Gray Panthers of San Francisco
July 2007 Newsletter

Inventing Human Rights


The day in 1807 when Britain abolished the transAtlantic slave trade, the event made poignant in Amazing Grace, was the beginning of humanitarian activism. “Recognizing wrongs could make a right: the right of slaves to be treated with compassion, and in due course, the right of slaves to be free,” writes Maya Jasanoff in a review of historian Lynn Hunt’s elegant work, Inventing Human Rights (Washington Post, 4-22-07).

Hunt offers answers as to when and why we started to think of human beings as universally equal. “...she demonstrates how the concept of universal human rights coalesced in the American and French revolutions and went on to provide the basis for the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“In her final chapter Hunt explains the long, perplexing gap between the 18th-century declarations and that of the United Nations. The rise of competitive nation-states, together with pseudo-scientific claims about race and gender, trounced ideas of universal equality. It took the mass carnage of two world wars to return us to the simpler—if more challenging—universalism of the Enlightenment.

“Yet as famine, torture and ethnic slaughter persist into the 21st century, Hunt closes with a paradox. Adam Smith observed that the ‘soft power of humanity’ is not enough to prevent people from acting in self-interest; it takes ‘reason, principle, conscience’ to attain a greater good. If we needed empathy to make us articulate principles in the first place, now it seems we need the discipline of principles to teach us how to empathize again.”

Is it timely that California adopt a human rights amendment?

For a more in-depth study of the demise of the British slave trade, read "How was British slavery abolished? Not by William Wilberforce."

(back to July 2007 Newsletter front page)