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Anthropology and the Philosophy of Human Rights

Anthropology News May 2006
Sally Engle Merry offers a
number of reasons why
anthropologists should
not address the problem of
human rights universality, at least in
its philosophi-
cal registers. Her
first argument
evokes Jeremy
Bentham, who
famously reject-
ed natural/ hu-
man rights as
“rhetorical non-
sense upon
Human Rights in Practice
Merry doesn’t go that far, but in
arguing that the problem of univer-
sality is “unknowable,” she is claim-
ing that there is a sense of univer-
sality that is beyond the concerns
of anthropologists and others who
rely on empirical approaches to
knowledge. But perhaps more like
Bentham, Merry believes that it
would be a waste of valuable time
to try and flesh out the mysteries of
this “rhetorical nonsense”: in
Bentham’s case, because time
would be much better spent work-
ing on real legal reforms, enforce-
able by legitimate state actors,
which would have the effect of
transforming real legal and social
relations; in Merry’s case, because
when anthropologists spin their
philosophical wheels worrying
about “universality,” they lose sight
of a whole set of really interesting
Mark Goodale
Anthropology and the Philosophy
of Human Rights
questions that are associated with
what she aptly calls the “fluidity of
human rights in practice” (such as
the question of power within
human rights regimes, the links
between human rights and projects
for social justice, the ideological
dimensions of human rights, etc).
Merry also argues that the ques-
tion “Are human rights universal?”
rests on a false premise: that
“human rights” unproblematically
denote something whose character-
istics—such as universality—can be
articulated. But as she argues here,
and as her recent research and writ-
ing have convincingly demonstrat-
ed, “human rights” can and do refer
to a wide range of different ideas,
practices and institutional impera-
tives. This approach to human rights
through anthropology suggests a
radically different conception of
what human rights are and can be.
Practical Universality
Kamari Clarke argues that anthro-
pologists should try and answer the
question “Are human rights univer-
sal?” Like Merry, she questions the
meaning of “universal” and finds
the metaphysical version to lie out-
side the set of “key” problems that
should continue to vex anthropolo-
gists and others interested in track-
ing the emergence of human rights
as a “tool for the eradication of hier-
archies of human difference.” But
when the “production of human
rights universals” is understood as
“the development of particular
forms of local knowledge,” then
anthropologists do have a role to
play in describing and critiquing the
different meanings within different
kinds of human rights practices, the
fact remains that it is precisely the
supposed universality—in the
strong, metaphysical sense—of hu-
man rights which imbues them
with a special power, not conceptu-
ally (human rights as a trump), but
in relation to other culturally-
embedded ways of resolving con-
flicts, establishing duties, legitimat-
ing expectations and so on.
We might ask ourselves why peo-
ple are willing to give up their lives
for “universal” human rights in the
course of ongoing struggles for
social justice. A theory of hegemony
and the study of power within
human rights regimes might ex-
plain how and why the idea of
human rights is being globalized,
but not why the idea is so com-
pelling for people. For this we must
take another look at what can be
described as the “social ontology” of
contemporary human rights, which
forces us to confront a very difficult
set of ethnographic, political, and
yes, philosophical problems.
And perhaps more controversial-
ly, I think anthropologists should
consider contributing more actively
to the philosophy of human rights,
which includes the problem of uni-
versality in that sense. I say this
because it is the idea of human
rights which lies at the back of it
(with apologies to Conrad via Said).
And if this is true, it might be useful
for anthropologists to consider
ways of explaining this idea beyond
the fact that its expression in social
practice is messy, riddled with con-
tradictions, and subject to the tugs
and pulls of context.
Mark Goodale is an assistant professor
of conflict analysis and anthropology at
George Mason University’s Institute for
Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
historical and political contexts that
enable (or compel) what is for Clarke
a kind of practical universality.
Clarke believes that anthropolo-
gists should locate human rights in
relation to other universalist proj-
ects inspired by Western modernity
and study the ways in which such
projects might (or might not) sup-
press local forms of justice-making.
Clarke also makes a plea for cultur-
al diversity in a way that suggests
Melville Herskovits’s (later the
AAA’s) 1947 “Statement on Human
Rights,” which made the observa-
tion that a monolithic declaration
of rights stood in stark contrast to
the mountain of anthropological
evidence, which documented a
wide range of ways in which collec-
tivities have created and justified
their normative systems.
Why Philosophy Matters
So here we have two different
answers to the same question. Yet
Merry and Clarke are in agreement
on one basic point: that the philo-
sophical problem of human rights
universality is beyond the anthro-
pological pale. There are several
things I can say about this, but in
the interest of space let me make
just two points, both of which
admittedly put me at odds with the
general trend in the anthropology
of human rights.
First, even if anthropologists can
show that “universality” takes on
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... I would argue that there can be no moral agency at all without a sense of a shared moral space; there can no sense of self, for that matter. [2003:27] The American Anthropology Association's (AAA) failure to engage effectively with the United Nations (UN) in the development of initial attempts to define universal human rights is well-documented and discussed elsewhere (Goodale 2006a(Goodale , 2006bWashburn 1987). Among the more unfortunate statements from the AAA Executive Board was that rights must be integrated by "the only right and proper way of life that can be known to them, the institutions, sanctions and goals that make up the culture of their particular society" (AAA Executive Board 1947). ...
... Montaigne's (1965) inability to resolve or even attempt to contend this position portended Nietzsche's (1966) claim that what is moral is what is nebulously called "life-promoting." More recently, Terence Turner (2000) rejected the notion that objectivity precludes universals in any form, particularly universal human rights, a sentiment echoed again in more current discussions (Goodale 2006a;Merry 2006;Stoll 2006). ...
... If that doesn't work, suggest that opponents are appealing to subtle forms of objectivism, racism or colonialism. [2006:7] Anthropologists have argued that our discipline has been both late and limited in its contribution to a universal human rights agenda (Goodale 2006a(Goodale , 2006bHyman 2006). Cultural relativism mistaken for ethical relativism, hyperreflexivity, or postmodernism all may have contributed to this perception. ...
Here I detail violence in South Sudan by first discussing a specific Dinka Agaar practice alongside existing discourses on the social aspects of violence and universal human rights, then I show how these acts had meaning and purpose using data from personal accounts of violence. I posit that the violence described was consistent with Dinka Agaar concepts of justice and basic human rights and that it cannot be judged against any universal human rights standard, devoid of local context or of an overarching metanarrative. These events highlight conflicting subjectivities, ethical norms, and the painful difficulties inherent to advocacy in areas of conflict. Viewed from the perspective of the larger social unit, it is easy to see how violence was required to end violence. However, witnessing punitive violence purposefully enacted on innocent individuals to achieve peace has the potential to create conflicting positions that modern anthropological discourse cannot reconcile.
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