Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry into Global Ethics by Joe Hoover

| December 2017
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Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry into Global Ethics, Joe Hoover (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 288 pp., $90 cloth.

Joe Hoover has written an ambitious and important first book. Reconstructing Human Rights challenges readers to think deeply and differently about human rights, to question our assumptions about what they are and their role in the world. My hope is that everyone interested in the theory and the politics of human rights will read it—not because I agree with all of Hoover’s conclusions, but because I think he asks the right questions and discusses them thoughtfully and insightfully.

Hoover starts from the premise that the meaning of humanity, and thus of human rights, is endlessly contestable (p. 2), and that different specific accounts of human rights “suggest particular readings of how our common humanity should shape our political relationships in contexts of opposition” (p. 12). Locating the value of human rights in the work that they do in the world, he seeks to develop a pragmatic account that makes sense of rights as they are without attempting to deny the various tensions and contradictions that they present (pp. 4–5). Hoover wants us to contemplate the ambiguity of human rights, to try to understand their many meanings, and to get away from the philosophical project of “justification” (p. 12). Yet he also wants to explore the democratizing potential of rights, specifically drawing on the example of campaigns for a human right to housing in the United States.

Hoover is troubled—as I am—by what he calls the “ethics of certainty” and the “legislative” conception of the relationship between ethics and politics that it entails. This foundationalist conceptualization of ethics dictates (legislates) how politics should be conceived and structured; ethics tames politics and legitimizes the existing order through appeals to morally justified principles (p. 72–73). Instead, Hoover puts the contingency of rights and the contestation that surrounds them at the heart of his ethical approach (p. 32), which he hopes will enable us to rethink the relationship between ethics and politics. The “pragmatist and pluralist approach” he proposes combines a Deweyan situationist ethics with an agonistic conception of politics.

Dewey’s approach begins in and reflects a deep pluralism engendered by the experience of uncertainty and contestability (p. 104), which leads to a critical reflective practice of making judgments in particular cases in which human rights function as socially constructed rules of conduct. This ethics resonates with the agonistic politics of theorist William Connolly, which Hoover characterizes as a fundamental rethinking of identity and authority in which human rights function as a mode of contestation for challenging and reconstructing sovereign authority and political membership (p. 148). For Hoover, it is a perfect match: synthesizing the two approaches lets us rethink universal ethical claims, seeing them “as common and contingent ends that enable human beings to understand each other across their differences” (p. 131). Human rights, in this context, becomes an ethical orientation, part of a democratizing ethos in which rights claims function disruptively, unsettling the given order.

Hoover is correct to question the foundationalism of most human rights accounts and the ethics of certainty that it reflects. He is also correct to ask how rights function in the world and what we should make of their multiple and contradictory uses. And he is correct yet again to identify contingency and contestation at the heart of human rights practice and to wonder about their implications. It is his thoughtful exploration of these questions that makes this book so rewarding. I worry, though, that his proposed ethical framework unnecessarily constrains the answers he imagines, as his recognition of the contentiousness of human rights and his study of advocacy around housing rights do not align well with his democratic ethos or his emphasis on claims about the boundaries of human identity.

Consider Hoover’s affirmation of deep pluralism. For him, as for Dewey and Connolly, affirmation suggests not just awareness but celebration of differing points of view. For Dewey, there is both an epistemological and a practical advantage to the participatory thrust of democracy (p. 130 ff.); while for Connolly, the experience of deep pluralism fosters a “generous and reciprocal spirit” (p. 160) in which agonistic respect and critical responsiveness govern our interactions with others without touching our core or authentic identities. Thus, profound conflict notwithstanding, these virtues can be shared by all. Hoover himself imagines a “democratizing human rights politics that enables agonistic respect for those we disagree with but whom we can still support and find common cause with, while also calling on us to be sensitive to the claims of” the oppressed (p. 216).

It is hard to square this with his acknowledgment that value conflicts might go “all the way down” (p. 60) and with the idea that human rights practice includes the use of these rights as tools of oppression (p. 10). It would seem that Hoover’s democratizing ethos does not, or perhaps cannot, take the tensions and contradictions of human rights practice seriously enough. He repeatedly acknowledges that there is no warrant for his democratic reading of human rights practice, stressing that this is but one possible reading (pp. 153, 168–69). But the issue is not whether Hoover recognizes the contingency of his position; it is rather that his account of human rights is less a reconstruction informed by practice and contestation than a reconceptualization or reinterpretation informed by his pragmatic pluralist framework. As such, like most agonistic theories, it ends up being too sanguine about “deep conflict,” which somehow always leads to respect, recognition, and understanding. There are hints of a vestigial liberal certainty here, one assuring Hoover (and Connolly, and perhaps Dewey too) that we will be able to support and find common cause with our opponents.

Hoover also tries a bit too hard to fit the practice he observes to his ethical framework, turning reconstruction on its head. There is little in Hoover’s lucid discussion of struggles around the right to housing to justify his optimism about finding common cause with opponents; his activists seem appropriately uninterested in supporting or even respecting the bankers, investors, and public officials complicit in their expropriation and exploitation. Nor is there anything to indicate that appeals to humanity as an inclusive identity, which Hoover stresses repeatedly, are central or even important to radical housing rights activism and advocacy. Indeed, ONE DC, one of the activist groups featured in Hoover’s account, explicitly excludes some people in its effort to build power among longtime residents of the neighborhood.

In the end, Hoover is less concerned with reconstructing human rights than with challenging prevailing thinking about ethics; it is in so doing that he develops his alternative account of rights. This explains an otherwise puzzling feature of the book: the serious and sustained engagement with human rights practice appears at its end, not its beginning, as one might expect of a reconstruction. That is not a problem per se, but there is a deep tension throughout the book between Hoover’s desire to let practice guide his thinking about rights and ethics, on the one hand, and his efforts to interpret rights in light of his ethics, on the other. This tension indicates just how hard it is to make sense of the ambiguity and uncertainty of rights without succumbing to an unproductive and unrealistic cynicism about them. I look forward to Hoover’s subsequent work as he struggles through these important and fundamental questions.

—Michael Goodhart

Michael Goodhart is associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the university’s Global Studies Center. He is the author of Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 31.4

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