Human rights—the notion that the protection of the immutable rights and freedoms of every individual on the planet supersedes all other concerns—did not always enjoy this prominent place in our political debate. Most historians have located the ideology's origins in previous eras, from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the Enlightenment to post-World War II. In his erudite new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn proposes a more recent source. He argues that it was only in the 1970s, when other utopian ideologies—socialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-communism—fell by the wayside that human rights assumed its stature as the ultimate moral arbiter of international conduct.
As Moyn tells it, human rights might trace its philosophical lineage to earlier times—few ideas emerge from the intellectual womb as orphans—but its dominant role was not assured until a particular point in time. He takes issue most forcefully with the belief that human rights' ascension was an answer to the extermination of European Jewry. “Contrary to conventional assumptions, there was no widespread Holocaust consciousness in the postwar era, so human rights could not have been a response to it,” he writes.