Philosophers, Activists, and Radicals: A Story of Human Rights and Other Scandals
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Paradoxically, the political success of human rights is often taken to be its philosophical failing. From US interventions to International NGOs to indigenous movements, human rights have found a place in diverse political spaces, while being applied to disparate goals and expressed in a range of practices. This heteronomy is vital to the global appeal of human rights, but for traditional moral and political philosophy it is something of a scandal. This paper is an attempt to understand and theorize human rights on the terrain of the social actors who put them to use, particularly radical activists that have a more critical relationship to human rights. Attempting to avoid the philosophical pathology of demanding that the world reflect our conception of it, we base our reflection on the ambiguous, and potentially un-patterned, texture of human rights practice—taking seriously the idea that human rights express a relationship of power, importantly concerned with its legitimate arrangement and limitation. In both the philosophical literature and human rights activism, there seems to be a consensus on basic rights as undeniable moral principles of political legitimacy. This use of human rights is contrasted with radical social movements that reject this conception of rights as ideological and illegitimate, making specific reference to the Zapatista movement (Chiapas, Mexico) and the Landless Peasant Movement of Brazil (MST, from the Portuguese Movimento dos trabalhadores rurais Sem Terra), which are critical of the human rights discourse, but also make strategic use of the idea and offer alternative articulations of political legitimacy.