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Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007)

de Lynn Hunt

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In this extraordinary work of cultural and intellectual history, Hunt grounds the creation of human rights in the changes that authors brought to literature, the rejection of torture as a means of finding out truth and the spread of empathy.
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A limited but informative look at the "rights revolution" in the 18th Century, when early liberals invented the concept of human rights and helped outlaw gruesome punishments and torture. The book was short but also felt a little stretched thin, like it needed an extra major point of argument to bolster its contention. I enjoyed Steven Pinker's briefer popularization of Hunt's work in "The Better Angels Of Our Nature" more. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
Concise and accessible, Lynn Hunt's 'Inventing Human Rights' presents a good history of the ideas of human rights as they emerged in the Enlightenment.

I liked her first chapter best, where she focuses on Richardson's 'Pamela' and 'Clarissa' and Rousseau's 'Julie' and argues that their ability to provoke strong emotions from readers (hint: not boredom) encouraged empathy from readers for people different than themselves. With the sense of the individual having emerged over the past few centuries, along with an increased desire for separate sleeping areas and concealing bodily functions, that empathy eventually led to the wider campaigns against torture and for civil rights. At least for the men.

Lynn continues with how the radicalism of the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism led to a backlash against the idea of universal human rights. With traditional reasoning for discriminating against Jews, blacks, and other races invalidated, there was a rise of more sinister biological explanations that was further encouraged by the success of imperialism.

The book is capped-off with the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and seen by Hunt as an ultimate victory. The victory comes not from the lack of violations in the world of course, but because the idea of the rights of humanity have become so much a part of our being that there's no going back. I agree with her on paper certainly and it does make for a tidy history, but I can't feel positive about the security of human rights.

But I am reading 'War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning' right now so I can't exactly hold on to notions about the better instincts of humanity. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
The first half of the book, which is full of intriguing ideas, deep research and on-point examples, deserves at least 4 stars. The second half, however, is much weaker, and while still interesting, lacks the same spark of original insight so much on display in the first section. I found her discussion of the foundations of human rights in the emerging ability of humans to empathize, formed by the new genre of the epistolary novels. ( )
  dono421846 | Nov 14, 2013 |
An interesting little book about the evolution of human rights from he 1700's to today. At the beginning of the book Hunt asks an interesting question if human rights are "self evident" such as many decelerations of the time stated then why was it not until the 1700s that the issue of rights was championed? Hunt try's to answer this in the first half of the book saying that two things had to happen before human rights took center stage.

The First is that society had to develop a kind of social empathy for others. In her opinion the seed bed for this empathy came from the development of the epistolary novel as they gave the reader a seance of realism that a normal novel could not and made it easier for the reader, usually wealthy aristocrats to come to realize that there servants and peasants hand inner thoughts and problems just as they did thus humanizing them to an extent that it was harder to see just the social class. This would lead to other ideas of empathy that she discusses later in the chapter. The next change that had to happen was how the human body was viewed. According to Hunt prior to the 1700 the body was seen as just the shell holding the soul before death and thus not important but during the late1700's this changed into the idea that the body was sacred and belong to the individual. This would then lead to the protesting of judicial torture and movements all around Europe to abolish it.

Once empathy and the sacredness of the human body took place in society you then can have the start o the discussion of human rights which she devotes the rest of the book too. Hunt manly looks at the French Deceleration of Man and the problems they faced once stating all citizens had rights. such as realizing that each group such as Protestants, Jews, and slaves would argue for there rights and feel that there rights were being abused if not included. Which hunt also argues as one of the problems of declaring rights, that once done there will always be a group that seeks to address abuses and a society walks a thin line id dealing with each case while trying to live up to the ideals of their original intent. The last chapter looks more at the modern era and the creation of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the limitations of empathy as a motivation for human rights. The most interesting argument Hunt makes can be found here at the end of the chapter were she argues that with the creation of human rights also brought with it a whole host of evil twins stating

"The call for universal, equal and natural right stimulated the growth of new and sometimes fanatical ideologies of difference. New modes for gaining empathetic understanding opened the way to a sensationalism of violence. The effort to dislodge cruelty from the legal, judicial, and religious moorings made it more accessible as a everyday tool of domination and dehumanization. The utterly dehumanizing crimes of the twentieth century only become conceivable once everyone could claim to be equal members of the human family. . .Empathy has not been extinguished, as some have claimed. It has become a more powerful force for good then ever before. But the countervailing effect of violence, pain and domination is also greater then ever before."

Hunt end on a note that while humanity record on human rights has been rather mixed there is still hope as long as we strive for the ideals we have set.

The only real complaint i have with the book is that I wish some of the historical topics in the 2nd half of the book were covered more in-depth as a feel they were glossed over a little bit. Like I said a interesting little book that deals with some heavy stuff but presents in a very easy to understand way and gets to the hart of why human rights are important. ( )
  bakabaka84 | Sep 9, 2012 |
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In this extraordinary work of cultural and intellectual history, Hunt grounds the creation of human rights in the changes that authors brought to literature, the rejection of torture as a means of finding out truth and the spread of empathy.

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