Moyn argues that human dignity became central to Christian political discourse as early as 1937. Pius XII's wartime Christmas addresses announced the basic idea of universal human rights as a principle of world, and not merely state, order. By focusing on the 1930s and 1940s, Moyn demonstrates how the language of human rights was separated from the secular heritage of the French Revolution and put to use by postwar democracies governed by Christian parties, which reinvented them to impose moral constraints on individuals, support conservative family structures, and preserve existing social hierarchies. The book ends with a provocative chapter that traces contemporary European struggles to assimilate Muslim immigrants to the continent's legacy of Christian human rights.
Conventional or hegemonic human rights thinking lacks the necessary theoretical and analytical tools to position itself in relation to such movements and theologies; even worse, it does not understand the importance of doing so. It applies the same abstract recipe across the board, hoping that thereby the nature of alternative discourses and ideologies will be reduced to local specificities with no impact on the universal canon of human rights. As this strategy proves increasingly lacking, this book aims to demonstrate that only a counter-hegemonic conception of human rights can adequately face such challenges.
Human Rights in World History takes a global historical perspective to examine the emergence of this dilemma and its constituent concepts. Beginning with premodern features compatible with a human rights approach, including religious doctrines and natural rights ideas, it goes on to describe the rise of the first modern-style human rights statements, associated with the Enlightenment and contemporary antislavery and revolutionary fervor. Along the way, it explores ongoing contrasts in the liberal approach, between sincere commitments to human rights and a recurrent sense that certain types of people had to be denied common rights because of their perceived backwardness and need to be "civilized". These contrasts find clear echo in later years with the contradictions between the pursuit of human rights goals and the spread of Western imperialism.
By the second half of the 20th century, human rights frameworks had become absorbed into key global institutions and conventions, and their arguments had expanded to embrace multiple new causes. In today’s postcolonial world, and with the rise of more powerful regional governments, the tension between universal human rights arguments and local opposition or backlash is more clearly delineated than ever but no closer to satisfactory resolution.