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Plan II Honors

Benjamin Gregg

Associate ProfessorPh.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


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


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 Publications

The Human Rights State, University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2016

“Advancing Human Rights in Post-Authoritarian Communities through Education,” Journal of Human Rights Practice 7 (2015):199-222

 “Human Rights as Metaphor for Political Community Beyond the Nation State," Critical Sociology (early on-line access: doi:10.1177/0896920515582092; print version forthcoming, summer 2015)

“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 2015

“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 2015

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

Fulbright –Johannes Kepler Universtiy of Linz Visiting Professor, Spring 2016, for research on Second Nature (see below)

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, 2015)

Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany (2009, 2012, 2013, 2014)

Recent or Upcoming Presentations

2016 Invited, “Menschliche Natur als politisches Problem: Genmanipulation,” Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna, Austria, April 13

2015 “Fetus Ex Machina: The Political Challenge of Genetic Engineering” annual meeting of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin at Madison, October 24

2015 Invited, “Don’t Give Up on Human Rights,” Department of Political Science, University of Missouri at Columbia, September 21, 12 pm

2015 Invited, “A Human Right Not to Democracy but to the Rule of Law,” Department of Political Science, University of Missouri at Columbia, September 21, 3 pm

2015 “Social Inequalities in the Enhancement of Health through Genetic Manipulation,” European Consortium for Political Research General Conference, Standing Group on Political Theory, Université de Montréal, Canada, August 26-29

2015 “Human Nature as Cultural Design: The Political Challenge of Genetic Engineering” International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Study of Biology, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, July 5-10

2015 “A Human Right Not to Democracy but to the Rule of Law,” Annual Conference of the Association for Social and Political Philosophy, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 25-26

2015 Invited, “Human Rights as Constructs: Without Religion or Metaphysics,” Centre for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics, London Metropolitan University, UK, May 26 (Respondent: Bill Bowring)

2015 Invited,“Human Nature as Cultural Design: The Political Challenge of Genetic Engineering,” University of the West of Scotland, Paisely, UK, May 22 (Respondent: Darryl Gunson)

2015 Keynote Address, Glasgow Human Rights Network, University of Glasgow, “Challenges to Human Rights Theory and Practice,” Scotland, UK, May 20(Respondent: Kurt Mills)

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: “Human Rights and ‘Humanitarian’ Military Intervention,” Marriot Marquis, San Francisco, August 18

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”


S S 301 • Hon Soc Sci: Clas/Contemp Socl

43295 • Fall 2014
Meets TTH 1100am-1230pm PAR 103

INSTRUCTOR: Benjamin Gregg








SEMESTER: Fall 2014




MEETS: TTH 11:00 am - 12:30 pm




TITLE: Honors Social Science




FLAG: Writing








Drawing on primary sources, this seminar introduces social theory as the systematic investigation of social life: how it is organized, continually transforms itself, is challenged by problems and conflicts, and is influenced by the behavior of groups and individuals. Topics in classical theory include social equality in democratic societies (Tocqueville), how social structure influences knowledge (Marx), individuals as influenced by the social collective (Durkheim), society as influenced by individual actors (Weber), how social structure influences even intimate relationships (Simmel), mass deception and manipulation through modern culture (Horkheimer and Adorno), and the relationship between the individual’s purposes and the needs of society (Merton). Contemporary topics include how rituals bind us together (Collins), the nature of social cooperation and trust (Cook, Hardin, Levi), the social consequences of economic structure (Granovetter), the phenomenon of racial difference (Patterson), power and inequality (Giddens), and the coming transformation of the nation state (Sassen).








Classical Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell




Contemporary Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell








Average of four 5-page essays, adjusted for quality of class participation








Professor Gregg, who grew up in Berkeley, California, is a social and political theorist with a BA from Yale, a PhD from Princeton (in political science), and a PhD from the Free University of Berlin (in Philosophy). He is the author of Human Rights as Social Construction; Thick Moralities, Thin Politics: Social Integration across Communities of Belief; and Coping in Politics with Indeterminate Norms: A Theory of Enlightened Localism. This year he published The Human Rights State and is now at work on his fifth book, Second Nature: The Genetic Self-Transformation of the Human Species, his second for Cambridge University Press. His research is supported by a three-year Humanities Research Award that will take him to Princeton, Harvard, and Case Western Reserve University; in Germany, to the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics and to the University of Göttingen; and in Singapore, to the Genome Institute (Biopolis Biomedical City) and National University. In his spare time he patiently pursues a long-term project that draws on files of East German dissidents monitored by the secret police (“Stasi”) until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These books and current projects all deploy classical and contemporary sociological theory to solve problems that otherwise confound political philosophy. He has taught at universities in Germany, Austria, China and Japan. The College of Liberal Arts Committees on Research and Teaching awarded him the Silver Spurs Fellowship in recognition of outstanding scholarship and teaching. He is partial to theater and hopes someday to become a playwright.


S S 301 • Hon Soc Sci: Clas/Contemp Socl

43335 • Fall 2013
Meets TTH 930am-1100am PAR 206

Honors Social Science: Classical and Contemporary Social Theory

Drawing on primary sources, this seminar introduces social theory as the systematic investigation of social life: how it is organized, continually transforms itself, is challenged by problems and conflicts, and is influenced by the behavior of groups and individuals. Topics in classical theory include social equality in democratic societies (Tocqueville), how social structure influences knowledge (Marx), individuals as influenced by the social collective (Durkheim), society as influenced by individual actors (Weber), how social structure influences even intimate relationships (Simmel), mass deception and manipulation through modern culture (Horkheimer and Adorno), and the relationship between the individual’s purposes and the needs of society (Merton). Contemporary topics include how rituals bind us together (Randall Collins), the nature of social cooperation and trust (Karen Cook, Russell Hardin, Margaret Levi), the social consequences of economic structure (Mark Granovetter), the phenomenon of racial difference (Orlando Patterson), power and inequality (Anthony Giddens), and the coming transformation of the nation state (Saskia Sassen).


Classical Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell

Contemporary Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell


Average of four 5-page essays, adjusted for quality of class participation


Benjamin Gregg teaches social and political theory in the Department of Government as well as at universities in Germany, China, Austria, Japan and Italy. He is the author of Thick Moralities, Thin Politics (public policy suffers when politics are laden with moral doctrines; public policy should work not toward political consensus but toward the more realistic goal of mutual accommodation); Coping In Politics with Indeterminate Norms (while moral validity is relative rather than absolute, and cultural meanings local rather than universal, social integration and democratic politics are still attainable goals); and Human-Rights as Social Construction (human rights can be authored by the average, ordinary people to whom they are addressed, and that they are valid only if embraced by those to whom they would apply). Next year he will publish The Human Rights State (a metaphorical alternative to the nation state, a polity without territory, standing alongside the nation state, as a political and moral commitment that, in the pursuit of human rights, would limit the nation state without undermining it). He is currently working on a book titled Second Nature: The Genetic Self-Transformation of the Human Species (on the moral, political, and legal challenges of the human species taking control of its own genome in the sense of genetic therapy and genetic “enhancement”). He has taught in Plan II for almost 15 years and hopes, in the proximate future, to receive the Chad Oliver Teaching Award and be appointed Director of Plan II.


S S 301 • Hon Soc Sci: Thry Of Subject

42870 • Fall 2012
Meets TTH 1100am-1230pm GEA 127

Drawing on primary sources, this seminar introduces social theory as the systematic investigation of social life: how it is organized, continually transforms itself, is challenged by problems and conflicts, and is influenced by the behavior of groups and individuals. Topics in classical theory include social equality in democratic societies (Tocqueville), how social structure influences knowledge (Marx), individuals as influenced by the social collective (Durkheim), society as influenced by individual actors (Weber), how social structure influences even intimate relationships (Simmel), mass deception and manipulation through modern culture (Horkheimer and Adorno), and the relationship between the individual’s purposes and the needs of society (Merton). Contemporary topics include how rituals bind us together (Randall Collins), the nature of social cooperation and trust (Karen Cook, Russell Hardin, Margaret Levi), the social consequences of economic structure (Mark Granovetter), the phenomenon of racial difference (Orlando Patterson), power and inequality (Anthony Giddens), and the coming transformation of the nation state (Saskia Sassen).


Classical Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell

Contemporary Sociological Theory, 3rd ed. (2012). Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk, eds. Wiley-Blackwell


Average of four 5-page essays, adjusted for quality of class participation


Professor Gregg, who grew up in Berkeley, California, is a social and political theorist with a BA from Yale, a PhD from Princeton (in political science), and a PhD from the Free University of Berlin (in Philosophy). He is the author of Human Rights as Social Construction; Thick Moralities, Thin Politics: Social Integration across Communities of Belief; and Coping in Politics with Indeterminate Norms: A Theory of Enlightened Localism. He is completing a book on The Human Rights State and another titled Second Nature: The Genetic Self-Transformation of the Human Species. He is also engaged in a long-term project that draws on files of East German dissidents monitored by the secret police (“Stasi”) until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These projects all deploy classical and contemporary sociological theory to solve problems in political philosophy. He has taught at universities in China, Japan, and Germany. The College of Liberal Arts Committees on Research and Teaching awarded him the Silver Spurs Fellowship in recognition of outstanding scholarship and teaching. He is partial to theater and hopes someday to become a playwright.

S S 301 • Hon Soc Sci: Soc Sci Theory

42705 • Fall 2010
Meets TTH 1100am-1230pm PAR 303

This course has a writing flag.

Social Science: Social Science Theories of the Subject

The European Enlightenment of the 18th century gave rise to master narratives of the subject as a sovereign figure capable of rational control of his or her worlds. Since then we in the West have re-imagined and re-configured ourselves multiple times in multiple ways. The seminar traces out this “civilizational autobiography,” beginning with the “modern, enlightenment self” (Kant and Marx), taken as an individual. It then examines the “solidary self” (Tönnies, Durkheim, and Mauss), or the self as a communal member. Next we turn to the “modern self fragmented” (Simmel and Weber), with consequences positive and negative. Then we examine the “interior self” (Freud) and subsequently the “self as the other of the socially dominant one,” with one examples from sex (de Beauvoir) and one from race (Du Bois). Finally we discuss the “symbolically or strategically interacting self” (Mead and Goffman). The instructor will introduce the life of each author, and his or her contributions to some of the great humanistic theories in social science. In this student-centered seminar, class will be devoted in part to discussion with and among students.


BOOKS: Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society; W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk; Max Weber, From Max Weber; Marcel Mauss, The Gift; Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents; George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex; Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

PACKET: Émile Durkheim, “Forms of Social Solidarity,” “Anomie and Moral Structure,” “Religion and Ritual”; Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?”; Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “The Stranger,” The Philosophy of Money; Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor”



The final grade will be the average of four essays (length to be specified), adjusted for quality of class participation. Class participation includes each one or more students (on a rotating basis) submitting brief “theses” on the week’s readings, and one or more students responding to the theses.

About the professor: 

Professor Gregg is a social and political theorist with a BA from Yale, a PhD from Princeton (in political science), and a PhD from the Free University of Berlin (in Philosophy). He is the author of Thick Moralities, Thin Politics: Social Integration Across Communities of Belief and Coping in Politics With Indeterminate Norms: A Theory of Enlightened Localism. He is currently completing a book titled The Human-Rights Project: Social Construction without Theology or Metaphysics, which develops a conception of human rights as social constructions whose validity can be developed locally and freely embraced as indigenous, in diverse cultures and political communities, rather than imposed from outside. His research focuses on social integration in complex modern societies; problems and prospects of contemporary forms of justice, including human rights; coping with value pluralism within democratic societies but also in non-liberal polities around the world; “enlightened localism” and “thin norms” as practical strategies for accomplishing social integration and legal justice in both liberal and hierarchical societies; deploying contemporary sociological theory to solve problems in political philosophy. He has taught at universities in Germany, China, and Japan. UT’s College of Liberal Arts Committees on Research and Teaching awarded him the Silver Spurs Fellowship in recognition of outstanding scholarship and teaching. He recently received a research fellowship from the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, Berlin-Babelsberg, Germany, undertaken at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. He is partial to foreign travel, foreign films, foreign food, and to foreigners in general.

S S 301 • Hon Soc Sci: Soc Sci Theory-W

43645 • Fall 2009
Meets TTH 1230pm-200pm CBA 4.344


The problem of whether and to what extent we humans are in control, or can be in control, of ourselves – of our identities but also of our behavior and understanding, both public and private – is what in this course I refer to as the “problem of the subject.” The problem of the subject is the never completed social task of constructing intersubjectively valid understandings of fundamental human identity. For example, are human beings moved by social, emotional, and psychological forces beyond their control or can they control themselves and their environment through the power of their own reasoning? This seminar explores different answers to this question by analyzing seminal works of European thinkers of the late modern era, works that have powerfully influenced our notions of the subject today. We also read one of the instructor’s attempts to answer this question.

The European Enlightenment of the 18th century gave rise to master narratives of the subject as a sovereign figure capable of rational control of his or her worlds.  We begin then with the “modern self” (Kant and Marx), subsequently observe it as “whole” or in solidarity (Durkheim) and then in fragmentation (Weber and Simmel). We turn then to the discovery of the self’s “other” (for example as sex, as in Beauvoir).  We also examine the discovery of the self’s “interiority” (Freud). Next we observe the self conceived as “structure” (Foucault) and the self not reducible to structure (Bourdieu). Our path then leads to the critically engaged, insistently modern self (Habermas) and, finally, the self as the collective author and addressee of fundamental political choices (Gregg). In lectures introducing each author, the instructor will offer a range of disciplinary perspectives from theories in social science. A significant amount of class time will be devoted to discussion with and among students, in this student-centered seminar.


[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, [2] Pierre Bourdieu, Logic of Practice, [3] The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow, [4] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, [5] B. Gregg, Coping in Politics with Indeterminate Norms, [6] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (vol. 2), [7] Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R. Tucker, [8] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.


[1] Émile Durkheim, “Forms of Social Solidarity,” “Anomie and Moral Structure,” “Religion and Ritual,” [2] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?,” [3] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “The Stranger,” and selection from The Philosophy of Money, [4] William Shakespeare, King Lear


Students are required to attend one of the following performances by Actors from the London Stage of King Lear: September 30-October 2, 7:30 p.m., at the B. Iden Payne Theater, Winship Building (Q&A with actors after performance on the 30th); or October 3 at 7 pm at Winedale Theatre Barn in Round Top. Purchase student ticket in advance.

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

New review 4: Human Rights as Social Construction

Michael Goodhart. 2014. "Recent Works on Dignity and Human Rights: A Road Not Taken," Perspectives on Politics, v. 12, n. 4, pp. 486-856


Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times. By Seyla Benhabib. Cambridge: Polity, 2011. 288p. $69.95

cloth, $24.95 paper.

Human Rights as Social Construction. Benjamin Gregg. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 272p. $99.00

cloth, $27.99 paper.

Human Dignity. By George Kateb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. 256p. $22.95.

Dignity: Its History and Meaning. By Michael Rosen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. 200p.


The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics. By Kathryn Sikkink.

New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. 352p. $27.95 cloth, $25.62 paper.

Making Rights Claims: A Practice of Democratic Citizenship. By Karen Zivi. New York: Oxford University Press,

2012. 176p. $99.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.


Today the concepts of human rights and human

dignity have become conjoined twins.1 Dignity

is ubiquitous, invoked in discussions of everything

from the ethics of stem cell research to dwarf tossing

(a near obsession among writers on this topic) and the prodemocracy

demonstrations in Cairos Tahrir Square.

Prominent philosophers and political theoristsincluding

Ronald Dworkin, Jeremy Waldron, James Griffin, Jürgen

Habermas, and Rainer Forsthave recently used human

dignity to ground or expound upon their preferred

philosophical conceptions of human rights. If nothing

else, these are good times for Giovanni Pico della

Mirandola, whose 1486 Oration on the Dignity of

Manis trending.


While this surge of interest in human dignity is

noteworthy in itself, I shall not attempt to trace its

origins or to provide an overview of the concepts various

contemporary uses.2 Instead, I want to consider what

recent works on dignity reveal about the study of human

rights within our discipline. When I began my graduate

studies nearly 20 years ago, human rights were still in the

margins of political science; today they have become

central to it. Within political theory, human rights figure

prominently in debates on justice, democracy, and

accountability; in world and comparative politics, rights

are studied by scholars working on diverse topics,

including security, development, political economy,

international law and organization, social movements,

norm diffusion, and comparative democratization. Only

the subfield of American politics remains largely indifferent

to human rights.


Despite this mainstreaming of human rights within

political science, theoretical and empirical research on the

subject remains stubbornly segregated. Empiricists typically

treat the normative importance of rights as selfevident,

while normative scholars typically neglect the

boisterous political life of rights in their search for the

elusive justification or moral foundation that they remain

persuaded are lacking. This division is outmoded and

counterproductive: The politics of human rights might

well hold clues to their appeal and legitimacy, providing an

alternative route for apprehending their normative character;

likewise, their normative character seems indispensable

for making sense of the politics and institutions they



Dignity seems to illustrate this point vividly. Not only

is it a hot topic in political theoryfive of the six volumes

under review here are written by theoristsbut recent

events have thrust it to the forefront of todays politics. To

name just a few examples: Dignity has been frequently

invoked in the Arab uprisings, by peasant and indigenous

movements from various parts of the globe, and in

antiausterity politics in Europe (think of Spains tellingly

named indignados). Yet if dignity points in the direction of

the integrated study of human rights within political

science, it is a signpost for a road (so far) not taken.

These books, at least, mostly bypass itand mostly to

their detriment. George Kateb and Michael Rosen take the

well-traveled philosophical route; rather than a bridge to

politics, dignity for them becomes a kind of bypass of it.

Benjamin Gregg and Kathryn Sikkink take different

constructivist paths: Greggs leads him inadvertently back

to philosophy; Sikkinks takes her right to the bridge, but

she misses the turn. Only Seyla Benhabib and Karen Zivi

explore this road, with Zivi venturing a little farther. Still,

their work offers a map to an integrated political science of

human rights.


Kateb begins his Human Dignity by declaring that the

defense of rights at present requires little theoretical

articulation (pp. 12). Why, he asks, make trouble by

defending human rights at length and make worse trouble

by claiming that human dignity is the basis, or part of

the basis, for human rights?(p. 2). His answer is a little

surprising, especially in light of his admission that actual

progress in realizing human rights . . . has often come

about without much need or use of theoretical assistance

(p. 3). Kateb believes that opposition to human rights

from the radical Left, from utilitarians, and from virtue

ethicistsall of whom are on the side of the great majority

of the peoplemust be reckoned with. (The surprise

is that these objections have been thoroughly addressed

in 20-plus years of scholarship.)3 This project positions

him as indifferent to the politics of dignity and human

rights: there are by his own admission no practical

problems to be solved here, and he is willing to risk

making trouble for human rights in the pursuit of his

theoretical ambition.


Dignity, Kateb argues, provides an existential ground

for respect for human rights independent of the moral

grounds for respecting them. This is not to deny a close

relation to morality. The point is, rather, that for many

people, and rightly, morality has to do solely or principally

with human suffering; but human dignity in its concern

with status and stature has to do with the proper

recognition of the identity of every human being and the

identity of the human species(pp. 1213). Morally,

rights reduce suffering; existentially, they recognize the

identity of all people as humans of equal status (p. 22).

Violations of human dignity have existential weight

independent of suffering itself, Kateb maintains, weight

that lies in the phenomenon of degradation (p. 16). To be

treated as not human is importantly different from

suffering (p. 17). So while the moral component in the

defense of rights (concern for suffering) is necessary, it is

not sufficient (p. 33). The existential component (concern

for dignity) adds two dimensions to this defense: First, it

highlights a particular attitude toward human beings

manifest in the infliction of suffering. Second, it emphasizes

the diminishment or deformation that people experience

when they endure harsh and needless suffering

(p. 36); this dehumanization often leads to rights violations

(p. 39). The author illustrates these points in an

enlightening discussion of Aldous Huxleys Brave New

World, a dystopia in which there is no immorality but in

which human dignity is nonetheless effaced (pp. 40 ff.).

Kateb mostly ignores the intriguing political implications

of his arguments, sticking with his theoretical

defense of human rights. How and how much his

arguments help remains unclear; they certainly do not

do much to answer the leftist critique (they are somewhat

more useful against the utilitarian and virtue-ethicist

challenges; see pp. 91 ff.). They do, however, make

trouble for proponents of economic and social rights, in

three ways.


First, Kateb rejects absolute Lockean ownership rights,

calling [claims] to a completely unregulated and barely

taxed right of propertyunacceptable (p. 52). He further

asserts that the right of life can be the basis to circumscribe

the right of property, so as to help many stay alive

and in conditions that are not miserable, and not die

before their time from preventable causes(p. 52).

Moreover, since property is not quite the same kind

of right as other rights, taxing it, especially for relief

of the poor,represents no genuine conflict of rights

(p. 52). The author may regard these statements as

supportive of social and economic rights (though more

in reply to critics on the Right, it seems); in any case,

his Dickensian vocabulary and attitude toward the

poorhave the unhelpful ring of nineteenth-century

charity appeals.


Second, Kateb argues that the major human rights are

found most purely and economically stated not in recent

charters but in the US Constitution(p. 28). This could

only conceivably be true if social and economic rights do

not count among the major human rights,since the

Constitution is silent on them. He has a legitimate concern

about the statist implications of recent charters, which

permit the derogation of rights in times of national

emergency or in the public interest (p. 29). But defining

human rightsand, by implication, human dignityas

unconnected to social and economic rights is unhelpful (to

say the least) to advocates and unlikely to blunt leftist

criticism of them as bourgeois rights.


Third, in discussing claims of global distributive

justice, Kateb argues that a just society must defer the

great achievements that contribute to human stature and

instead focus resources on addressing poverty. Yet the

equation is different with respect to global poverty. Kateb

doubts that the claims of stature in the form of great

achievements in the present can be sacrificed to the project

of redistributing as much wealth as possible to alleviate

global poverty.He sees an important difference between

initiating and maintaining an exploitative policy or

condition . . . and neglecting to redress it when one does

not have direct responsibility for it(p. 183). On

a charitable reading, this argument might permit the

redistribution of some wealth (if not as much as possible)

and, assuming an expansive, critical understanding of

direct responsibility, license significant global povertyreduction

efforts. Still, this position is even more insular

and radical than the social liberalism of theorists like John

Rawls and David Miller.4 Kateb effectively accepts global

poverty as the price we pay for great achievements. It is

unclear to me how he figures these sumsand how much

existential affirmation impoverished people find in monuments

or space stations.5 Again, Kateb is not doing global

antipoverty advocates any favors here; if anything, he is

fueling leftist critiques of human rights. That said, he

certainly delivers on his pledge to make trouble by

defending them.


Arguably, Katebs principal aim is to give a defense of

human dignity based in human stature. His justification

of humanity is itself remarkable, and I present it in his

words: [T]here is no species like humanity. It is capable of

doing not just a few remarkable things that no other

species canthe same is true of many other speciesbut

an indefinitely large number of remarkable things that no

other species can(p. 113). Only humanity can perform

the three indispensable functions: keep the record of

nature, understand nature, and appreciate it. The human

species, alone among species on earth, can perform these

services to nature on earth and beyond(p. 114). Performing

these functions is the only thing that could justify

humanity in the eyes of an external judge, which perceives

with the most complete understanding, cannot be selfinterested

(or not only so), and must devote itself to what is

real and not itself, and do so with the high intellectual and

aesthetic virtues of magnanimity, wonder, and gratitude

(p. 113). This judge (upholding the highest human

standards) would appreciate that nature, understood as

distinct from humanity, would be worse off without it

because humanity can do for nature in the comprehensive

sensethe earth and the universewhat must be

done, but cannot be done otherwise than by humanity

(pp. 11314). In case our stewardship of nature is not

enough, it is also the case that . . . the human species can

receive another nonmoral justificationjustification by

great achievementsthat does not depend on the ability

to be selfless, as toward nature(p. 115).


The problem with great achievements is that they are

premised upon treating the great mass of people

poorly”—hence, the trade-off between justice and pyramids.

This is partly because the innate ability of human

beings to contribute to great achievements appears to be

unequal(p. 174). In fact, democratic culture, which

precludes violations of rights in the service of great

achievements, thereby [jeopardizes] human stature

(p. 175). Kateb conceptualizes this historical tension as

a conflict between dignity as status, which requires equal

treatment, and dignity as stature, which requires massive

social inequalities in the service of humanitys great

achievements.His rueful conclusion is that while democrats

can ignore past violations of rights in celebrating

human accomplishments, today we must prioritize rights

(domestically, anyway). Kateb tries to console himself by

mustering some enthusiasm for the achievements of

American culture in the humanities (he frequently equates

democraticand Americanthroughout the book), but

this is about the most he can manage: films made for

smaller audiences are complex and subtle enough to

deserve a long life. I do not want to quarrel with that or

with the greatness of some jazz(p. 203).


It is hard to assess this second argument, which is at

times brilliant, bombastic, creative, curmudgeonly, sublime,

self-indulgent, and, frankly, a little bizarre. I shall

make only two points. First, justifying human existence

by reference to our stewardship of nature, given current

trends, is a bit like foxes justifying their existence by

citing their protection of henhouses. Besides, by Katebs

own admission, nature has no idea we are recording or

understanding or appreciating it; this justification reflects

the same species arrogance that, it seems to me, has put us

and our planet on an expressway to ecological calamity.

Second, it is telling that Kateb finds the political commitment

to equal human status insufficient to condemn the

evils of degradation and to justify human rights. His appeal

to human status and great achievements betrays profound

misgivings about democracy.


Rosens Dignity also posits a close theoretical connection

between dignity and human rights. Dignity is central

to modern human rights discourse,Rosen observes, the

closest that we have to an internationally accepted

framework for the normative regulation of political life,

and it is embedded in numerous constitutions, international

conventions, and declarations(pp. 12). Yet

despite this prominence, Rosen regards human rights as

obviously deeply puzzlingalmost everyone nowadays

professes commitment to them, yet few people would

claim that they had a good, principled account of what

they are and why we have them(p. 54; my emphasis).

Unlike Kateb, Rosen is skeptical whether dignity can help

make the case for human rights; in the end, it is unclear

whether he thinks human rights make a case worth

helping. He certainly doubts that any of the three

important historical meanings of dignityas status or

rank, as a transcendental kernelof incomparable moral

worth within all human beings, and as appropriate,

graceful comportment (pp. 1138)can provide a good,

principled accountof human rights. Such an account has

three requirements. It must explain and justify the claim

that all human beings share inviolabledignity and that

they are free and equalin that dignity; show that it

follows from this that they also have inviolable and

inalienable rights; and, identify what those rights [are]

(p. 54).

Rosen suggestsin direct opposition to Jeremy

Waldron6that status will not get us very far in this

respect. Although Kants transcendental kernel looks more

promising, Rosen rejects it as well (on which more later).

The notion of dignified bearing, by contrast, he finds

more promising than it seems. Pursuing this prospect, he

develops a fourth interpretation, one that yields a right to

have ones dignity respected; while this is a very important

right, Rosen concludes, it cannot provide a foundation for

rights in general (pp. 5562).


One of Rosens main arguments is that none of the

received understandings of dignity can adequately ground

human rights. I have no particular quarrel with this

conclusion, but I find the question more revealing. His

search for philosophical foundations for human rights is

motivated by the worry that without them, human rights

are somehow incoherent or untenable. Human rights must

presumably lack adequate foundations at present; otherwise

there would be no point to the search. Yet by Rosens own

admission, human rights are accepted by almost everyone;

are embedded in many constitutions, treaties, and deliberations;

and provide an international normative framework

for regulating politicsthey are neither incoherent nor

untenable. So it is hard to see why, exactly, human rights

need philosophical foundations. Indeed, some proponents

of human rights regard their lack of clear philosophical

grounding as essential to their political viability. As Jacques

Maritain, a prominent member of the UNESCO committee

that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights, famously remarked: Yes, we agree about the rights,

on the condition that no one ask us why.


Rosen apparently sees little connection between the

evident empirical success of human rights and their

normative status or grounding; in this respect, his study

reflects and perpetuates the division in the discipline. He

does consider at length some recent legal cases involving

dignity, among them the (in)famous Wackenheim

(dwarf-tossing) case and several framed by Germanys

constitutional recognition of dignity as a fundamental and

inviolable principle. Even here, however, Rosens primary

interest is in the Kantian transcendental kernelview,

which he finds inadequate because it cannot explain or

justify the various rulings he considers. Questions about

the political fallout from these rulings or their effects on

the legitimacy of rights are ignored.


The argument is anyway rather odd. The German high

court might claim that it is relying on a Kantian kernel

view, but if its decisions seem inconsistent with or poorly

explained by this view, that is a problem for the court,

not the kernelunless Rosen can provide some independent

basis for concluding that the judgments are correct

but their reasoning flawed. Otherwise, it could be that the

court has simply failed in properly interpreting the kernel

or adequately articulating its relevance in a particular case.

Rosen proposes that his own interpretation of dignity,

with its emphasis on the value of the symbolic or expressive

aspects of our behavior toward others(p. 126), makes

better sense of what the court is doing. This might be right,

and it might reflect what the court is really thinking, but it

leaves the kernel uncracked.


The last part of the book considers the question of

whether we owe respect to corpses and fetusesor, more

generally, whether we owe such duties [of respect] only to

persons(p. 128). Rosen finds the universally held belief

that we have a duty to treat dead bodies with respect

deeply puzzling and important for moral philosophy. He

asks whether our duty to respect the dignity of humanity

has to benefit anyone and whether it is a duty owed to

anyone, concluding that it does not and is not (p. 140).

In answering these questions, he develops a duty-based

conception of morality based in respect for humanity,

a conception that he argues we should also attribute to

Kant: [I]nstead of starting from the question what

maxims can be universalized without contradiction, it

would be better to understand Kant as asking first how we

have to act in order to treat our dignity (our inner kernel of

intrinsic value) with the proper respect(p. 147).

I am in no position to say whether this would in fact be

a better interpretation of Kant. I do wonder, however,

whether this formulationwhich boils down to something

worryingly like an injunction to treat our dignity with

dignityreally does much work. Rosens other formulations

seem equally empty: For instance, dignity requires

that we behave in ways that honoror respecthumanity in

our person(p. 153), a requirement that he concedes

provides no clear test or set of criteriafor determining

appropriate action (p. 155). The criteria are apparently clear

enough to resolve the corpse question, however: we might

have [a duty to respect humanity] toward thingscorpses

or fetuses, for examplethat are not themselves human and

will not benefit fromour behavior toward them,even if we

abandon Kants transcendental perspective (p. 157). Rosen

avoids direct engagement with politics, sticking to Kant and

corpses and remaining coy about what respect for fetuses

entails. This is a shame, because the politics of abortion,

stem cells, torture, or other contentious examples of dignity

politics might enliven and fortify his rarefied discussion.

Instead, he cruises along on his philosophical fly-over,

ignoring the numerous off-ramps that would give him

access to political points of interests on the angry, congested

surface streets below.


One might expect the two self-avowedly constructivist

works under review here to handle the integration of

normative and empirical aspects of human rights more

deftly. After all, constructivists are broadly concerned

with the creation, diffusion, and effectiveness of norms

(and other things). Yet as Greggs Human Rights as Social

Construction and Sikkinks The Justice Cascade show,

constructivist work often takes place on one side or the

other of this divide. The expectation of integration arises

from the casual association of constructivism with norms

which can refer either to an empirical phenomenon in the

world or to the normativity (the oughtness) of a concept.

In international relations, most constructivist work on

human rights falls, like Sikkinks, on the empirical side of

the divide, philosophical constructivism like Greggs on

the normative side. The problematic features of this divide

are clear in these two otherwise engaging books.

Gregg rejects traditional philosophical approaches to

human rights as theologicaland otherworldly(p. 3)

and seeks a social constructionistalternative. I find most

of his critique of metaphysical conceptions of rights

insightful and persuasive. His chapter on the incompatibility

of global human rights with the nation-state as

presently conceived and configured is a must-read for all

serious students of human rights. That said, I have

reservations about his human rights projectand about

the political fallout from it.


What Gregg calls social constructionism (constructivism)

entails that we regard the objects of our analysis as

products of human social interactionthat we treat the

factsin question as socially determined and variable. He

rejects Rawlsian-style philosophical construction, which

builds up conclusions from moral assumptions, as hopelessly

metaphysical, detached from social and political

reality. Gregg attempts to use social constructivism to

explain the universal validity and bindingness of human

rightsa bold attempt, given that social constructivism is

frequently aligned (if not allied) with cultural relativism.

He tries to square this circle through the idea of contingent

empirical universality, which essentially says that human

rights will become universally binding only if all communities

willingly embrace them. Their local acceptance

becomes a possible empirical basis for a future, though

contingent, universality. Gregg offers a vision of human

rights as noncoercive and nonimperialistic, based on locally

valid norms but potentially universal (pp. 135 ff.). On his

account, human rights inform a proper understanding of

dignity, rather than the other way round. He dismisses

conceptions of dignity invoked by philosophers, seeing

them as examples of the theological approach to human

rightsthat he hopes to overturn (p. 17). In his account,

the traditional notion that some persons possess dignity

becomes the posttraditional idea that all persons possess it

(p. 46). Dignity is thus situated within and shaped by the

political, social, and legal categories of recognition in local

communities (and potentially across communities); rather

than reflecting some metaphysical essence, human dignity

becomes a political achievement (p. 46).


All of this is quite appealing and seems like just the

kind of integrated normative and empirical approach

I have been calling for. Unfortunately, things go wonky

in the follow-through. Gregg seems mainly interested in

providing an account of human rights that he thinks

could or should command future consensus, rather than

in studying local understandings of rights or exploring

possible terms of their translation and negotiation.

Instead of investigating the local bases for the acceptability

of rights and seeking similarities and potential

bridges among them, he offers his own eclectic grounding,

drawing on neurobiology and a doctrine of assertive

selfhood (pp. 9199) to construct a highly idealized

account. He even explains how activists might develop

indigenousinterpretations of rights as he understands

them (p. 141). In the end, this is less a book about human

rights as a social construction than it is about how to

construct human rights along the lines Gregg thinks or

hopes will attract universal supporta philosophical construct

with assembly instructions.


In a further irony, Greggs social constructivism yields

an account with no politics in it: He describes the work

that politics might do in advancing the ideal human rights

project but pays no attention to the present politics

surrounding human rights or to how politics might

impede the human rights project (without almost any

consideration of politics, I should say). Apparently to

advance his accounts acceptability, Gregg makes some

puzzling and worrisome concessions on democracy and

on womens rights.7 Briefly, Gregg disputes Jürgen

Habermass claims about the co-originality of democracy

and human rights and questions Jack Donnellys assertions

about democracys importance for the effective realization

of human rights (pp. 9798). The author wants to insist

that human rights can emerge even in nondemocratic

societies, and so they can, but he confuses the conditions

of rightsemergence with the requirements for their

maintenance, wrongly concluding that human rights

neither need nor require democracy. On womens rights,

Gregg condones womens inequality and subordination

so long as the women embraceit.8 He argues that

a community that discriminates against some of its

members in ways that do not constitute persecution, and

in ways accepted by those discriminated against,

should be respected in its choice and organization

(p. 22). If respecthere simply rules out invoking

womens rights as a pretext for military adventurism,

fine. Gregg, however, wants to rule inbaselines for

womens rights that fall well short of social, political, or

economic equality and that license womens subordination

and relegation to the private sphere.9


The broader question is why an ideal account like

Greggs should sacrifice anything on the altar of acceptability.

He insists that his approach enables a critical stance

on our culture and on others, yet I cannot see how these

concessions are consistent with such a stance or how they

can be reconciled with the conceptual architecture of his

theory. (How, for instance, does womens subordination

square with the assertive selfhood at the foundation of

human rights?) If, as Gregg avows, [h]uman rights can be

legitimate for any community that comes to embrace

them(p. 158), why presume that democracy and

womens rights are somehow especially problematic?

Greater attention to the political claims and struggles of

feminists and of opponents of authoritarianism might have

helped him avoid these difficulties.


Sikkink provides a very different constructivist reading

of human rights. She recounts the emergence of the

dramatic new trend in world politics toward holding

individual state officials, including heads of state, criminally

accountable for human rights violations(p. 5). The justice

cascade does not indicate that perfect justice is being done

or will be done, Sikkink stresses, and it does not mean that

most perpetrators of human rights violations are being held

criminally accountable: Rather, justice cascade means that

there has been a shift in the legitimacy of the norm of

individual criminal accountability for human rights violations

and an increase in criminal prosecutions on behalf of

that norm. The term captures how the idea started as a small

stream, but later caught on suddenly, sweeping along many

actors(p. 5). She recognizes that this cascade is hardly

inevitable, and the book is her attempt to determine how

and why it developed.


Unlike the other titles under review here, The Justice

Cascade is primarily an empirical study. Sikkinks vast

knowledge and experience and her distinctive narrative

voice make the book both accessible and deeply personal,

and it is full of insights and largely persuasive. It is also

somewhat unusual among empirical studies in taking

a clear ethical stance on its subject matter (in advocating

prosecutions). The author notes that in the view of most

(empirical) political scientists, doing so compromises ones

objectivity and undermines the credibility of ones

research. For a long time, she writes, she thought that

addressing ethical questions would require her to [s]top

being a researcher and become a moral philosopher

(p.229; I assume she meant to say something more like

give up on my own present research agenda). Now she

has identified an approach that [lets her] combine

attention to both normative issues and empirical research

findings(p. 229). This approach is consequentialism,

which she defines as the view that knowledge of the

expected consequences is important for helping to make

hard ethical choices(p. 230). Prosecutions are good if

they promote democracy and stability.


It is not clear whether this consequentialism explains

the spread of norms of accountability, however. Sikkink

understands norms as standards of appropriate behavior

that carry a special quality of oughtness”—which, I argue

later, cannot be explained on consequentialist grounds.

Norms are intersubjective, and often only a small number

of people share them; they can spread rapidly, or cascade,

when norm entrepreneurs push for their widespread

recognition (p. 11). The justice cascade refers only to

individual legal accountability for human rights violations,

though this norm is nested within wider global movements:

the human rights revolutionand the related push for

transitional justice (p. 16) made possible by the third wave

of democratization and the end of the Cold War (p. 24).

Three streams feed this cascade: domestic and foreign

prosecutions of human rights violations, international

prosecutions, and the streambed of hard law,made up

of international human rights conventions (p. 97).10 The

book traces the origins of each stream, carrying us from

Greece and Portugal, whence domestic prosecutions did

not diffuse, to Argentina and Latin America, whence they

did; from Nuremberg and Tokyo to the ad hoc tribunals

for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the Pinochet case; and

from the Genocide Conventions and Geneva accords of

the late 1940s through the conventions against Apartheid

and Torture in the 1980s. These streams have merged into

what Sikkink describes as a decentralized, interactive

system of global accountability whose most notable

features are the doctrine of universal jurisdiction and the

creation, via the Rome Statute of 1998, of the International

Criminal Court (97 ff.).


The book tackles three big questions related to this

cascade: The first concerns the origins of new ideas

regarding individual criminal accountability for human

rights violations; the second concerns how and why some

ideas and practices become norms and diffuse; the third

concerns the effects of human rights prosecutions (p. 230).

With respect to the third question, Sikkink challenges

the skepticism about human rights trials that pervades the

conventional wisdom and scholarly literature on political

transitions. This skeptical view fears that the threat of

prosecution spurs the bad guys to entrench themselves

ever more deeply in power and inculcates damaging

political instability (pp. 13060). She finds little evidence

to support these anxieties; in fact, her own data show

(though not definitively) that human rights trials are

beneficial for democracy, contribute to the rule of law,

and promote political stabilitythis is the consequentialist

case for trials (pp. 229 ff.).


With respect to the second big question, Sikkink argues

that to explain why change happens, we need to pay

attention to how agentsthat is, real people and

organizationspromote new ideas and practicesand how,

over time, these can create a new understanding of the ways

in which states ought to behave, and new understandings

of the national interests of states (p. 237). This account,

which she describes as agentic constructivism(p. 237),

accommodates top-down diffusion and bottom-up and

horizontal diffusion, both of which figure into the justice

cascade (though the book focuses on the former).

Sikkinks answer to the first big question is that systemic

shocks and changes in the domestic balance of power

account for the origins of new ideas about individual

criminal accountability (p. 245). Curiously, this reads

more like a further explanation of norm diffusion than like

an account of the origins or appeal of new ideas. I think

that the cascade metaphor is implicated here: One can

trace the streams that feed a cascade back to their sources,

noting their particular paths, but this does not explain why

they flow in the first place; to know that, we have to get

under the surface. Put differently, explaining the diffusion

of norms is not an empirical question of tracking their

proliferation; it also has to do with the nature and appeal of

the norms themselveswith their oughtness.On the

authors account, this cannot be a function of their

consequences; we can only know these after the norms



Sikkink acknowledges this difficulty indirectly, at the

books end, when she asks why certain ideas at certain

moments in certain places, resonate, grab attention, and

become possible”—a problem she calls the single most

difficultone raised in her analysis (p. 261). This, finally, is

a direct engagement with the first big question. Sikkink

argues that issues involving bodily harm are the most likely

to fuel transnational activist campaigns because such

wrongs resonate across cultures and societies. The crimes

for which individual criminal accountability is sought

involve exactly this subset of violent bodily harms

(p. 255), owing to the obvious injustice they involve.

She also makes frequent reference to the intrinsic power

of new norms and to the inherently appealingideas that

animate prosecutions (p. 231). She claims to find nothing

puzzling in the intrinsic appeal of the human rights idea

the idea that almost everyone would prefer to be alive

than dead, free than imprisoned, secure than tortured, fed

than hungry. Core human rights norms have resonated so

profoundly in the world in part because of this intrinsic

appeal(pp. 26162). She complains that while psychologists

can speak of . . . a moral instinct,this is still heresy

for political scientists (p. 261).


There are two problems here. First, this kind of

bootstrapping might be enough to ground protections

against murder, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment, but

it seems radically insufficient in the case of more controversial

rights. What if almost everyonedoes not agree

about the importance of press freedom or reproductive

rights or the dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,

and queer people or the right to health care or an adequate

standard of living? Second, if Sikkink really thinks that

human rights are matters of moral or psychological fact,

why does she find it so hard to account for their diffusion?

Why does she find it surprising to watch how uniformly

human beingseven those embedded in cultural scenarios

that tell them otherwisebelieve that they are entitled

to something better(p. 262) when they experience

human rights abuses? Indeed, if human rights are

inherently powerful, intrinsically appealing, moral or

psychological facts, why are they not ubiquitous, selfexecuting?

Sikkinks answer is power (p. 235). This is

plausible enough, but it calls for a much more fully

developed moral psychology to explain why the intrinsic

appeal of human rights and the moral instinct is absent or

deficient or overwhelmed in some individuals, why

human rights norms (rather than some other ones) prove

useful and appealing as tools to counteract power, and how

persuasion and diffusion work in the case of non-obvious

rights. Such an account, if it is available, spans the normative

and the empirical.


The final two books I consider make the turn toward

an integrated account of human rights, though both have

only begun down this road. In Dignity in Adversity,

Benhabib takes up, like Gregg, questions about the validity

of universal human rights norms in local settings. She

conceptualizes the problem primarily as one of reconciling

cosmopolitan norms with territorially demarcated, democratic

popular sovereignty, an approach that raises many

questions. For instance, is a demos of the kind she imagines

necessary or justifiable on democratic grounds? Is this

binary framework of the universal and particular adequate

for making sense of transnational and supranational legal

and policy issuesthose that involve or cut across many

demoi, not all of which share the same presuppositions

about the validity of cosmopolitan norms? Is this

depiction of the global political economy and world

system conceptually and empirically rich enough to

provide significant analytic leverage on the problem of

social and economic emancipation that Benhabib

believes is central to the struggle for human dignity

(pp. 192 ff.)?11


Dignitys marquee status notwithstanding, it makes only

rare appearances in the book. Nonetheless, there is a conception

of human dignity at work throughout these essays

in the idea of communicative freedom, which Benhabib

anchors in an enlarged understanding of Hannah Arendts

right to have rights.Benhabib argues that a political

justification of human rights presupposes what she calls

justificatory universalism, which requires the acknowledgement

of the communicative freedom of the other, that is, of

the right of the other to accept as legitimate only those

norms as rules of action of whose validity she has been

convinced with reasons(p. 11). This acknowledgment

rests in turn on moral universalism, which is equal respect

for the other as a being capable of communicative freedom”—

the right to have rights (p. 11).


Benhabib insists that this moral universalism does not

determine a specific list of rights beyond the protection

of the communicative freedom of the person(p. 11).

That protection, however, entails quite a lot. It would, she

argues (p. 127), minimallyinclude

the rights to life, liberty (including to freedom from slavery,

serfdom, forced occupation, as well as protecting against sexual

violence and sexual slavery); the right to some form of personal

property; equal freedom of thought (including religion), expression,

association, representation, and the right to self-government.


Furthermore, liberty requires provisions for the equal value

of liberty(Rawls), through the guarantee of some bundle of

socio-economic goods, including adequate provisions of basic

nourishment, shelter, and education.

In accepting Habermass discourse principle (p. 129),

Benhabib envisions a vetofor all citizens and residents that

allows them to demand that the conversation of justification

resume and not be terminated unless their objections

have been voiced, listened to, and resolved upon(p. 159).

Benhabib argues that her account avoids metaphysical

entanglements because it is a presuppositionalanalysis of

rights. What this means is basically that my recognition of

your right to have rights is a precondition of (presupposes)

your being able to contest and accept my rights in the first

place. I have my doubts whether this argument holds up,

but I leave those worries aside here. The much more

interesting parts of the book, I think, are those in which the

author discusses how rights create a normative universe of

meaning. She argues that the profusion of human rights law

and treaties and the uptake of human rights norms by actors

outside formal legal and legislative arenas facilitate new

forms of public claimsmaking and anticipate new forms of

justice to come(pp. 15, 125). Benhabib calls this the

jurisgenerativepotential of rights.12


Democratic iterationis the process through which this

tension between the unity and diversity of human rights is

worked outthat is, in which the relation between the

moral core and legal form of rights is articulated and

negotiated (p. 73). Through public iterations of will and

opinion formation, rights are appropriated and contextualized

by democratic communities (pp. 7375); rights acquire

legitimacythough not validitythrough the exercise of

democratic popular sovereignty (p. 118), which exercise

itself presupposes the communicative freedom that rights

both enable and express (p. 74).


The contrast with Greggs approach is illuminating.

He attempts to erase the tension between universal and

particular by defining the universal as the sum of the

particular: human rights attain universal validity only

when they command local validity everywhere. Benhabib,

we might say, seeks to inhabit rather than to resolve the

tension, to work out how universal and particular inform

each other in processes of negotiating rights. This analysis

is most penetrating and illuminating when Benhabib

attends to the generative power of cosmopolitan norms

and focuses on the potential for rights- and justiceenhancing

iterations (as well as pathological ones) in the

give-and-take of democratic politics. This cosmopolitanism

without illusions(p. 16) highlights how rights and

identity get negotiated and renegotiated through political

contestation and how this process can bestow legitimacy

on rights in particular contextsas illustrated in an

illuminating discussion of debates surrounding secularism

and the public wearing of headscarves in France, Germany,

and Turkey (Chapter 9).


Critics have questioned whether democratic iteration is

a normative or an empirical concept; Benhabibs reply

that it has both empirical and normative components,

as all legitimacyconcepts since Max Weber attest to

(p. 151)leaves unclear whether she understands the

concept to be descriptive. She often writes as if it were

for instance, in characterizing democratic iterations as

[involving] complex processes of public argument,

deliberation, and exchange through which universalist

rights claims are contested and contextualized, invoked

and revoked, posited and positioned throughout legal and

political institutions, as well as in the associations of civil

society(p. 16; see also p. 182). At other times, however,

democratic iteration is deployed as a normative concept

with empirical importthat allows us to judge contentious

discourses according to normative criteria deriving their

justification from communicative ethics (p. 16). So, while

democratic iteration refers to the processes of collective

self-appropriation of cosmopolitan norms through which

rights lose their parochialism, it also provides the critical

standard for assessing whether genuinely democratic

iterations are occurring: democratic iterations themselves

presuppose some standards of rights [those entailed by

communicative freedom](p. 129).


As this discussion indicates, there is an unresolved

tension in Benhabibs account between democratic iteration

as a normatively laden empirical description of

processes of contestation and claims making around rights

and as a critical normative standard for evaluating those

processes and their outcomes. On the one hand, democratic

iterations are supposed to describe processes through

which universal or cosmopolitan moral norms are collectively

self-appropriated (legitimated) by communities

through democratic discourse and contestation. On the

other, the rigorous standard for assessing a communitys

processfor determining whether the democratic iterations

are genuine or legitimateis precisely the norms

whose legitimacy for that community is supposedly established

through this iterative process itself (cf. 130).

Democratic iteration is a powerful and very promising

concept, and Benhabibs discussions of real-world struggles

over the meaning of rights are often deeply insightful.

Yet I worry that in conflating the descriptive and the

critical in this way, her cosmopolitanism remains under

the spell of an illusion after all: that what is actually

happening in real disputes over rights is what discourse

ethics tells us ought to be happening in idealized discourses

about rights. Put differently, Benhabibs cosmopolitanism

imagines that discourse ethics dissolves the tension

between foundationalist approaches to rights and political

ones; Karen Zivi labors under no such illusions in Making

Rights Claims. In this wonderful book, she arguesagainst

the pervasive foundationalist tendency in the literature

that instead of worrying about what rights are and what

rights people have, scholars should focus on what rights do

(p. 9). That is, Zivi proposes to investigate and theorize the

process or activity of rights claiming itself in seeking to

grasp more firmly the normative and political significance

of rights. In this respect, her approach is similar to

Benhabibs: She views the tension between rights and

democracy not as a problem to solve but, rather, as

a relationship to understand anew (p. 7).

In seeking to apprehend rights claiming as an activity,

what Zivi calls performativity, she [draws] on the speech act

theory of J. L. Austin and the writings of some of his

contemporary interlocutors,including Jacques Derrida,

Stanley Cavell, and Judith Butler (p. 14). The key insight

she takes from this conversation is that speaking, writing,

and other communications never merely reflect our world

but always also (re)produce it (p. 14). Performativity is

(necessarily) conventional, insofar as what we mean in

making an utterance is comprehensible only within a context

or framework of conventions in which it is performed.

Yet performativity can also be unconventional: What we

mean by making an utterance can call into question or

otherwise subvert existing conventions (pp. 1619). These

unconventional performances, Zivi argues, are valuable for

democracy because they cannot be captured by any set of

rules, they open up rather than foreclose political possibilities

(p. 19). A performative understanding of rights claiming

undermines the familiar view of rights as trumps, a view

she finds pervasive and problematic.13 Seeing rights as

trumpsmeans treating themas if they create sure winners or

guarantee particular outcomes. This perspective inevitably

disappoints, as in fact rights often fail to deliver the hopedfor

results. Politics is contingent and conflictual, and

outcomes are never certain (pp. 3642). Foundationalism

limits our understanding of what people do and mean by

claiming rights.


We can see this, Zivi argues, by recalling that political

activity often aims to be persuasive (pp. 4647). On the

performative view, rights claiming becomes an intersubjective

practice of persuasion, and as such it relies on both

reason and emotion (pp. 11819). As we engage with others

in politics and persuasion, she maintains, we share our

perspectives on the world, taking into consideration as we

do so the views and feelings of others in our community.

In the authors gloss on John Stuart Mill, it is through

this contestation and engagement with differences of

perspective that one comes to be fully human(p. 59).

The meaning and power of rights derive from the

engagement and openness that rights claiming entail

rather than from any outcomes they deliver (p. 67);

this process is valuable for democracy not because of

the results it guarantees but because of the practice that

it engenders (p. 121).


This conceptualization of rights claiming also undermines

a familiar critique of rights focused on their

pernicious effectstheir disciplinary power, their reproduction

of the status quo, their foreclosure of politics.

These critiques are less wrong than incomplete on Zivis

view; they miss the unpredictability and the transformative

potential of rights claiming. Invoking the discourse of

rights does replicate disciplinary power and reproduce

existing rules and conventions, but she also highlights

the unpredictability of rights and their transformative

potential. Despite their conventionality, rights can be used

to open up spaces, to introduce new perspectives, and to

challenge traditional norms (pp. 7881). Rights claiming

is a kind of permanent provocation (p. 112).


In Chapters 4 and 5 of Making Rights Claims, Zivi


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

Patriotismus und die Linke in Amerika und Deutschland: Rorty und Habermas

Guest Professorship 2015

Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck ▪ Sommermester 2015

Zur langfristigen Evolution

von Ungleichheit und der Konzentration von Wohlstand

LV Nr. 408202 ▪ Modul “Strukturen und Wandel der Gegenwartsgellschaft 2” ▪ 5 ECTS

Blockveranstaltung im Bachelorprogramm, in deutscher Sprache ▪ 20., 21., 27., 28. März,

Freitags jeweils 9-16 Uhr ▪ Samstags jeweils 9-14 Uhr 

Fr        03.20.2015      09.00-16.00     SR 6

Sa        03.21.2015      09.00-14.00     SR 6

Fr        03.27.2015      09.00-16.00     SR 9

Sa        03.28.2015      09.00-14.00     SR 4

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Gregg ( ▪ University of Texas, Department of Government, 1 University Station A-1800, Austin, Texas 78712 USA

KOMMENTAR ▪Ziel der Veranstaltung ist es, Strukturen und Wandel des politisch-ökonomischen Bereiches der Gegenwartsgesellschaft im Lichte der Gesellschaftstheorie von Thomas Piketty zu beleuchten. Dabei werden mehere Piketty-Kritiker aus diversen gesellschaftstheoretischen Richtungen mitthematisiert. Das Seminar behandelt Daten aus 20 Ländern, mit Rückgriffen bis ins 18. Jahrhundert, um die entscheidenden ökonomischen und sozialen Muster freizulegen, um die dynamischen Faktoren für die Akkumulation und Distribution von Kapital zu verstehen. Sind Gewinne aus Kapital höher als die Wachstumsraten, und somit der Haupttreiber der Ungleichheit heute? Inweifern ist der soziale Friede dadurch gefährdet? Inwiefern sind die Werte der Demokratie daduch unterminiert? Wie extrem sind die verschiedenen Formen von Ungleichheit heute? Droht die Ungleichheit von heute noch extremer Formen von Ungleichheit morgen hervorzubringen?

LITERATUR ▪(a) Thomas Piketty, Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert (französische Originalfassung oder die deutsche bzw. englische Übersetzung) ▪ (b) Mehere kritischen Stellungnahmen zu Piketty liegen als pdf-Dateien vor

HINWEIS ZUR VERANSTALTUNG ▪Verpflichtend ist die Teilnahme an allen vier Seminartagen.

LEISTUNGSNACHWEIS ▪Für einen benoteten Schein: ein textanalytischer Aufsatz, der eine bestimmte Fragestellung kritisch und eingehend diskutiert, von 8 bis 10 Seiten in deutscher oder englischer Sprache. Abgabetermin ist der 27. April 2015 per elektronische Zusendung (Email-Anhang).

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