The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights

Hans Joas

Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

Michel Foucault famously begins his Discipline and Punish (1975) with a harrowing account of the public drawing and quartering of one Damiens, convicted of attempted regicide, in Paris in 1757. No distressing detail of his dismemberment is spared. The point? We moderns don’t do that today. The moral? Certainly not a celebration of another triumph of modernity and Enlightenment. Foucault claims, instead, that we have moved to other, less dramatic and visible, but more insidious and effective ways of “disciplining” populations.

In this short but rich work, interweaving philosophical sophistication, sociological analysis, and historical erudition, Hans Joas, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, rejects both Enlightenment glorification and Foucaultian unmasking. Joas is neither triumphalist nor deprecatory about this transformation, or about other modern moral advances—among them, the delegitimization of torture, the abolition of slavery, post-Nazi dignitarian constitutionalism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, most centrally and broadly, the now ubiquitous discourse of human rights.

Such developments, he argues, reflect a cultural metamorphosis, namely, a move toward what he calls “the sacralization of the person,” belief in the “irreducible dignity of every human being.”

None of this change started from nowhere. Much of it was grounded in religious traditions of great vintage. Yet much of it was unprecedented. Never inevitable, often unsuccessful, it was strongly opposed, in both practice and principle, frequently by foes who sacralized other ideas, including nation, class, and race. The efforts of those opponents in turn often provoked revulsion and a “moral mobilization” in recognition of human dignity and, in turn, human rights. This “development” (a nuanced term of art in Joas’s argument) has been complex and uneven, both because it is never the only game in town and because not all the ways of playing it are good. However, in large parts of the world, the understanding of vice and virtue, the language we use, the values we affirm, the commitments we hold, and the criteria by which we judge have been transmuted.

Why? Some thirty years ago, a Polish colleague tried to persuade me that until the advent of Communism, no so-called revolution had ever led to anything truly new. I demurred shyly, suggesting that something might be said to have come out of eighteenth-century America and France. “Bah,” he replied dismissively. “Once we learned we were all equal in the sight of God, the rest was interpretation.” It is not an empty observation, but it is not much of an explanation. Joas would say it is no explanation at all. After all, its now apparently self-evident implication was violated and ignored with good conscience for almost two millennia, and “maturation across centuries is not a sociological category.”

Many fervent believers came to draw dignitarian and egalitarian implications from their religion and see them as principles for the way all humans should treat all humans, here and now, only in the late eighteenth century—notwithstanding long-held beliefs in equality before God, in the human soul, in life as a gift (all explored by Joas with sensitivity, erudition, and insight). Even then, the sacralization of the person developed in fits and starts. Thomas Jefferson, after all, wrote the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves. Recent presidents have not owned slaves, and the current president is black, a fact that reflects allied, complementary, and deep (if incomplete) cultural transformations, which also took time and also need explanation. These are extraordinary developments, and while there are probably racists who still deplore them, they would today have to be careful what they say. One of Joas’s central aims in The Sacredness of the Person is to explain how much had to happen, and in response to what, for such transformations to be imaginable, to be imagined, and then to occur. It is an exemplary work of what John Locke, with rightly false modesty, described as “under-labourer [employed in] clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.”

But it is not only under-labor. Joas also builds on the ground he has cleared. In place of Max Weber’s bleak tale of the displacement of religion by the unstoppable rise of secular rationalism, he develops an account of modernity, drawing especially on William James and Émile Durkheim, that accentuates not the elimination of the sacred in modernity but its redirection to the human person. Joas does not just trace this sacralization, but affirms it, notes its limits, advocates facing up to its stringent implications, and, perhaps above all, instructs us on how values more generally are generated and might be propagated.

In keeping with the pragmatist aversion to what John Dewey called “pernicious dualisms,” Joas seeks to move beyond the usual dichotomous suspects that dominate our thinking about values, among them human rights. He offers a third way. Instead of a Kantian/Habermasian quest for rational justification or, failing that, a descent into a Nietzschean destructive genealogy of morals, Joas recommends “affirmative genealogy.” On the one hand, he considers “a purely rational justification for ultimate values” unpersuasive. It is impossible, and it is implausible. Impossible because, as so many critics have argued, there can be no ultimate ground for the rational justification of ultimate values. What could this ultimate ground be? Implausible, first, because it has no place for history. A purely rational justification leaves us puzzled as to why, as Joas writes, “the timelessly valid” that it purports to reveal “has so rarely been recognized as such in the history of humankind.” The best it can say for the past is that it might present “the steps on the way to the real discovery.” It is also phenomenologically implausible, for we do not arrive at our deepest value commitments by way of rational justification, though it might follow.

Instead, Joas argues, it is positive and negative experiences, those that strike us as salutary and those that seem execrable, that spur the generation of values. And when that happens, it rarely feels as though we have just come up with a great idea. Our values possess us as much as we possess them. Indeed, some of them seem self-evident to us, even if it can be hard to say why.

On the other hand, Joas strenuously rejects the common alternatives to rational foundationalism about morals: the relativism of Nietzsche or Rorty. Drawing deftly on the nineteenth-century Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, he agrees that we neither just discover nor simply construct our deep commitments. Instead, he writes, “the aim here is to do without criteria that are assumed to be nonhistorical, as their use only reveals the historical self-forgetfulness of the subject proclaiming them…. It is not, therefore, criteria that we must forgo, but the claim that these criteria have not been obtained from history.” In light of particular experiences, in particular contexts, interpreted and reinterpreted from within particular traditions, we draw on what we have, what we are, what moves us to delight or dismay, to accept values and beliefs that we once would have rejected, or might not have conceived in these ways, might come again to reconceive, and might even abandon. This happens through experience-spurred reflections, narrations, interpretations, reinterpretations, rejections, and revitalizations of our intellectual and moral inheritances, in ways often unknown to those who bequeathed them and that are likely to be re-fashioned and perhaps also rejected by our heirs.

Yet it is not all solipsistic play. Values are learned from others and can be passed on to others by an interweaving of “narration and argument,” neither simply one nor the other, and by their “generalization” to encompass levels acceptable to others who inhabit other traditions and experiences but who might (and, then again, might not) find common ground. As Joas says in a sharp (but typically soft-spoken) critique of fellow pragmatist Richard Rorty,

“It is incorrect to state that when we answer the question of why we feel committed to particular values or a particular worldview, we draw on the pure contingency of our socialization. In fact we perceive these values and worldviews as appropriate articulations of the experiences that we or others have been through; we embrace new ones not through a decision but because we have encountered an articulation experienced as even more appropriate.”

How that has happened with human rights, how one might extend acceptance of them among other people and other cultures, without pretending they came from nowhere or will be valued in the same ways for our reasons, and forever, are among the many subjects that this splendid work, modest in size and tone but not in substance, illuminates brightly, at times dazzlingly.

Martin Krygier is Gordon Samuels Professor of Law and Social Theory at the University of New South Wales School of Law, and adjunct professor at the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet), Australian National University. His most recent book is Philip Selznick: Ideals in the World.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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