Moyn's Christian Human Rights: A Comment

Published date01 September 2018
Date01 September 2018
Moyn'sChristian Human Rights: A Comment
Mark Gilbert*
First things first: Samuel Moyn has written a very good and thoughtprovoking book. Although Christian Human
Rights is a reworked collage of previously published pieces, the various patches are sewn together skilfully to
construct a cohesive whole with a strong thesis.
This thesis is that the concept of human rights, which is usually associated with the secular left, has been in reality
more a project of the Christian rightsince the period between the two world wars. Moyn argues that from the mid
1930s onwards, Christians, especially Catholics, evolved and evoked the concept of human dignityas the centrepiece
of the political creed that they counterposed to the Nazi and Soviet variations of totalitarianism. One consequence of
this was that Christians began talking the language of human rights; began asserting in short that unless real, fleshand
blood human beings (not the abstract individualof secular liberal thought) enjoyed certain core human rights, then
society was unjust and out of harmony with natural law (and hence with the will of God). During the Cold War, this
innovation made possible a tremendously fateful new openingby liberalstraditionally, the principal opponents of
clerical interference in politicsto Christian (or JudeoChristian)values and interests.Moyn contends that this open-
ing enabled Cold War Liberalismto be born: a political ideology that prized moderation and defence of the status quo
(a guarded centrism) against all bids for secular progress(p. 24). The diffusion and affirmation of the doctrine of
human rights, in short, is less one of the most important intellectual revolutions of our time than a pillar of the post
war conservative consensus and, as such, less of a force for liberation than its most progressive supporters imagine.
This thesis clearly upsets a great many preconceptions about the origins and political orientation of the idea of
human rights. Moyn is a resolute critic of all teleological narratives of the growth of human rights: in Chapter 3, which
is very largely an analysis of the writings of the first historianof human rights, the conservative German scholar
Gerhard Ritter, he comments dismissively that contemporary scholarshave moved to create a Whig interpretation
of human rights. That is to say, convinced that the idea of human rights is obviously a good one, such scholars
have assumed that the task of its historians is to show its emergence in the past in order to encourage its fortunes
now(p. 104). Moyn's book is, at heart, an essay in how one should write the narrative of our times; it is a welcome
reminder that it is fatefully easy, to use Herbert Butterfield's formulation,to write history backwards, constructing a
teleological account of how a desirable present emerged thanks to the efforts of rightminded leaders of good will.
In other words, in much the same way as contemporary scholars of European integration have tended to invest
the European projectwith immense historical significance, seeing the institutions of the EEC and the EU less as the
outcome of hardfought political compromises than as the outcome of the will of successive generations of European
leaders to overcome the continent's legacy of aggressive nationalism and war, so historians of human rights have
regarded the presentday ubiquity of the concept as the result of the victorious struggles by progressives against
the barbarisms of the recent past (and the realistsof the present day).
Moyn contends that the doctrine of human
The Johns Hopkins University, SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy
I am reluctant to cite myself, but the critique Moyn advances of Whig interpretationsof human rights mirrors my own historio-
graphical work on European integration. See Mark Gilbert, Narrating the Process: Questioning the Progressive Story of European
Integration, (2008) 46 Journal of Common Market Studies, 641662.
DOI: 10.1111/eulj.12292
Eur Law J. 2018;24:349353. © 2018 John Wiley & Sons 349

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT