Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights has the central premise the idea of human rights, once “declared” in the founding of governments, started a discourse on what having rights means, who held those rights, and how rights are translated into a government’s legal framework. The zeitgeist of 18th century Western Europe was one of greater individual autonomy and increased empathy, contributing to a condition where the language of “rights” was further articulated and put into practice. Amidst this cultural transformation, Hunt points to popularity of the epistolary novel which facilitates an imaginative connection with others, and a growing societal concern about court-ordered torture that furthered ideas of justice. While legal theorists like Burlamaqui had articulated natural law and natural rights as intellectual concepts, epistolary novels and opposition to torture reified those ideas in culture. Granted, there had been a growing sense of self-ownership (versus community membership, for example, greater concerns about hygiene and privacy), Hunt acknowledging, “Autonomy and empathy did not materialize out of thin air” in that, “…individuals had begun to pull themselves away from the webs of community and had become increasingly independent agents both legally and psychologically.” The language and thinking of “rights” inspired the Declaration of Independence and the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Once the door to declaring rights was opened, it led to an expansion of rights for certain groups previously exploited, outcast and downtrodden, as well as “declarations” in the countries to found new nations. In the 19th century, the idea of human rights continued to evolve even as nationalism began to assert the rights of group identities to self-govern, and further colonialism undermined the idea of universal rights. Eric Weitz’s article expands on these ideas, describing the Paris system’s consensus on “rights of self-determination” favoring policies based on group identity (often at the cost of individual rights). The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reassertion of universal rights, yet the UN itself has largely continued the Paris system’s emphasis on group identity. Clearly collective versus individual rights is an ongoing, international discourse that is draped in a strange irony: the collective often trumps the individual.
Hunt’s book is particularly strong in demonstrating the perhaps unintended consequences of articulating and declaring rights. Once a right is universal (or, at least, applicable to the governed), the inner logic of rights (Condorcet’s notion that rights are binary: you exercise them or you are deprived of them) makes it possible for individuals to ask new questions that, once asked, enter into societal discourse and lead to individual betterment.
One criticism may be that Hunt does not acknowledge materialist forces at play. Had individualism been growing as the bourgeoisie grew? A growing middle class led to more educated readers of novels and political pamphlets, more people believing they possessed natural rights that needed to be protected vis-a-vis government. Pointing to the role novels and torture in a zeitgeist is reasonable, but making direct connection of those two phenomena and the language of rights seems strained. Indeed, the conditions that led to the two declarations of rights took place during ruptures with established authority over economic issues: The American Revolution could be best characterized as a tax revolt and the French Revolution took place during a financial crisis where monarchy looked to increase taxes, sparking widespread dissension.