In This Review

On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1993
On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1993
Edited by Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley
BasicBooks, 1993, 262 pp

This is a collection of lectures by seven renowned contemporary philosophers invited to Oxford to lecture on the subject of human rights by Amnesty International. All wrestle with the philosophical, rather than practical, dimensions of human rights. The essays of Steven Lukes, Jon Elster, Agnes Heller and John Rawls deal with such questions as how to reconcile the universalism of Western rights doctrine with cultural diversity, or by what rules an official implementing the laws of a bad regime can be prosecuted after the fact. Both the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary philosophical thought are clearly in evidence here. Postmodernist Richard Rorty, for example, is obviously sympathetic to conventional human rights concerns, but determined to demonstrate that there is no rational, universal, philosophical underpinning for them. But if moral behavior is, as Rorty claims, merely the product of sentimental education, what then differentiates Amnesty's efforts at sentimental education from those of Serbian state television? (Indeed, Rorty's lecture begins with an extraordinary comparison of the Serbs, the Black Muslims and Thomas Jefferson.) Nonetheless, this an extremely interesting volume that deals with an important and often neglected dimension of human rights.