The Mote in Thy Brother’s Eye: A Review of Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

17 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2011

Date Written: 2002


Michael Ignatieffs provocatively titled collection of essays, Human Rights As Politics and Idolatry [hereinafter Human Rights], is a careful examination of the theoretical underpinnings and contradictions in the area of human rights. At bottom, both of his primary essays, Human Rights As Politics and Human Rights As Idolatry, make a claim that is perhaps contrary to the instincts of human rights thinkers and activists: namely, that international human rights can best be philosophically justified and effectively applied to the extent that they strive for minimal ism. Human rights activists generally argue for the opposite conclusion: that international human rights be construed as broadly as possible, both in terms of the substantive rights protected and to whom those rights should apply. Ignatieff argues that a minimalist conception of human rights is necessary for human rights to have maximum moral force and acceptance, and he adduces persuasive geopolitical evidence in support of his conclusions. Taken together, these essays advance a minimalist conception of human rights limited to those rights necessary to protect human "agency"; that is, those rights strictly necessary to protect a person's ability to make choices with dignity. In doing so, Ignatieff seeks to defend human rights from criticisms of Western cultural imperialism and lack of moral grounding, while demonstrating that human rights activists need not retreat into cultural relativism to make such a defense. Readers should understand that Ignatieff, despite taking human rights activists to task for certain inconsistencies, is attempting to support human rights by providing a consistent and principled theoretical basis for them. In short, Ignatieffs critique is best seen as a good-faith challenge intended to strengthen the international human rights movement, even if the reader does not agree with his ultimate conclusions.

Keywords: Human rights, international law, Michael Ignatieff, cultural relativism, universalism, domestic enforcement, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, Alien Tort Claims Act, cultural imperialism, Supremacy Clause, The Paquete Habana, U.S. v. Alvarez-Machain, Alexander v. Sandoval

JEL Classification: K00, K19, K39

Suggested Citation

Carter, Jr., William M., The Mote in Thy Brother’s Eye: A Review of Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2002). Berkeley Journal of International Law (BJIL), Vol. 20, p. 496, 2002, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper , Available at SSRN:

William M. Carter, Jr. (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412-648-1420 (Phone)

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