Human Rights As Moral Progress? A Critique

Abstract  

In this article I critically engage the view that the enactment of human rights is the enactment of moral and political progress. Drawing on my research of international and local harm reductionists in Russia, I focus on these activists’ arguments for and suggestions of rights-based legislation. I contend that such arguments are not only made according to the logic of security, prosperity, and normativity, but that the realization of such legislation primarily results in the strengthening of already existing state-government apparatuses. It is argued that such human rights activism is perhaps better understood in terms of post–Cold War democracy building rather than a concern for the health of injecting drug users as such. It is this institution building that the human rights industry calls progress, and it is this notion of progress that is called into question in the article. It will be argued that this human rights practice is best understood in terms of repetition, and such repetition ultimately marks a limit for the political and moral activity possible in the name of human rights.

About the Author  

Jarrett Zigon is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Born in the U.S and raised in Europe, Zigon earned his MA in Liberal Arts at St. Johns College and later his PhD in Anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. His research interests have included morality, subjectivity, social ontology, and political possibilities for being otherwise. He is currently engaged in two long-term research projects, one focused on the political moralism of the human rights, and another on political activism by people who use drugs. Zigon has also published three books: Morality: An Anthropological Perspective (Berg, 2008), Making the New Post-Soviet Person: Narratives of Moral Experience in Contemporary Moscow (Brill, 2010), and HIV is God’s Blessing: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia (University of California Press, 2011). 

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Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles that focus on human rights and political moralism, including Jennifer Hasty’s "The Pleasures of Corruption: Desire and Discipline in Ghanaian Political Culture" (2005), Saida Hodzic’s "Ascertaining Deadly Harms: Aesthetics and Politics of Global Evidence" (2013).and Didier Fassin's "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France" (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on drug use and AIDS, including Erica Caple James' "

Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of (US)AID in Haiti" (2012), Shao Jing's "

Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China " (2006), and Nancy D. Campell and Susan J. Shaw's 

”Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects" (2008).

Interview with Jarrett Zigon  

Crystal Brannen: How did you come across the idea for this particular study and topic?

Jarrett Zigon: For the last fifteen years I have been working through the question of how to anthropologically study and think morality and ethics. For me this question was always related to the ontological question of being-in-the-world. By this I mean that it always seemed clear that morality and ethics were intimately tied up with particular ontological conditions for being, for example, being a person, being an institution, and even being objects and so this inevitably leads to politics. From the perspective I take the realm of politics is always saturated with particular forms of moral ontological language that put limits on conceiving possible political activity, political aims, and ultimately political persons. Human rights, it has been argued and I would agree, is today the most dominant moral ontological language of politics. It is for this reason that for the last several years I have been interested in human rights as a moral ontological language and have been investigating the limitations this language provides for possible political activity. It is this investigation that will be published in a book tentatively titled The Politics of the Subject: Human Rights and the Limitations of Being, hopefully sometime in 2015.

CB: How does your article for Cultural Anthropology fit into the larger research projects you have done or are still doing?  

JZ: My work has always been concerned with the relationship between morality/ethics and being-in-the-world. The first project was a study of how particular trajectories of being-in-the-world (what some would call life histories) are articulated in terms of moral concepts, beliefs, claims, etc. The second project was a study of how subjective ways of being-in-the-world are shaped through moral disciplining within particular institutional contexts and it questioned under what conditions might these new dispositions stick, as it were, or slip. The projects were published as Making the New Post-Soviet Person and HIV is God’s Blessing respectively. 

The current project is a study of the relationship between morality as moralism, politics, and political possibilities for being. This project is in two parts. The first is a critical hermeneutics of human rights and the limitations of being-in-the-world politically enacted through this politics of the subject.  The second is a critical hermeneutics of political possibilities enacted through what I call a politics of a situation, which is a politics not focused on an identity or a subject, but rather on the overturning of a situation that affects a significant number of the population. In particular, I’m doing ethnographic research with anti-drug war political activists in several countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. 

CB: What is the overall importance of this study?

JZ: The importance of this study, I hope, is the attempt to build off of Wendy Brown’s diagnosis of the political moralism that characterizes much of contemporary politics, and in doing so to show the significant limitations of a politics that relies on what Hannah Arendt called bannisters, or values that transcend this world, and which I think is exemplified in human rights politics as well as what gets called progressive politics. But I hope to do more than critique, for I also want to show an alternative form of politics, what I call a politics of a situation, that I believe the antidrug war political-movement exemplifies. This form of politics I argue is motivated by, and acts according to, imperatives that emerge out of a particular situation that has become unbearable for many to live within and significantly limits the possibilities for being for many others. 

CB: In the article, you write, “Although the ideal of moral progress within the human rights industry is to realize a moral state, what will become clear in my analysis of harm reduction activism in Russia is that very often the result is quite the opposite. For in the hope of realizing a moral state such activism, paradoxically, works to strengthen and legitimize the already existing institutional structures of a not-quite-yet moral state in the hope that these institutional modifications will eventually, someday, add up to the ideal aim of the moral state.” What did you mean by this? 

JZ: What I’m trying to get at, more or less, is that because human rights activism is only engaged in fairly minor reforms of the already existing institutional structures of already existing states, the hoped for result of transforming the state into some kind of moral entity that respects, supports, and advances the rights of its citizens (and perhaps others in the world) is not only naïve but self-defeating. For such tinkering reform simply does not add up, it will never result in this moral state. Of course, most human rights activists understand this and take a very pragmatic approach. But in this case it would behoove the activists to realize and acknowledge that the best they can hope for is a slightly more comfortable way of being for the marginalized and suffering they often claim to represent.

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