Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry:

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Princeton University Press, Feb 16, 2003 - Philosophy - 187 pages
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Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens.

Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.

Based on the Tanner Lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2000, the book includes two chapters by Ignatieff, an introduction by Amy Gutmann, comments by four leading scholars--K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher--and a response by Ignatieff.

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About the author (2003)

Michael Ignatieff, born in Toronto in 1947. But at the age of 11, Ignatieff was sent to Toronto to attend Upper Canada College as a boarder in 1959. At UCC, Ignatieff was elected a school prefect as Head of Wedd's House, was the captain of the varsity soccer team, and served as editor-in-chief of the school's yearbook. As well, Ignatieff volunteered for the Liberal Party during the 1965 federal election by canvassing the York South riding. He resumed his work for the Liberal Party in 1968, as a national youth organizer and party delegate for the Pierre Elliott Trudeau party leadership campaign. He then went on to continue his education at the University of Toronto and Harvard and Cambridge universities. In 1976, Ignatieff completed his Ph.D in History at Harvard University. He was granted a Cambridge M.A. by incorporation in 1978 on taking up a fellowship at King's College there. Michael Ignatieff has written television programs for the BBC, novels, and works of nonfiction. He has also authored essays and reviews for several publications including The New York Times. From 1990-93, he wrote a weekly column on international affairs for The Observer. His family memoir, The Russian Album, received Canada's Governor General Award in 1988. His second novel, Scar Tissue, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. Other nonfiction works include A Just Measure of Pain, the Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution and the Warrior's Honor: Ethic War and the Modern Conscience.

Amy Gutmann is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

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