The Fortunes of Natural Man: Robinson Crusoe, Political Economy, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“What is at stake here,” the Lebanese United Nations delegate Charles Malik wrote of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “is the determination of the nature of man.”1 As a student of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Malik was intensely attuned to the philosophical significance of the attempt to formulate a list of basic rights.2 Reflecting on his own participation in the drafting process, Malik, who drafted the declaration’s preamble, noted that this posed three central questions: Is man an animal like any other? What is the place of the individual human person in modern society? And which is prior, the individual or the state?3 Unsurprisingly, these questions came to the fore during debate in the General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee about what is now Article 29 of the Declaration, which concerns the relation between the individual and the community. More surprisingly, this debate revolved around the figure who epitomizes the myth of “natural man”: Robinson Crusoe. Article 29 was envisaged as what one delegate fittingly termed “an escape clause”: that is, it was to stipulate the conditions under which the rights in the Declaration could be limited.4 As the Committee met to debate a proliferation of amendments, all the philosophical and political disagreements between the parties crystallized around the grounds for limiting these rights. Were the needs of the democratic state sufficient for derogating from them, as the Soviet delegate claimed? Were these rights subordinate to the requirements of public order? And, if so, how was this order to be defined?5 As delegates argued over these questions, the stakes of the debate became clear: at issue was that “determination of the nature of man” that Malik had astutely suggested underpinned the drafting process. This was an argument about whether this “man” was endowed with a human personality and individual rights by nature, or whether this personality could be developed only in a community and these rights granted only by the state.

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About Jessica Whyte

Jessica Whyte is Scientia Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, with a cross-appointment in the Faculty of Law. Her work integrates political philosophy, intellectual history and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights, humanitarianism and militarism. She is author of Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, (SUNY 2013) and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso, 2019) and an editor of Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development.