How Rights Became Human

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt (W.W. Norton, 272 pages, $25.95)

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In August 2006, I became the first -- and only, as it turns out -- journalist to speak with Lynndie R. England at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego. I got to know her as she sang "The Raindrop Song" to her two-year-old son in the visiting room. She also told me she had been training puppies at the prison to work with people suffering from psychological problems. This was the same woman who was photographed holding a naked prisoner on a tether at Abu Ghraib.

The contrast between England's callousness in one sphere and her compassion in others raises a problem that goes beyond the peculiarities of her case: To what extent is a general capacity for empathy a basis for the recognition of human rights? In her new book, the cultural historian Lynn Hunt argues that the two are connected. The development of an "internal moral sense," in Hunt's view, has been a crucial element in the invention of human rights.

In the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, it is "self-evident" that man has "certain unalienable rights." And the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 declares, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." But it was not always understood that way. Traditionally, men -- and men alone -- had rights on the basis of their social position and membership in a polity, not simply as human beings.

It was only in the 1700s that the notion of universal human rights (or, as Hunt puts it, "equality, universality, and naturalness of rights") emerged on the political stage. The story of how the concept of universal human rights evolved in the 18th century is rooted in the social and intellectual developments of that time and encompasses a lively cast of characters, ranging from Jefferson and Diderot (pro) to Bentham (con). Hunt, who is also the author of Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, tells the story well. She attributes the political shift to the new forms of art and literature of the 18th century, playing down the importance of Locke, Kant, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. In other words: sensibility first, reason second.

Human rights, as Hunt explains, had not been an issue in France. Prisoners were routinely burned with hot irons, broken on the wheel, and burnt at the stake in the 1700s. At the time, the abuse was so acceptable that the word "torture" was more likely to be used to describe the agony of a writer than that of the condemned. The novelist Marivaux, for example, wrote about "torturing one's mind in order to draw out reflections" in 1724. It was not until Montesquieu's 1748 Spirit of the Laws, Hunt writes, that "legally authorized torture to get confessions of guilt or names of accomplices" became a subject of concern.

Voltaire and other intellectuals joined the campaign to establish universal human rights, and by the 1780s, "the abolition of torture and barbarous forms of corporal punishment had become essential articles in the new human rights doctrine." The concept of universal human rights came about in the 18th century because of an altered perception of the individual, she argues, describing a trend toward interiority that could be seen in the popularity of cultural forms such as the epistolary novel, the transformation of the opera, and the design of houses. Literature, she says, was an especially powerful influence.

"Readers of novels learned to extend their purview of empathy," she writes. "Aristocratic characters such as Don Quixote and the Princess of Cleves, so prominent in seventeenth-century novels, now gave way to servants, sailors, and middle-class girls." Novels written in the form of letters, including Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Rousseau's Julie (1761), took Europe by storm. "You cannot go into a house without finding a Pamela," wrote a French cleric in 1742. In these novels, Hunt argues, "readers become more aware of their own and every other individual's capacity for interiority." This led to a heightened willingness to embrace the rights of the individual.

"What might be termed ‘imagined empathy' serves as the foundation of human rights," she writes. "Accounts of torture produced this imagined empathy through new views of pain. Novels generated it by inducing new sensations about the inner self. Each in their way reinforced the notion of a community based on autonomous, empathetic individuals who could relate beyond their immediate families, religious affiliations, or even nations to greater universal values."

Here, for example, is Diderot on Richardson's novels:

One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying: ‘Don't believe it, he is deceiving you … If you go there, you will be lost.'

Yet the cause-and-effect relationship -- the idea that reading novels and other imaginative literature led to acceptance of the rights of people who were not members of one's own community -- is not clear. Americans of the Revolutionary era were not avid novel readers, but they had many of the same ideas as the French. Nonetheless, Hunt builds a case for a causal connection, claiming, for example, "novels worked on readers to make them more sympathetic toward others, rather than just self-absorbed, and therefore more moral."

At times, Hunt gets carried away with her analysis, making tenuous connections between cultural and neurological developments. She argues, for example, that reading "had physical effects that translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life." As proof she says, "diseases such as autism show that the capacity for empathy -- for the recognition that others have minds like your own -- has a biological basis." But because she has no evidence that reading novels changes the brain -- much less how neurological change generates a concept such as human rights -- the argument is at best a stretch.

While her general historical thesis about the relationship of cultural change and rights may not be airtight, it is intriguing. By the late 1700s, she argues, a new concept of selfhood had led to a broader understanding of human rights and a condemnation of judicial torture: A prisoner's body was private and could no longer be broken in order to teach society a lesson. Yet there were still serious objections to the idea of universal human rights. In 1775 Jeremy Bentham ridiculed the idea of natural rights and later claimed instead that a utilitarian principle ("the greatest happiness of the greatest number") was a better basis for determining just laws and policies. In other words, the safety of the majority can justify sacrificing the rights of the individual. His argument has been updated as the ticking-bomb theory, which everyone from President Bush to 24's creative staff has used to defend harsh interrogation techniques.

Critics of individual rights also dismissed them as a distraction from higher social aims. For Marx the idea of universal human rights was merely a bourgeois concern. Hunt notes "Socialist and Communist organizations inevitably downgraded the importance of rights as a goal."

Despite its opponents, the concept of human rights triumphed with the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But clearly "the hope of stopping barbarous ‘acts' has not been fulfilled," Hunt writes. "South Africa, the French in Algeria, Chile, Greece, Argentina, Iraq, the Americans at Abu Ghraib -- the list never ends."

That August afternoon at the brig, Lynndie England watched a golden retriever playing in a sunlit yard and talked about the puppies she was teaching to assist people who suffer from panic attacks. She is certainly capable of empathy, even though she participated in torture at Abu Ghraib. And that is the enduring problem: Whatever role it played in inventing human rights, a modern sensibility offers no immunity from abusing them.