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Benjamin Gregg

Ph.D., Politics, Princeton University; Ph.D., Philosophy, Freie Universitaet Berlin

Benjamin Gregg


  • Phone: 512.232.7274
  • Office: MEZ 3.138
  • Office Hours: by appointment only
  • Campus Mail Code: A1800


Research Interests

Social integration in complex modern societies; problems and prospects of contemporary forms of justice, including human rights; restorative justice; coping with value pluralism within democratic societies but also in non-liberal polities around the world; deploying contemporary sociological theory to solve problems in political philosophy; the social, legal, and political consequences of the human species taking control of its genome

Current Book-Length Project Under Review at Cambridge University Press

Second Nature: The Political, Legal, and Moral Consequences of the Human Species Taking Control of its Genome

Research supported by three-year grant for the Humanities Research Award, College of Liberal Arts, UT-Austin, 2014, 2015, 2016

Selected Publication

“Human Rights as Metaphor for Political Community Beyond the Nation State," forthcoming, Critical Sociology, forthcoming 2015

The Human-Rights State (University of Pennsylvania Press, under advance contract, forthcoming 2014)

“Die Bedeutung des Internets für die Bildung einer kritischen Öffentlichkeit” [Problems and Prospects for a Critical Public Sphere On-Line], in Kurt Imhof, Frank Welz, Christian Fleck and Georg Vobruba, eds. Neuer Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS Verlag, forthcoming 2014

“Im Strukturwandel der Weltöffentlichkeit: Auf dem Wege zu einem Pluralismus?” [A Pluralistic Conception of Human Rights for a Global Public Sphere?], in in Kurt Imhof, Frank Welz, Christian Fleck and Georg Vobruba, eds. Neuer Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS Verlag, forthcoming 2014

Paperback edition of Human Rights as Social Construction (Cambridge University Press), published July 2013 (hardcopy twice re-printed, 2012)

“Teaching Human Rights in the College Classroom as a Cognitive Style,” in J. Shefner, H. Dahms, R. Jones, and A. Jalata, eds., Social Justice and the University, Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave (2014): 253-279

“Might the Noble Savage have Joined the Earliest Cults of Rousseau?” in  Jesko Reiling and Daniel Tröhler, eds., Entre hétérogénéité et imagination. Pratiques de la réception de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Genève: Éditions Slatkine (in the series Travaux sur la Suisse des Lumières (2013): 345-364

“Genetic Enhancement: A New Dialectic of Enlightenment?” in Perspektiven der Aufklärung: Zwischen Mythos und Realität, ed. Dietmar Wetzel. Paderborn, Germany: Verlag Wilhelm Fink (2012): 133-146

“Comparative Perspectives on Social Integration in Pluralistic Societies: Thick Norms versus Thin,” Comparative Sociology 11 (2012):629-648

“Politics Disembodied and Deterritorialized: The Internet as Human Rights Resource” in H. Dahms and L. Hazelrigg, eds., Theorizing Modern Society as a Dynamic Process (in Current Perspectives in Social Theory, vol. 30). Bingley, UK: Emerald (2012): 209–233

Human-Rights as Social Construction. Cambridge University Press, 2012

(+)  first printing sold out within seven months of publication; now in its second printing; ranks among CUP’s ten bestsellers in political theory (other authors on the list include Bernard Manin, Theda Skocpol, Jane Mansbridge, Mark Bevir, and Cass Sunstein):

(+) interviewed on PBS station KLRU regarding this book, August 2012

(+) paperback edition, May 2013

Joint review of Human Rights and Memory by Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider (Penn State University Press, 2010) and of Humanitarianism and Modern Culture by Keith Tester (Penn State University Press, 2010): Perspectives on Politics 10 (2) (June 2012): 456-458

“Individuals as Authors of Human Rights: Not only Addressees,” Theory and Society 39 (2010) 631-661

 “Deploying Cognitive Sociology to Advance Human Rights,” Comparative Sociology 9 (2010) 279-307 

 “Anti-Imperialism: Generating Universal Human Rights Out of Local Norms,” Ratio Juris 23 (2010) 289-310

 “Enlightened Localism in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Sociology 9(2010) 563-593

 “Familiendämmerung in Amerika?” in S. Caspar und C. Gehrke, ed. Familien-Bande. Tübingen: Konkursbuch Verlag (2009) 321-329

 “Translating Human Rights into Muslim Vernaculars,” Comparative Sociology 7 (2008): 415–433

 Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Yale University Press, 2008): Law and Politics Book Review 18 (2008) 452-455

 Review: In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World, by Ari Kohen (Routledge, 2007): Perspectives on Politics 6 (2008) 373-374

 “In Lieu of Writing a Life: Twenty-Six Views,” in R. Louis, ed., Orange Britannia. Austin: University of Texas Press (2006) 624-635

Review: Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire: by Wendy Brown (Princeton University Press, 2006): Law and Politics Book Review 17 (2007) 318-325

Review: Rousseau and Law by Thom Brooks, ed. Law and Politics Book Review 16 (2006) 372-383 (with David Williams)

Review: Legality and Legitimacy by Carl Schmitt (Duke University Press, 2005), Law and Politics Book Review 14 (2005) 619-623

Thick Moralities, Thin Politics: Social Integration across Communities of Belief (Duke University Press, 2003)

Coping In Politics with Indeterminate Norms: A Theory of Enlightened Localism (SUNY Press, simultaneously in two series: Political Theory: Contemporary Issues, edited by Philip Green, and Radical Social and Political Theory, edited by Roger Gottlieb, 2003)

“Proceduralism Reconceived: Political Conflict Resolution under Conditions of Moral Pluralism,” Theory and Society 31 (2002) 741-776

“The Law and Courts of Enlightened Localism,” Polity 35 (2002) 283-309

“Using Legal Rules in an Indeterminate World: Overcoming the Limitations of Jurisprudence,” Political Theory 27 (1999) 389-410

“Adjudicating Among Competing Systems of Belief,” International Review of Sociology 9 (1999) 7-17

“Jurisprudence in an Indeterminate World: Pragmatist not Postmodern,” Ratio Juris 11 (1998) 382-398

Review: “The Normative Poverty of Legal Formalism,” review essay on Between the Norm and the Exception. The Frankfurt School and the Rule of Law by William Scheuerman, Political Theory 26 (1998) 237-244

Translation: Portions of Herbert Marcuse, Technology, War and Fascism (Vol. 1 of the Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse), edited by Douglas Kellner (Routledge, 1998)

Review: “Democracy in Normatively Fragmented Societies,” review essay on Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms. Review of Politics 59 (1997) 927-930

Review: “How to Look for Autonomous Law, in China or Elsewhere,” review essay on China's Legal Awakening. Legal Theory and Criminal Justice in Deng's Era by Carlos Wing-hung Lo, in Review of Central and East European Law 23 (1997) 165-172

“Law in China: The Tug of Tradition, the Push of Capitalism,” Review of Central and East European Law 21 (1995) 65-86

“Possibility of Social Critique in an Indeterminate World,” in Theory and Society 23 (1994) 327-366; Japanese translation in Hokkudai Hogaku Ronshu 50 (1999), no. 3:235-256 and no. 4:335-365

“Regulating Commercial Speech: A Question Political Not Legal,” State Constitutional Commentaries and Notes 5 (1994) 18-29

“Puragumattiku na hogaku no kanosei” [Possibility of a Pragmatic Jurisprudence], Chiba Journal of Law and Politics 8 (3) (Jan. 1994) 97-119 and 8 (4) (Mar. 1994) 59-109

Review: “The Failed Quest for a Principled Jurisprudence,” review essay on Common Law and Liberal Theory by James Stoner, Legal Studies Forum 18 (1994) 113-123

“The Modernization of Contemporary Chinese Law,” The Review of Politics 55 (1993) 443-470

Translation: Karl-Otto Apel, "Can an Ultimate Foundation of Knowledge Be Non-Metaphysical?" (Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1993)

“The Parameters of Possible Constitutional Interpretation” in Robert Wuthnow, ed., Vocabularies of Public Life: Empirical Essays in Symbolic Structure (London: Routledge, 1992) 207-233; Japanese translation in Kokugakuin Hogaku 32 (1995), no. 2 and no. 3

“The Fate of Liberalism in the New, Tripolar World-Order” in Yoshiyuki Ogasawara (ed.), Chiiki-Funso to Sogoizon. Tokyo: University of Foreign Studies Press (1993) 1-27

Review: From Marx to Kant by Dick Howard (SUNY Press, 1988), Theory and Society (1989) 417-423

Review: Kritik der Macht. Reflexionsstufen einer kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie by Axel Honneth (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988), New German Critique 47 (1989) 183-188

“Falankefu xuepai dui lixin tongzhi de pipan” [The Frankfurt School’s Critique of Rational Authority] in Guowai Shehui Xue 4 (1988) 3-9

Translation: Jürgen Habermas, "Felicitation" (in An Unmastered Past, University of California Press, 1988)

Translation: Leo Lowenthal, "The Left in Germany Has Failed" (in An Unmastered Past, University of California Press, 1988)

Review: “Modernity in Frankfurt: Must a History of Philosophy be a Philosophy of History?”, review essay on Norm, Critique, and Utopia by Seyla Benhabib, Theory and Society 16 (1987) 139-151

Review: “In Defense of a Skeptical Rationalism” in Theory and Society 16 (1987) 159-163

Translation: Samuel Weber, "The Parable" (in Daniel Paul Schreber, Memories of My Nervous Illness, Harvard University Press, 1987)

Translation: Herbert Schnädelbach, "What is Neo-Aristotelianism?" (Praxis International, 1987)

Translation: Sigrid Meuschel, "The Search for Normality in the Relationship Between Jews and Germans" (New German Critique, 1986)

Translation: Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics (MIT Press, 1985)

Review: Theory and Politics by Helmut Dubiel (MIT Press, 1984), Telos (1985) 207-214

Recent Awards

Three-year grant for the Humanities Research Award, College of Liberal Arts, UT-Austin, 2014, 2015, 2016, for research for monograph, Second Nature: The Political, Legal, and Moral Consequences of the Human Species Taking Control of its Genome

Faculty research travel award from The Center for European Studies for archival research at the Federal Commission for Documents of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (die Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik), for a project on the distinctly, indeed vehemently petit-bourgeois quality of the normative presuppositions of post-fascist, ordinary totalitarian regime of the usual Soviet-bloc variety, as expressed by the self-understanding of East German spies (2010).

Research fellowship from the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, Berlin-Babelsberg, Germany, undertaken at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (2008)

College of Liberal Arts 1999 Silver Spurs Fellowship for outstanding scholarship and teaching

Recent Guest Professorships

Leopold-Franzens Universität, Innsbruck, Austria (2013, 2016)
Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany (2009, 2012, 2013, 2014)

Recent or Upcoming Conference Presentations

2014 Author-Meets-Critics Roundtable on Gregg, Human Rights as Social Construction,” American Sociological Association, Annual Meetings, San Francisco, August 16-19

2014 "The Body as Human Rights Boundary," American Sociological Association, Annual Meetings: San Franciscio, August 16-19

2014 “Human Rights and ‘Humanitarian’ Military Intervention,” Critical Sociology Conference, American Sociological Association Annual Meetings, Marriot Marquis, San Francisco, August 18

2014 "Do Human Rights Require Democracy and the Rule of Law?" International Political Science Association World Congress, Montréal, Québec, July 19-24

2014 “The Local Construction Of a Human Right To Democracy,” XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, July 13-19

2014 “What Cognitive Sociology Can Contribute To Human Rights Diffusion,” XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, July 13-19

2013 Keynote Speaker: "Advancing Human Rights by Bringing Them Down to Earth," Student World Assembly, Norwalk, Connecticut, November 19

2013 Invited Lecture: "The Pathology of the Surveillance State: On Reading My Stasi File," British Studies, University of Texas as Austin, October 25

2013 American Political Science Association, Annual Meetings, “Author-Meets-Critics Roundtable on Gregg, Human Rights as Social Construction,” Chicago, 29 August – 1 September, with panelists Andrew Koppelman, Northwestern University; Alison Brysk, UCSB; Michael Goodhart, University of Pittsburgh; Micheline Ishay, University of Denver

2013 American Political Science Association, Annual Meetings, “Human Rights Patriotism,” Chicago, 29 August – 1 September

2013 American Sociological Association, Conference on Re-Imagining Human Rights – The Challenge of Agency, Creativity, and Global Justice, “International Relations in a Community of Human Rights States,” August 13, The Westin New York at Times Square, New York City

2013 Russian Political Science Association and International Political Science Association Research Committee, “Developing Human Rights Commitment in Post Communist Societies through Education,” St. Petersburg, Russia, 13-14 June

2013 Midwest Political Science Association, Annual Meetings, “Author-Meets-Critics Roundtable on Gregg, Human Rights as Social Construction,” Chicago, April 11-14 with panelists Dana Villa, University of Notre Dame; Jonathan Allen, Northern Michigan University; Adam Seagrave, University of Notre Dame; and Kristen Johnson, Hope College

2013 Midwest Political Science Association, Annual Meetings, “The Human Rights State: Nongeographic ‘Borders’ Embedded in the Citizen,” April 11-14

2012 Europa-Universität Viadrina (Germany), “Unilateral Military Intervention to Stop Human Rights Violations: Defensible on What Human Rights Basis?” May 11

2012 Southern Sociological Society: “Genetic Manipulation and the Difference between Being a Body and Having a Body,” New Orleans, March 21-24

2011 Dritter gemeinsamer Kongress für Soziologie der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie, der Östereichischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie und der Sweizerischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie: "Gegen politische Alltagesentfremdung und –asymmetrie: Zur Bildung einer kritischen Internet-Öffentlichkeit,” Innsbruck, Austria, 29 September – 1 October

2011 Dritter gemeinsamer Kongress für Soziologie der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie, der Östereichischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie und der Sweizerischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie: “Menschenrechtsnormen als treibende Subjekte des Strukturwandels der Welt-Öffentlichkeit: Zum Pluralismus hin,” Innsbruck, Austria, 29 September – 1 October

2011 Political Studies Association (UK) Annual Conference: “The Genetic Self-Enhancement of the Human Species: Human Nature as Cultural Choice,” London, UK, 19-21 April

2011 Invited talk, University of Nebraska: “Self-Granted Human Rights,” 23 January

2010 Société suisse de Sociologie, international conference titled: “Perspektiven der Aufklärung − zwischen Mythos und Realität,” Bern, Switzerland, 16-17 September 2010: lecture titled “Aufgeklärte Eugenik oder Eugenik wider Gleichheit?"

Graduate and Undergraduate Courses Taught

Manipulation of the Human Genome: Legal and Moral Issues; Political Theory Field Core Seminar on Plato, Augustine, Spinoza; Empire and Early Modern Theory; Global Justice; Contemporary American Social Theory; Contemporary European Social Theory; Critical Social Theory; Political Community; Theories in Social Science; Social Theories of Law and Politics; Law and Morality in German Social Thought; Politics of Constitutional Meaning; Legal Modernization in China; State Sovereignty and Human Rights; Contemporary Political Theory; Kant and Hegel; Social Theory in Political Analysis; Early Cosmopolitan Political Thought: St. Paul, Badiou, Derrida

Collection of Essays, Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010), titled “Enlightened Localism in Comparative Perspective” (applying various aspects of the theory I develop in Coping in Politics with Indeterminate Norms: A Theory of Enlightened Localism) with contributions from

▪ Benjamin Gregg. “Enlightened Localism in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):594-610

▪ Lea Ypi (Oxford University, UK): “Basic Rights and Cosmopolitan Justice from an Enlightened Localist Perspective,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):594-610

▪ Jonathan White (London School of Economics, UK): “Responding to Norm Indeterminacy beyond the Nation-State Frame,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):611-630

▪ Junmin Wang (University of Memphis, USA): “Enlightened Localism in Contemporary China: Political Change in Property-Rights Institutions of Township and Village Enterprises,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):631-662

▪ Ko Hasegawa (Hokkaido University, Japan): “Integrating a Racial and Ethnic Minority into Dominant Society from the Perspective of Enlightened Localism: The Case of the Japanese Ainu,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):663-685

▪ Manu Ahedo Santisteban (University Rovira Virgili, Spain): “Enlightened Localism and Local Experimentalism in Public Policy: Schooling Policies of Children with Immigrant Backgrounds in Denmark and Spain,” Comparative Sociology 9(5) (2010):686-710

Collection of Essays, Comparative Sociology, forthcoming in issue 5 of 2012, titled “Comparative Perspectives on Social Integration in Pluralistic Societies: Thick Norms versus Thin” (applying various aspects of the theory I develop in Thick Moralities, Thin Politics: Social Integration across Communities of Belief (2003)), with contributions from

▪ Benjamin Gregg, “Comparative Perspectives on Social Integration in Pluralistic Societies: Thick Norms versus Thin”

▪ Kristen Johnson: “Towards a Vision of Thick Conversation: Explorations in Bioethics and Interfaith Deliberation”

▪ Patti Lenard: “Democratic Self-Determination and Non-Citizen Residents”

▪ Aaron Struvland: “Religion and the Prospects for Thin Politics”

▪ Peter Mohanty: “Thick and Thin Public Sentiments and the Politics of Immigration in Europe”

▪ William O’Neil: “Mediating Between Thick Invocations of the Common Good and Thin Appeals to Human Rights: The Case of South Africa”

▪ Harry Dahms: “Theorizing Europe as the Future of Modern Society: European Integration between Thick Norms and Thin Politics”


Political, social, legal, and sociological theory of complex modern societies

New review 1: Human Rights as Social Construction

Human Rights Review
© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Book Review

Human Rights as Social Construction by Benjamin Gregg

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012
Martin Woessner1  
Center for Worker Education, The City College of New York (CUNY), 25 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10004, USA
Martin Woessner
Published online: 26 April 2014
Since at least 1947, when a UNESCO committee asked some of the world’s top philosophical minds to provide justifications for the idea of human rights, the bond between philosophy and human rights activism has been more contested than celebrated. In the 65 years since the passing of the UN Universal Declaration, the cause of human rights has made great headway in the world. The philosophy of human rights, however, remains embroiled in debates that, to the outside world, must seem all but intractable. Philosophers still argue about the exact nature of human rights—about where they arise and what they entail. Are they the products of natural law or positive jurisprudence? Are they universal or do they reflect local, cultural tendencies? Like philosophy more generally, the philosophy of human rights provides more questions than answers. In this respect, some have suggested that it serves little purpose in contemporary struggles to enact and enforce human rights across the globe.
Benjamin Gregg’s Human Rights as Social Construction admirably seeks to remedy this situation. It does so by puncturing some of the hubris that often accompanies philosophical debate, while simultaneously elevating the conceptual contributions to the idea of human rights made by such varied fields as sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology. It is the implicit, interdisciplinary argument of Human Rights as Social Construction, in fact, that by becoming more like these disciplines, philosophy might avoid some of the perennial stumbling blocks that it sets for itself. Rather than seeking final, transcendentally derived foundations for human rights, Gregg suggests a “social constructionist” (1) approach, one that views human rights less as an unyielding cornerstone for moral theory and more as a “rhetorical vehicle” (5) capable of carrying various meanings and serving multiple purposes. Unlike some of his more transcendentally or analytically inclined colleagues, Gregg emphasizes a “pragmatic imperative for desired results” over an “epistemological imperative for objective truth” (5).
Gregg sets himself the difficult, paradoxical task of articulating plausible foundations for his human rights anti-foundationalism. “To embrace the idea of human rights,” he claims, “one need not ground it” (14). His is a secular, pragmatic, and thoroughly contextual conception of human rights, one that eschews any discussion of such unmoved movers as human nature, divine dignity, or even transcendental rationality. His post-metaphysical and post-theological perspective, articulated in the either/or logic of the first two chapters of the book, points him in the direction of localism over universalism, of anthropology, neurobiology, and sociology over and against theology. Emphasizing the importance of human culture and, consequently, human agency, Gregg thinks that “we humans can pull ourselves up morally by our own normative bootstraps” (38). To do so requires abandoning a conception of human rights as something given, waiting to be discovered, in favor of seeing them as something made—and made by us.
Conceiving of human rights as a social construction, as a product of human agency, local culture, and pragmatic politics, has several distinct advantages, chief among them being that such a conception travels better in the world and “does not require coercive promotion” (74). If we construct human rights, then we are responsible for them. We cannot hide behind theological or metaphysical precepts. Keen to avoid charges of cultural imperialism, Gregg advocates a relativistic, “goal-oriented moral minimimalism” (78), resources for which he finds in the various cultural and psychological processes comprising cultural socialization. Human rights, in other words, are a learning process. They are products of an “assertive selfhood” (91) that both reflects and motivates moral autonomy. To claim rights is to have them, but to claim them requires a prior “socialization into assertive selfhood” (106), something Gregg interprets as a fundamentally cultural process, though it must certainly be historical, too.
Expanding on the idea of self-authored human rights presented in chapter four, Gregg then turns, in chapter five, to the role played by the emotions in the development of the idea of human rights. Here he draws upon research in the areas of intellectual history and neurobiology, making the case that “mutualism and altruism” are biological dispositions that can be harnessed by a particular kind of cultural socialization—namely sentimental education—in the service of human rights solidarity. As scholars such as Richard Rorty and Lynn Hunt have argued, sentimental education may actually prove more beneficial for human rights than any set of rational, philosophical arguments articulated on their behalf (117, 125). Sentimental persuasion trumps philosophizing, it seems, and some might wish that there were more of it on display throughout this rigorously argued but densely written book.
In chapters six and seven, which comprise part three of Human Rights as Social Construction, questions of real-world application emerge. Adopting a sociological approach, Gregg describes his method here as “modernist, non-absolutist, historicizing, and contextualizing” (155). Above all, he wants to present human rights as fluid and flexible—more a “cognitive style” than a fixed set of doctrines (147). This “cognitive style” promotes and is necessarily open to what Gregg, drawing on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, calls “reframing” (164). Tackling such vexing real-world issues as child prostitution and female genital cutting, Gregg offers examples of how “reframing”—a kind of cognitive persuading, we could call it—might help the back-and-forth process of translating human rights values into and out of local, cultural contexts. Chapter eight attempts a similar negotiation with regard to the question of genetic manipulation. Rejecting the “re-enchantment of human nature” (206) advocated by some critics of biotechnology, including even heirs to the Frankfurt School-derived critique of the so-called “dialectic of Enlightenment,” a tradition he otherwise embraces, Gregg again emphasizes human, cultural responsibility for our moral self-concepts, even and especially when they confront such difficult questions as the definition of nature itself.
Human Rights as Social Construction ends where it begins, with politics. In the final chapter of the book, Gregg recommends “re-conceiving the nation-state” along the lines of the human rights idea (216). As a way station between local vernaculars and universal aspirations, the nation-state would ensure that human rights are “established and enforced at local levels as locally valid norms” (222). Arguing for political conceptions of human rights over and against narrowly metaphysical or theological ones, Gregg concludes by urging us to “assume the stance of active producers of our fate” rather than continuing to think of ourselves as “passive ‘consumers’ of otherworldly givens” (234). In a day and age when consumerism continues to define ever more of our lives, including even our nation-state citizenship, one can only hope that those still left in the public sphere are listening, and that they are at least partly persuaded.

New review 2 : Human Rights as Social Construction

René Wolfsteller

Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 2, May 2014, pp. 492-496


Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2014.0031


Benjamin Gregg, Human Rights as

Social Construction (Cambridge

University Press, 2013), ISBN 978-

1-1076-1294-5, 272 pages.


The evolution of the political theory of

human rights for the past twenty years

is perhaps best described—by altering

a phrase of Charles Taylor1—as a

“metaphysical limbo” of legitimation. In

the course of this “limbo” scholars from

various disciplines have been engaging in

a competition to provide a better, more

persuasive foundation for the universal

legitimacy of human rights, but simultaneously

with allegedly less demanding

1. Charles Taylor, What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty, in The Liberty Reader 162 (David

Miller ed., 2006).

2014 Book Reviews 493

assumptions. Yet, rather than revealing

a universal basis of legitimacy to make

human rights more accessible and attractive,

many scholarly suggestions

have contributed to the construction of

new boundaries. Those boundaries have

typically been the result of a dubious

recycling of rational inequality, whereby

some people are considered capable of

making use of their reason in a superior

way to others,2 and hence are able to

lead morally virtuous lives according to

human rights norms. For example, such

boundaries and limitations of equality

were fuelled by arguments that human

rights require a theological fundament,

like the belief in God and human sacredness.


In a more interventionist sense, the

liberal philosopher John Rawls argued

that societies abiding human rights as

“part of a reasonable law of peoples”

have the duty to subject so-called “outlaw

regimes” to the rule of “reasonable and

just law” in order to overcome the state of

nature.4 In his contribution to the debate,

the postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard

insisted on the fact that the “right to

speak” as “the most fundamental human

right” has to be merited by undergoing

a certain process of “civilization” to

free oneself from “his animal nature.”5

However, the nadir of this competition

has been the claim of the communitarian

Amitai Etzioni, whereby people “under

the influence of . . . alcohol, drugs, or

merely a high dose of mass culture, or

those who are mentally handicapped, are

blind to even the most shining normative

light,” and thus, are the main obstacle to

the realization of human rights within

liberal democratic societies.6

With his study Human Rights as Social

Construction, the political theorist

Benjamin Gregg intercedes in the dispute

with a conception of human rights that

tries to tear down those boundaries, to

make human rights more accessible,

and to mediate between the numerous

diverging approaches in the field. Gregg’s

aim is to ground the normative debate

over human rights in a “realistic” and

“pragmatic” way, and he does so mainly

by drawing on sociological and anthropological

insights. In fact, his book can

be considered the first analysis within the

field of political theory of human rights

that pays attention to sociological as well

as anthropological explanations to such

a serious extent. Backed up by this transdisciplinary

lens, Gregg puts a persistent

emphasis on the fact that particular local

communities of people always socially

construct moral norms.

Sociologists may find this assertion

to be a rather mundane insight. Within

normative political philosophy, however,

it allows Gregg to emphasize the

“political” nature of human rights as a

contingent “this-worldly” idea which is

up for negotiation, but not necessarily

ineffective or dispensable. Once we have

come to accept the fact that human beings

are the sole authors of social norms

on earth, it follows that it is both possible

and necessary to create effective

behavioral norms for themselves. From

that assumption Gregg deduces that

2. Cf. Niklas Luhmann, 2 Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft 1023 (1997).

3. Michael J. Perry, Toward a Theory of Human Rights: Religion, Law, Courts 25 (2007).

4. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993,

at 41, 70–73 (Stephen Shute & Susan Hurley eds., 1993).

5. Jean-François Lyotard, The Other’s Rights, in On Human Rights, supra note 4, at 135,


6. Amitai Etzioni, The Normativity of Human Rights Is Self-Evident, 32 Hum. Rts. Q. 194



human rights are valid only if people

consciously and self-reflexively come to

hold human rights norms on an individual

level. Moreover, if these norms become

entrenched in the social institutions of

a community, such as the legal order

and public education, they will in turn

reinforce the development of individual

“human rights personalities.”7 Therefore,

he argues that people have to be socialized

into a solidarity based on the mutual

expectation of granting each other these

locally defined human rights. And yet, it

would not require a collective identity

or the idea of a human nature to bring

about a shared human rights consciousness,

because in a highly individuated

society it is much more promising that

people become integrated into a moral

community by “difference” rather than

by “identity.” Here, Gregg adopts Georg

Simmel’s observation that members of

modern societies are constantly weaving

themselves into multiple “webs of affiliations”

by interacting with different social

groups. Such “non-normative webs”

of group affiliations, Gregg concludes,

would help to raise awareness for the

interests and feelings of others precisely

as “others,” despite all their differences.8

After rejecting both theological9 and

metaphysical10 conceptions of human

rights, Gregg sets out in greater detail

how his approach might better contribute

to the core goal of the human rights

project which he sees as helping people

“at the bottom of social hierarchies,

and oppressed minorities and socially

marginalized groups” to get protection

from mistreatment by deploying “human

rights as a moral language to win for

themselves the human rights they want.”11

One essential element of his proposal is

the approach of “normative localism.”12

Inspired by the anthropological finding of

the cultural particularity of social norms,

Gregg develops the idea of deriving

normatively “thin” human rights from

“thick” local norms to reach an agreement

between different communities

that is more than just locally valid. Such

a minimalist understanding of human

rights norms would leave room for local

peculiarities and would not necessarily

require adopting a “Western” political

culture. If the most basic requirement

for human rights is the general capacity

to put oneself in the other’s shoes, then

Gregg sees potential for developing a

human rights consciousness in almost

any community. At the same time, a minimalist

understanding renders it a more

realistic goal to eventually reach universal

validity of human rights, namely when a

majority of communities freely embrace

them as moral norms on a local level.13

In order to accomplish this, Gregg also

explores how people can authorize and

grant themselves human rights in ways

that are not dependent on legal or political

institutions, although he admits that,

in the end, recognition by the state is desirable.

Since human rights are ultimately

a type of “belief system” which guide

people’s behavior, the key for Gregg is to

facilitate the development of a personality

structure of “assertive self-hood.” Such

a form of identity emerges through collective

political action, by challenging

oppressive authorities, and by adopting

7. Benjamin Gregg, Human Rights as Social Construction 25 (2013).

8. Id. at 51–54.

9. Id. at 13.

10. Id. at 37.

11. Id. at 33.

12. Id. at 57.

13. Id. at 62.

2014 Book Reviews 495

a non-idiosyncratic perspective that

“recognizes others in their self-granting

activity.”14 Ultimately, the difficult task

of the project for self-authored human

rights would be “to achieve recognition

even in local environments hostile to

them, and to do so from within the local

culture.”15 As one means to achieve

this recognition, Gregg investigates how

altruism as a natural emotional disposition

can be fostered through “sentimental

education”16 in order to supplement

rationally motivated practices of human

rights-based solidarity.17

Another direction suggested by Gregg

is to translate human rights into local,

culturally authentic vernaculars through

actors developing a “dual consciousness”

as rights-bearers on the one hand, and as

kinsmen on the other. Ideally then, indigenously

interpreted human rights would

resonate with local culture instead of

clashing with it.18 For human rights norms

to appear plausible and attractive enough

to be seized by local communities, Gregg

recommends a cognitive technique—reframing

the issues at stake—instead of

an attempt at persuasion by normative


Following an excursion into problems

with defining the “human being” from a

constructivist point of view, in his final

chapter20 Gregg pleads for the substitution

of today’s nation-state with what he

calls the “human rights state.” According

to him, only a state, which recognizes

people’s rights and dignity, not according

to their arbitrary assignment to a nation

but to their status as biological members

of the human species, is likely to enforce

human rights effectively.21

This ambitious plea for the transformation

of the modern nation-state also indicates

that Gregg pursues a twofold goal.

On the one hand, his study is written in

the rigorously rationalistic and, at times,

quite lengthy style of analytic philosophy,

clearly aiming at an academic audience.

On the other hand, with its pragmatic

and realistic impetus, his exploration of

various resources to implement human

rights is certainly aspiring to have realworld

effects. Compared to the prevailing

approaches in the field, Gregg’s pool of

relatively concrete suggestions is indeed

closer to that aim than any other philosophical

conception of human rights.

Nevertheless, Gregg proves to be aware

of the limits of his argumentation, admitting

that “[t]he project for self-authored

human rights is inherently unlikely and

. . . will remain difficult to realize.”22 He

is also willing to acknowledge that, no

matter how normatively “thin” or minimal

human rights are being defined, as a set

of culturally specific norms they “cannot

be free of all cultural imperialism”23 and

will always pose a challenge for some

local communities if they are supposed

to have any effect. All the more important

for Gregg is to frame human rights norms

in a way that resonates with local culture.

However, the three strengths of

Gregg’s approach—realism, pragmatism,

14. Id. at 99.

15. See id. at 97; id. at 96.

16. Id. at 125.

17. Id. at 111.

18. Id. at 135.

19. Id. at 157.

20. Id. at 185.

21. Id. at 212.

22. Id. at 105.

23. Id. at 152.


and inter-disciplinarity—also give cause

for dissent. Gregg is not always successful

when he draws on concepts that were

grown within the intellectual habitat of

sociology or anthropology and attempts

to translate these into normative philosophical

currency. For instance, when

he develops the technique of “cognitive

reframing” by drawing on Erving

Goffman, it remains sketchy as to what

kind of additional benefit there is to be

illuminated, other than the (previously

stressed) insight on how important it is

for people to become socialized into a

belief system of human rights in the first

place. Moreover, there is an inherent

contradiction arising from Gregg’s human

rights conception with respect to its pragmatic

focus. Although he wants human

rights to be understood in a minimalist

fashion, that is, as a contingent “rhetorical

vehicle” comprising the “rights to life,

safety, and personal liberty; to belief, expression,

and conscience; and to privacy

and property,”24 this definition is itself

anything but free from any presupposition.

By generally rejecting theological

and metaphysical foundations of human

rights as counterproductive, Gregg also

obstructs one important way for some

people in some communities to access

human rights language. This contradicts

his pragmatic bias that puts emphasis

on achieving the desired results—the

implementation of human rights norms—

ideally from within a local community.

Finally, there is a serious tension

between Gregg’s claim to investigate

the subject in a realistic manner and

his strong emphasis on the necessity for

individuals to develop a “human rights

personality.” This personality is implicitly

based on inner consistency, rational insight

into the primacy of moral norms as

well as a high level of self-reflexivity. As

a result, Gregg is not able to completely

break the cycle of reproducing inequality

with regard to the implications of his

categories. With this line of reasoning he

also appears to be surprisingly close to

the Kantian tradition of political moralism

that realists such as Bernard Williams

or Raymond Geuss rebut by highlighting

people’s general inconsistency, the

historical specificity of political events

and institutions, and the importance of

power for social relations. Nonetheless,

Gregg’s analysis raises hopes for a new

wave of realistic and pragmatic, or at least

sociologically informed, investigations to

emerge within political theory that fruitfully

explores the preconditions and the

accessibility of human rights for people

living in a variety of political and cultural


René Wolfsteller*

University of Glasgow

New review 3: Human Rights as Social Construction

Critical Exchange on Human Rights as Social Construction by Benjamin Gregg

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, 272 pp., ISBN: 978-1107612945

Contemporary Political Theory advance online publication, 20 May 2014;



Andrew Koppelman:

Benjamin Greggs book, Human Rights as Social Construction, propounds an

understanding of human rights that is based upon a wholly naturalistic conception

of humanity, one that takes human nature as biologically understood and eschews

supernatural explanations, whether theological or metaphysical(p. 185). He oscillates

between two conceptions of this project: an abstemious, neo-Rawlsian political

liberalism, and a comprehensive view that rejects religious and metaphysical claims.

The first, more modest version holds that any conception of human rights must at

least be consistent with, and ideally would emerge from, local norms: the task of the

human rights project is to generate agreement on human rights in widely different

cultural and political contexts in which the advocated rights are attuned to local

distinctions, peculiarities, and preferences(p. 60). Speculative disagreement is not

important, because human rights are best understood in terms of the pragmatic

imperative for desired results, as distinguished from, say, an epistemological

imperative for objective truth(p. 5).

That attention to local context is not inconsistent with ideas about the supernatural.

The smartest missionaries understand that, in order to proselytize effectively, you have

got to get to know the natives. People with different metaphysical assumptions can and

sometimes do converge on the same principles of human rights, but each of them gets

there by reference to her own comprehensive view. This is what John Rawls had in

mind when he argued for an overlapping consensuson the principles of political

cooperation. In an overlapping consensus, they may disagree about the ultimate

foundations of the political principles that govern them, but they agree upon the

principles, those principles are moral ones, and they are affirmed on moral grounds (see

Rawls, 2005, pp. 144150). Gregg sometimes sympathizes with this approach (p. 35).

The dominant theme of Greggs book, however, epitomized in the title, discards

Rawlss deliberate reticence and declares that human rights is a social construction

and nothing else. [T]ranscendental norms can only be a figment of the imagination,

and the moral self-ennoblement of human beings is precisely that of humankind

giving itself norms of social and political behavior(p. 4). This is the mirror image of

his principal adversaries, such as Michael Perry who claims that if human rights is

to be coherent it must have a religious foundation (see Perry, 2007).1 Greggs is

a coherent alternative to Perry.2

Greggs book is an energetically argued working out of a distinct position about

human rights, showing how endorsement of such rights can be developed on a purely

secular basis, rooted in local norms for example, by reinterpreting traditional

understandings of kinship obligations (p. 96). It is an effective rejoinder to Perrys

claim to show the True and Only Way. But it is the kind of thesis that Rawls carefully

stayed away from, because he understood that secularism is itself a comprehensive

view that could never command broad agreement. In its own way, it is (as Gregg says

of Perry) cultural particularism masquerading as universalism(p. 20). Rawls would

have emphasized that Perry and Rorty both can support a just society, even if they

never agree on ultimate foundations. But Gregg wants to insist that Perrys own basis

for human rights commitments be rejected.

The trouble seems to lie in Greggs unstated assumption that there needs to be not

only a set of agreed-on human rights, but also an agreed-on basis for those rights.

Social constructionism has a comparative advantage over religion as a candidate

for this job: social constructions are not necessarily exclusive, but every religion is

(p. 19). Some people may find social constructionism particularistic, but it is never

as particular as any rival faith or as any argument grounded in revelation and rival

revelatory traditions(p. 21).

But why assume that this job needs to be filled at all? If there is agreement on

rights, why does there need to be agreement on their basis? Jacques Maritain

famously quipped, during the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human

Rights, that we agree about the rights but on condition no one asks us why(quoted

in Glendon, 2001, p. 77). Agreement was to be reached not on the basis of common

speculative ideas, but on common practical ideas, not on the affirmation of one and

the same conception of the world, of man, and of knowledge, but upon the

affirmation of a single body of beliefs for guidance in action(Glendon, 2001,

pp. 7778). Gregg, on the other hand, wants a single rationale, one that, if not

universal, can at least claim a large market share. Thus, a misconception of the

kind of universality to seek renders his argument self-defeatingly parochial.

Greggs rhetorical and ontological commitments sometimes collide, most clearly

when he takes up human rights in Islam. He repeatedly argues (mainly in Chapter 6)

that Muslim understandings can be reframed to allow for human rights. Muslims,

however (as well as the Christians Gregg admires, such as Las Casas (p. 43)), are

unlikely to agree that the natural world contains no information about normative

systems(p. 39). They emphatically will not reject any norm that claims validity as

a matter of supernatural revelation(p. 155, n. 31). Their view will look a lot like


The notion of empirical rationales(p. 91) for rights, rights understood

biologically not metaphysically(p. 46), runs into the old Humean problem that you

cannot derive an ought from an is. Gregg repeatedly tries to claim, in various ways,

that human rights can somehow be derived from natural facts. They cannot. The

similarity of my DNA to yours (p. 4) does not entail that I have any obligations

toward you. Natural human dispositions can be the basis for cultural agreement on

human rights (pp. 41, 45 and Chapter 5), but the same dispositions enable everything

Gregg hates, from genocide to religion and metaphysics. He suggests that morality

might be grounded in prudential reciprocity, which motivates behavior along the

lines of mutual benefit(p. 24), but torturers will cheerfully admit that they would not

want to be tortured themselves. He claims that the idea of human healthpossesses

normative force(p. 198), which can guide efforts at genetic enhancement (p. 200).

Health, however, is a contested concept. Sickness is deviancy from a norm.

The norm is not given by nature. The blightthat strikes corn is labeled a disease

because humans want the corn crop to survive; otherwise we would just talk about

the competition between two species.3 Health is simply a desirable state of affairs. Its

desirability is not a natural fact.

Nor is culture a reliable basis for human rights. He repeatedly insists that local

commitments mayor mightor could possiblybe a basis for human rights

(pp. 24, 49, 53, 60, 71, 96, 112). Certainly they could, and Greggs attention to the

various ways in which they could is a great strength of his book. But of course they

can be the basis for all sorts of behavior, including the atrocities that motivated

the human rights project in the first place.4 He offers many sensible reflections

about how local cultures can be transformed to make them human rights friendly,

but this project needs a prior commitment to such rights in order to motivate it.

Gregg needs to own up to the fact that his commitment to human rights is not

grounded in anything further, for the simple reason that any normative commitment

must at some point hit bedrock that demands no further justification. (Another

entailment of the Humean point that you cannot derive an is from an ought.) This is

a problem for Perry, who seems to think that belief in God shields him from the need

for justification, when of course the fact of Gods existence, without more, would

have no normative entailments either.5 (Satan does not doubt Gods existence.)

Perrys commitment to human rights is more basic than his ontology. The same is

true of Gregg.

The bedrock character of human rights means that there is no way to guarantee that

everyone will agree about their validity. Gregg claims that normatively thin human

rights do not require coercive promotion(p. 74), but soon admits that the idea of

human rights must reject its own violation(p. 82) and that such rights, precisely because

they are socially constructed, existonly if enforced(p. 93). You just have to take sides.

Greggs fallacy is the mirror image of Perrys. Believers in human rights represent

one faction on the planet. The other faction is potent. And busy. We should be grateful

for allies, instead of scolding them that my moral narrative is better than yours.



1 I have criticized Perrys claim elsewhere. See


2 The kind of argument Gregg offers has already been made familiar by Richard Rorty. See Rorty (1989).

Greggs account of the cultural basis of human rights, however, is much more thoroughly articulated

than Rortys.

3 See Bayer (1987, pp. 183186).

4 At one point he acknowledges this: Human nature biologically understood guarantees nothing in a

political way or otherwise in a value-driven sense(p. 114). But he still regards biology as somehow

relevant to his project.

5 See Dworkin (2013).



Bayer, R. (1987) Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis, revised edn.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dworkin, R. (2013) Religion without God. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glendon, M.A. (2001) A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights. New York: Random House.

Perry, M. (2007) Toward a Theory of Human Rights: Religion, Law, Courts. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Rawls, J. (2005) Political Liberalism, expanded edn. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Andrew Koppelman

Northwestern University Law School, Chicago, Illinois 60611, USA


Reply to Koppelman’s review of Human Rights as Social Construction


I thank Andrew Koppelman for his generous attention to my work. One could not ask

for a more conscientious critic. He raises major issues and I am grateful for the

opportunity to respond, especially to his reading of five key points.

First, I do not assume, as necessary, some set of agreed-on human rights. Instead

I argue that (a) proponents should strive asymptotically toward as much agreement

on human rights as possible at any given time; (b) that human rights work best as

freely embraced by their addressees, rather than as imposed; and (c) that they work

best in terms of self-determining political community holding itself accountable in its

treatment of its members. Disagreement is always likely, for example about whether

to include social and economic rights, and if so, which ones. But advocacy is not

deficient if it provides scope for, and access to, on-going deliberation and choice in

making and revising decisions. A social constructionist approach does so better than

can theological approaches with largely determinate and fixed doctrine largely

accepted by its adherents.

With regard to my claims that advocacy must not be coercive, that human rights

must reject their own violation and that they exist only if enforced, Koppelman

misses three things. (a) Agreement in and of itself does not guarantee compliance,

and agreement is not necessary to motivate at least some human rights facilitative

belief and action. (b) A proposition (in the form of a right, for example) must exclude

its own violation as a condition of its coherence. (c) To say that a norm existsonly if

it is enforced is to say that what matters is not merely to interpret the world but to

change it: the point of human rights is their actualization in behavior.

Second, my project, says Koppelman, needs a prior commitment to such rights in

order to motivate itand requires an agreed-on basis for those rights. But the

pragmatist goal is not for everyone to agree on a foundation for human rights but to

freely embrace and practice them on whatever basis.My reflections about how local

cultures can be transformed to make them human rights friendlywould generate

commitment, not presuppose it. For Koppelman, because any normative commitment

must at some point hit bedrock that demands no further justification, my

commitment to human rights is more basic than [my] ontology. But in my project,

commitment and ontology are one because most human being today regard dignity,

equality, freedom from bodily and other harm as goods, certainly for herself and, not

implausibly, for others as well. So where Koppelmans path is existential and

decisionist – ‘you just have to take sides’ – mine is rational and fallibilist: truthor

justiceat any given time refer to a temporary report from the field of experience and

inquiry, a snapshotfor current orientation, always revisable. Truth or justice are

neither impossible nor drained of their capacity to motivate behavior.

Third, Koppelman misconstrues social construction as just one more comprehensive

view no different from religion. He does so because two items elude him. First,

he fails to grasp social constructions capacity to coexist with a wide range of

competing comprehensive doctrines. It can cooperate with persons of faith who share

the goal of advancing human rights. Second, this secular approach might win more

people, and a wider variety of people, for the human rights project than a theological

one, and Koppelman cannot see that winning people in this way in no way entails

discouraging theologically motivated human rights advocates from pursuing human

rights work.

I offer three ancillary claims about a related point at issue between us: according to

Koppelman, my social constructionist proposal displays the very problems I identify

in the theological approaches I criticize. (a) He believes my approach seeks to

dissuade the faithful from their faith. In fact, it seeks instead to re-frame current local

understandings and practices to render them more human rights friendly. Re-framing

does not ask the re-framer to abandon his or her beliefs as such but rather to seek

a different way to attain them in practice, if freely persuaded that doing so will better

achieve his or her own goals. Thus mothers who have their daughtersgenitalia cut

might be persuaded to mark the girlspassage from girlhood to adulthood in a way

that does not have the unwanted consequence of making the girls ill.

(b) Koppelman does not see how social construction can acknowledge pluralism,

and embrace toleration, without insisting on any particular pregiven or traditional

normative, theological, or metaphysical outlook. He does not see that most persons

invested in supernatural revelation also accept claims of a very different sort, for

example those that lead to standard medical diagnosis and treatment.

(c) Koppelman fails to grasp that pragmatism can be just as committed as

theological approaches to particularistic, substantive moral views. But unlike

otherworldly routes, a pragmatist commitment does not place unnecessary hurdles

in the way of adherents of different traditions who might be persuaded to embrace

the human rights idea.

Fourth, I say that human nature, biologically understood, entails nothing

normative. Yet for Koppelman, I still regard biology as somehow relevantto my

project. He is flat-out mistaken: I nowhere claim that human rights can somehow be

derived from natural facts. That the genome of any one human individual can

represent the genome of the species entails no moral norms but can be interpreted in

ways suggestive for the social construction of norms. For example, given that most

human rights abusers identify their victims in terms of their membership in particular

groups (religion, race, or caste, among others), the human rights idea may be

advanced if at least some abusers come to realize that such memberships are in fact

constructions whereas the species-wide genetic identity of all individuals is not. This

biological isgenerates no normative ought; it opens up a human rights friendly

vantage point that will resonate with some people.

And while natural human dispositions can be the basis for cultural agreement on

human rights, Koppelman concedes, the same dispositions enable everything

from genocide to religion and metaphysics. One wonders how dispositions to

sympathy, care or helpfulness might enable genocide (if directed to others; and

sympathy for ones own tribe hardly entails barbarism toward other tribes). But

where dispositions enable religion, they provide a standpoint one internal, not

imposed from outside from which to identify and criticize human rights abusive

behavior allowed or encouraged in other areas of the same religion. To be sure, such

dispositions will not always do the work that human rights advocates hope for. Nor

will another possible resource for advancing human rights thinking: prudential

reciprocity. (As Koppelman notes, torturers will cheerfully admit that they would

not want to be tortured themselves.) But that a particular resource cannot guarantee

success, or might be deployed contrary to human rights, is simply a fact about the

limitations of resources. Koppelmans entailment to abandon resources if they

cannot guarantee success, or guarantee against misuse is self-defeating. The same

argument holds for his charge against my exploration of culture as a possible

resource for the human rights project. Culture, he writes, is not a reliable basis for

human rightsbut the basis for all sorts of behavior, including the atrocities that

motivated the human rights project in the first place. In fact, some cultural products

offer solid ground: the very idea of human rights, for example.

Fifth, Koppelman dismisses my argument that the desire to be healthy possesses

normative force. He urges instead that sicknessis nothing but a civilizational

construct, deviancy from a norm not given by nature, such that physical health is

nothing but a particular cultural preference, not a natural fact. But cancer,

Alzheimers, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, nephritis or influenza, for example, are

not merely parochial prejudices of this or that community. No community advocates

such conditions as desirable. Everyone views them as scourges. Afflicted persons

seek therapy and hope for cure. In this context, all participants invoke the same norm

of somatic health. Such universal purchase suggests an argument by analogy, and

some addressees of the human rights project will find it plausible: identical human

rights for identically embodied creatures, genetically identical at the species level.

According to Koppelman, a misconception of the kind of universality to seek

renders my proposal self-defeatingly parochial. Parochial means self-induced

limitation. But there is nothing parochial in social construction. Not if the goal is a

universal embrace of human rights as contingent achievement in hard-fought social

movements, domestic legislation and international instruments. And there is nothing

parochial in interpretive overlays of the common desire for health.


Benjamin Gregg

University of Texas-Austin, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

Most Recent Articles

“Teaching Human Rights in the College Classroom as a Cognitive Style,” in J. Shefner, H. Dahms, R. Jones, and A. Jalata, eds., Social Justice and the University, Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave (2014)

“Might the Noble Savage have Joined the Earliest Cults of Rousseau?” in Jesko Reiling and Daniel Tröhler, eds., Entre hétérogénéité et imagination. Pratiques de la réception de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Genève: Éditions Slatkine (in the series Travaux sur la Suisse des Lumières). 2013.

“Politics Disembodied and Deterritorialized: The Internet as Human Rights Resource” in H. Dahms and L. Hazelrigg, eds., Theorizing Modern Society as a Dynamic Process (in the series Current Perspectives in Social Theory, vol. 30. Bingley, UK: Emerald (2012)


“Genetic Enhancement: A New Dialectic of Enlightenment?” in Perspektiven der Aufklaerung, eds. Hartmut Rosa, Daniel Fulda and Olaf Breidbach. Paderborn, Germany: Fink Verlag (2011)


“Individuals as Authors of Human Rights: Not only Addressees,” Theory and Society 39 (2010) 631-661


“Anti-Imperialism: Generating Universal Human Rights Out of Local Norms,” Ratio Juris 23 (2010) 289-310


 “Deploying Cognitive Sociology to Advance Human Rights” Comparative Sociology 9 (2010) 279-307 


Human Rights as Social Construction

Human Rights as Social Construction

Cambridge University Press, 2012 (re-printed twice); paperback edition, 2013

Guest Professorship 2014

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