This review article considers Samuel Moyn's book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History in the context of recent trends in the writing of human rights history. A central debate among historians of human rights, in seeking to account for the genesis and spread of human rights, is how far current human rights practice demonstrates continuity or radical discontinuity with previous attempts to secure rights. Moyn's discontinuity thesis and the controversy surrounding it exemplify this debate. Whether Moyn is correct is important beyond the confines of human rights historiography, with implications for their meaning in law, as well as their political legitimacy. This review argues that Moyn's book ultimately fails to convince, for two broad reasons. First, a more balanced judgment would conclude that the history of human rights is both one of continuity and discontinuity. Second, and more importantly, Moyn fails to offer a convincing account of the normativity of human rights. Undertaking a history of human rights requires a deeper engagement with debates on the nature and validity of human rights than Moyn seems prepared to contemplate.
"Human Rights Histories"
Areas of Interest
Oxford Journal of Legal Studies