Robert Nicholson and Samuel Moyn Discuss Human Rights: Its Limits and Potential
Recently, Providence Co-editor Robert Nicholson sat down with Samuel Moyn, professor of law and history at Yale University. Moyn is among the foremost writers on the topic of human rights. His books include The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). His new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, was released in April of this year. Moyn is no stranger to controversy within his field and is unafraid to push back against a “Whig interpretation” of the human rights discourse by pointing out the many gaps and inconsistencies in its history. In his latest book, Moyn challenges the triumphalist attitude of many human rights advocates in asking whether this well-intentioned Western project can claim victory in a world where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. Human rights activism that lacks a social and economic component is, to quote his title, not enough. It’s a controversial thesis, to be sure. In this conversation, Nicholson and Moyn dig deeper into that thesis and discuss the wider connection between Christianity and human rights.
RN: We have heard about the human rights recession taking place around the world. How do you explain the concurrent expansion of the human rights discourse with what seems to be rising human rights violations?
SM: Human rights have improved modestly in the last couple of decades, until the so-called populist wave began, and it is unclear how grave or long-lasting current setbacks are. It is also in part a consequence of the expansion of human rights discourse that more violations seem to be occurring, since they might have been unnoticed before. Human rights hew out new standards for evaluating the world, but how appropriate the standards are and how the world falls short strike me as two separate questions.
RN: In an April op-ed for the New York Times you wrote that “those who care about human rights need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.” Let’s talk about President Donald Trump. How does his rise, and the rise of others like him, reflect the social and cultural forces that you’re talking about?
SM: Well, notwithstanding the obvious role of race in the 2016 election, some of Donald Trump’s chief supporters have been those who voted for Barack Obama once or twice but were taken in by promises to serve middle- and working-class voters better. And we now know, if we didn’t before, that human rights are hostage to democratic outcomes. So there are two reasons human rights activists might care about the reasons for the populist wave.
For one thing, the discontent of ordinary people matters even when they suffer no human rights violations—Donald Trump’s voters are not the most destitute. For another, when strongmen are elected, human rights for the vulnerable and weak are predictably violated. It is thus crucial to work for the defeat of populism at the polls both because human rights matter and because they are not the only things that matter.
RN: Most human rights organizations talk in terms of values, but your book points out the role that interests play in how people think about the issue. How can values and interests be paired in a way that makes the fight for human rights more effective going forward?
SM: Values generally get nowhere if they are not harmonized with interests. But then, interests are themselves generally defined in terms of values. I think the better way to frame the current quandary is that the values and interests of those who care about human rights, especially for minorities, are suffering a disconnect with the way too many people interpret their values and interests, especially those who think of themselves in majorities (or, in the American system, get close enough to a majority that our Constitution gives them power). I think it follows from this fact that friends of human rights need to make their project attractive to majorities, by folding it into a politics that fits better with majority values and interests. One version of this makes too many concessions—sacrificing just enough to allow majorities to treat human rights as tolerable.
A better vision, however, is to learn to regard human rights for the vulnerable and weak as part of a larger program that empowers a much wider range of citizens. In particular, the poor and less poor both have a grievance to claim against the rich who are winning this phase of history in most places. If they united, they could help each other achieve common values and interests
RN: Some Americans will find your human rights argument more unfair than the old one, at least in how it seems to call for economic redistribution. How do you respond to them?
SM: I just want to show that many more of our ancestors treated economic fairness as part of their moral vernacular, even if few do so today. How did egalitarian norms and practice rise and fall, leading to the common sense of our time? A philosopher might make a direct argument in favor of more egalitarian redistribution, but my goal as a historian is to show how our own time is unique against the background of modern history, when egalitarian norms and projects were the lifeblood of politics. And to show that human rights, which are a unique priority in the annals, only partly compensate for our loss of egalitarianism, since if human rights law and movements focus on distribution at all, it is on shortfalls of sufficient provision when it comes to the basic decencies of life, rather than egalitarian fairness
RN: You have written at length about the connection between Christianity and modern human rights. What is that connection and what role do Christians play in the fight for security and equality?
SM: A potentially huge one, if they resolve the meaning of their traditions for themselves. Jesus Christ was no friend of the rich, but Christian America is one of the most unequal societies that has ever been built. I think it behooves Christians to consider how they allowed their own civilization to become so libertarian, and interpret their faith differently so as to honor the long-standing Christian commitment to those Jesus called “the least of these,” not to mention the Christian Democratic politics of the middle of the twentieth century in Western Europe that honored egalitarianism much more than any other form of Christian politics in history did.
Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale University and the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of the Philos Project and a co-editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: Duke University, via YouTube.