Professor Samuel Moyn, "The Politics of Global Justice"


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Professor Samuel Moyn began his conversation with me last week by asserting, “The people you remember are the ones who challenge you and push you out of complacency.” Moyn’s teaching and academic philosophy centers on the notion that the academic world should be more about debate and discourse than a mutual admiration society. Rather than taking the “easy way” of the majority, Moyn chooses to be the devil’s advocate and spark controversy for the sake of progress.

Currently a professor of law and history at Harvard, where he recently moved after 13 years at Columbia University, Moyn brings this philosophy into his classrooms. His books include The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) and, most recently, Human Rights and the Uses of History (2014). In addition, he is an editor of “Humanity,” an interdisciplinary journal concerning human rights, humanitarianism and development.

In Human Rights and the Uses of History (2014), Moyn exhibits a provocative approach to the human rights paradigm and its origins within our common understanding. In each chapter, the author critiques instances of scholarship focused on different topics within human rights discourse. From dignity and “liberal internationalism,” to the moral implications of humanitarian intervention, Moyn critiques the various ways human rights has been used as a vehicle to perpetuate other ideological ends. Particularly focusing on the US’s hegemonic “benevolence,” which is manifest through concern for human rights, Moyn calls for a re-examination of the ways we see human rights being used.
He expanded upon his challenging stance in our conversation by claiming that the human rights paradigm is “immunized from criticism” because it sounds noble and like something for the common good. Further, any alternative to advocating for human rights is commonly seen as simply “doing nothing” and being the “infamous bystander” to atrocity. Moyn continues: “my critique of this thought is the opposite; rather than throw the whole paradigm out entirely, the human rights rhetoric must do a better job of providing remedies for violations of human dignity rather than simply identifying malevolent factors.

Moyn underscored this call to action in the Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor of Human Rights Lecture on October 28. The Konover Auditorium, in the Thomas J. Dodd Center, was almost filled, and it seemed everyone in the crowd looked forward to a lively, challenging lecture on “The Political Origins of Global Justice.” Weaving an impressive argument from the historical origins of global justice through the oppressive influence of neo-liberalism and the 1970s oil crisis, Moyn argued that global justice gains its identity through the re-orientation of the international economy. With the creation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO), and various scholars (such as Charles Beitz) being inspired to continue applying pressure on the international community, it seems that a new vantage point for looking at global justice came to the foreground in the 1970s. The NIEO provided the language and framework for this new paradigm of human rights.

Although Moyn praises most of the accomplishments of the human rights discourse, he ended his talk generally disappointed in its application. He claimed there needs to be a greater connection to agency and action rather than a simple reliance on acknowledgment of injustices. Moyn said we must all work towards a “common project for intellectuals,” where we hold ourselves accountable as activists rather than passively identifying human rights abuses without action.
Personally, I left the lecture feeling the need to be critical of my own part in the broader discourse of human rights and how I am “practicing what I preach” in wanting to be a human rights scholar. Mostly, I was inspired to see human rights through a different lens and to rethink the ways in which we assume respect for human rights to be able to “remedy” certain injustices, when, in reality, the concept alone is rarely able to do so.

In summary, Sam Moyn is a provocative scholar who challenged all of us at some level here at the Human Rights Institute. After participating in a 10-day visit to HRI, delivering his lecture, teaching a seminar on his specialty, and consulting with faculty and graduate students in the research programs, Moyn reflected upon his experience toward the end of his stay: “It is a huge privilege to participate and to have been given the fellowship, and an honor to be in the company of past lecturers. I see UConn as a Mecca of human rights scholarship in the country and in making human rights such a core focus of its academic program.” And what a great addition he is to our growing Human Rights Institute community!