Book Review

The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries by Michael J. Perry. Oxford University Press, NY, 1998; 162 pages, ISBN 0-19-511636-4, hardback, $40.00.

A legal scholar examines four questions related to human rights in clear, easy-to-read academic prose: whether there is a a coherent secular account of the idea of human rights; the meaning and value of talk about human rights; whether human rights are universal; and whether human rights are absolute.  I didn't find several of his arguments convincing, but they certainly provoke thought.  For example, in the first essay, which maintains that there are no coherent secular arguments for human rights, he stacks the deck by demanding that such arguments show that human life is "sacred" a loaded term in such a debate.  Admitting that secular people value human life equally as those subscribing to a spiritual tradition, he argues that secular arguments won't impress human rights violators enough to make them stop.  I would contend that spiritual arguments have not proved effective over the millennia in convincing those who wish to violate others' rights to act otherwise.  Moreover, he presents Nietzsche as the quintessence of the secular argument for morality and the sacredness of the individual, which is like holding up Tertullian as representing the most cogent arguments for Christian belief.  Nonetheless, his essays bring up many interesting points, and the many quotes he uses are particularly valuable. – Sally Dougherty (April 2010)   

Book Reviews