This book offers a new materialist thesis that focuses on the dynamic biological core of humans, shared with other animals and the rest of the natural world, to develop a radical theory of human rights. It therefore makes a unique contribution to literature and to academic and societal debates both on new materialisms and on human rights.Many on the political far right deride the concept of a human right. This has occurred in tandem with a growing contempt for the rule of law and for obligations to protect land or the environment, to recognize the rights of minorities, or even to respect the various mechanisms of democracy. On the other hand, ccontemporary ‘left-wing’ inspired literature has also rejected the concept of a human right as Enlightenment inspired and 'western’. This has gone hand in hand with a contestation of ‘essentialism’ and ‘universalism'. These theoretical positions have been variously critiqued as racist, sexist as well as Eurocentric.Drawing on metaphysics and ethics, with protagonists drawn from traditions across analytic and continental philosophy and feminist theory, Assiter challenges these critics to form a distinctive new materialist position. Most people – defenders and critics - take for granted that the concept of human rights and the universal view of humanity derive from the European Enlightenment. However, this book develops a different story of its origin, from the earlier period of both Aristotle and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, and locates the concept of a right partly in our biological core, yet challenges the assumption that this is constructed by language of any kind specifically including scientific discourse.
Alison Assiter is Professor of Feminist Theory at the University of the West of England. Her most recent book is "Kierkegaard, Eve and Metaphors of Birth", R&L, 2015.
In this beautifully written, philosophically astute book, Alison Assiter offers a unique new materialist theory of human rights, drawing on a biologically based materialist ontology to ground a rehabilitated universalism. In a world increasingly forced by overlapping crises to face up to the powers of materiality itself, Assiter offers her readers new ways to think about human rights and their potential. Her work makes a deeply timely, thoughtful contribution.
What makes us human? What are rights? Where did they originate? Scholars and governments have often described human rights as though they emerged from western civilisation, a reading which disregards other traditions which have defined rights from a much older time. Arguing that rights are a western construct elevates western history while undermining other traditions. Likewise, the binary debate about whether rights are individual or collective, too, misses nuances. Finally, the discussion around rights and duties confuses the issue further. Rights are universal, and each individual has inherent dignity; demystifying that in our ever-changing world is no easy task. Alison Assiter delves into philosophy, politics, and history to offer an original interpretation that clarifies the debate while upholding the essential universalism of human rights.
Alison Assiter’s book is a brave, much-needed riposte to the idea that human rights are no longer relevant (and are even destructive) to the progress of humanity. The very language and legal framework of human rights, imperfect as it might be, is at the heart of the daily struggles of the women with whom I work - black and minority women who are amongst the most marginalised and powerless groups in society. Their battles against patriarchal family values, fundamentalist community norms and abuses of state power require them to invoke and challenge the limitations of human rights at the same time. But that has become more difficult in the face of a wholesale assault on the idea of the universality of human rights by the forces of the political Left and Right alike. Assiter skillfully unpicks the critique of some on the Left which sees human rights as a capitalist and western product, a tool of western imperialism. She shows us that the evolutionary roots of human rights lie in all societies, east and west. Her book provides new and crucial ammunition, sorely needed to defend human rights and thereby the goals of feminism: to lose this battle is to lose the very core of our shared humanity.