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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Brooks's Public Lecture

Date: 1 December 2008

Time: 5.30pm

Venue: Lecture Room 21, Pemberton Building, Palace Green

Title: Being human, human rights and modernity

What is the relationship between being human and human rights?  Since the era of the American and French Revolutions in the late eighteenth century, ‘human rights' have figured increasingly in modern understandings of the relationship among the individual, the community and the state.  Yet it is hard to sustain theoretical arguments for the existence of human rights, and, even in countries such as the UK, human rights are consistently compromised in practice by political necessity. While our emphasis on abstract human rights is a relatively recent development, assumptions about what it meant to ‘be human' were by contrast powerful considerations in earlier political and legal thought.  The lecture will focus on how some of these issues played out in English jurisprudence before 1700 and include an interrogation of the notion that ‘man is a political animal'.  It will then consider the social and political circumstances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that led to human rights ‘declarations' in countries such as France and the United States.  If human rights are a signifier of modernity (at least in the West), then an understanding of the concept's development is also a history of modernity itself, including its discontents as well as its triumphs.