regarding the legitimacy of human rights "Where do rights come from?" "Can human rights exist without the belief in man as sacred?" An interesting (and quick) read for anyone interested in human rights.

  7. 5 out of 5

    May

    I enjoyed reading this, but strongly disagree with certain premises taken for granted by the contributors - namely the statist idea that there are cases where national sovereignty and maintaining so-called order should take precedence over human rights. I was also confused by the notion that human rights need to be grounded in something. If you need an outside source to convince you that hurting and killing other humans is wrong...I'm just not even sure what that says about your character. I enjoyed reading this, but strongly disagree with certain premises taken for granted by the contributors - namely the statist idea that there are cases where national sovereignty and maintaining so-called order should take precedence over human rights. I was also confused by the notion that human rights need to be grounded in something. If you need an outside source to convince you that hurting and killing other humans is wrong...I'm just not even sure what that says about your character.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ike Sharpless

    I liked these essays a lot, probably because I agree with Berlin's conception of rights as being often in both internal and external conflict (as Sandel put it, of Berlin, that we live in a 'tragically configured moral universe'). Too bad about the whole failed philosopher king thing, although my impression is that Ignatieff made a terrible politician. I liked these essays a lot, probably because I agree with Berlin's conception of rights as being often in both internal and external conflict (as Sandel put it, of Berlin, that we live in a 'tragically configured moral universe'). Too bad about the whole failed philosopher king thing, although my impression is that Ignatieff made a terrible politician.

  9. 4 out of 5

    MLC

    meh... you should only read Ignatieff if you REALLY have to.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jayne Tristan

  11. 4 out of 5

    Samuel

  12. 5 out of 5

    K.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Durazo

  14. 4 out of 5

    John

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lrhhart

  16. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Harper

  18. 5 out of 5

    Weston Richey

  19. 5 out of 5

    Xiaoqing Wang

  20. 5 out of 5

    Zack Parris

  21. 4 out of 5

    Katy

  22. 5 out of 5

    Vaness LCh

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Blohm

  25. 5 out of 5

    Scott Catey

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ralf Besselaar

  27. 4 out of 5

    Emily Teachout

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  29. 5 out of 5

    Adam Sitte

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cato

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