"We hold these truths to be self-evident." Of course, if they had truly been self-evident they would not have required such a ringing affirmation, and the nation that was launched with these words would not have been so different from any other that then existed. Yet there was something to the claim. Jefferson's language would have been harder to gainsay (and to remember) if he had put the matter more modestly, say: "We hold these ideas to be intuitively compelling."
For compelling they were, whether or not "self-evident." They inspired the American colonists to wage a war for independence. And they set Europe abuzz with the idea of emulating the rights-based political system that America pioneered. Even before the Americans could codify their lofty principles into a Bill of Rights, the French had begun their own revolution and issued their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. What had happened that suddenly made the notion that "all men are created equal and endowed with . . . unalienable rights" so resonant, both in Europe and America?
This question is the subject of Inventing Human Rights, by the historian Lynn Hunt. Her book is really a study in social psychology. The definition of human rights, she argues, "indeed their very existence, depends on emotions as much as on reason." Accordingly, rights continue to evolve "because their emotional basis continues to shift." Jefferson's assertions resonated, she says, thanks to "brain changes" that had occurred in the 18th century. "Ordinary people had . . . new understandings that came from new kinds of feelings."
But where did these new feelings come from? Ms. Hunt offers two answers. First, new forms of art, especially the epistolary novel, focused on the lives of ordinary people and thus encouraged a broadening and deepening of empathy. "Can it be coincidental," she asks, "that the three greatest novels of psychological identification of the eighteenth century--Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Rousseau's Julie (1761)--were all published in the period that immediately preceded the appearance of the concept of 'the rights of man'?" Second, the public felt a growing revulsion toward judicial torture, a practice she describes in grisly detail. This revulsion, in turn, stemmed from a new respect for the human body, in particular its individuality.
"Boundaries between bodies became more sharply defined after the fourteenth century," Ms. Hunt notes. "Individuals become more self-contained as they increasingly felt the need to keep their bodily excretions to themselves. . . . People began to use handkerchiefs rather than blowing their noses into their hands. Spitting, eating out of a common bowl, and sleeping in a bed with a stranger became disgusting or at least unpleasant."
To connect human rights to social history in this way is an original and interesting approach to the subject. But it is not entirely convincing. If bodily boundaries changed after the 14th century, why did a change in the perceptions of rights not happen until the 18th? Did a revulsion toward torture bring about new ideas about rights, or did the cause-and-effect relation go the other way, with a sense of rights coming first and revulsion after? Or is it possible that some third, underlying cause affected both?
Similarly, Ms. Hunt does a nice job of explaining the era's epistolary novels and their themes of empathy, but she offers no evidence of their direct connection to the emergence of human rights. Maybe "coincidental" is indeed the right word. In any case, it is hard to believe that epistolary novels were a more potent engine of empathy than the book of Genesis, which enjoins against murder on the grounds that "in the image of God made He man."
In Ms. Hunt's interpretation, our sense of rights is infinitely elastic and vulnerable to shifting emotion. She might have stopped to address the possibility--advanced by Steven Pinker and James Q. Wilson, among others--that morality has a strong genetic component. She also plays down the power of intellect in human affairs. For Jefferson's and Locke's ideas to take hold, must we assume that the 18th-century brain required some extraneous preparation? Couldn't it be that the insights and arguments of the era's great minds were forceful in themselves, playing a much greater role than Clarissa?
To say that the theory at the heart of Ms. Hunt's book is unpersuasive, though, is not to deny its value. Along the way, she offers a lively and informative history of human rights, even if the source of them remains something of a mystery.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at AEI.