Human rights as a form of idealism

Today Scott McLemee published an interview with me concerning my recent book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass., 2010).

As I argue in response to one of Scott’s questions, I am skeptical of attempts to see international human rights yesterday and today as merely a “liberalism of fear” that is restricted to the cause of staving off political evil.

As I put it in the interview:

[T]hat wasn’t true in the 1970s, since several of those who most bitterly scorned prior utopias transmuted their idealism into new forms associated with human rights, rather than dropping idealism altogether. And it certainly isn’t true now, when human rights have expanded—notably in the global south—far beyond their original antitotalitarianism to embrace a host of causes of improvement, intersecting humanitarianism and development.

As our editorial collective notes in our initial programmatic statement, it is crucial to take the “redemptive” moment of human rights languages and movements seriously, and my hope is that the journal will explore this critical problem.

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