In Conversation

Legal historian Samuel Moyn on why human rights are not enough

Moyn’s book, “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World,” explores how human rights connect to global economic fairness and inequality.
Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn

In his recently published book, “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World,” legal historian Samuel Moyn explores how human rights connect to global economic fairness and takes a look at the role human rights have played in the history of humanity globally.

Moyn, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of History, has dual appointments at the Law School and in the Department of History. In “Not Enough” Moyn traces the history of human rights beginning with the Bible, and he explores how and why we chose to make human rights our highest ideals while simultaneously neglecting the demands of a broader social and economic justice.

Moyn’s main areas of scholarly work are in international law, human rights, the law of war, legal thought, and 20th-century European moral and political theory. He most recently taught a law course on conservatism’s origins as a body of theory, the trajectory of American conservatism since World War II — focusing on both intellectual history and popular mobilization — and versions of conservatism prominent in contemporary legal scholarship.

The Yale scholar recently spoke with YaleNews about the important difference between sufficiency and equality, and why an individual’s life chances are greatly influenced by their birthplace.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

How has the age of human rights been kindest to the rich?

The main idea is that the age of human rights is the age of the explosion of inequality in most national settings. From the 1940s through the 1970s there was a unique era in which the welfare state constrained economic inequality. That ended around the time human rights became a prominent international issue and former President Jimmy Carter took office and made human rights famous. The welfare state abandoned its goal of keeping inequality moderated and rejected a post-colonial vision of global equality from the same moment of the 1970s. The same people who are attacking the welfare state are also attacking the welfare world idea that new states after decolonization promoted. I wanted to ask: What does it tell us that human rights became our highest morality in an age when we also embraced inequality again?

What surprised you most when you were researching this book?

A lot of people today are talking about threats to the liberal international order. The question is: What does that mean precisely? Many places were part of an empire and not yet states in 1945, when the liberal international order was created, so for them it wasn’t very liberal. In the book, I write about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered to be the bible of the human rights movement. The document was created in 1948 and at that time there were 58 countries to vote on it. Now there are almost 200. There has been a quadrupling of the voices to talk about what the international order ought to be like.

Even in the states that already existed when the liberal international order came about after World War II, the goal was to create a fair welfare state, something that has lost prominence since. And the new states born of decolonization went beyond this aspiration to demand a welfare world. Of course, while they were granted states, this welfare world has not come about.

What should the international order be like? What do you think the main tenets should be?

There is a distinction between the idea of sufficiency, which is that everyone should have enough of the most basic decencies in life, whether it’s housing, a job, food, sanitation, water, or healthcare. Then there’s equality. We could have all of those basic decencies and still live in a hierarchical society or world. The trouble is that that is what is happening in many countries. Fewer and fewer people are impoverished, but many countries are getting much more unequal, and human rights don’t have much to say about that second problem. Alongside human rights — even relatively new human rights, like the right to health care — we need to be concerned about the value of equality in this international order. It is still the fact that the most important thing about any individual is where they are born, and that their life chances are most of all determined by the country in which they are born. The question is: In the long run, how do we work for a world in which that matters less? Why do we have this big migration crisis? Because people don’t want to wait that long.

Speaking as a historian, are there any solutions?

I think so. We have had a liberal international order for many decades with human rights, but what have been its values when it comes to economics? Free trade is one. And the consequences of that have been massive. It has made the whole world richer, but unequally so. There has been a huge amount of poverty remediation from the very bottom (what the World Bank calls extreme poverty), especially in China where hundreds of millions have been saved. Yet in many countries we have seen an explosion of inequality at the same time — not the least in the United States — and it is still the case that global inequality is massive. That’s why it matters so much in what country you’re born. It seems to me that we need some form of global governance that isn’t just about human rights but about equality too

Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn, bookjacket

Where do human rights fit in the history of humanity globally from the beginning of time to now?

Since time immemorial there have been a lot of causes of justice and even universal justice, but people have always disagreed about what that meant. Human rights are just one example. We are headed into an era where we are going to restart the debate about what universal justice should look like. What I am saying in my book is that we should hold onto what human rights we have, but we also need more than human rights if even human rights are going to survive. People who are upset by global inequality are throwing liberal democracy overboard, including the human rights that liberal democracies are best at protecting. Even if you just care about human rights, you have to care about more than just human rights because you want them to endure in a stable world.

What lessons can we learn from the history of human rights that are applicable to today?

The main lesson is that we shouldn’t pretend that human rights are the only game in town. They seem like a game that a few people wanted to play, and then more people only very recently. The second lesson is that there are resources in the past for remembering that our ancestors were once committed to equality at different levels — both national and global — in a way that we have forgotten or spurned. In the end we have to make our own choice. We made the choice to have equality and give it up, and we could choose to have it again. History is intended first and foremost to remind us that we can choose, and to remember that if it is not the end of history then that means we have some level of choice in it before an open future. It’s always been the main impulse of my work is to convince people not to be complacent or think that everything has already been resolved for them.

What is upcoming in your research and scholarship?

I’m working on a book on the rise of what I’m calling “humane war” — wars, especially American ones, which are fought with the minimum inhumanity (civilian casualties, torture, etc.) as possible, and which also seem to go on forever and bleed beyond specific areas of the globe.

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