Inventing Human Rights

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights – Directed Reading Essays

Hunt: Question 1

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt argues that the novel and the epistolary novel, in particular, played a crucial role in the development of human rights. According to Hunt, the epistolary novel explored the interior lives of people from their perspectives, allowing readers to connect with strangers from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels by exploring their desires and hopes. These novels, as a result, showed the aristocracy and other literate people that one’s desire for love and virtue, and other basic hopes that all human beings have, cross class and national lines.

I found Hunt’s argument about the crucial role of novel reading persuasive and convincing. She argues that reading novels allowed people in the eighteenth century to realize that human rights are self-evident because reading about the interior lives of different characters allowed them to connect with strangers, like their servants, whom they would be otherwise unable to know so intimately. In other words, Hunt argues that these novels developed the readers’ empathy to others in their society by allowing them to enter these outsiders’ interior lives. For example, Rousseau’s Julie and Richardson’s Pamela were focused on middle class heroines struggling with love, their place in society, and other kinds of inner turmoil. According to Hunt, these novels developed a sense of empathy in their readers by showing them that people, like their servants, who they probably previously considered strangers and outsiders are actually a lot like them. In particular, the novels showed their readers that, at the very core, all people, regardless of their socioeconomic level, are essentially the same in that they all desire peace and hope for love; they are all capable of feeling dejected and rejected; and they all strive to live virtuous and fulfilling lives that mean something.

Though I readily agree with Hunt’s argument that “human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion,” I am somewhat ambivalent about the particulars of her conclusion about the overall effect that reading these novels had on society (Hunt 58). It seems to me that while these novels helped break down certain stereotypes about low and middle class people, they might have also entrenched other stereotypes, particularly those about women. As Hunt points out, many of these novels showed women heroines trying, but nevertheless failing to get real independence and true autonomy. In my view, these portrayals, though realistic with respect to time and place, also contributed to perpetuating prejudices about women. Realism was not much of a concern for writers whose novels aimed to break down socio-economic barriers. As a result, many of these novels portrayed middle class characters with elegant and eloquent interior monologues, showcasing education that the characters could not have possibly had. However, the same courtesy was not extended to women. Middle class or even wealthy women were not given the independence that these heroines really strived for, or that their readers probably wanted for them. Instead, women were continuously presented as individuals bound to the home, and trapped within their families’ or husbands’ social class or status. Thus, though I agree with Hunt’s overall argument that these novels helped readers see others as they see themselves, by breaking down stereotypes of outsiders as a whole, I am more ambivalent about the overall conclusion. In my view, many of these novels also did a lot of damage about in terms of solidifying many stereotypes about women.

Hunt: Question 2

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt states that her “argument depends on the notion that reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects the translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life” (33). Furthermore, she points out that “new kinds of reading (and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences (empathy), which in turn made possible new social and political concepts (human rights)” (Hunt 33 – 34). In other words, Hunt is arguing that the process of reading the epistolary novel taught the reader “nothing less than a new psychology” (Heller). This new psychology took the reader’s attention away from superficial differences, like socioeconomic level or class, and focused it on the similarities that are common to all human beings.

Hunt’s argument does not depend on evidence from actual physiological changes to the brain. Instead, she seems to be mainly arguing for a metaphorical way of talking about a change in outlook, in terms of the way that people felt and thought. According to Hunt, by showing readers the interior lives of strangers, these novels developed an understanding between strangers that is based on similarities, like hopes and desires for love. She concludes that the process of reading these novels facilitated an increasing sense of empathy for strangers within the reader, and this an increasing sense of empathy led to the invention of the notion of human rights. Thus, Hunt makes a solid argument in favor of empathy, regardless of whether or not there were actual physiological changes taking place.

Though Hunt’s argument is not particularly scientific, her intuitions about the physiological brain changes in regards to empathy are supported with scientific evidence. Over the last few decades, brain science and neuroscience have confirmed the idea that empathy is a “neurological fact” (Gibson). Empathy is now understood as a kind of “minor constellation: clusters of encephalic stars glowing in the cosmos of an otherwise dark brain” (Gibson). University of Chicago’s neuroscientist, Jean Decety, has studied the physiology of empathy by charting “its existence using brain imaging and projected pictures of physical and emotional suffering: a stubbed toe, a child’s nosebleed, a grieving father clutching the body of his son” (Gibson). His studies consistently have shown the viewer’s anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula light up on an fMRI scan when he or she witnesses another person’s pain (Gibson).

While Hunt’s abstract view of empathy argues that empathy helps people create connections between complete strangers, psychology and neuroscience now have a more clinical understanding of the concept. According to Decety, empathy starts with something involuntary, a shared emotion that is hardwired into our brains (Gibson). This emotion is what gives people “the capacity to automatically perceive and share others’ feelings” (Gibson). Besides being hardwired into our brains, empathy can also be learned (Gibson). The written word is the most effective and efficient way that people have to learn from others. Thus, this neurological finding that empathy can be learned buttresses Hunt’s argument that novel reading created an increased sense of empathy in society during the Enlightenment and facilitated the invention of the notion of human rights.

Hunt: Question 3

In the introduction to Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt asks, “How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seeming natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” (19). The process that allowed men to imagine others as their equals was literacy and epistolary novels, which showed the interior lives of their characters. These novels developed the society’s overall sense of empathy, or the ability to identify with others. Combined with the concept of virtue, one that is based on human value, the western world saw a rise in a new psychology. In particular, “This new way of viewing the self and others is the basis for, and intertwined with, human rights – the rights on man”  (Butler).

Throughout the Enlightenment, these ideas created movements and uprisings to eliminate slavery and establish more freedoms for poor and middle-class people. However, these ideas unfortunately did not transfer into significantly more equalities and freedoms for women. Hunt points out that “in contrast to French Protestants, Jews or even slaves, women’s status had not been the subject of pamphlet wars, public essay contests, government commissions, or specifically organized advocacy organizations, such as the Friends of Blacks” (168). Thus, women’s rights continued to rank lower on the “conceivability” or “think-ability” scale than those of other oppressed groups during the seventeenth and eighteenths centuries.

According to Hunt, women’s rights were not seen as much of an issue during that time, and women did not seek or gain as much autonomy as the rest of the oppressed people, because women were not viewed as “a clearly separate and distinguishable political category before the Revolution”(169). During the eighteenth century, people, “like almost everyone in human history before them, viewed women as dependents defined by their family status and thus by definition not fully capable of political autonomy” (Hunt 67). In other words, society identified women as different according to their gender, but then folded their identity into a social position within a particular class or race. Since a woman’s autonomy was seen as impossible to separate from her family’s status, women were not considered as a unique political category within a society. Thus, women could rise up “for some determination as a private, moral value,” but they could not do so by establishing “a link to political rights” (Hunt 67).

In other words, though women were viewed as people who had rights, they did not have political rights, which were essentially the only ones that mattered. Since women were not considered as a unique political category then they were not included in conversations about human rights, making them in a way ineligible for human rights. As a result, though slaves got their freedom and other oppressed groups gained additional rights, women within those groups continued to suffer. Furthermore, women as a whole did not even gain the right to vote in national elections anywhere in the world prior to the end of the nineteenth century (Hunt 168).

Burke and Paine – Directed Reading

Burke and Paine: Question 1

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine calls the notion of hereditary succession absurd and evil. He states that hereditary succession “opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and improper,” thus embodying within it “the nature of oppression” (Williams 482). Furthermore, Paine states that men who are born with the power to rule, and have others obey them “grow insolent” because “their minds are easily poisoned by importance” (Williams 482). According to Paine, men who are born to reign live in a different world from those who they reign over, and their separation from their society allows them little opportunity to actually know the real needs of their people. As a result, when these men “succeed to the government” they are often “the most ignorant and unfit of any, throughout the dominions” (Williams 482). In other words, Paine argues that the very nature of hereditary succession makes the individuals who come to the throne less fit for the position than just about anyone else.

In Paine’s view, the other evil of hereditary succession is the notion of the throne as a subject that can be possessed by a minor. Paine argues that since the minor is not of age, he is even less fit to rule effectively. As a result, this minor and his kingdom is under great threat from the ministers and other advisers, who “acting under the cover of the King, have every opportunity and inducement to betray their trust” (Williams 482). In other words, Paine is arguing that a minor who succeeds to the throne is even less able to rule effectively than he would be otherwise, and the kingdom is therefore even more likely to be threatened by internal politics, which often result in more suffering for the people of the kingdom of the whole. Paine also notes that these threats from the inside also threaten the kingdom when a king grows old and “enters the last stage of human weakness” (Williams 482).

According to Paine, the problem with a hereditary succession of rulers is just as much of an evil as the monarchy itself because both institutions only perpetuate social disorder, civil unrest, and suffering. Paine argues that “the most barefaced falsity ever imposed on mankind” is the idea that hereditary succession protects the nation from civil wars. To support his point, he points to the history of England: “thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been (including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions” (Williams 483). Paine goes on to discuss the fight for monarchy and succession between two English houses, the House of York and the house of Lancaster, and how that fight for power “laid England in a scene of blood for many years”(Williams 483).

As a result, Paine concludes that monarchy and succession “have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes” (Williams 483). He states that not only do hereditary succession and monarchy not create peace, these institutions actually do the opposite: they destroy “the very foundation it to stand upon” (Williams 483). He views monarchy and hereditary succession as the reason for all social unrest, revolutions, rebellions, and civil wars, stating that a monarchy is a form of government that is against God.

Paine and Burke: Question 3

In his Reflections, Edmund Burke’s says, “government is not made in virtue of national rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection, but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything, they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants” (Williams 517). Burke argues that it is men’s wisdom that tells men which of their wants should be provided for. He further points out that the purpose of society is to restrain human passions: “society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should be frequently thwarted, there will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection” (Williams 517). Burke argues that the only power that can control men’s passions is a power that is “out of themselves;” therefore, men’s liberties and their restraints “are to be reckoned among their rights” (Williams 517).

Thomas Paine puts forth certain rules that governments should follow in order to rectify the evils of monarchy and hereditary succession. For example, he proposes that assemblies should be held annually and should only have a president: “let the assemblies being annual, with the president only. The representation more equal, their business wholly domestic, and subject to the authority of a continental congress” (Williams 485). Instead of identifying certain rules about the rights and liberties of men and their governments, like Paine, Burke argues against these kinds of specifics. To Burke, liberties and restrictions depend on circumstances and time, and are therefore open to “infinite modifications” (Williams 518). Furthermore, Burke also states that restrictions “cannot be settled upon any abstract rule, and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle” (Williams 518).

Burke and Paine have very different views regarding human rights and the function of government. While Paine relies on a clear definition of the rights of man, Burke considers this notion a pretended right. Burke states that “the pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false” (Williams 518). Burke does not accept a concrete definition of the rights of man because, to him, “the rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not possible to be discerned” (Williams 518). In essence, Burke is against idealism and extremism. He does not see the point in philosophizing about human rights when reality makes certain things impossible. For example, he asks, “what is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food and medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them” (Williams 518).

For Burke, the function of government is to establish a society that will prevent and avoid “the evils of inconstancy and versatility,” which, to him, are “ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice” (Williams 519). Burke’s vision of government is a lot less idealistic and a lot more pessimistic than Paine’s. Burke believes that safety and security are worth the prejudices and inequalities of western societies during his time while Paine believes that the social unrest, revolution, and bloodshed are worth the liberties that these sacrifices will bring.


Butler, Denis. “Introduction and Chapter 1 – Question 4.” 17 November 2012. Hunt Forum. 4

December 2012.

Gibson, Lydialyle. “Mirrored Emotion.” University of Chicago Magazine. 98 (4). 2006.

Heller, D. “Introduction and Chapter 1 – Question 4.” 9 November 2012. Hunt Forum. 4

December 2012.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.


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