We talk a lot about “human rights” these days, but rarely do we seem to consider the meaning of what it is we’re saying.

“A large majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights,” writes Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “they are rather the objects of human rights discourses.”

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Santos writes that the discourse of human rights is founded on bourgeois individualism that fits perfectly well with capitalist structures. But as Santos explains, human rights discourse is an illusion:

One of these illusions—the teleological illusion—consists in reading history backwards, beginning with the consensus that exists today concerning human rights and the unconditional good they entail, and reading past history as a linear path inexorably leading towards such a result. Related to the teleological illusion is the illusion of triumphalism, the notion that the victory of human rights is an unconditional human good. It takes for granted that all the other grammars of human dignity that have competed with that of human rights were inherently inferior in ethical and political terms. This Darwinian notion does not take into account a decisive feature of hegemonic western modernity, indeed its true historical genius; namely, the way it has managed to supplement the force of the ideas that serve its purposes with the military force that, supposedly at the service of the ideas, is actually served by them.

Santos’s critique is in line with contemporary theological critiques of rights discourse, including those of Rowan Williams, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Santos’s main problem is not with the impetus for liberation, but that human rights discourse – as it currently stands in its Western imperial garb – is not liberating enough.