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Vulnerability and Human Rights

Bryan S. Turner


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Essays on Human Rights

Vulnerability and Human Rights

Bryan S. Turner

Bryan Turner’s Vulnerability and Human Rights is a concise but wide-ranging discussion of cutting-edge themes in sociology, seen through the prism and oriented toward the realization of the human rights paradigm. Avoiding foundationalist fallacies, it seeks to establish a grounding for the idea of human rights in our unavoidable vulnerability. The book will make a major contribution to the growing contemporary discussion in the field.


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The mass violence of the twentieth century’s two world wars—followed more recently by decentralized and privatized warfare, manifested in terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and other localized forms of killing—has led to a heightened awareness of human beings’ vulnerability and the precarious nature of the institutions they create to protect themselves from violence and exploitation. This vulnerability, something humans share amid the diversity of cultural beliefs and values that mark their differences, provides solid ground on which to construct a framework of human rights.

Bryan Turner undertakes this task here, developing a sociology of rights from a sociology of the human body. His blending of empirical research with normative analysis constitutes an important step forward for the discipline of sociology. Like anthropology, sociology has traditionally eschewed the study of justice as beyond the limits of a discipline that pays homage to cultural relativism and the “value neutrality” of positivistic science. Turner’s expanded approach accordingly involves a truly interdisciplinary dialogue with the literature of economics, law, medicine, philosophy, political science, and religion.

Bryan Turner’s Vulnerability and Human Rights is a concise but wide-ranging discussion of cutting-edge themes in sociology, seen through the prism and oriented toward the realization of the human rights paradigm. Avoiding foundationalist fallacies, it seeks to establish a grounding for the idea of human rights in our unavoidable vulnerability. The book will make a major contribution to the growing contemporary discussion in the field.
“Professor Turner’s work stands as a genuine contribution to an area of human rights analysis much written about but little felt as a problem for individuals—in microscopic no less than macroscopic dimensions. He examines how the process of life-taking is the perverse reverse of life-giving. It thus merits thoughtful reading and analysis by those for whom such weighty matters still form part of the sociological vocabulary.”
“This short and often sparkling book brings together many of the intellectual themes with which the followers of Bryan Turner will already be familiar. The book skilfully links questions related to human rights and citizenship and the sociology of the body and religion.”

Bryan S. Turner is Director of the Committee for the Study of Religion and Presidential Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, as well as Director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies and Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Western Sydney. Among his many publications are the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, and Sage Handbook of Sociology.



1. Crimes Against Humanity

2. Vulnerability and Suffering

3. Cultural Rights and Critical Recognition Theory

4. Reproductive and Sexual Rights

5. Rights of Impairment and Disability

6. Rights of the Body

7. Old and New Xenophobia



Chapter 1:

Crimes Against Humanity

Introduction: Sociology and Human Rights

In this study of rights, the concepts of human vulnerability and institutional precariousness are employed both to grasp the importance of human rights and to defend their universalism. Vulnerability defines our humanity and is presented here as the common basis of human rights. The idea of our vulnerable human nature is closely associated with certain fundamental rights, such as the right to life. Indeed, the rights that support life, health, and reproduction are crucial to human rights as such. It is, however, difficult to enforce human rights, and hence we must explore the complex relationship between the state, the social rights of citizens, and the human rights of persons. Social institutions necessary for our survival are themselves fragile and precarious, and there is a complex interaction between our human frailty, institution building, and political or state power. (Any analysis of human rights raises questions central to the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: the sovereignty of the state, the social contract, and the universal rights of human beings.) Finally, because vulnerability has a close relationship to notions of suffering, on the one hand, and classical philosophical notions of virtue on the other, any study of rights needs to examine their relationship to morality and religion—that is, to the conditions that make human society possible. The sociology of human rights finds its intellectual place within this wider context.

In more detail, this extended essay is a sociological study of rights as they are inscribed in national forms of citizenship and human rights as they are manifested globally in legal declarations, conventions, and institutions. The tensions and contradictions between states, citizens, and human rights constitute much of the content of contemporary international dispute and conflict, and yet theories of human rights have often failed to consider the relationship between citizenship and human rights. Hans Joas in War and Modernity (2003, 23) has gone so far as to claim (correctly, in my view) that “the central conflict of values in this sphere today is the conflict between national sovereignty and the universalistic claims of human rights.” Political commentaries on the relationships among human rights, citizenship, and state sovereignty are often both confused and contradictory. For example, the National Assembly of France declared in 1789 that “the natural and imprescriptible rights of man” were “liberty, property, security and resistance of oppression,” but it went on to assert that “the nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty” and that no “individual or body of men” could be entitled to “any authority which is not expressly derived from it.” While human rights are said to be innate and inalienable, social rights are created by states. These two contrasted ideas—the imprescriptible rights of human beings and the exclusive rights of citizens of sovereign nation-states—remain an important dilemma in any justification of rights. I argue that the protection offered by nation-states and national citizenship is declining, and yet the state and citizenship remain important for the enforcement of both social and human rights.

Consequently, this study of rights aims, among other things, to understand the differences between the social rights of citizens and individual human rights. Briefly, social rights are entitlements enjoyed by citizens and are enforced by courts within the national framework of a sovereign state. These social rights, which are typically related to corresponding duties, are what I shall call “contributory rights,” because effective claims are associated with contributions that citizens have made to society through work, war (or a similar public duty), or parenting (Turner 2001b). A system of universal taxation and contributions to social services through income tax are obvious indications of social citizenship. As we will see in the course of this discussion, there are many problems with this definition, but it will suffice at this stage as a minimal account. By contrast, human rights are rights enjoyed by individuals by virtue of being human—and as a consequence of their shared vulnerability. Human rights are not necessarily connected to duties and they are not contributory. There is, for example, no corresponding system of taxation relating to the possession of human rights. There is as yet no formal declaration of human duties, although there has been much discussion of such obligations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) encouraged an initiative for a charter of the duties and responsibilities of states, but these initiatives have not yet had much practical consequence. Similarly, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies obligations, but they are not clearly or forcefully specified. While states enforce social rights, no sovereign power exists to enforce human rights uniformly at a global level. Human rights are universal, but it is often said that they are not “justiciable” and have no “correlativity” with duties.

Hannah Arendt presented an especially sharp criticism of “the Rights of Man” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she observed that these inalienable rights were supposed to exist independently of any government, but once the rights of citizenship (with the support of a government) had been removed, there was no authority left to protect individuals as human beings. Human rights without the support of a sovereign state, she argued, are merely abstract claims that cannot be enforced. It appears to be impossible to define what they are or to show how they add much to the specific rights of citizens of national states. The right to rights only makes sense for people who are already members of a political community. Arendt concluded, bitterly and ironically, that these arguments were compatible with the views of conservatives like Edmund Burke, who had argued that an Englishman’s rights were more secure and definite than the abstract rights of man.

Arendt’s conclusions may be unduly pessimistic, and we probably have a better understanding of human rights half a century after she developed her criticisms. Nevertheless, in the United States, the notion of “civil rights” (for example, the creation of a universal franchise) is often used as if it were synonymous with “human rights,” thus confusing the relationship between the rights of citizens and the rights of human beings. Alex de Waal (2003), for example, details how Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of political freedom and involvement in the civil rights movement had a direct impact on President Kwame Nkrumah at the time of Ghana’s independence in 1957. In this historical account, American civil rights are treated as human rights in a global, or at least international, framework. Notably, de Waal’s elision implies either that the U.S. Constitution is in some sense a global legal framework or that globalization has made the distinction between human and social rights increasingly vague. This study of rights explores this ambiguity between the claims of citizens and the “rights of man.” Understanding the relationship between citizenship and human rights is key to understanding the precariousness of political and legal institutions, such as the rule of law, in many conflict-ridden societies.

This intellectually fruitful tension between citizenship and human rights raises the question of how the enforcement of rights by sovereign nation-states relates to that by global institutions, institutions that attain legitimacy by virtue of international agreements and thus form an aspect of global governance. Although many theorists of human rights who are committed to globalization’s potential benefits appear to welcome the erosion of national sovereignty, any historical overview of human rights in international and national politics brings us to the conclusion that effective human rights regimes actually require state stability and the institutionalization of national citizenship.

Human rights abuse is characteristically a product of state tyranny, dictatorship, and state failure as illustrated by civil war and anarchy. Again, a viable state acts as an important guarantor of rights. There is a valid argument, therefore, that the liberties of citizens and their social rights are better protected by their own national institutions than by external legal or political intervention. The often chaotic outcome of human rights interventions in East Timor and Kosovo might force us to the conclusion that any government that can provide its citizens with security, even with weak democracy, is preferable to a bad and ineffective government. (The ongoing internal security crises in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq might also be added to the list of failed, or at least problematic, interventions.) From a Hobbesian perspective, a strong state is required to enforce agreements between conflicting social groups. Another way of expressing this idea is to argue that we need to maintain a distinction between the social rights of citizens and the human rights of persons. The former are enforced by states; the latter are protected, but frequently inadequately enforced, by both nation-states and international institutions.

My primary intention, however, is to make a contribution to the development of the study of rights from the perspective of the sociology of the human body (Turner 1984). The analysis of rights has been predominantly the province of lawyers, philosophers, and political scientists. The contributions of anthropology and sociology to the study of rights have been, if anything, negative intellectual contributions. Anthropology and sociology have, over a long period, emphasized the cultural relativism of the notion of “the human.” Because they have characteristically argued that “human rights” are Western and individualistic, they have been critical of any idea of universal rights.

One important distinction between sociology and politics is that political philosophy has primarily concerned itself with the question of justice, and hence the analysis of rights arises necessarily from an examination of the justice and legitimacy of political regimes. By contrast, sociology often portrays itself as “value neutral,” and it does not raise normative questions about justice. Sociology approaches these normative issues indirectly—for example, from the study of inequality. The paradoxical consequence of this concentration on empirical studies of income inequality is that sociology typically does not study equality directly. Equality is merely the absence of inequality, and not an independent phenomenon, as it were. Normative debates about equality and justice get buried under empirical and descriptive analysis of inequality and injustice. Because anthropologists and sociologists have typically been either positivists or relativists, they have not developed an analysis of justice and rights, and therefore they have failed to engage with the most significant institutional revolution of the twentieth century—the growth of universal human rights.

While many rights activists find the philosophical problems relating to relativism irrelevant, the issue of cultural relativism carries major practical implications and consequences. If there is a right to intervene in the internal politics of other societies, then there is a problem relating to the legitimacy of human rights interventions. The right to intervene to prevent or to remove human rights abuses cannot be justified without some legitimate notion of universalism. The point of this essay is to challenge this legacy of positivism and relativism and to promote a sociological approach that starts with the idea of embodiment and human vulnerability. Human rights can be defined as universal principles, because human beings share a common ontology that is grounded in a shared vulnerability. Sociology is also well positioned to study the failure of institutions that exist to protect human vulnerability. In developing this perspective, the aim is to construct a normative sociology.

In the academic literature on rights, there has been a movement to reject the debate about universalism and cultural relativism as out of date and unnecessary. Obviously, the notion of natural rights as a universal framework has been under attack for decades. The rise of positivist law theories criticized the theological assumptions of the traditional notion of natural rights, and the distinction between nature and convention has been recognized in law since classical times. In the sociology of law, Max Weber was an important figure in establishing a positive notion of law as state command in sociology, and he was clearly hostile to any idea of universal law (Hunt 1978). Notions of universalism in the contemporary discussion of human rights are often attacked by activists as irrelevant and by social anthropologists as unfounded.

Michael Ignatieff has made an important contribution to the debate about relativism and universalism in Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001). He aims to promote a minimalist liberal theory of human rights (via the notions of dignity and agency) that avoids any prolonged digression into metaphysical justifications of “human nature” as a basis for the universality of rights. More specifically, he wants to defend the political character of rights and to criticize any treatment of them in quasi-religious terms, that is, as idolatry. Human rights force us to adopt political positions because we are compelled to take sides in political conflicts, but adopting political positions does not mean that we have to convert the “advocacy revolution” into a modern idolatry. A minimalist liberal theory simply asserts the importance of human agency and dignity rather than offering what we might call a “thick” theory of common humanity. Such minimalist theories have been clearly influenced by Isaiah Berlin (1969), whose liberal philosophy defended the notion of “negative freedom” (that is, freedom from arbitrary constraint rather than freedom to develop one’s personality through education). Berlin also rejected sociology because it appeared to promote social determinism over individual agency. These negative freedoms were inscribed in the foundational rights of the Declaration, and Berlin’s version of liberalism became part of the West’s ideological framework during the Cold War against communism. Communism, insofar as it adopted Marxism, also accepted social determinism over individual freedom of will as part of the scientific theory of historical materialism (Berlin 1978, 103).

In the second part of his argument, Ignatieff attacks cultural relativism, criticizing Western intellectuals and governments for their failure to condemn local or indigenous practices and customs that are undeniably cruel. He criticizes human rights activists for adopting cultural relativism, often implicitly, as the soft moral option. “Relativism,” he avers, “is the invariable alibi of tyranny. There is no reason to apologize for the moral individualism at the heart of human rights discourse: it is precisely this that makes it attractive to dependent groups suffering exploitation or oppression” (Ignatieff 2001, 74–75). He does not, in fact, offer a direct intellectual argument against cultural relativism, but he makes a series of plausible assertions to defend his position. These are various.

First, it is important for activists to join forces with critical movements against, for example, patriarchal, theocratic, and authoritarian interpretations of Islamic belief and practice. Second, it is false to create a simple opposition between Western (individualistic) and Asian (collectivist) beliefs or traditions. Human rights culture has become local and is embedded in the activities of local nongovernmental organizations. International agencies demand adherence to human rights, but similar pressure also comes from local groups resisting oppression or exploitation. For instance, the women of Kabul who approach human rights agencies to defend their rights do not want to cease being Muslim wives and daughters. They are not interested in universalism, but merely want their basic rights to be (locally) respected. Women in Pakistan who work through local communities to protest “honor killings” are likewise not necessarily exercised by the philosophical question of relativism. Third, the universality of human rights does not imply universality of assent, because the existence of massive social and political inequality would make such agreements meaningless. In this sense, human rights doctrine is “a revolutionary creed, since it makes a radical demand of all human groups, that they serve the interests of the individuals who compose them” (Ignatieff 2001, 68). This assumption has the additional implication that, while human groups require some level of social consensus, the right of exit is fundamental to individual security. Rights of membership are important, but the right to leave a group may be more significant. Human rights in a global world are, increasingly, rights of social and geographical mobility. This was one crucial lesson of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

These are what we might call pragmatic arguments against relativism, but Ignatieff concludes his essay on idolatry with a much more substantial set of claims that essentially constitute a statement concerning human nature. Despite his liberal minimalism, Ignatieff comes close to offering an ontological argument in support of universalism. He recognizes the existence of certain “facts” about human beings: they feel pain, they have the capacity to recognize pain in others, and they are free to do good and avoid evil. They can and should be held accountable for their actions. These empirical facts are sufficient to lead us to the conclusion that human beings should be protected from cruelty. This conception of human capacities (moral empathy, conscience, and agency) is based on Berlin’s liberal emphasis on rights and individual responsibilities, and they describe in minimal terms what is required for an individual to be a moral agent of any kind. Because agency and dignity are the foundation of human rights as such, these individual rights are prior to social and economic rights. Ignatieff concludes his second essay (2001, 95) with the general claim that “what is pain and humiliation for you is bound to be pain and humiliation for me.” We should not stress the differences among human beings from the position of cultural relativism, but emphasize the common ground that unites individuals in an existential context of shared experiences of pain and humiliation. This capacity for suffering creates a significant basis for universalism.

While avoiding any systematic engagement with ontological arguments about human nature as a defense against cultural relativism, Ignatieff implicitly lays the foundations for a “thick” theory of rights in his observations about pain and humiliation. In this study I want to elaborate his argument in order to develop a robust defense of universalism from the perspective of a social ontology of human embodiment. There is a foundation to human rights—namely, our common vulnerability. Human beings experience pain and humiliation because they are vulnerable. While humans may not share a common culture, they are bound together by the risks and perturbations that arise from their vulnerability. Because we have a common ontological condition as vulnerable, intelligent beings, human happiness is diverse, but misery is common and uniform. This need for ontological security provides a strong moral argument against cultural relativism and offers an endorsement of rights claims for protection from suffering and indignity. While liberal theory is largely about the political dimension of human rights, ontological insecurity indicates a cluster of salient social and economic rights (to reproduce, to family life, to health care, to a clean environment and protection from pollution, and to protection from medical and technological exploitation) that are fundamentally connected with human embodiment. Torture, from this perspective, is the most fundamental denial of human rights.

<1> A Sociology of Rights

Why do we need a sociology of human rights? In the next chapter, I shall more fully develop this general approach to human rights through the twin concepts of vulnerability and precariousness, but at first sight, this argument might appear to be more psychological or individualistic than sociological. Yet such a depiction would be a misunderstanding of human vulnerability, and in particular, a misunderstanding of the claim that our vulnerability forces us into social dependency and social connectedness. We need social support and legal protection precisely because we cannot successfully respond to our vulnerability by individual acts undertaken in isolation. We need collective arrangements, including human rights protection.

The sociology of human rights is specifically concerned with the special importance of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Woodiwiss 1998; 2003; 2005), namely, those rights that are directly connected with human need and the protection of human life. One possible criticism of sociology from a liberal philosophical perspective would be, therefore, that sociology neglects those individual rights that constitute our civil liberties. By emphasizing the importance of the human body and the concept of basic needs, it could be argued by way of criticism that it is not possible from these assumptions to derive those democratic rights that are associated with the conditions of political participation, such as that expressed in Article 20 (everyone has a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association). This criticism is clearly potent, but it neglects the important connection between sickness and inequality—or more positively, the relationship between health and equality of income distribution. There is a well-established argument in the political economy of health that social and political participation in society is closely associated with health outcomes. One can therefore establish a connection between the enjoyment of democratic rights and the enjoyment of good health and demonstrate that these relationships are an important aspect of the theory of social capital (Turner 2004). Although the idea of vulnerability has a clear connection to the basic idea of a right to life, it can also provide an ontological foundation for rights relating to freedom, because there is an intimate connection between the right to life and the existence of the good society. This relationship is expressed in Article 3, which asserts that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Critics of sociology may remain skeptical about this argument, because they see a real clash between the idea of personal liberty (as the foundation of the enjoyment of rights as such) and the idea of social causation or determinism. Liberals such as Berlin and Ignatieff have both expressed the traditional criticism of sociology—that the deterministic picture of human beings rules out agency and hence rules out responsibility. Recognizing this connection between the scientific explanation of action by social causes and the need to defend human freedom and responsibility also informed Hannah Arendt’s critique of sociology and the relationship between the social and the political. If human actions are determined, individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions and cannot be punished in a criminal process for their past actions. The most thoroughgoing expression of this argument was developed by Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History (1950), which explored the inability of Max Weber’s sociological tradition to consider the role of justice in causal explanations. Weber was, in fact, aware of this problem and presented the standard sociological response to the free will argument in The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1949). The free will argument often assumes that human decisions and actions have to be random or without any causal antecedents if they are to be free. In this version of liberalism, free will literally means making choices without any preconditions. As a result, freedom appears to be arbitrary and irrational, because human freedom requires that it be unpredictable.

Weber (1949, 124–25) argued that we must distinguish between mere behavior and action, between behavior driven by instinct and goal-directed activities that involve our rational decision making. Our sense of subjective freedom is always greater in the case of actions that involve conscious decisions. Weber followed Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in claiming that freedom was not simply spontaneous action but involved following moral rules, where we make choices between alternative courses of action. For example, Weber recognized that the German political elite was constrained by a variety of historical factors—the absence of an advanced middle class, the legacy of the aristocratic landowners (the Junkers), and the weak development of civil society—but complained bitterly that they consistently failed to take political responsibility for effective leadership, especially in the immediate aftermath of the First World War (Mommsen 1984). As a result, Germany was decisively outflanked by the parliamentary leadership of Britain and the United States. Awareness of the causal importance of social factors is never an excuse for indecision or lack of (political) responsibility.

In defense of causal arguments, a sociologist might claim that human beings always make decisions and take action in the context of a range of predetermining conditions, including individuals’ socialization, social class position, and generation. Sociology examines how social structures create decision-making contexts within which people are either able to exercise agency or denied agency by circumstances outside their control or even knowledge. Sociologists do not have to characterize human beings as mechanical robots in order to defend the idea of causal determinacy, and they may also want to take a historical view of the nature of freedom. In fact, Berlin’s opposition to sociology appears to have been shaped specifically by his antagonism toward the role of historical determinism in Marxist social science in communist Russia, but Karl Marx himself had a much more complex view of the relationship between “structure” and “agency,” claiming famously that men make history but not under circumstances of their own choosing.

The problem of causal explanation in the social sciences is clearly more complex than I have expressed it here, but suffice it to say that acknowledging the causal importance of social structure does not rule out human responsibility, on the grounds that people can, in most circumstances, choose otherwise. This argument appears to have been the fundamental basis of Arendt’s criticisms of Nazi officers and officials in Responsibility and Judgment (2003). These men could also have done otherwise.

There are arguments against sociology that are more profound than the liberal criticism of notions of causality. One argument against sociology is that, as a secular science, it has difficulty in contemplating the possible presence of evil in human societies, and yet monstrous forms of evil (in genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war rape) appear to be the very basis of human rights legislation. Here again Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism and the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) raise difficult questions, not just for sociology but for any social science that claims to offer causal explanations of human depravity. Atrocity appears to challenge conventional arguments in support of value neutrality. One example is the unresolved problem of finding adequate explanations for the rape of Nanking in December 1937 by Japanese forces without recourse to ethical (indeed theological) assumptions about human nature as an aspect of any adequate causal narrative. Cultural relativism, in whatever shape, appears to be exceptionally underdeveloped as a plausible approach to such questions.

If we take a longer historical view of the origins of rights as such, then the European Enlightenment has been a major factor in the acceptance of universal principles of rights, and it has also played a major part in the development of sociology. In rejecting cultural relativism, we can offer a defense of both the Enlightenment project and sociology against postmodernism, deconstruction, and various forms of pragmatism. In this respect, this sociological defense of human rights within a universal perspective is consistent with Jürgen Habermas’s more general defense of Enlightenment modernity (1987). There is, of course, one major difference: I attempt to establish the idea of a human community based not on communicative rationality, but on our physical and moral vulnerability, and on the attendant risks to which such vulnerability leaves us prey.

<1> From Old to New Wars

Warfare played a major role in social change in the twentieth century, including the social change that gave rise to an entitlements revolution. The great expansion of human rights legislation and culture over the last century has been a consequence of the mechanization of warfare, the growing number of civilian casualties in both civil and international wars, and the potential horrors of biological and chemical warfare. Historical accounts of the growth of human rights typically concentrate on the evolution of rights as such, but in this introduction I want also to consider the rise of the notion of “humanity” as itself a result of the globalization of the technical means of violence. We need to understand the growth of human rights against this broader historical context. In Crimes Against Humanity, Geoffrey Robertson (2002) traces the historical origins of human rights back to the Second Lateran Council’s decision in 1139 to prohibit the use of the crossbow in wars between Christians. This historical interpretation is interesting in drawing attention to a mechanical instrument of warfare (the crossbow) and its use within a community (of Christians).

Any date for the historical origins of these rights will always be somewhat arbitrary, but the impact of military technology on civilian or unarmed populations in modern warfare can be deemed particularly relevant to understanding their growth. Martin Shaw (2003) in War and Genocide has examined the consequences of “organized killing” in modern society. His historical narrative opens with the Armenian genocide in 1915 and concludes with the Rwandan genocide in 1994. I want to push this discussion further back to the violent encounter between colonial settlement and aboriginal people. These colonial conflicts were features of the land rush that formed the modern world between 1650 and 1900. We might consider, for instance, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when between 150 and 300 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux people were killed by members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. This massacre, which involved the use of four Hotchkiss cannons that were capable of firing fifty two-pound explosive shells per minute, has all the hallmarks of what came subsequently to characterize twentieth-century violence: the mechanization of organized killing; revenge (for the Battle of the Little Bighorn); ethnic cleansing, whereby the Lakota were characterized in the Nebraska State Journal as murderous redskins; and the indiscriminate killing of women and children. The Lakota people’s attempt to secure an apology from the U.S. government remains unsuccessful; the Congress drafted a formal apology only in 1990. In somewhat similar circumstances, in September 1898, British troops at Omdurman used Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles to kill some 10,000 Sudanese “dervishes” who were followers of the Mahdi on the banks of the Nile. (Approximately 48 British soldiers were lost.) For good measure, General Kitchener carried off the Mahdi’s head in a kerosene can. Omdurman was to some extent a revenge for the massacre of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885 by the Mahdi’s forces. These colonial conflicts indicated the consequences of mechanization in modern warfare that were to be a feature of the twentieth century.

Colonialism is often considered to be an aspect of a civilizing mission to bring an Enlightenment culture to primitive cultures, and yet colonialism and slavery involved extraordinary brutality. Were men in tribal societies more or less violent? Violent combat in premodern societies and the use of torture have often been regarded as evidence of a lack of moral restraint. Historians and sociologists have often suggested that the “primitive warrior” enjoyed the violence that he inflicted on the enemy. Extreme violence toward other human beings can be taken to indicate that outsiders were not regarded as human. Anthropological research suggests that preliterate societies did not have an expansive or comprehensive notion of humanity, but on the contrary, regarded themselves in exclusionary terms as “the People.” Rituals that created a decisive sense of otherness often enclosed traditional communities. This ritualistic notion of an exclusive inside and outside world that separated “the People” from outsiders was often inscribed upon the body: tattoos and body piercing demarcated an ontologically separate community. Important notions of taboo and pollution describe the boundaries that separate human communities. Ritual cannibalism and head hunting, for instance, may be regarded as practices that decisively set the boundaries of the inside and the outside world. What and whom we are entitled through ritualized practices to enslave, to hunt, or to eat are powerful indicators of the border between the human and the nonhuman. This notion of the closed boundary of traditional or preliterate societies raises a question about civilizing processes. Norbert Elias has argued that modern societies require greater self-regulation and that aggression in modern warfare is increasingly impersonal. The transformation of the emotions is a significant feature of this history. In his discussion of “changes in aggressiveness,” Elias (2000, 161–62) provides an important account of how violent passions in the early feudal period were slowly regulated as civilized forms of court society evolved.

Elias has undoubtedly produced one of the most influential theories of the transformation of violence in human societies in terms of the civilizing process. His argument is well known. It states that with the transformation of feudal society, the rise of bourgeois society, and the development of the modern state, interpersonal violence was increasingly regulated by social norms that emphasized self-restraint and personal discipline. The meaning of “civilization” in Elias’s theory refers to the cultivation of individual moral restraint and the containment of aggression and passionate emotions in social interaction. The theory can be regarded as a moral pedagogy of the body in which raw passions and emotions are self-regulated through disciplinary regimes. The theory shows how developments in social institutions (such as the court, the state, and the bourgeois family) are important for and interact with the emotions and dispositions of individuals. Good manners and civilizing institutions are bound together in a dynamic historical process. In contemporary societies, social restraint and social order require the development of self-attention in which, through self-reflection (primarily through imagining what others think of us), we exercise self-surveillance and control (Barbalet 1998). In this sense, we can regard the theory as a historical psychoanalytic account of violent emotions within the sociological paradigm of the modern state. “Primitive man” in premodern societies was a more aggressive and emotional social being, but his rudimentary technology also meant that killing was a more inefficient and limited activity.

In modern societies, technology has greatly increased the capacity for killing; we can kill on a scale that earlier societies could not imagine. Modern men are also more likely to have grown up in societies where extreme violence toward outsiders is not a normal aspect of social training and development. The professional training of soldiers in a modern army means that they are socialized to kill without emotion, and in any case, hand-to-hand combat has become somewhat unusual in modern conflict, at least for professional soldiers. The preferred form of killing in modern warfare is now through aerial bombing, which minimizes casualties to armed forces while maximizing damage to an enemy. Bombing can typically take place without actually seeing the enemy. This technology obviously creates an emotional division between dropping “smart bombs” on an unknown enemy and the sense of personal, emotional combat (as described, for example, in the Icelandic sagas).

Elias’s theory claims that, in terms of psychology, modern soldiers are not trained to be enthusiastic and passionate killers, but the evidence is very mixed. Brutality toward civilian populations in the fall of Berlin to Russian forces, genocide toward Armenians, the killing fields of Cambodia, the slaughter of women and children in Rwanda, and the eradication of villages in Darfur suggest that the “civilizing process” may be a fragile constraint over human behavior. Elias’s theory attempts to say that modern man kills with less emotion. An alternative view is that modern societies, as opposed to modern people, are more violent than premodern societies. Technological change has made killing more efficient in modern societies, and wars are won by destroying civilian populations. This growing technological capacity has meant that the growth of the idea of “humanity” is a measure of actual inhumanity. In addition, it is possible to argue that there has been a “re-personalization” of killing in modern warfare. Mass warfare and universal conscription have largely disappeared, and the powerful commercial states—the United States, China, Japan, and the European powers—are increasingly integrated economically and diplomatically. At the same time, there has been an increase in local conflicts between rebel forces and states, which often involve ethnic cleansing and genocide. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and central Africa frequently involve neighborhood killing, robbery, organized rape, and slavery, and they are characterized by extreme violence against the bodies of women and children. The aim often appears to be to induce as much fear and intimidation in civilian populations as possible. The methods involve camp rape, looting, pillaging, and hacking off limbs. Indeed, “violation of the body, with maximum pain, has become a common method of slaughter” (Shaw 2003, 138). It is possible to argue, following Elias, that the Nazi concentration camps involved an impersonal system of mass killing (Bauman 1989). Yet the theory of an evolutionary “civilizing process” is inadequate as a perspective on the personalized violence of combat in contemporary conflict zones. The growth of human rights institutions is a global response both to the mass killings of the Second World War and to the more localized, brutalized, personal killing of contemporary wars.

Technological developments in the twentieth century enhanced the capacity of states and their militaries to inflict systematic violence on civilian populations. Hiroshima and the Holocaust were both instances of the violent application of modern technology against civilians. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, there were important transformations of warfare. Herfried Münkler (2005) has identified three principal characteristics of new wars. First, while old wars were typically between states, new wars take place outside the parameters of the state, and this privatization of warfare is made possible by the reduced costs of armaments. For example, the Kalashnikov rifle is a relatively inexpensive but very effective weapon that has become a basic element in “small wars.” The use of these cheap, portable weapons does not require a lengthy period of training and is not associated with traditional drill and discipline. Second, there is typically a significant asymmetry between the competing forces. Unlike the First World War, in which large armies engaged with each other on a battlefront over many years, in new wars, small armed forces (guerrillas or terrorists) create localized havoc, usually against civilians. Finally, Münkler perceives an “autonomization” of forms of violence that were once subordinated to and incorporated into a military system. One indication of this trend is that the divisions between criminal organization, insurgency, and warfare no longer exist. Just as terrorism is a privatization of the military, so the security forces that protect politicians and corporate leaders are themselves private, profitable agencies.

Three consequences of this privatization of warfare are especially relevant to human rights research and theory. The first is that modern warfare is characterized, in Münkler’s terms, by short wars between states and long wars within societies. Second, there is a very close association between new wars and epidemics and starvation. Third, violence against women is escalating. In the Balkan wars up to fifty thousand women were raped, but in the Rwandan genocide, the figure was over a quarter of a million. Rape in new wars is designed to destroy communities by excluding young women from marriage and reproduction when their honor and self-esteem have been symbolically and physically destroyed. These three consequences all point to one conclusion: new wars make everyday life precarious, and human life becomes more vulnerable with social changes driven by a new economy of warfare based on the sex trade, drug control, and contraband. Child soldiers, cheap armaments, and the global drug trade have become key features of new wars in which military honor and discipline or rules of engagement play no part. While the new wars serve to underscore the argument that human vulnerability is the linking thread in human rights developments in the twentieth century, these new wars are obviously not subject to or regulated by human rights conventions. Wars between states are, in principle, subject to juridical interventions, but the possibility of controlling marauding warriors in Darfur or child soldiers in Myanmar is remote.

The study of war is thus an important, if depressing, sociological contribution to the analysis of human rights, but this descriptive account of the historical evolution of private wars in the modern period does not excuse sociologists from their failure to engage in or contribute to normative debates about human rights and the importance of the legal regulation of violence. The emphasis on technological and economic changes in warfare does not mean that cultural and social factors have played no part. Indeed, the value of Münkler’s approach is that he recognizes the fact that the privatization of warfare also means that the traditional values of military discipline and respect for the conventions of war have collapsed. He perceives an important social relationship between the culture of new wars and the glamour with which Hollywood surrounds male violence in a postmodern culture. There is a sad irony in which the West, while condemning the mindless violence of terrorism, produces feature films that celebrate extreme violence as the hallmark of masculinity. We might call this “the Schwarzenegger factor.” The cultural connections between Hollywood, new wars, and terrorism mean that intellectuals should seek to defend a higher order of values rather than pessimistically concluding that the defense of civilized life is a lost cause. The sociological imagination attempts to understand the empirical constraints on human behavior and the normative opportunities created by the rise of global human rights—to understand what makes everyday life precarious and what values may arise from our shared vulnerability. This interface of the empirical and the normative requires both comparative historical research and ethical analysis of the human condition.

<1> Conclusion: Cosmopolitanism

Crimes against humanity have led to a greater awareness and acceptance of the notion of a common humanity. Treating other human beings as members of a common community is thus a radical historical development. I end this introduction by connecting these juridical developments with the debate about cosmopolitanism. Taking human rights seriously reflects an ethic of cosmopolitanism that can be associated with the Enlightenment. Specifically, the cosmopolitan philosophy of the German Enlightenment grew, in part, from the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s fascination with Chinese civilization.

Although the European Enlightenment is most frequently associated with Kant, there is a strong case to date “the Age of Reason” with Leibniz. At first glance, Leibniz might appear to be an unlikely candidate as the father of human rights principles, and yet in my view he lays out the essential ethical ingredients for human rights as not only a juridical institution but also a shared culture. Leibniz is characteristically associated with the concept of “theodicy” (we live in the best of all possible worlds), which, his critics claim, provides a justification for violence and suffering in accepting the rationality of the world. Yet this interpretation fails to recognize the radical nature of his commitment to cosmopolitanism. Living in the best of all possible worlds meant, for Leibniz, not that all forms of injustice are part of a divine plan, but rather that a perfect world was one in which diversity had been fully developed and was reconciled with order. Because something (rather than nothing) exists, there is a principle of perfection, or the maximization of being. The astonishing diversity of cultures in the world is an aspect of this order-in-diversity principle. Leibniz wanted not only to recognize this diversity but also to celebrate it. Diversity does not entail disorder or chaos; it signifies ordered complexity.

Leibniz lived in a world where economic exchange was expanding people’s horizons and bringing them into contact with other cultures. China was a topic of considerable interest, especially among Jesuit missionaries who had established contact with the imperial court. Leibniz argued that just as there was a commerce of exchange—that is, an exchange of commodities—so there ought to be a “commerce of light,” in which ideas were exchanged between different societies. Leibniz, like Spinoza and Locke, supported tolerance toward other cultures, but he went even further to advocate “an imperative to learn from diversity . . . [and he] is the only modern philosopher to take serious interest in Europe’s contact with other cultures” (Perkins 2004, 42). Even more remarkably, Leibniz recognized in his concept of the “monads” that this appreciation of the world’s diversity was not simply from the perspective of an abstract mind separated from its body. Our relationship with the world is always through our embodiment. Human embodiment means that perceptions of the world are differentiated and limited. Yet embodiment, in creating differences, also creates the need for exchange, and it establishes the foundation for a commonality of human cultures. Cultural exchange is necessary, and it is made possible because our common embodiment forms the basis of a shared culture in which we can experience sympathy for other people. Moreover, we share, according to Leibniz, innate ideas that make communication possible. The intersection of these common realms allows sympathetic understanding while preserving the notion of infinite cultural diversity. In the best of all possible worlds, how does cross-cultural misunderstanding occur? Why is it the case that shared embodiment, common vulnerability, and innate ideas do not eradicate cultural disagreements? He argued that misunderstanding exists because human beings have freedom of action in recognizing or not recognizing others. Without this cognitive and moral autonomy, they could not act as moral agents. They would not, in fact, be able to live a virtuous life.

Leibniz’s positive celebration establishes the foundation for modern cosmopolitanism, and within his hermeneutics, there is a more general recipe for “virtue ethics.” In this notion, following Aristotle, the moral subject is at the core of the ethical life, and in order to flourish as ethical beings we need to cultivate and protect a set of virtues (Turner 2000). These virtues are ultimately grounded in human nature—and by this I mean simply that we are embodied. Hence virtue ethics attempts to take account of the psychological, sociological, and biological features of human beings. Virtue ethics constitutes the most appropriate ethical system for human rights as a set of legal injunctions. In placing Leibniz’s cosmopolitanism at the core of virtue ethics, we can recognize that the components of cosmopolitan virtue are as follows: irony, both as a method and as a value, in order to achieve some emotional distance from our own culture; reflexivity with respect to other cultural values; skepticism toward the grand narratives of modernity; care for other cultures; and acceptance of the inevitability and value of cultural exchange.

Cosmopolitan virtue specifies a set of duties and responsibilities that correspond to human rights. The right to life carries with it a duty to care for others; the right to participate in the cultural life of the community has a corresponding duty to care for other cultures; and the right to free speech implies a duty to protect the exchange of light. From Leibniz’s standpoint, we might argue that there is a duty to sustain cultural diversity and respect other cultures. These rights and duties can be derived from the need for cultural exchange and from the needs arising from human embodiment for sustenance, care, and dignity. This picture of life is an optimistic theodicy, and it is an open vision that needs defending in a world where the criticisms of multiculturalism and liberal optimism after 9/11 are gaining ground. (I develop such a defense in Chapters 3 and 7 of this study.)

While recognizing diversity, cosmopolitanism offers an important argument against relativism. How might we incorporate Leibniz’s normative endorsement of cultural diversity into a sociological view of society? In his study of human misery, Barrington Moore (1970) argued that some weak version of cultural relativism was inevitable for social science, but that there is a well-developed consensus against tolerating human suffering. While there is a diversity of happiness, there is a unity of human misery. Thus a “general opposition to human suffering constitutes a standpoint that both transcends and unites different cultures and historical epochs” (Moore 1970, 11). If human rights exist to offer us protection from suffering, why not argue that there are universal human obligations to oppose human misery, to respect the cultures of other peoples, and to condemn governments that fail to protect human rights? Human rights legislation provides a formal juridical safety net against abuses, but the law needs an additional sociological buttress to have enduring effectiveness—that is, it needs a moral underpinning if legal contracts are to work effectively. Following Émile Durkheim’s sociological criticisms of the theory of formal contractualism, society cannot exist on the basis of fear and coercion alone. There has to be an affective and moral basis to society, including such dispositions as care and respect.

Skepticism and a degree of distance from one’s own culture can provide the basis for a duty of care and stewardship for other cultures. This description of cosmopolitan virtue ethics as a set of obligations flows from a recognition of the vulnerability of persons and the precariousness of institutions. It is intended to offer a stand against relativism and awaken the recognition of similarities between the prospect and problems of cosmopolitan understanding and an ecumenical commitment to dialogue with other cultures. The argument is not that contemporary cosmopolitanism can be simply a return to classical cosmopolitanism or religious universalism. Cosmopolitan irony is generally incompatible with these forms of nostalgia, because our contemporary dilemmas cannot be solved simply by a naive return to origins. The cosmopolitanism of the Stoics attempted to come to terms with the cultural diversity of classical times. Classical cosmopolitanism was a product of Roman imperialism, but contemporary globalization cannot be easily or effectively dominated or orchestrated by a single state. Contemporary cosmopolitanism follows from social changes that are associated with globalization. These changes include: the partial erosion of national sovereignty and the growth of post-national citizenship; the emergence of global markets, especially a global labor market, and a corresponding growth of diasporic communities; and cultural hybridity as an aspect of mainstream political life. These global political communities require ironic and reflexive membership, if the modern world is to escape from the vicious cycle of ethnic conflict, revenge, and retribution. Cosmopolitan virtue may well turn out to be an ethic of exile for people who are migrants, and thus for people who are no longer attached to a permanent homeland.

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