"Rights” have now become a centre-piece of the legal systems of the majority of the peoples of the world, and the grounds on which most of today’s international institutions have been built. The ubiquity of the political and legal weight of “rights” has made them a central preoccupation of contemporary legal and political philosophy, but also of contemporary historiography: questions of how to grasp the history of the concept, and the practices and vocabularies connected with it, have become increasingly prominent in current historical studies.
In most modern conceptions of the term, a right is understood to be the means by which the individual can claim protection from forms of injustice. Rights now cover almost every aspect of human social and political existence, ranging from the rights each individual holds under the specific legal system to which he or she belongs –what are called variously positive or objective, or simply “legal” rights – to those rights, the most contentious of them all, which are believed to belong to every individual as a human being: “subjective”, or “natural” or now more often simply, “human rights”. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this perception of rights has led to a major philosophical conflict between those who follow Marx in believing that “rights” are in essence “bourgeois” and “egotistical”, the refuge of the isolated individual “withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separate from the community”, and those within the broadly liberal political tradition from Locke to Rousseau, to Kant, to Mill, to Dworkin and Nozick who look upon rights as the foundations of political morality.
To arrive at any adequate understanding of the significance of these debates we need a history of the concept of rights itself. In collaboration with the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for International and Global Law, the Academy of European Law will be an institutional home for this ambitious project in the history of a fundamental legal and political concept.
The project’s output will be a 5-volume series, produced under the general editorship of Nehal Bhuta (University of Edinburgh), Anthony Pagden (UCLA) and Mira Siegelberg (University of Cambridge), published by Cambridge University Press. It will be a history not only of the ever-increasing importance of what we take to be “rights” for all significant legal and political claims, but also of the ways in which our understanding of what rights are has changed. Together, the volumes of the collection will explore that history from the ancient world to the modern. The Cambridge History of Rights project will be the first systematic attempt to do so.
Volume 1: The Ancient World
Edited by Professor Clifford Ando (University of Chicago), Professor Mirko Canevaro (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Benjamin Straumann (New York University and Zurich).
Volume II: The Middle Ages
Edited by Dr Lidia Lanza (Universidade de Lisboa) and Dr Marco Toste (Göethe Universität Frankfurt am Main).
Volume III: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Edited by Professor Andrew Fitzmaurice (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Rachel Hammersley (University of Newcastle).
Volume IV: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Edited by Professor Dan Edelstein (Stanford University) and Professor Jennifer Pitts (University of Chicago).
Volume V: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
Edited by Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University) and Professor Meredith Terretta (University of Ottawa)