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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Columbia Univ professor lectures on human rights

Published: February 11, 2011
Section: News

On Monday night, Rapaporte Treasure Hall was the site of deep discussion and debate about issues relating to human rights around the world; even the meaning and the concept of human rights was analyzed. The event, titled “The Limits of Human Rights Thinking: A Symposium on Samuel Moyn’s ‘The Last Utopia,’” gave the audience an opportunity to listen to Professor of History at Columbia University Samuel Moyn’s argument presented in his recently published book, “The Last Utopia.” Following Moyn’s speech were two respondents from the Brandeis faculty, Professor of Democracy and Public Policy Bernard Yack (POL) and Professor of Intercommunal Coexistence Mari Fitzduff (HELLER), who presented their responses to Moyn’s ideas about human rights and their thoughts on the subject.

Throughout his speech Moyn presented his basic idea about the concept of humanity: that people mistakenly attempt to ascribe the rise of humanity with their culture, when in fact it is somewhat irrelevant because there is not just one “humanity,” but many variations of humanity. According to Moyn these different concepts of what humanity and universalism mean often go in competition with one another.

“How do we think about universalism historically?” Moyn asked. “How do we situate cosmopolitanism in history? And when we look at that question, we find that a kind of single premise unites most accounts … Everyone seems to think that universalism or cosmopolitanism comes in the singular. It’s one basic idea: the unity of humankind, as a moral entity from which a set of moral entitlements then fall.”

Moyn suggests, stemming from this idea of there being one idea of universalism, that people wonder where this started.

“If you think of human rights—of humanity as a single idea, then it’s natural that you’re going to try to look for the one time—the one moment in history when someone somewhere broke through to it. And you might, if you adopt that view, try to take a more complex view of the subject and think that, even if there wasn’t just one moment, humanity might be something like a cumulative acquisition,” he said.

Moyn, however, goes against the very nature of this idea and uses as his base a Sanskrit scholar named Sheldon Pollack, who suggests that there are many different universalisms, which do not relate to one another as a precursor to our humanity today.

“If [Pollack’s theory] is right—and I think it is, it’s very obvious but maybe it hasn’t been taken seriously enough—then the fact that there’s some universalism or other in world history deep in the past or recent[ly], by itself doesn’t mean it’s at the historical origins of our own universalistic commitments,” he said.

During his speech, which he divided up into ancient times and modern times, he gave evidence which showed how senses of humanity and universalism could have sprung up very early in our history, and how at a certain stage and for a very long time during modern history they were linked to nation-state formation and therefore, in essence, were always trumped in importance by their end goals.

He concluded his speech with the notion that the nation-state is declining and is being replaced perhaps by more of a sense of individual self-determination. He ended his speech with a quote by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in which Schlesinger suggests that states are not adequate to decide what self-determination means, but that “human rights will be the way of reaching a deeper principle, which is individual self-determination.”

Following the speech, Moyn was questioned by people in the audience, many—if not all—of them were members of the Brandeis faculty eager to discuss his ideas. Afterwards, Professor Yack and then Professor Fitzduff gave their opinions on the topic.

Yack presented a case in which he primarily attacked the idea of the Utopian ideals, which in his opinion were suggested in Moyn’s book, when he finds that the quest for human rights is rarely a push to reach a perfect Utopian society, but rather a push to uphold bare minimum standards of life, beneath which no one can cross.

“Sure, there are lots of nationalist theorists and actors who dream up Utopian ideals of national bliss that their community will achieve when they’re all united in the same group ruling themselves. But that’s not what they’re invoking when they demand their rights. What they’re invoking when they demand their rights is a challenging of a division of territories and population, which they say violates some minimal threshold standard, which is that all individuals who are members of a nation should be able to govern themselves in their territory,” Yack said.

Fitzduff spoke more generally about human rights, explaining the difficult ambiguities associated with trying to agree on normative rights. She used the specific example of Northern Ireland, in which an attempt at a bill of rights was slowed down and made incredibly difficult due to the contesting viewpoints of the different contesting sides, each saying that their rights were more important. Furthermore, she described how people would merely use rights arguments against one another in order to achieve their ends. Fitzduff, in response to the ideas of universalism brought up throughout the symposium, explained her doubts.

“I don’t have any problem at all in having an idea of universalism … I just think that we put too much weight on it as a framework in terms of the practicality,” she said.

Following the event, Yale Spector ’11 described the event as “very thought provoking” and a “very nice framing of the human rights movements.” He went on to describe that he felt the main message to take away was that “a solution to human rights is not going to be located in one idea.”

In the end, the symposium on Moyn’s book delved deeply into the issues it intended to address and successfully provided a venue for scholars studying issues of human rights to listen to different perspectives and consider them.

The event was sponsored by the Mandel Center for the Humanities and the Brandeis Research Circle on Democracy and Cultural Pluralism.

Moyn is a historian and professor at Columbia University. He completed his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and then got both a Masters and Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley. He then received his JD from Harvard University. He has written a few books, including “Origins of the Other” and “Holocaust Controversy.”