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Professor lectures on Carter’s 1977 address

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh invited former President Jimmy Carter to give the 1977 Commencement Address, few were expecting a pivotal moment in human rights history to take place in its stead.

Columbia University Professor Samuel Moyn placed the address in context to the broader history of the human rights movement in a lecture at Geddes Hall Tuesday.

Moyn first traced the development of the primary idea behind the speech — the concept of human rights.

“The basic values in human rights seem old, if not eternal,” Moyn said, tracing the value placed on dignity back to the Bible and others back to similarly influential sources.

Though the values have been around for a while, he said that the increasingly popular concept of international human rights can be traced back to very recent years. Other “universalisms,” or doctrines with broad applicability beyond their original context, also served as precedents to the human rights concept. The most important were the concepts of natural law and of the rights of man.

“The [thoughts of the Catholic Church] in this era rejected the human rights movement as solipsistic … and looked warily on the exclusivist secular state,” Moyn said.

This was due, at least in part, to the origin of the natural rights concept and the subsequent nationalist movement.

With the human rights concept following from the natural rights concept, reception was initially frosty, he said. But as the Church began to see the secular state becoming all-powerful in its control of the person, it began to designate areas that the state cannot infringe upon — including the rights owed to that person because of the shared status of basic humanity.

“In the late 1930s the Church began to change its thought and to embrace individual over state rights,” he said.

Hesburgh’s invitation to former President Carter marked a continuation of the Church’s change of opinion, to staunch support of human rights throughout the world.

“Fr. Hesburgh was thinking about human rights in a way that was going to make them equally important to civil rights,” Moyn said.

Carter’s speech gave Americans a new language of legitimacy with which they could address the pressing issues of the time, he said. At the time of this speech, the newly recognized frame of analysis with human rights at the center was used to assuage residual guilt about Vietnam, and to provide a moral baseline for American action abroad.

Moyn ended on a pensive note, addressing the continually developing nature of intellectual discourse in this global society allowing such a greater degree of idea exchange.

“But of course, history is never over,” he said. “Human rights is not written in the genetic code, but is a recent development which will have a continually redefined role in a future that is indeterminate.”

A reception was held after the lecture, and Moyn will speak again in Professor Luc Reydamn’s “International Human Rights Movement” course today.