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The Myth of Universality: The UNESCO “Philosophers’ Committee” and the Making of Human Rights



(** Co-winner of the 2017 International Geneva Award.) This article reexamines one of the most enduring questions in the comparative intellectual, legal, and ethical history of human rights: the question of human rights universality. By the end of the first decade of the post-Cold War, debates around the legitimacy and origins of human rights took on new urgency, as human rights emerged as an increasingly influential rubric in international law, transnational development policy, social activism, and ethical discourse. At stake in these debates, which unfolded in various spheres of academia, diplomacy, and political organizing, was the fundamental status of human rights itself. Based in part on new archival research, this article offers an alternative interpretation of an important moment in the debates over human rights universality during this period: the rediscovery by scholars in the late-1990s of a 1947 survey undertaken by UNESCO, which purported to demonstrate the fact of human rights universality through empirical evidence. The article argues that this contested intellectual history reflects the enduring importance of the “myth of universality”—a key cultural narrative that we continue to tell ourselves, about ourselves, as a way to find meaning across the long, dark night of history.
The Myth of Universality: The UNESCO
“Philosophers’ Committee” and the
Making of Human Rights
Mark Goodale
This article reexamines one of the most enduring questions in the history of human
rights: the question of human rights universality. By the end of the first decade after the
end of the Cold War, debates around the legitimacy and origins of human rights took on
new urgency, as human rights emerged as an increasingly influential rubric in
international law, transnational development policy, social activism, and ethical
discourse. At stake in these debates was the fundamental status of human rights. Based
in part on new archival research, this article offers an alternative interpretation of the
rediscovery by scholars in the late 1990s of a 1947 UNESCO survey that purported to
demonstrate the universality of human rights through empirical evidence. The article
argues that this contested intellectual history reflects the enduring importance of the
“myth of universality”—a key cultural narrative that we continue to use to find meaning
across the long, dark night of history.
Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
In 1947 and 1948, the bold, controversial, and cosmopolitan first Director-
General of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),
Julian Huxley, together with Jacques Havet, the young first head of UNESCO’s phi-
losophy subsection, took steps that were intended to shape the conceptual frame-
work of what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which
was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Huxley and
Havet put in motion an extraordinary process that was meant to elicit empirically
opinions that would lead to a cross-cultural consensus on the basic philosophical
and ethical principles upon which a new global social contract should be based.
Mark Goodale is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Lausanne
and Series Editor of Stanford Studies in Human Rights. He may be contacted at
He appreciated the chance to discuss the research that forms the basis for this article during events at
the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in January 2017, the Venice Academy of Human Rights in July
2016, and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University in April 2014.
The full documentary history of the UNESCO human rights survey can be found in Letters to the
Contrary: A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey (Stanford University Press,
forthcoming). He is grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful remarks on an earlier draft.
This article was the co-winner of the 2017 International Geneva Award.
C2017 American Bar Foundation. 1
Law & Social Inquiry
Volume ••, Issue ••, ••–••, •• 2017
Law & Social Inquiry
Volume 43, Issue 3, 596–617, Summer 2018
© 2017 American Bar Foundation.596
This process took place independently of the much more public one that unfolded
somewhat later under the auspices of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights
(CHR), which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The work of UNESCO on human rights during this period, the debates sur-
rounding its conflicts with the CHR, the specific results of the cross-cultural survey
it undertook, and the broader implications of this survey for the meanings and legit-
imacy of human rights were all lost to a history that was dominated by the geopolit-
ical logics of the Cold War. However, with the dissolution of this prevailing system
of international ordering, an opening was created through which human rights—as
law, as politics, as moral discourse—took root as an emergent and increasingly
influential factor shaping everything from the constitution of post-apartheid South
Africa to the resolution of ethnic civil wars in the region of the former Yugoslavia.
And perhaps most consequential—though less obvious—during these early post-
Cold War years was the way in which the rubrics of human rights transformed the
strategies and justifications of international development, particularly in the Global
South. As Eleanor Roosevelt herself had predicted decades before, a “curious grape-
vine” of transnational nongovernmental organizations eventually coalesced around
the idea of human rights so that it came to “seep in even when governments [were]
not so anxious for it” (quoted in Korey 1998, 48).
The result was that by the mid 1990s, human rights had become, as the
anthropologist Richard A. Wilson has argued, the “archetypal language” of demo-
cratic transition, social justice, international accountability, and, increasingly,
national foreign policy, a dramatic shift that reflected what Wilson called a “sea-
change in global politics” (2001, 1). Yet signs of later conflict and cultural tension
appeared even during these early years of international optimism and normative
possibility. For example, after the government of China had been severely criti-
cized by newly emboldened human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch
and Amnesty International after the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy demon-
strators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it responded by rejecting these human
rights critiques on the basis that they were in fact the manifestation of ages-old
Western imperialism in universalist clothing. Soon after, and throughout the early
to mid 1990s, other countries in East and Southeast Asia further elaborated the
so-called Asian values rejection of universal human rights. This regional response
to the expanding “culture of human rights” was then picked up beyond Asia when
“many Third World countries began to counter what they saw as an American-led
Western trend toward intervention” (Bell, Nathan, and Peleg 2001, 7) that was
grounded not in the Realpolitik language of national interest, but in the language
of radical ontological equality, universal entitlement, and self-evident moral
At stake in these debates were a number of basic and enduring questions:
Are human rights universal? If they are universal, in what sense? If they are not
universal, but a product of time and place, are they “Western”? If human rights are
universal, does the international community have an obligation to intervene to pro-
mote and protect them? If there is a structural conflict between universal human
rights and culture, how should this conflict be resolved? If cultural diversity is disap-
pearing in an age of global interconnection, what does this fact bode for the future
The Myth of Universality 597
of human rights? And, perhaps most fundamental, how should these (and many
other related) questions be answered—philosophically, historically, politically, criti-
cally, ethnographically, or some combination? At its core, the debate over human
rights universality was a debate over legitimacy. If the idea, as the Preamble to the
UDHR asserted, that “all members of the human family” are fundamentally the
same because they have in common “inherent dignity and ... equal and inalienable
rights” was not, in some sense, true, then the status of human rights would be over-
turned. Human rights would become merely another contested political ideology at
just that moment in history when what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2000)
called the “Age of Human Rights” appeared to be dawning.
Throughout the 1990s, the debates over human rights universality, non-
Western values, culture, and legacies of colonialism took the form of conceptual
and historical arguments that evoked clashes centuries before around natural law
and natural rights, in which—for example—Jeremy Bentham had attacked the
metaphysics of natural rights as “dangerous nonsense” built on “terrorist language”
(quoted in Hayden 2001, 122, 124), while Edmund Burke had argued that because
“liberties and ... restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to
infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule” (quoted in
Hayden 2001, 92).
But like these earlier struggles over the meaning and legitimacy of human
rights, those during much of the 1990s were likewise a battle over abstract concepts
rather than over forms of empirical evidence that would support one argument or
another. How, apparently, could it be otherwise? If one argues that all human
beings possess “inherent dignity” and Jeremy Bentham counters that this claim is
“nonsense on stilts,” what kind of empirical evidence could be found to bolster one
side or the other? Without the possibility of bringing to bear some kind of evidence
in their defense beyond the power of rhetorical persuasion, the universal claims of
human rights would remain trapped in an epistemological echo chamber, subject to
political manipulation, and closely associated with a long history of what
Hernandez-Truyol (2002) has called “moral imperialism.”
Yet by the end of the 1990s, a group of human rights historians had claimed
to have unearthed precisely such empirical evidence for human rights universality.
The survey that UNESCO conducted in 1947 and 1948 was rediscovered and
examined in a series of influential publications that went on to become primary
sources for the proposition that despite the “differing religious, philosophical, politi-
cal, and cultural values spread across the vastness of the globe,” the “human experi-
ence had produced a core of certain ‘common convictions’” (Lauren 1998, 216–17)
about the fact that all humans possess certain universal rights.
Here, finally, and just in time, was the answer to a decade of growing critique
of the Western origins—and, thus, the fundamental legitimacy—of human rights.
As it turned out, completely separately from the well-known and largely diplomatic
processes in the United Nations that led to the UDHR, another process was taking
place that was based on an empirical study of “wide-ranging perspectives from
around the world” (Lauren 1998, 215). How could the origins of human rights be
“Western” if a group of experts had discovered that the basic principles underlying
what became the UDHR were, in fact, universal, well before December 10, 1948?
The Myth of Universality 3
But as we will see below, the rediscovery of the UNESCO survey on human
rights, and its use within wider debates over human rights universality and legiti-
macy from the late 1990s to the present, was based on a revealing combination of
tenuous historical information and interpretation that was more ideological than
analytical. On the one hand, recent archival research provides a much fuller
account of UNESCO’s role in the debates and institutional processes that culmi-
nated in the adoption of the UDHR in 1948. This new history makes the conven-
tional wisdom about the UNESCO survey difficult to sustain; indeed, in several
important particulars, the process was fundamentally different than supposed. Yet
on the other hand, this deeper history of the UNESCO survey and its findings
should not be taken as new evidence for, or against, the universality of human
rights. Indeed, it is a basic argument of this article that it is the enduring question
of universality itself, rather than the answers, that is of real interest in understand-
ing the contours of human rights within the wider trajectory of contemporary
Human rights appeared to many as the “last utopia” (Moyn 2010), the final
chance to achieve what the writer E. M. Forster had called, in a 1938 essay, “the
one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos” (Forster 1951, 73).
Diversity, pluralism, contingency, politics, Volksgeist—these were clearly not the
stones that would form what the UDHR describes as the “foundation of freedom,
justice and peace in the world.” Rather, it was the revelation of our common
humanity and the universal entitlements that are derived from it that would point
the way to what Eleanor Roosevelt had called a “world made new,” in the phrase
made famous by Mary Ann Glendon in her 2001 history of human rights.
In this way, the story of human rights universality functioned as myth, not in
the sense of a false account—for how could something like “inherent dignity” ever
be either true or false?—but rather as mythos, that is, a cultural narrative that is
meant to do important work in shaping the course of society in particular ways. If
it is true, as Erving Goffman once put it, that “for a complete man to be expressed,
individuals must hold hands in a chain of ceremony, each giving ... to the one on
the right what will be received deferentially from the one on the left” (1967, 84),
then the myth of universality was the link that bound us all together, and human
rights would be what we passed among ourselves along the global chain of
UNESCO Canvasses (a Small Part of) the World
Julian Huxley was nothing if not a visionary. British army intelligence officer,
colonial advisor, globally renowned evolutionary biologist, grandson to T. H.
Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), eugenicist, and wildlife conservationist, Huxley had
played a formative role in the creation of UNESCO. Huxley had envisioned
UNESCO as a unique international institution whose mission was to “stimulate the
quest, so urgent in this time of over-rapid transition, for a world philosophy, a uni-
fied and unifying background of thought for the modern world” (Huxley 1946, 41),
as he had put it in his sweeping blueprint for the new organization. Through a
The Myth of Universality 599
political compromise brokered between the United Kingdom, France, and the
United States, whose delegation was suspicious of Huxley’s leftist politics and com-
mitment to world government, Huxley was confirmed as UNESCO’s first director-
general but for a term of only two years (despite the fact that UNESCO’s 1946
constitution specified a term of six years; see Sewell 1975).
The first head of UNESCO’s philosophy subsection (within the philosophy
and humanistic studies section) was Jacques Havet, the twenty-seven-year-old for-
mer “cacique” (first in class) from the
Ecole normale sup
erieure (ENS), France’s
breeding ground for philosophers, who had just published a study of Kant begun at
the Sorbonne years earlier under the direction of Henri Gouhier (who became well
known later for having supervised the undergraduate thesis of Pierre Bourdieu; see
Israel 2005).
At the first session of UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris in November
and December 1946, the philosophy and humanistic studies section was charged
with overseeing the following task:
D. Rights of Man
The Secretariat should organize, in collaboration with the United Nations
Commission on the Rights of Man, an International Conference in order
to clarify the principles on which might be founded a modern declaration
of the Rights of Man. (UNESCO 1947, 236)
Yet because the UN CHR had not begun its work by this time (it would not meet
formally until January and February 1947), the exact nature of this “collaboration”
between UNESCO and the CHR was unclear. But because Huxley would later
come to view what he considered the overly politicized, state-oriented, and US-
dominated work of the CHR with disdain, it is not surprising that he seized upon
the opportunity at this early stage to take the leading role in articulating the princi-
ples of human rights as the first, and most important, expression of a “unified and
unifying background of thought for the modern world” (Huxley 1946, 41).
At the same time, the young Havet was motivated by other factors to put
UNESCO’s philosophy subsection at the center of a nonpolitical and philosophical
investigation that reflected the highest aspirations of his calling, even if this process
took place within a government institution rather than in the halls of the academy.
Havet, whose father was killed by the Nazis as a political prisoner at Buchenwald
in 1944, was of the generation of French intellectuals for whom the well-worn path
from the revolutionary meritocratic institutions like the ENS to permanent teach-
ing posts at the center of French academic life had been profoundly altered.
1. The archival research that forms the background to this article was conducted in the following
archives: the UNESCO archives in Paris, the Julian Huxley archives at Rice University, and the Richard
McKeon archives at the University of Chicago. Archival materials included all the correspondence, interof-
fice memoranda, and assorted miscellany largely found in the following: UNESCO Archives, AG 8 Secre-
tariat Records, Central Registry Collection, file Human Rights—Enquiry, Public Opinion 342.7 (100):
301.153 A 151. I am grateful for the various forms of collaboration with and among the different archival
centers. Particular thanks are due the following: Petra van den Born and Nooshin Dadmehr of UNESCO
Library, Adele Torrance of UNESCO Archives, Jens Boel, UNESCO’s Chief Archivist, and Daniel Meyer,
Director of Special Collections and University Archivist at the University of Chicago.
The Myth of Universality 5
Although Havet’s circle of correspondents and supporters included many of
the most well-known scholars of the time, such as Georges Gurvitch,
Etienne Gil-
son, Gaston Berger, Rene Le Senne, Jean Hyppolite, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and,
most importantly, Jean-Paul Sartre (a group that included distinguished normaliens
from earlier generations), Havet’s own academic career had been derailed by the
war. He had left his book on Kant aside to serve in a number of administrative
roles, including in the Prefecture of Liberation for Maine-et-Loire, and, by the time
the war had ended, Havet had made what turned out to be a permanent transition
from academics to government service. In many ways, therefore, his major intellec-
tual—if behind the scenes—role in the UNESCO human rights survey would
remain his most lasting contribution to the world of ideas.
With Huxley’s world-historical aspirations for UNESCO, grounded in what he
had called “scientific world humanism” (Huxley 1946, 8), as the backdrop, Havet set
out in early 1947 to organize an international conference of scholars to develop the
philosophical architecture for a human rights declaration. Almost from the beginning,
however, the process put in motion by Havet and Huxley encountered two fundamen-
tal and interrelated problems. First, Huxley in particular was keeping a close and wor-
ried eye on developments in the United States, where the CHR had finally begun its
work. If UNESCO was going to play the role he envisioned for it, it had better move
quickly, which meant necessarily limiting the scope of the planned human rights con-
ference so that it could be held at the earliest possible time. Second, because the pro-
cess would have to be initiated and completed over the course of only a few months to
preempt the competing one moving forward on the other side of the Atlantic, it was
clear from the beginning that participation would have to be restricted to those who
could commit to attend on very short notice.
As Huxley put it, “I feel we should limit [participation] to about twelve people, if
possible all of them from Western Europe, as the matter is urgent (Memo from Huxley
to Havet, March 3, 1947, emphasis added). For his part, Havet went even further, sug-
gesting that the event be made private and limited to a small group of invited partici-
pants and UNESCO staff. For reasons of financial economy, Havet proposed that the
UNESCO delegation in Paris should itself be consulted for specialists within its ranks,
along with those “living nearby” (Memo from Havet to Huxley, March 4, 1947).
Thus, it is important to note at this point that a “global survey” on the idea of human
rights was never, and could never have been, part of the original plan for UNESCO’s
“collaboration with the United Nations Commission on the Rights of Man.”
Yet even with the structure of the human rights conference becoming smaller
and moving farther away with each interoffice memo from any realistic potential to
reveal a “unifying background of thought for the modern world,” Havet nevertheless
suggested that the event be held between May 26 and May 30 and included a short-
list of scholars for Huxley’s review, an all-male group comprised of seven from
France, two from Belgium, one from the Netherlands, one from Norway, and two
2. After his work on human rights for UNESCO, Havet went on to have a distinguished thirty-four-
year career, serving as UNESCO’s Director of the Department of Social Sciences in the 1970s and retiring
in November 1980 as Deputy Assistant Director-General for the social sciences (http://atom.archives.
The Myth of Universality 601
from the United Kingdom, “Bertrand Russell and perhaps someone else you know.”
As for US participation, Havet wrote that “although it might be impossible to
invite them,” certain American thinkers were capable of making a “constructive
contribution,” including Richard McKeon from the University of Chicago, who
would come to play an oversized role throughout the UNESCO human rights pro-
cess, and the Harvard University idealist philosopher William Ernest Hocking, who
developed the theory of “negative pragmatism” (that which does not work is by def-
inition not true). As for the goals of the conference, Havet wrote significantly that
the most important was that the participants “obtain an agreement” on “positive
conclusions” so that they could be forwarded “as fast as possible” to the CHR
(Memo from Havet to Huxley March 4, 1947).
After March 4, however, largely for reasons of time, the idea of holding a small
conference of scholars in Paris was abandoned. With the extended Easter holiday
looming, and reports on the work of the CHR reaching him from the United
States, Huxley made the decision to replace the conference with something much
more far-reaching and risky, a shift that would forever change the way the
UNESCO process and the history of human rights more generally were understood.
Between March 4 and March 27, 1947, Havet (working most likely under Huxley’s
supervision, although the UNESCO archives go dark during this period) drafted an
extraordinary two-part document, which appeared later as “UNESCO/Phil/1/1947.”
The document consists of an introductory cover letter followed by a fourteen-
page “aide-memoire.” The letter began:
The Commission on Human Rights of the U.N. is to prepare this summer
a Declaration on the Rights of Man for the entire world. There is no
need to underline the importance of this event, an importance both
philosophical and practical, with both immediate and lasting effects.
It continued:
The General Conference of UNESCO had already envisaged a Conference
of Philosophers to undertake a general discussion of the subject. However,
in view of the immediacy of the task, it has proven necessary to alter this
procedure and ask for contributions in written form, from Governments and
from individuals. The Director-General is accordingly communicating
with Member Governments, requesting them to lay before their National
Commissions, Co-operating Bodies, or other appropriate groups, the prob-
lem of formulating an analysis of the problem of human rights and its
3. Although outside the scope of this article, it must be observed here that unbeknownst to both
UNESCO and the full membership of the CHR itself, the first and most important draft of what became the
UDHR had already been written by this time. As Johannes Morsink has put it, in his definitive, nearly hour-
by-hour history of the UDHR drafting process, the “baby was [already] born” by about February 28, 1947,
when John P. Humphrey presented a first draft of forty-eight articles to Eleanor Roosevelt (drawing in part
on reviews of existing declarations of rights). She had instructed him to create this first draft, working by him-
self, during a tea party held at her apartment in Washington, DC on February 14 (Morsink 1999, 5, 29; see
also Humphrey 1984; Hobbins 1989).
The Myth of Universality 7
underlying principles, so as to permit the formulation of a Declaration of Human
Rights for the modern world in its present circumstances (emphasis added).
Havet then wrote that UNESCO would convene a “Drafting Committee” that
would study the responses in order to create a “single document” that would be sent
to the CHR to permit it to be able to “fram[e] ... a Declaration of the Rights of
Man.” Havet requested that contributions be sent directly to him via airmail and
that they be written “preferably, though not necessarily, ... in English or French,
and should be between 2,000 and 4,000 words in length.” In the aide-memoire that
followed, Havet discussed the general history of human rights declarations with ref-
erence to the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration
of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with an important reflection on how the
theory of evolution and Marxism have changed the way natural rights are conceptu-
alized. The aide-memoire ended with a long list of suggested rights and freedoms,
which respondents were asked to consider as they formulated their replies.
Beginning in late March 1947, and with a sense of profound urgency shaping
the entire process, Huxley and Havet embarked on a massive correspondence cam-
paign, a remarkable feat in an era of handwritten letters, typewriters, and wispy car-
bon copies. Using their own vastly different professional and personal networks as a
base, Huxley and Havet sent UNESCO/Phil/1/1947 out to dozens of national gov-
ernments, scholars, artists, trade unions, publications, universities, theologians, and
political parties. Havet’s letters went out to his circle of French intellectuals and
those outside of France who were likely more comfortable working in French than
in English (this included many from the Soviet Bloc). Huxley’s letters of invitation
were, not surprisingly, more widespread and reached many well-known writers,
artists, scholars, and political figures in the British imperial world, although most
notable were those within Huxley’s upper-class circles in the United Kingdom.
Given Huxley’s connections, in particular, UNESCO/Phil/1/1947 managed to
reach a fascinating mix. For example, Huxley sent the materials to Jawaharlal
Nehru, who was soon to become the first prime minister of India, with an addi-
tional request that Nehru forward the documents to Gandhi for his consideration
(Nehru declined to reply, whereas Gandhi eventually penned a short response to
UNESCO/Phil/1/1947 from a moving train). Huxley sent a warm letter to Bertrand
Russell, who had just published his A History of Western Philosophy in 1945 (for
which he would receive the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature), asking “My dear
Bertie” to send his ideas about human rights without which the inquiry would be
“sadly incomplete.” Despite these entreaties, Russell declined to provide a response
to UNESCO’s documents. And in one of the more notable exchanges, Huxley’s let-
ter to T. S. Eliot (who was due to receive the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature) was
met with a characteristically devilish reply. In a letter of April 18 written on Faber
and Faber stationery, Eliot expressed astonishment that Huxley and UNESCO had
any interest at all in a declaration of human rights. As he put it, a “statement of
the rights of man, unless it was a tissue of ambiguities, could never, I think, be
framed in such a way as to command the assent of all intelligent men.” And in any
case, Eliot concluded, even if such a statement could be eventually drafted, the
The Myth of Universality 603
consequences of such a bill of rights were likely to “turn out to be positively
Throughout March 1947, Huxley had exchanged correspondence regarding the
transformed UNESCO human rights process with Richard McKeon, Dean of the
Humanities at the University of Chicago, advisor to the US delegation to
UNESCO, and first acting counselor on UNESCO affairs attached to the US
Embassy in Paris (on the McKeon-Huxley correspondence during this time, see
Doxtader 2010). McKeon was a legendary professor of philosophy who inspired
“cold sweat and raw fear” in a long list of students, including Susan Sontag, Richard
Rorty, Paul Rabinow, and Robert Pirsig, the latter of whom modeled the character
of the dreaded “Chairman” in his 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainte-
nance after McKeon (Obermiller 1994).
McKeon agreed to participate in the survey by overseeing invitations and
receiving replies within the United States. He coordinated his activities with the
US National Commission for UNESCO and the American Council of Learned
Societies, which collectively produced an extensive list of potential US respond-
ents. On the US side, the UNESCO documents were sent to forty-five people,
including philosopher John Dewey, cofounder of the American Civil Liberties
Union Morris Ernst, Lewis Mumford, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Wallace (vice presi-
dent under FDR), W. H. Auden, Paul Robeson, Arnold Schoenberg, and the author
Richard Wright.
Because of McKeon’s energetic and systematic work over the spring of 1947
(and not for any other notable reason), which included small workshops in Chicago
for potential respondents to the UNESCO documents, the eventual US contribu-
tion to the survey represented by far the largest grouping by nation, eclipsing even
those from the United Kingdom (despite Huxley’s role) and France. Indeed, even
though Havet had circulated the UNESCO documents to most of the leading
French intellectuals of the time—including Merleau-Ponty and Havet’s mentor Sar-
tre—and the fact that the process was being directed from UNESCO headquarters
in Paris, the only weighty French scholar to respond was the Catholic philosopher
Jacques Maritain, then serving as the French ambassador to the Vatican.
It is remarkable that so few responses were received from major French intellec-
tuals and political figures, a fact that points to both an Anglophone dominance of the
process and Havet’s youth and relative lack of experience, despite his connections.
Besides Maritain, the other French replies came from the Jesuit priest and paleontolo-
gist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who had recently been censured by the Vatican for
his writings), the physicist and UNESCO colleague Pierre Auger, Rene Maheu,
another UNESCO colleague of Havet’s who would later become UNESCO’s director-
4. Although the majority of documents and related correspondence that form the foundation for
this article were found in UNESCO Archives, AG 8 Secretariat Records, Central Registry Collection, file
Human Rights—Enquiry, Public Opinion 342.7 (100): 301.153 A 151, a central mystery remained con-
cerning the complete record of survey responses, since these are not in the cited UNESCO archive. After
some detective work, a parallel archive was found among the Richard McKeon papers at the University of
Chicago Library, which not only contained all the responses to the UNESCO survey, but various other
documents, correspondence, notes, and records of meetings that were helpful in filling in the historical
The Myth of Universality 9
general (1962–1974), and Emmanuel Mounier, founder of Esprit magazine and the
leader of France’s interwar personalist movement.
It is difficult to know for certain how many human rights surveys were sent
and received, particularly because many of the letters to national governments and
UNESCO national commissions (which were handled by Huxley) asked these bod-
ies to pass on the UNESCO documents in a form of snowball sampling (“please
pass on to anyone you feel could make a contribution”). In a letter from Huxley to
Eleanor Roosevelt on May 1, 1947, he mentioned that “about 150” invitations to
respond to the UNESCO survey had been sent and this number is perhaps the
most accurate we have, especially since Huxley and Havet had agreed among them-
selves that they could hope for no better than a one-third response rate. Regarding
the number of responses received, a much more precise figure can be given:
between fifty-six and fifty-eight, depending on how different kinds of correspon-
dence are counted. This number would seem to fit quite closely with the antici-
pated response rate.
Even by the standards of a largely still-colonial world in 1947, the distribution
of responses was remarkably limited. Although many individuals were solicited not
as representatives of countries, but of particular philosophical or political or theo-
logical traditions or simply because of their global renown, Huxley and Havet
themselves used country affiliation as a way to track the representativeness of the
process. An analysis of this distribution suggests a survey on human rights whose
scope and participation differed starkly from how the process has been described
from the beginning. Almost 45 percent of the replies came from just two countries:
the United States and the United Kingdom. If the replies from Western Europe
(sixteen), South Africa (three), Australia (two), and Canada (one) are added to
those from the United States and the United Kingdom, this still-limited range com-
prises over 80 percent of all the replies.
Six were received from the countries of the Soviet Bloc, which included one
from a Soviet legal scholar whose response had been commissioned—and paid for—
by UNESCO. The balance was distributed among India (three), all of Latin Amer-
ica (two), and China (one), although the contribution from Chung-Shu Lo was due
to the fact that he was working at UNESCO as a consultant at the time and thus
was another work colleague of Huxley’s and Havet’s (in a letter to Sartre, Havet
describes Lo as a “Chinese philosopher passing through Paris”). Only one woman
replied to the UNESCO documents: the English Quaker prison reformer Margery
Fry, younger sister of the Bloomsbury Group painter and art critic Roger Fry.
The Limelight Dims, Then Goes Out
As the responses to the UNESCO survey on human rights slowly began to
arrive in Paris, Huxley and Havet had to decide what to do with them. Again, with
Richard McKeon playing an important role in correspondence, it was decided to
convene a committee of experts to study the materials and prepare a report on find-
ings for the CHR. Yet time was still pressing and beginning to slip away from
Huxley’s dream of using the human rights inquiry to uncover the “unifying
The Myth of Universality 605
background of thought for the modern world” that he believed in so firmly. The
CHR had installed itself by this time at Lake Success, New York, and reports had
begun reaching Huxley of a dramatically expanding process. Because he held firm
to the position that the UNESCO human rights inquiry must form the conceptual
foundation to the more political process taking place in Lake Success, Huxley made
a bold attempt to have the work of the CHR postponed so that UNESCO could
complete its study and submit its report.
In early April 1947, only a few weeks after the UNESCO documents had
started going out, Huxley sent a cable to McKeon urging both the US National
UNESCO Commission and the US State Department to “use their influence with
the Commission on Human Rights to delay the date of formulation of the Declara-
tion of Human Rights” (Letter from McKeon to Huxley, April 17, 1947). The auda-
cious request coming from the controversial Huxley in Paris rippled throughout the
United Nations and met with a firm refusal from Eleanor Roosevelt herself. As she
made known to US UNESCO officials, any materials—whether related to the
UNESCO human rights inquiry, or not—would have to be received by the CHR at
the latest by June 1947, since the CHR would “probably start final work on the
draft in September” (Letter from McKeon to Huxley, April 17, 1947).
At the same time, the CHR and the US State Department had begun to
receive puzzled inquiries from heads of government who had either received the
UNESCO documents or had learned of them through national institutions. Because
UNESCO/Phil/1/1947 and the accompanying letter conveyed the impression that a
UNESCO “Drafting Committee” would be formulating the basic principles of
human rights after receiving responses to the survey, it was not clear which institu-
tion—the UN CHR or UNESCO—was actually responsible for directing the pro-
cess and producing a declaration. Once the full extent and ambition of UNESCO’s
self-appointed role finally became clear to the CHR and the US government, how-
ever, the response was swift and unambiguous: Huxley and UNESCO were given
the equivalent of a cease and desist order and the door on UNESCO’s participation
in the framework that led to the UDHR was slammed decisively shut.
In a May 8, 1947 letter to Huxley, Arthur Compton, Acting US Representa-
tive at UNESCO, took Huxley and UNESCO to task for sowing confusion among
nations about the role of UNESCO in the drafting of a human rights declaration.
After explaining that the CHR and the US government had received worrying
reports about the far-reaching UNESCO survey, Compton’s impatient instruction
to Huxley is made clear: “It is felt that any inquiries on the philosophical issues
which might be made by UNESCO to member Governments would hardly be likely
to produce helpful results at this time and might be interpreted as duplicating work
to be undertaken by the Commission on Human Rights.” Compton then directed
Huxley to consider sending out a humiliating “supplementary circular letter refer-
ring to the original communication” (i.e., UNESCO/Phil/1/1947) that clarified the
fact that it was the CHR, not UNESCO, that was responsible for “establishing an
international bill.” Despite internal debate within UNESCO the very same day
after receiving Compton’s instruction that Huxley “clear the record on UNESCO’s
interest in human rights,” Huxley indignantly refused to alter course.
The Myth of Universality 11
In a May 9 reply to Compton, a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose global
stature was arguably greater than his own, Huxley rejected the idea of sending an
additional letter, since “no useful purpose would be served by a further
communication” from UNESCO on the matter. Moreover, Huxley attempted to
go around Compton by invoking the ambiguous support of none other than
John P. Humphrey, who had visited UNESCO in late April or early May to
“investigate Unesco’s part in this work at length over a period of days” (Letter from
Huxley to Compton, May 9, 1947). According to Huxley, Humphrey’s “conclusion
was that, having launched our own enquiry, we should go ahead as proposed, the
risk of a possible duplication with the Human Rights Commission of the Economic
and Social Council being in fact not serious.” Of course, as we have seen above
(see footnote 3), Humphrey was in a unique position to know in May 1947 that
UNESCO’s survey could not possibly duplicate work on what became the UDHR,
since he himself had written the first and most important draft of the document
just over two months before.
Nevertheless, the official story throughout the spring of 1947 (and for decades
after) was that all the work on the UDHR was yet to come and would be directed
by the Drafting Committee of the CHR. Because of this, UNESCO’s stubborn
refusal to “clear the record” meant that any future collaboration between UNESCO
and the CHR was effectively foreclosed and, along with it, the possibility of the
UNESCO survey influencing the shape and content of what became the UDHR,
let alone determining it. Yet several weeks after this momentous exchange between
Huxley and Compton, which signaled the beginning of the end of Huxley’s ambi-
tious plan for UNESCO in the writing of a declaration “for the entire world,” he
was still taking steps to assemble what he described as a “Drafting Committee of
Unesco on the Rights of Man” (Letter from Huxley to Jean Guehenno, May 1947).
Although the composition of the “committee of experts convened by
UNESCO on the philosophical principles of the rights of man,” as it was formally
called, was in flux right up until it met at UNESCO House in Paris between June
26 and July 2, 1947, it eventually consisted of the following: E. H. Carr (chair),
Richard McKeon (rapporteur), Pierre Auger, Georges Friedmann,
Etienne Gilson,
Harold Laski, Luc Somerhausen, and Chung-Shu Lo. The UNESCO consultant Lo
was added only the day before as a replacement for the Mexican scholar and diplo-
mat Manuel Cabrera Macia, who was then studying for a doctorate at the
Despite the fact that this committee came to be characterized decades later as
the “philosophers’ committee,” it was actually a thoroughly interdisciplinary body.
Although McKeon, Gilson, and the last-minute addition Lo were indeed philoso-
phers, the majority of the committee was not. Auger was a nuclear physicist;
Friedmann was a Marxist and (even in 1947) pro-Soviet sociologist; Carr and Laski
were political scientists and historians; and Somerhausen was a Belgian communist
and civil servant who had survived as a Nacht und Nebel political prisoner in the
Nazi concentration camp at Esterwegen.
During the week’s meeting in Paris, the committee had before it the forty-four
responses to the UNESCO survey on human rights that had been received by late
June, more than half of which were from US and British respondents. With Huxley
The Myth of Universality 607
dealing with the diplomatic fallout from the UNESCO process and soon to be dis-
tancing himself from it, Havet reasserted his role with vigor. He produced a series
of working documents for the committee to consider during the sessions that made
it clear that its task was to formulate a position on human rights that would support
the drafting of a “Declaration on the Rights of Man for the entire world” (his
phrase from UNESCO/Phil/1/1947, which reappears frequently), regardless of what
the responses to the UNESCO survey contained.
As Havet explained, in a letter to E. H. Carr on June 2, while the eventual
report to the CHR “must consider as imperative a completely truthful statement of
both agreement and disagreement ... it is perhaps desirable to make the utmost
effort to transcend the views put forward and [to] assert a higher philosophical spi-
rit.” To this end, Havet asked the committee to consider the specific rights and
freedoms from his March aide-memoire to decide which could be included in the
report to the CHR. Indeed, beyond “election of officers,” the only other substantive
item on the agenda for the meeting was the “drafting of a report for the Commis-
sion on Human Rights of the United Nations.”
Although only circumstantial evidence exists, it is likely that the committee’s
sessions, which were held in English, were dominated by Carr, Laski, and, above
all, McKeon, the fearsome US philosophy professor who had—more than anyone
else except Havet—played the most critical part in the UNESCO process up to
that time. With the exception of the larger-than-life Gilson, who had been elected
an “immortal” member of the Acad
emie franc¸aise the year before, the other French
speakers (Auger, Friedmann, and Somerhausen) made minimal contributions to the
proceedings, either during the sessions themselves or through the later minor revi-
sions to the documents that the committee produced (including the report prepared
for the CHR).
Lo, the “Chinese philosopher passing through Paris” who was added to the
committee at the last minute, also did not play any noticeable role during the ses-
sions (although he did write a response to the UNESCO survey, which was later
invested with great importance). Finally, the committee was visited by Rene Cassin,
who “was anxious to express the interest he felt for Unesco’s undertaking”
(UNESCO/Phil/8/1947). Cassin, it might be remembered, was the French delegate
to the CHR who went on to win the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize for being the “Father
of the Declaration of Human Rights” (Nobel Media AB 2014), based largely on
decades of overstating his role in the UDHR drafting process (see Morsink 1999,
8–9; see also Hobbins 1989).
Within days after the meeting, McKeon, who was staying on in Paris to attend
a meeting of UNESCO’s Executive Committee in late July as a replacement for
Milton Eisenhower, the Chairman of the US National Commission, went to work
drafting two documents, which he finished in less than a week: first, an administra-
tive report on the session; and second, a document entitled “The Grounds of an
International Declaration of Human Rights” that was intended as the official
UNESCO report to the CHR. In the first, McKeon underscored the fact that the
committee’s work was, in an important sense, prefigured, despite the actual—and
potentially confounding—range of responses that UNESCO had received. As he
put it, the committee “decided that its task was to explore the philosophical bases
The Myth of Universality 13
of human rights for the purpose of clarifying grounds of possible agreement underly-
ing divergent philosophic approaches and of facilitating the removal of differences
(UNESCO/Phil/9/1947, emphasis added).
In other words, the possibility that the many responses to the UNESCO survey
would undermine the “preparation of a Declaration of Human Rights” was never
considered. Nevertheless, McKeon went on to say that the opposition to human
rights and the various philosophical differences were serious enough that UNESCO
should consider overseeing a second inquiry at some future time by employing for
“about six months the services of a scholar competent on the question” (he was no
doubt thinking of himself as the ideal candidate). Despite the fact that UNESCO
did continue to play a role, albeit a minor one, in the area of human rights in the
years after the 1948 UDHR was adopted, it never took McKeon up on his sugges-
tion to undertake a critical and unfettered evaluation of the responses that had
been received to the 1947 survey.
As for McKeon’s “The Grounds of an International Declaration of Human
Rights,” it has had an interesting trajectory. Its content combines elements from
McKeon’s personal response to the UNESCO survey with Havet’s aide-memoire,
particularly in the way it lists specific rights and freedoms that supposedly reflect
universal agreement and adherence. What it does not represent, however, is a col-
lective analysis and expression of the diversity of the forty-four responses received
by the time of the 1947 meeting in Paris. The document, which was intended as
the official UNESCO statement on human rights for the CHR, was circulated
among the other members of the committee of experts for comment and revision.
No major revisions were suggested or made to McKeon’s document. With the
exception of Somerhausen, who pleaded with Havet to have the document
translated into French, the only other members to respond were E. H. Carr and
Chung-Shu Lo, both of whom asked for clarification about a human right to rebel-
lion that McKeon had included in the document, and Pierre Auger, who wanted to
ensure that a right to work was retained in the report.
On August 1, 1947, Huxley sent a copy of “The Grounds of an International
Declaration of Human Rights” with an explanatory cover letter to Henri Laugier,
UN Assistant Secretary-General for social affairs, in Lake Success, New York, and at
the same time sent fifty copies directly to John P. Humphrey in Geneva, where the
CHR was to meet for a second session in December. One month later, in September
1947, E. H. Carr, who had served as the UNESCO committee’s chair, repudiated
5. For example, in the spring of 1952, UNESCO carried out an opinion survey about the UDHR in
the three university towns of Grenoble (France), Uppsala (Sweden), and Cambridge (United Kingdom),
which were chosen because it was believed they would represent a leading-edge of awareness about human
rights. The survey, which asked questions like “Do you think all clever children should be able to get higher
education, even if their parents cannot afford to pay?” and “Negroes, Chinese and Japanese should have the
same freedom of opinion, of speech and of the press as we have, yes or no?” yielded disappointing results.
Despite the fanfare and international coverage, very few people had any idea at all about human rights in
1952, even in centers of international academic exchange. Indeed, the counterintuitive findings of the
opinion survey led the project leader to claim, in his official report, that “the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights contains the weaknesses inherent to its nature. These weaknesses are to be found essentially
in its lack of sociological foundation” (Report of J. Goormaghtigh, consultant, to Jacques Godchot,
UNESCO Social Sciences Department, 1952).
The Myth of Universality 609
both the report and the broader process of drafting a declaration of human rights. In
a letter to Huxley, which also reflected the grave concerns of Auger and Somerhau-
sen, whose “doubts are even stronger than mine,” Carr argued that the basic idea of
searching for universal principles upon which a declaration of human rights could be
based was flawed to its core, since it treated an essentially political process as a philo-
sophical one. As he put it, you “can compromise in politics, but not—unless you are
either stupid or intellectually dishonest—in philosophy.” And moreover, if the draft-
ing of a declaration “is in any way tolerably done, it will blow to pieces the minimum
agreement reached [through politics] by showing the hollowness of its foundation”
(Letter from Carr to Huxley, September 29, 1947).
But what happened to “The Grounds of an International Declaration of Human
Rights” once it reached the CHR? In an extraordinary discussion in closed session in
December 1947, the CHR officially rejected both the UNESCO report and UNES-
CO’s meddlesome intrusion into the process that would lead to the UDHR one year
later. The Belgian delegate, Fernand Dehousse, angrily demanded to know who had
authorized UNESCO to conduct a study of human rights and prepare its report to
the CHR. Both Roosevelt and Humphrey professed ignorance or little knowledge of
UNESCO’s survey, with Humphrey responding that he “had the impression that
UNESCO had acted on its own initiative. Nothing in the Resolutions of the Com-
mission or of the Economic and Social Council could have decided UNESCO to
draw up that Report” (CHR, E/CN.4/SR/26, December 3, 1947).
Roosevelt, for her part, replied that “her opinion had not been asked” about
the legitimacy of the UNESCO study and report. Dehousse, not satisfied, went on
to chastise UNESCO further for its “most regrettable” actions and demand that the
“very dangerous precedent” be met with formal disapproval by the CHR. With
others, including the Soviet delegate Bogomolov and the Australian delegate Hodg-
son, joining the chorus of anti-UNESCO sentiment, the CHR voted eight to four
(with one abstention) effectively to suppress “The Grounds of an International
Declaration of Human Rights” and to refuse to distribute it to “Members of the
United Nations” as part of the broader UDHR drafting process.
A World Made New ... and Even Newer
Despite the fact that the UNESCO human rights survey was a creative, if
nearly accidental, concession to the exigencies of time; despite the fact that the
responses it received were unrepresentative in the extreme, even by the standards
of 1947; despite the fact that no systematic criteria were developed or applied at
any stage in the process, from the selection of potential respondents to the analysis
of the responses; and despite the fact that the content that emerged from the
UNESCO process largely reflected the thinking of only two people (Havet and
6. In many ways, the rejection of UNESCO’s report by the CHR had been anticipated by Huxley even
before the committee of experts had convened in Paris in late June 1947. As C. M. Berkeley, Huxley’s trusted
executive assistant put it, in a letter to a friend in the British Ministry of Education, “I think we did shoot rather
fast on this one, and there was certainly a feeling in Lake Success that we were trying to steal the limelight
from the Human Rights Commission” (Letter from C. M. Berkeley to F. R. Cowell, June 19, 1947).
The Myth of Universality 15
McKeon); nevertheless, a very different interpretation was given to UNESCO’s role
from the very first public accounts. Indeed, it was Havet himself who laid the foun-
dations for what might be thought of as the imaginary construction of universality
in the findings of the UNESCO survey.
In an August 1948 article, entitled “Distinguished World Thinkers Study Bases
of Human Rights,” published in the UNESCO Courier, Havet described the results
and implications of UNESCO’s “world-wide symposium of the philosophic bases of
Human Rights.” Because the United Nations was involved in “one of the most sig-
nificant projects in social history: the drafting of a universal bill of Human Rights,”
a “special committee” of UNESCO (actually, Havet himself) prepared a survey that
was “despatched to philosophers, scientists and political figures throughout the
world.” The responses received by UNESCO “represented nearly all the world’s
national groups and nearly all ideological approaches.” A UNESCO committee of
experts, which was “made up of persons representing a wide range of opinions and
faiths,” drafted “statements” (in the plural) that attempted to “show to what extent
seemingly widely-opposed conceptions [about human rights] aimed at common
future ideals.” Finally, these “statements” (again in the plural) “were sent to the
Human Rights Commission which considered them at its meeting in Geneva in
December [1947]” (Havet 1948, 8).
So here we have the key elements of the imaginary construction: a “world-
wide symposium”; a survey on human rights sent “throughout the world”; responses
flooding in that reflected “all the world’s national groups and nearly all ideological
approaches”; a committee of experts “representing a wide range of opinions and
faiths” carefully analyzing the responses and discovering, perhaps despite their incli-
nations, that they revealed a universal consensus on basic principles; and finally,
“statements” being passed on to the CHR to be made part of its deliberations over
the content of the UDHR.
Although it took fifty years for this “world-wide symposium” on human rights uni-
versality to be rediscovered, when it was, it was through a curious volume that had
been published under a UNESCO copyright in London and New York in 1949. Human
Rights: Comments and Interpretations (which was later reissued by Greenwood Press in
1973) was assembled under the leading hand of the young Havet, who wrote the book’s
brief foreword and who had overseen two further meetings (in September 1947 and
July 1948) that included members of the UNESCO committee of experts, which had
been convened for the purposes of producing a compilation of the responses.
Besides the foreword, Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations reproduces
thirty-one of the fifty-six to fifty-eight responses to the survey received by
UNESCO, the materials that were sent out in March and April 1947 (UNESCO/
Phil/1/1947), McKeon’s report to the CHR (“The Grounds of an International
Declaration of Human Rights”), and an introduction written by the French Catho-
lic natural law philosopher (and future monk) Jacques Maritain. Maritain, whose
role in the UNESCO human rights process has usually been misstated,
was among
7. For an interesting analysis of the ways in which Maritain’s role in both the UNESCO and CHR
human rights processes has been conventionally mistaken, sometimes absurdly so (e.g., he has been
described as “the signatory of the Declaration of Human Rights”), see Stibora (2013).
The Myth of Universality 611
the original group asked to respond to the March 1947 survey. However, he played
no role in the process until most likely late spring or early summer of 1948. Until
at least April 1948, the two leading candidates for taking up the introduction were
the Dutch phenomenologist Hendrik Josephus Pos and Charlie Dunbar Broad, who
was at the time the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge
University. Yet Maritain’s opening address to UNESCO’s Second General Confer-
ence in Mexico City in December 1947 had made an impact on Huxley, and he
turned to Maritain with time running short largely because he knew that Maritain
had a text that could easily be adapted to the project.
And indeed, Maritain’s introduction is largely modeled on his Mexico City
speech and makes no attempt to analyze the thirty-one responses reproduced in
the book. As a Catholic natural law philosopher, he had already established his
own position about human rights long before, one in which the divine spark of
God manifests itself through human institutions (including human rights) as an
immutable truth. As he had put it in his 1932 The Degrees of Knowledge:“What
we need is not truths that serve us but a truth we may serve” (Maritain [1932]
1959, 4).
In 1990, Alison Dundes Renteln described the broader stakes that linked the
intellectual, political, and moral context in which the UNESCO human rights sur-
vey and its early imaginary construction took place with debates that sharpened at
the dawning of the “age of human rights” decades later:
There was in the 1940s and there remains today some question about the
degree to which the “Universal” Declaration of Human Rights truly
reflects “universal” values. Doubts were not laid to rest on December 10,
1948, with the consequence that the credibility of this potentially revolu-
tionary document has been enveloped in controversy.... What remains to
be determined is the extent to which the UDHR is, in fact, based on val-
ues shared by all systems. (Renteln 1990, 32)
Yet by the late 1990s, this determination had apparently been made, not
through a more careful analysis of the UDHR itself, but through the discovery and
celebration of the contemporaneous, but forgotten, UNESCO human rights survey.
Although a series of human rights histories published around the same time (e.g.,
Lauren 1998; Morsink 1999) devoted space to the revelatory implications of the
UNESCO survey, it was the forceful intellectual and ethical interventions by the
award-winning Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon that made the UNESCO
process famous and established it as a major source of empirical evidence for the
universality of human rights.
Perhaps surprised by the extent to which her incisive and influential 1991 cri-
tique of “rights talk” in the United States had grown beyond its intended bound-
aries to become a foundational challenge to rights more generally, including,
troublingly, human rights, Glendon had devoted herself throughout the 1990s to
the promotion of women’s and human rights, including serving as the Vatican’s rep-
resentative at the landmark 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. At
The Myth of Universality 17
the same time, she was at work on a scholarly study of Eleanor Roosevelt and the
drafting of the UDHR, early versions of which were published in 1998 and 1999.
Although Glendon was working primarily with the 1949 Human Rights:
Comments and Interpretations as her guide, she had clearly discovered something of
basic, even revolutionary, importance in how the origins and contemporary legiti-
macy of human rights should be understood. Her description of the UNESCO pro-
cess and its meaning for ongoing debates over universality, moral imperialism, and
the power of Western institutions, was unambiguous:
In 1946, UNESCO appointed a committee of philosophers to try to figure
out whether it was feasible to frame a “bill of rights” for all peoples and
nations. The committee, which included many of the leading thinkers of
the day, sent a detailed questionnaire to statesmen and scholars in every
part of the world. To their surprise, they found that the lists of basic
rights and values they received from their far-flung sources were essen-
tially similar. (Glendon 1998, 613)
A year later, as Glendon’s research advanced, she returned to the UNESCO
survey, now in the context of a formal campaign against charges that the UDHR,
and human rights more generally, were a set of essentially Western political and
philosophical ideas masquerading as universal truths.
In an extended defense of
human rights universality, Glendon argued that the UNESCO committee had
“discovered to its surprise that a few basic practical concepts of humane conduct
were so widely shared that they ‘may be viewed as implicit in man’s nature as a
member of society’” (Glendon 1999, 5, quoting from McKeon’s essay in UNESCO
1949, 45). But it was through the publication of her 2001 A World Made New that
the far-reaching implications of the UNESCO human rights survey reached a global
Again working with the curious 1949 Human Rights: Comments and Interpreta-
tions as her source, Glendon (2001) devotes an entire chapter (“A Philosophical
Investigation”) to the UNESCO survey, albeit one that is much shorter than the
others in the volume, which are based on groundbreaking archival research in UN
archives and among the papers and memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt, to which
Glendon had been given in some cases unprecedented access. Despite the fact that
a decade after the end of the Cold War “universality [was] under siege” (Glendon
2001, 221), the UNESCO human rights survey of 1947 stood as a formidable
No one has yet improved on the answer of the UNESCO philosophers:
Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been
8. That Glendon was making the case in different arenas for the universality of human rights during
this time is attested to by, among others, her Harvard law school colleague Martha Minow (who later
became dean of the Law School). As Minow put it, “my colleague, Mary Ann Glendon, writes powerfully
about the negotiations over the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. She directly rebuts the charges that the
document, and by implication, the human rights movement, is an imposition by the West on the rest of the
world” (Minow 2002, 166).
The Myth of Universality 613
exaggerated. The group found, after consulting with Confucian, Hindu,
Muslim, and European thinkers, that a core of fundamental principles was
widely shared in countries that had not yet adopted rights instruments and
in cultures that had not embraced the language of rights. Their survey per-
suaded them that basic human rights rest on “common convictions,” even
though those convictions “are stated in terms of different philosophic prin-
ciples and on the background of divergent political and economic systems.
(Glendon 2001, 222, quoting from UNESCO 1949, 258–59)
With this, the myth of human rights universality received its most influential
endorsement and its lasting narrative arc. Indeed, Glendon’s 2001 book went on to
become its own primary source for the UNESCO human rights survey and its dra-
matic implications, eventually coming to replace the problematic 1949 Human
Rights: Comments and Interpretations itself.
Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts
ganz Gerades gezimmert werden. [Out of timber so crooked as that from
which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.]
Immanuel Kant (1784, quoted in Berlin 1991, xi)
Although it might be expected that I will conclude with a discussion of what
is actually revealed in both the thirty-one responses reproduced in the 1949 Human
Rights: Comments and Interpretations and in the remaining twenty-five to twenty-
seven responses that have recently been discovered in the archives, showing how
they do not support either the position taken in McKeon’s “The Grounds of an
International Declaration of Human Rights” or the interpretation given to them
decades later during charged debates over the legitimacy of the global human rights
movement, to do so would be to undermine a central argument of the article.
That is, like dignity, equality, and liberty, the truth—or value, or meaning—of uni-
versal human rights is not something that can be demonstrated empirically. If they
are indeed “implicit in man’s nature as a member of society,” this is a conclusion
that resembles those of theology, of faith, and indeed of much of philosophy itself,
9. Although it is not possible here to analyze the impact of Glendon’s interpretation of the UNESCO
human rights survey on later debates over human rights universality, culture, and Western influence, it is
perhaps useful to note that it has been the basis for hundreds of citations across a wide interdisciplinary liter-
ature. To take just one example, chosen almost at random, from study of human rights and “social justice
education”: “The aforementioned UNESCO philosophers’ survey ... confirmed that these rights were uni-
versal human rights. Although the codification of rights had been a Western undertaking (e.g., the Bill of
Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man), UNESCO found that, ‘where basic human values are con-
cerned, cultural diversity had been exaggerated ... a core of fundamental principles was widely shared in
countries that had not yet adopted rights instruments and in cultures that had not embraced the language of
rights’ (Glendon, 2001, p. 222)” (Grant and Gibson 2013, 87).
10. Nevertheless, a “curated” presentation of all the UNESCO survey responses along with historical
analysis, a discussion of related correspondence, including what I am calling the “substantive refusals” to
respond to the inquiry, and a review of the salient historiographical problems, are undertaken in Goodale
The Myth of Universality 19
in which arguments about something like “the good” or human nature take the
form of struggles over social and symbolic capital, rhetorical power, and conceptual
This is why the basic premise of an empirical demonstration of human rights
universality is itself mistaken. Thus, the historical reconstruction here of what actu-
ally happened during the UNESCO human rights survey is not a way to demon-
strate that the conclusions drawn from it were not, in fact, accurate, as if to suggest
that a dozen or a thousand or even a million more responses to UNESCO/Phil/1/
1947, representing every possible social, gender, regional, economic, and ideological
category, would have crossed an invisible evidentiary threshold beyond which lies
the proof of our common humanity.
Instead, it is to suggest that the entire debate be itself viewed through a differ-
ent optic, one in which it is the question of universality that is of real interest,
rather than the answers. Why was it necessary for Havet to mischaracterize both
the scope of the human rights survey and its findings in the 1948 UNESCO Courier
article? Why would Glendon “directly rebut” the serious claims of Western bias in
the UDHR based on a single book whose compromising origins and compilation
could have been uncovered in several hours of archival research at UNESCO
House in Paris? It is because the alternatives to human rights universality, the alter-
natives to human dignity, the alternatives to a world in which people strive to link
themselves together in a noble chain of ceremony simply cannot be lived, to para-
phrase the German poet Rilke—they are the way toward nationalist, ethnic, and
religious war, persecution, and genocide.
As the UNESCO Courier article put it,
the stakes could not be higher. In a “world distraught with ... fearsome problems”
that had just emerged from “history’s most terrible conflict—a conflict by the peo-
ples of the world against the denial of Human Rights” (Havet 1948, 8), the only
salvation lay in the transcendent truth of our essential sameness, despite it all.
11. It is important to observe that in making this argument, one that is both historical and norma-
tive, I am not suggesting that the reconstructed history of the UNESCO human rights survey and its later
rediscovery constitute a new Ur-moment in the broader and lively historiography of human rights, that
is, the actual point—or, rather, points—in time around which the rest of human rights history should
revolve. Having said this, I would have no objection if other scholars read the story of the UNESCO sur-
vey to mean that the period from the founding of the United Nations in 1945 to the adoption of the
UDHR on December 10, 1948 was more important to the longer history of human rights than has other-
wise been supposed, particularly within the dynamic and absolutely necessary line of revisionist histories
that have enlarged our understanding of human rights as idea, ethics, cultural value(s), and politics,
including Borgwardt (2005), Bradley (2016), Hoffman (2010, 2016), Jensen (2016), Moyn (2010, 2014,
2015), and Roberts (2015).
12. Here, it must be acknowledged, as an anonymous reviewer of an earlier version of this article
pointed out, that various versions of “universal human rights” have been used as a justification for violent
state action throughout history, including as a rationale for colonialism. Nevertheless, particularly in the
post Cold War period in which the UNESCO human rights survey was rediscovered and redeployed as a
trump against charges of Western moral imperialism, human rights were generally considered the precondi-
tion for peaceful relations that appeared to characterize what Fukuyama (1992) called the “end of history.”
13. In drawing this contrast, it is worth noting that I am not making a more general theoretical argu-
ment about the relationship between particular values—like human dignity, universal humanity, equal-
ity—and the norms, like human rights and obligations, that are supposedly derived from them. Rather, I am
representing the way this relationship was understood both by the actors, like Havet and McKeon, who
played a key role in the initial framing of the UNESCO human rights survey in the late 1940s, and by later
scholars who used this framing to support an argument for the universality of human rights.
The Myth of Universality 615
In this way, the enduring struggle to keep the flame of human rights universal-
ity burning through the long, dark night of history depends on the ability of some
to keep telling the myth and equally on our collective willingness to keep listening
to it. If it is true, as Kant argued, that we, in our fraught diversity, are like a twisted
piece of wood that can never be finally straightened, then the myth of universality
must be understood as one of the most important stories we tell ourselves, about
ourselves, as a way of grappling with the implications of this harrowing fact.
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The Myth of Universality 21
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The Myth of Universality 617

Supplementary resource (1)

... In addition, a survey was undertaken before the Conference of Philosophers. However, the participation was limited and unrepresentative despite its global aim, as were the responses and the background of the contributors: 45 replies came from the USA and UK only, 16 from Western Europe, three from South Africa, two from Australia, one from Canada, (accounting for 80 per cent of the total number), six from the Soviet Bloc, three from India, two from Latin America, one from China (Goodale, 2018b). The lack of agreement among the thinkers and philosophers present at the symposium evidenced the distance between the diplomatic stands in charge of the drafting of the Declaration and that of the intellectuals concerned about the topic (Goodale, 2018a). ...
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