Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

by Michael Ignatieff, Amy Gutmann, Kwame Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, Diane F. Orentlicher

Series: The University Center for Human Values Series (No. 39)

Preview

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.


  • Princeton University Press; December 2011
  • ISBN: 9781400842841
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF or secure ePub format
  • Title: Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry
  • Series: The University Center for Human Values Series (No. 39)
  • Author: Michael Ignatieff; Amy Gutmann (ed.); Kwame Anthony Appiah (other); David A. Hollinger (other); Thomas W. Laqueur (other); Diane F. Orentlicher (other)
  • Imprint: Princeton University Press

In The Press

"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


About The Author

Michael Ignatieff, a writer, historian, and broadcaster, is Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. His books include Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Blood and Belonging, The Warrior's Honor, and The Needs of Strangers. His novel Scar Tissue was nominated for the Booker Prize, and his book The Russian Album, A Family Memoir won Canada's Governor General's Award and the Heinemann Prize of Britain's Royal Society of Literature.