I. Human Rights as Politics II. Human Rights as Idolatry

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF is a London-based commentator with the BBC and CBC. He was educated in Canada at Upper Canada College and. Trinity College ...
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I. Human Rights as Politics II. Human Rights as Idolatry MICHAEL IGNATIEFF

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values

Delivered at

Princeton University April 4–7, 2000

Michael Ignatieff is a London-based commentator with the BBC and CBC. He was educated in Canada at Upper Canada College and Trinity College, Toronto, and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has been a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge; École des Hautes Études, Paris; and St. Antony’s College, Oxford; and Visiting Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard. His academic publications include Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (1984); The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Needs (1985); The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1997); Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1999); and, most recently, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000). His non-academic work includes The Russian Album (1987), which won both Canada’s Governor General’s Award and the Heinemann Prize of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature; and Scar Tissue (1993), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. He is currently serving as a member of the independent international commission on Kosovo, chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa.

I. HUMAN RIGHTS AS POLITICS 1. Human Rights and Moral Progress In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes being interviewed by Dr. Pannwitz, chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz.1 Securing a place in the department was a matter of life or death: if Levi could convince Pannwitz that he was a competent chemist, he might be spared the gas chamber. As Levi stood on one side of the doctor’s desk, in his concentration camp uniform, Dr. Pannwitz stared up at him. Levi later remembered: That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third German [reich]. Here was a scientist, trained in the traditions of European rational inquiry, turning a meeting between two human beings into an encounter between different species. Progress may be a contested concept, but we make progress to the degree that we act upon the moral intuition that Dr. Pannwitz was wrong: our species is one and each of the individuals who compose it is entitled to equal moral consideration. Human rights is the language that systematically embodies this intuition, and to the degree that this intuition gains inšuence over the conduct of individuals and states, we can say that we are making moral progress. Richard Rorty’s deŠnition of progress applies here: “an increase in our ability to see more and more differences among people as morally irrelevant.”2 We think of the global diffusion of this idea as progress for two reasons: because if we live by it, we treat more human beings as we would wish to be treated 1 Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, translated by Stuart Woolf (London: Abacus, 1987), pp. 111–12. The signiŠcance of the passage was pointed out to me by Alain Finkielkraut’s L’Humanité perdue: essai sur le 20ième siecle (Paris: Seuil, 1996), pp. 7–11. 2 Richard Rorty, Truth and Moral Progress: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 11.



The Tanner Lectures on Human Values

ourselves and in so doing help to reduce the amount of unmerited cruelty and suffering in the world. Our grounds for believing that the spread of human rights represents moral progress, in other words, are pragmatic and historical. We know from historical experience that when human beings have defensible rights—when their agency as individuals is protected and enhanced—they are less likely to be abused and oppressed. On these grounds, we count the diffusion of human rights instruments as progress even if there remains an unconscionable gap b