Universal Human Rights

Current debates about human rights obscure their origins in the experience of violence. The affirmation of the universal value of human dignity is not only part of the history of ideas, but it also links back to violent and traumatic collective experiences such as slavery and the Holocaust. In the first Berkley Center lecture, Hans Joas traced the history of violence in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other important documents, and he discussed the conditions for the successful transformation of experiences of violence into universalist value commitments. The abolition of slavery served as an illustration.
The history of human rights runs parallel to the rise of the modern state and new forms of punishment. In that history some discern progress in the gradual constraints placed on state power with respect to its citizens. Others follow Michel Foucault, who saw the modern state developing more and more effective means of discipline over time. In his second Berkley Center lecture Hans Joas presented an alternative view of the origins of human rights. Drawing on the insights of Emile Durkheim, he examined the larger process of inclusion through which more and more people have come to be considered human persons. A focus on the sacredness of the person helps us to understand the ambiguity of punishment in the modern era and the threats posed to human rights by certain contemporary states.

Can there be agreement about universal human rights? Given the diversity of religious and philosophical value traditions in today's world, is consensus possible? In his third Berkley Center lecture, Hans Joas argued that much depends on the way we talk about values with one another. We have to resist the notion that human rights controversies inevitably link to a "clash of civilizations," or that individuals and groups simply embrace and articulate the values that are right for them without reasoning or communication with others. The example of the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights illustrates the importance and possibility of productive communication about universal human rights across value traditions.

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