The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights

Fellow Public Reasoners,

I recently posted an essay, “The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights,” on the Social Science Research Network (at As you can see from the summary below, the argument amounts to a very radical critique of human rights. This has left me wondering: have I missed something obvious? Needless to say, I’d appreciate any thoughts you may have.



With the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea of human rights came into its own on the world stage. More than anything, the Declaration was a response to the Holocaust, to both its perpetrators and the failure of the rest of the world adequately to come to the aid of its victims. Since that year, however, we have seen many more cases of mass murder. Think of China, Bali, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now Darfur. Of course one could always claim that such horrors would have been even more frequent if not for the Declaration. But I want to argue otherwise. For I believe that human rights have contributed to making mass murder more, rather than less, likely.

To be clear, my concern is specifically with the language of human rights, not the values it expresses, values which I certainly endorse. The problem with this language is that it is abstract. And the problem with abstraction is that it demotivates, it ‘unplugs’ us from the ‘moral sources,’ as Charles Taylor would call them, which empower us to act ethically. After showing why, I then go on to describe how the rise of human rights has constituted an ironic tragedy of sorts for those philosophers who have attempted to lend it intellectual support. On the whole, they may be divided into two groups. One, led by cosmopolitans such as Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge, tries to interlock rights within systematic theories of justice, thus fixing the priorities between them. The other, led by value pluralists such as Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams, rejects such theories as infeasible and asserts that the best we can do when rights conflict is to negotiate. Yet both approaches, I argue, are counter-productive.

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9 Responses to The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights

  1. Brandon Turner says:

    I’ve looked over the paper, and I’m concerned to whatever degree your argument hinges much on an empirical claim about the increased frequency of “mass murder” since the arrival of rights-language. This is probably a specious claim in at least two ways:

    The first is that an increased capacity to commit mass murder does not mean that rights-talk has made us more or less likely to do it. If Stalin used technology and organizational know-how available only in the twentieth-century to kill, say, three times as many people as he could have managed in the 19th century, then I think a claim about whatever normative language was prevalent at the time tells us little about its effect on people’s willingness to commit mass murder–we’re not more likely to kill 11,000,000 than 5,000,000 simply on the basis of our normative conception of persons.

    The second is that the claim is probably just false. We tend to wildly underestimate the amount of mass murder that took place before the Holocaust, particularly considering population size and technology. For a fairly-detailed-but-not-really-all-that-complete list of large-scale deaths in the 18th century, for example, see here:

    I’d like to see an empirical argument to the effect that mass murder hasn’t abetted in the past fifty years or so.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It strikes me, however, that focusing on the empirical question would be a distraction. After all, my claim is only that human rights have contributed to making mass murder more “likely.” This may be true even if there hasn’t been more mass murder since the rise of human rights talk. The essence of the argument thus lies elsewhere. One might think of it this way: what if, for whatever reason, armies could no longer make use of military jargon of the kind I refer to in the essay (“collateral damage” for the deaths of civilians; “incontinent ordnances” for wayward bombs; “traumatic amputation” for the blowing off of arms and legs). My claim is that such language, because it is abstract, helps soldiers to distance themselves from their victims. Stop using it and, all other things equal, we should expect the soldiers to be less willing and/or able to do what soldiers do, hence for there to be less victims. It is the same with rights talk, which is also abstract: use it less and we will care about people more, hence do more to prevent and/or punish mass murder.

  3. Ari Kohen says:

    My apologies for the incredible slowness of my response; I wrote at the beginning of the month to let you know that I would read the paper and comment – now, at the end of the month, I’m finally commenting.

    Taking into account that I might just be saying the same thing over and over again, and that I’ve taken far too long to respond, here are some thoughts:

    1. I tend to agree with some of what Brandon Turner says, above. It isn’t at all clear that human rights language has contributed in any way to an increase in mass murder since 1948. While I fully understand the theoretical point you want to make with your paper, I wonder whether there’s any way to demonstrate this sort of thing. In other words, it seems like an easy claim to make because it can’t really be shown to be incorrect. There have been n instances of mass murder, which you think is higher than there would have been with different language in place. But it’s impossible to determine, so it’s an easy “win” for you in your claim – except that most people, reading your claim, think that it somehow sounds wrong. The common understanding is that the language of human rights (and all of the international agreements that have sprung from the UDHR) has kept down the number of mass murders (to only n). That common understanding can’t be proved in the same way that your idea can be. But since neither can be determined, why should we go with your claim rather than the common understand about the virtue of a list of human rights.

    2. The reason that most people think the idea of human rights has kept the numbers down, I think, is that violators aren’t really impacted but non-violators are. That is, without human rights language over the past sixty years, we wouldn’t have all of the human rights watchdog organizations who publicize human rights violations. Of course, Nazis would have killed Jews irrespective of thick or thin language. What I understand you to be arguing is very much like what Rorty argues, that we need to get people to think of the Other as like us in some more immediate respect than simply “member of humanity” since “member of humanity” doesn’t get people riled up enough to do anything on behalf of the Other. But this won’t mean fewer instances of mass murder; instead, it will (hopefully) mean that when they occur, they’ll be ended quickly by people who have the power/influence to do so. This provides an answer to the problem raised by Samantha Power’s book. So, then, is Rorty’s (and your) strategy for getting people to care more effective than human rights language has been?

    3. It’s debatable whether thin or thick descriptions are more effective in this. Norman Geras has a very critical response to Rorty on this point, as (if I remember correctly) does Jean Elshtain. Rorty doesn’t adequately demonstrate that non-Jews rescued Jews during the Holocaust because of a thick description; he doesn’t even try. But Geras’ evidence is pretty mixed (as I discuss in my book). Some rescuers personally identified with Jews; others talked about ideas of common humanity or focused on religious obligation to help the Other. It seems clear that human rights language might not be enough for some people to get involved; lots of people, after all, don’t join Amnesty International let alone engage in more serious human rights work. Perhaps these people would be motivated by the sort of thick description you have in mind. But that doesn’t invalidate the human rights language that does motivate a great many people to write letters or engage in even more costly action. So, I think it’s not quite right to say, as you do above, that if we use rights talk less, “we will care about people more.” Some people very well might be motivated to do more, to care more. Others might well not be impacted by the change or might be negatively impacted – especially if we proceed under the assumption that the past sixty years have seen greater respect for human rights even if it hasn’t brought an end to abuses (and likely never will).

    OK, that might be one of the more disjointed things I’ve written (and posted online for others to read). But I wanted to get something out to you because I said that I would and because I enjoyed reading your (radical, challenging) paper.

  4. Thanks very much for your thoughts, Ari. Here’s my response…

    Regarding the first point, yes it’s impossible to determine for certain if there’s been a rise in mass murders since the UN Universal Declaration in 1948. But I still think that this matter distracts from the central point. Say things have clearly gone the other way, i.e., that there have been fewer mass murders since 1948. Even in such a case, the argument I’m trying to make would be important if true. For it would mean that there’s a kind of language which has been growing in popularity that, had it not been so growing, would have meant still fewer mass murders, and we can of course never have too few of these. That is why one should seriously consider the argument rather than simply going with the common understanding that the rise of rights talk has helped limit and prevent mass murder.

    As for your second point, saying that human rights language is good because without it we wouldn’t have “all of the human rights watchdog organizations who publicize human rights violations” just seems to me to beg the question. Maybe we wouldn’t need all those organizations since there would be fewer violations of the kind that makes them so necessary. Yes, I am making an argument that shares with Rorty’s the idea that we need to get people more riled up about protecting others by doing something other than just pointing out that those others are fellow human beings. But Rorty’s worries are grounded in his complaints about foundationalist theory; he fails to recognize that the real problem is with the abstractness of the kind of thinking that relies on terms like “humanity.” That’s why he celebrates what he calls “human rights culture” and so neglects to call for an alternative to rights discourse, which is also abstract. Moreover, the emotions that I think he has in mind for doing the riling up are of a kind that I would identify as aesthetic rather than rational. For it seems to me that the “sad and sentimental stories” he calls for are much like those commercials which call on us to send money while showing some starving but still adorable child in the third world. But this is a notoriously fickle thing – so unlike the phronesis-like, convincing stories that I am calling for. Regardless, even if people did end up getting sufficiently riled up only in Rorty’s way, this still means more than that “instances of mass murder [will] be ended quickly by people who have the power/influence to do so.” For given that there will be more people with power and influence who are concerned about upholding the values currently expressed in the language of human rights, those people who contemplate committing mass murder can be expected to at least think twice before they act.

    So I agree that Rorty doesn’t even try to claim that non-Jews rescued Jews during the Holocaust because of thick description, for I’m the one concerned about the popular use of thin language, not him. Nevertheless, I also do not claim that thick language is what drove most of the rescuers. For it seems to me that those rescuers were a small group of very unique people – I identify them in the essay as “heroes” (about whom I know you’ve been thinking a lot lately). And it’s in the nature of heroism that they’re driven by something other than ordinary loyalties (hence why, at note 45, I suggest that Geras’ critique of Rorty supports my own). My claim about the power of thick language to motivate is thus made with everyone aside from this special elite in mind (of course heroes may be affected by thick language as well, but they tend to have something else going).

    As for the “great many people” who currently “write letters or engage in even more costly action,” I say: bupkis! For, as you know, I believe that people today are simply not doing anything like enough to uphold the values that tend to be expressed as human rights. I mean, just think of Darfur.

    So I return to what seems to me to be the basic question: is there a qualitative difference between thick (particular) and thin (abstract) language such that, when values are articulated in the latter, their power to motivate us gets sapped? If so, then human rights language is counterproductive and we political philosophers should stop encouraging its use. And I think so.

  5. Charles,

    Much of what you say about how language affects us seems plausible. Your examples seem plausible.

    Still, my main worry about this paper is that I think it tries to do something from the armchair that can’t be done from the armchair. Take these questions: “What affect do different kinds of moral language have on people’s motivations? What language and descriptions are needed to change behavior? What effect did the UN’s use of rights talk have on world affairs? Etc.” These don’t seem like questions that political theorists qua political theorists have any expertise to answer whatsoever. Instead, they seem like questions to be answered by psychologists, historians, and other social scientists. I’m worried that most of your citations are of other philosophers and political theorists.

    Given the type of thesis you’re advancing, I think you need more empirical evidence and less a priori theorizing.

  6. Ah, a call to respect disciplinary boundaries. That would be a mistake, and not only because I believe those who would think about politics should never do so. For if the argument of my essay is correct, then we just can’t afford to wait until all the psychologists, historians, and other social scientists catch up to Kierkegaard’s recognition that “people can only feel real commitment when they are present in the concrete” (The Present Age, 1846) – we need to stop using abstractions like human rights right now. Because after all, people are dying.

    Still, if you must look elsewhere for confirmation, studies are beginning to appear which suggest that the more states ratify human rights treaties, the more they tend to violate human rights. Here are three:

    Emilie M. Hafner-Burton and Kiyoteru Tsutsui, “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 5 (March 2005): 1373–411

    Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, “Justice Lost! The Failure of International Human Rights Law To Matter Where Needed Most,” Journal of Peace Research 44, no. 4 (2007): 407-425

    Emilia Justyna J. Powell and Jeffrey K. Staton, “Domestic Judicial Institutions and Human Rights Treaty Violation,” (August 30, 2007). Available at SSRN:

  7. So, if you’re right, then we should stop using rights talk immediately. But if you aren’t right, then we shouldn’t stop using it or it’s not the case that we should stop using it. So, the question is then whether you’re right.

    I think one thing you could do with the paper is to put forward an empirical hypothesis, argue for a causal model that makes it plausible, and then offer suggestions for how that model might be tested so we can see whether it’s true or not.

  8. I thought about it and I’m right.

  9. Ari Kohen says:


    Along these lines – though filled with numbers, charts, and graphs – you might have a look at “Is the Law a Mere Parchment Barrier to Human Rights Abuse?” in the most Journal of Politics. The authors are Linda Camp Keith, C. Neal Tate, and Steven C. Poe.

    The authors argue, empirically, that “adopting selected constitutional provisions protecting individual rights and freedoms, promoting judicial independence, and guarding against states of emergency–and keeping the provisions in place for 10 years–has the potential to reduce a nation’s level of state terror substantially.”


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