Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Human Dignity

21 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 16 Aug 2011

Date Written: 2011


This paper begins with two recent, contrasting historical accounts of when human rights were invented. In Inventing Human Rights (2007), Lynn Hunt tells the story of how the psychological foundations for human rights were laid with the rise of the humanitarian sentiment prior to the revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century. In The Last Utopia (2010), on the other hand, Samuel Moyn goes against the grain of most recent scholarship by focusing on a crisis of political utopianism in the 1970s as the locus for the roots of the contemporary resonance of human rights. Both historians draw our attention, though in different ways, to the relationship between human rights and humanitarianism.

In addressing this relation, I argue for the need to distinguish the logic of humanitarianism (viewing others as objects of suffering) from that of human rights (viewing others as subjects of rights). Drawing on recent work by discourse theorists such as J├╝rgen Habermas and Rainer Forst, I distinguish between passive and active components of human dignity, relating the former to the politics of humanitarianism and the latter to the politics of human rights. I further distinguish between two perspectives on the politics of human rights: internal and external. Relying on these two sets of distinctions, I defend the following claims. A theory of human rights needs to be able to account for both perspectives, internal and external. When it comes to the relation between humanitarianism and human rights, invoking humanitarian motifs within the politics of human rights runs the risk of wrongly viewing violations of human dignity in overly passive terms. Yet as a historical matter, humanitarian motifs may have been essential in getting the contemporary politics of human rights off the ground. Rather than proposing that we try to purify human rights practice of humanitarian motifs, I maintain that we must keep in mind the potential underside of the latter. The ultimate aim of human rights in practice must be to go beyond viewing others as merely objects of concern to viewing them as subjects of rights.

Suggested Citation

Flynn, Jeffrey, Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Human Dignity (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Jeffrey Flynn (Contact Author)

Fordham University ( email )

United States

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