The Problem of Human Rights

Jun 2, 2020 by

by Carson Holloway, Public Discourse:

For the considerable body of people in the western world who still believe in self-government, and in the preservation of their nations’ traditional moral identities, the overreaching of the contemporary human rights project will perhaps lead them to reconsider natural law, presented in a prudently modest formulation. This is a crucial undertaking to which Pierre Manent’s new book is a worthy contribution.

It takes a bold man to offer public criticism of the idea of “human rights.” It takes a profound man to pursue this criticism in such a way as to reveal the deepest truths about the character of our civilization and about the nature of the human condition. It takes a prudent man to derive from such criticism practical advice that may actually be useful to his fellow citizens.

The western world is blessed to have such a man—bold, profound, and prudent—in Pierre Manent. All of these virtues are displayed in his excellent new book, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason. Although short, the book is rich in insight, the fruit of Manent’s decades of deep meditation on the history of political philosophy and on the intellectual, moral, and political predicament of the modern world.

The Origins of the Problem

At first glance, the idea of human rights seems unassailable. Over many centuries we have become accustomed to think in terms of rights and to assume that justice and the progress of rights are synonymous. More recently, the idea of human rights has been formally endorsed by our most prominent institutions. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a seemingly necessary response to the “crimes against humanity” that had taken place in that terrible conflict.

Examined more closely, however, and seen with a philosophic freedom from the dominant opinions of our age, the doctrine of human rights proves to be more ambiguous.

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