Hans JOAS. (Alex Skinner, trans.) The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013, pp. 232. $29.95 paperback ISBN 9781589019690. E-book 9781589019706. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105
Hans Joas’ The Sacredness of the Person is the natural successor to two of his earlier books, The Genesis of Values and War and Modernity. In a concise Introduction followed by six eloquent chapters, he leads the reader via the historical-sociology of values to an alternative to the “mélange of narratives” (p. 5) that heretofore have [unsuccessfully] attempted to explain the origins of human rights. Joas proposes:
…that we understand the belief in human rights and universal human dignity as the result of a specific process of sacralization−a process in which every single human being has increasingly, and with ever-increasing motivational and sensitizing effects, been viewed as sacred, and this understanding has been institutionalized in law (p. 5).
The very titles and subtitles of the chapters in The Sacredness of the Person−The Charisma of Reason, Punishment and Respect, Violence and Human Dignity, What is Affirmative Genealogy?, Soul and Gift, Value Generalization−effectively outline Joas’ position on the genealogy of human rights. The first three chapters examine the origins of the first declaration of human rights in the late eighteenth century, examining the work of Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Michel Foucault and others, as well as the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and massive societal violence. In the fourth chapter Joas argues against the subjective relativism of Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, and Weber and in favor of the existential historicism of twentieth century Catholic thinkers and the German Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch. By the fifth chapter, Joas has set the stage for defining and sustaining human rights through an ethos of every “human being as image and child of God” with both an immortal soul as the sacred core, as well as critical social obligations. In the final chapter Joas draws upon the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 to illustrate the concept of value generalization and an affirmative genealogy of human rights that is truly global, encompassing
… the discourse of black Americans and the fight against lynching in the United States, resistance to the increasingly comprehensive racial segregation in South Africa, Latin American reactions to the Spanish civil War, and then responses to the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the 1930s. … protection for ethnic minorities in Central and Eastern Europe …Asia, Latin America, and Africa, … China … the Ottoman Empire, and of course the emergence of an international movement for the rights of women (p. 184).
No romantic idealist, Joas notes pertinent glaring omissions from (offenses to?) the genealogy, e.g., the extermination of Native Americans, pogroms of Jews in Russia, colonization in places like the Belgian Congo and the persistence of diaspora in places like Palestine.
Scholars in sociology, as well as history, international relations, justice and peace studies, legal studies, philosophy, public policy, and theology will appreciate the careful translation, as well as the careful notes and comprehensive bibliography. As the long-time instructor of a course on sociological theories for undergraduate sociology majors, I am always looking for ways to help my students operationalize principles and concepts from classical and contemporary theory and theorists. My students care deeply and passionately about human rights (and often come to sociology for that very reason). The Sacredness of the Person Joas offers an exemplar for applying those principles and concepts, while demonstrating how theories can advance our understanding of−and work toward−the common good.
Hans Joas is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and Permanent Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, School of History.