Review of Hans Joas, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Translated by Alex Skinner. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013. 193pp.


[1] The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights, a monumental study of human rights as a value commitment, serves as the testing ground of Hans Joas’ theory of the “genesis of value commitments” developed in his earlier works The Genesis of Values and War and Modernity (originally published in German in 1997 and 2000, respectively). His argument, now as then, challenges the notions that “genesis and validity [of values] are clearly separable” and that ultimate values admit of “a purely rational justification” (2). Joas’ thesis in the current text is that “[o]ur commitment to values and out notion is what is valuable emerge from experiences and our processing of them; this shows them to be contingent rather than necessary” (2-3). This does not mean, however, that they are mere historical constructs that will eventually be dismantled a la Nietzsche. Rather, Joas’ posits an “affirmative genealogy,” which strengthens rather than erodes our commitment to such values. The key process which gives rise to the genealogy of human rights, he argues, is “a history of sacralization – the history of the sacralization of the person” (5).


Sacredness of the Person[2] In Chapter 1, “The Charisma of Reason,” Joas argues that, contrary to popular opinion, human rights did not emerge from secular anti-religiosity in France. Rather, through his critical appropriation of Georg Jellinek, Joas cogently describes the ways in which attention to the struggles for religious freedom in North America “destabilizes the view that the development of human rights is part of a larger process [of] the sacralization or charismatization of reason” (27). His purpose here is to demonstrate that human rights did not emerge as a purely secular phenomenon but instead had important, if complex, roots in Christianity, both in France and in North America. That said, the author refuses to go as far as Jellinek in claiming that religious freedom was the “seedbed of all human rights” (25). As with the remaining chapters, Joas’ argument here is far more nuanced than that.

[3] Joas begins Chapter 2, “Punishment and Respect,” with the claim that “…we will do justice to [the first human rights declarations, discussed in Chapter 1] only if we grasp them as expressions of deeper processes of cultural transformation” (37). This is perhaps Joas’ most compelling and intriguing chapter. In it, he uses criminal justice – and especially the abolition of torture and ordeal – to highlight the cultural transformation of values that led to the emergence of human rights. To do so, he deconstructs two dominant explanations for penal reform in the 18th Century – the “heroic epic” of Cesare Beccaria, which attributes the abolition of torture to the influence of Beccaria’s 1764 book, and Michel Foucault’s postulation of an advanced process of social disciplining. In doing so, Joas rides a fine line between Beccaria’s faith in reason and Foucault’s suspicion of human nature and society.

[4] Against both narratives, Joas argues that penal reform reflected a broader cultural shift toward “the sacralization of the human person,” which is at the center of the turn toward human rights as a value commitment (49). Beccaria, for his part, argued against the death penalty and other cruel punishments via a strictly rational application of utilitarian logic and social contract theory. Joas counters, “How satisfactory are arguments against the death penalty based on its lack of utility?” (44). It was not a strictly logical argument that convinced Europeans to leave behind executions and torture, but rather a cultural transformation that gave rise to “the moral intuition that some things – such as human life – must be categorically protected” (44).

[5] As evidence of this, Joas intriguingly points out that it was during this same period of penal reform that murder came to be seen as the gravest of crimes. Contrary to Beccaria’s assumptions otherwise, for centuries before the Enlightenment, the most serious crimes were sacrilege, heresy, and blasphemy, which “violate[d] the sacred core of the community” (49). The most plausible explanation of the shift from these crimes to murder as the most serious violation, then, is that the human being came to be seen as part of this “sacred core.” This process of sacralization had the concomitant effect of sacralizing the lives of criminals as well as victims. Hence, as murder came to be seen as a great violation of the sacred, so too did torture, execution, and ordeal come to be seen as deeply problematic.

[6] The conflict that thus arises lays the ground for Joas’ critique of Foucault. While Foucault attributes the birth of prisons to a shift in power and social discipline, arising not from humanization of the penal system but from a desire for more complete control, Joas argues that the prison can be seen as a way of balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of sacralization of the person. The same process that gives rise to sensitivity to the cruelty of crimes likewise makes us more sensitive to the cruelty of punishments. “Prison sentences offer a way out of this dilemma” (58). The second chapter thus reflects both aspects of Joas’ perspective – a “genealogy” that undercuts a strictly rational explanation of penal reforms, and an “affirmation” that deconstructs Foucault’s pessimistic analysis of the birth of prisons. Threaded within this affirmative genealogy is an intriguing analysis of “the sacred” itself, based especially on Durkheim and William James, and the contribution of Christian motifs to the process of sacralization, a topic he returns to in more depth in Chapter 5.

[7] In Chapter 3, “Violence and Human Dignity,” Joas continues his assault on rationalism, arguing forcefully that “a universality morality [cannot] only be based on the force of rational motivation” (93). If human rights as a “value commitment” did not emerge from pure rationalism but rather from a cultural transformation brought to fruition by human experience, then what types of experience may have given rise to universalist value? Joas posits that the experience of violence itself may have been the catalyst.

[8] To arrive at his conclusion, Joas examines the ways that cultural experiences of violence, which extend beyond both individual and psychological experiences, can be understood collectively and objectively as “trauma.” This trauma, then, can give rise to universalistic value commitments such as are found in major human rights documents, especially the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which emerged partially in response to the “cultural trauma” of Nazism.

[9] Joas’ argument maintains a balance between boldness and caution that deserves praise. Certainly, he is rewriting embedded, dominant narratives of both the experience of violence and the history of human rights. Yet he is careful to note, first, that not all experiences of violence beget a positive transformation of value commitments. Second, he highlights the “selectivity of human rights discourse,” especially the inattention to Stalinism and the lack of protection for racial minorities in the early documents of the UN. The latter observation is addressed in more depth in Chapter 6. In regards to the former, Joas uses the abolitionist movement in the US as an example from which to draw insights into how trauma can incite cultural transformation of values. Importantly here, he specifically rules out both the popular “maturation” theory which states that such transformations are inevitable by-products of human progress and the materialist thesis which focuses on the changing material interests of slaveholders, to the detriment of other factors in the process. There is no blind faith in founding documents or the arc of history here; values, according to Joas, are fragile and require constant care and renewal.

[10] The fourth chapter is perhaps his least interesting, though arguably most important, for in it, he explains and defends his methodology and its dependence on Ernst Troeltsch. The path he takes between criticism and misinterpretation of affirmative genealogy leads to the broad claim that underlies the other five chapters: “Values cannot remain mere values. They come alive only if they are defended argumentatively as values – but above all if they are upheld by institutions and embodied in practices” (135). Clearly, since human rights as such are a contingent value commitment, we run the risk of their gradual erosion, at an extreme. But perhaps more likely and more insidiously, the most immediate risk is stagnation. Without embodied practice, our values become mere thought experiments, academic exercises that neither reflect nor inspire universalistic commitment.

[11] The principle perspective of Chapter Five (“Soul and Gift”) may be striking to some readers, especially those familiar with liberal attempts to bolster human rights dialogue with appeals to Christianity. Rather than mine the Christian tradition for resources to support human rights and the sacralization of the person, Joas reverses course, asking, how might the sacralization of the person challenge the Christian tradition? How might the tradition be reinterpreted in light of the cultural transformation described thus far in the book? He specifically analyzes the notions of “soul” and the giftedness of human life.

[12] The difficulty here is that it is unclear the extent to which Joas maintains this perspective. At times, he raises the challenge of making faith-claims intelligible within the rational discourse of human rights, a move that somewhat reflects his intent. At other times, though, he seems to slide into a mere re-framing of traditional concepts to demonstrate their utility as supports for human rights discourse. This is especially true near the end of the chapter, where Joas posits life-as-gift as a principal foundation of human rights without sufficient explanation. Moreover, some of the universalistic leaps he makes reflect inattention to real tensions within the tradition. For example, his univocal linkage of love and justice within the tradition ignores the widely divergent ways these two values have been interpreted, both singly and in relationship to each other. All told, as he moves more deeply into theological analysis (and he never moves very deeply into it), Joas reveals himself as the sociologist he is (and a fine one, at that) and the theologian he is not. Thankfully, these missteps are rare, though disappointing in a book that is otherwise very persuasive.

[13] Chapter 6, “Value Generalization,” addresses the process of arriving at a consensus about values “amid the plurality of competing value systems” (174). In his description of commitments, Joas highlights three specific elements critical to value generalization. First, values are different from “purely cognitive validity claims,” for they contain an “affective intensity” that makes commitment to them more profound than mere intellectual assent (177). Following from this, Joas notes, second, that any discourse of negation should not “reduce [religious convictions] to cognitions,” and the same, I assume, holds true for value commitments which arise from a religious worldview (178). Finally, values, Joas argues, are rarely isolated opinions or assumptions; rather, they form “groups or clusters” that must be taken into account when discussing a single, particular value. Discourse about human rights, then, cannot take place authentically absent discourse on the genealogy of human rights, the sacralization of the person, and the cluster of values which these tie together. Such authentic discourse did take place, if not in the construction, at least in the reception of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which Joas employs here as an example for future processes of value generalization.

[14] The chapter ends with three claims necessary for securing the sacralization of the person and thus human rights. Without detailing them here, it is sufficient to say that all are directed at the need for active deliberation and practical embodiment of this value commitment, lest human rights become selective, stagnant, or obsolete. It is this argument, developed so well by Joas, that is the jarring yet necessary corrective to mythology which posits the eventual maturation of society from brutish to principled or which assumes that values today will be values tomorrow. Joas’ book challenges readers to take seriously their own responsibility to embody value commitments and their own role in a genealogy which is still developing.

Ryan P. Cumming is Book Review Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and an instructor of theology at Loyola University Chicago.


© July/August 2013

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 13, Issue 4