Reimagining Human Rights

Religion and the Common Good

William R. O'Neill, SJ

"Even without a strong knowledge of the philosophers to which O’Neill is referring, his arguments are interesting and bring an important corrective to ongoing discussions of human rights."
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An interpretation of human rights that centers on the rhetorical—and religious—power of testimony.

Jeremy Bentham described the idea of human rights as “rhetorical nonsense.” In Reimagining Human Rights, William O’Neill shows that the rhetorical aspect of human rights is in fact crucial. By examining how victims and their advocates embrace the rhetoric of human rights to tell their stories, he presents an interpretation of human rights “from below,” showing what victims of atrocity and advocates do with rights.

Drawing on African writings that center around victims’ stories—including Desmond Tutu’s on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and modern Roman Catholic social teaching, O’Neill reconciles the false dichotomy between the individualistic perspective of the human rights theories of Immanuel Kant, Jürgen Habermas, and John Rawls and local or ethnocentric conceptions of the common good in Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty. He shows that the testimony of victims leads us to a new conception of the common good, based on rights as narrative grammar—that is, rights are not only a grammar of dissent against atrocity but let new stories be told.

O’Neill shows how the rhetoric of human rights can dismantle old narratives of power and advance new ones, reconstructing victim’s claims, often in a religious key, along the way. He then applies this new approach to three areas: race and mass incarceration in the United States, the politics of immigration and refugee policy, and ecological responsibility and our duties to the next generation.

Table of Contents



One: Interpreting Rights

I. A Genealogy of Difference

II. The Rhetoric of Rights

III. Conclusions

Two: Justifying Rights

I. The Interpretation of Ethics: Semantic Recognition

II. The Interpretation of Ethics: Epistemic Recognition

III. The Ethics of Interpretation: Respect

IV. Ethical Reciprocity

V. The Grammar of Rights

VI. Aristotelian Constructivism: Autonomy and Solidarity

V. Conclusions

Three: Rights and Religion

I. The Ethics of Public Discourse

II. Re-enchanting the Public Sphere

III. The Surplus of Religious Meaning: The Theological Virtues

IV. Conclusions: On Forgiveness after Mass Atrocity

Four: Applying Human Rights

I. Comparative Assessments

II. Realizations: Concrete Applications: Race and Mass Incarceration, Migration and Refugee Policy, Ecological



About the Author


"With this book William O’Neill presents an original and compelling reimagining of human rights. He reverses the hermeneutical flow so as to rethink human rights as the grammar of dissent and in so doing opens an exciting and challenging new seam of enquiry about our obligations to each other in a pluralist and global context."—Linda Hogan, professor of ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin

"It is when we recognize the stories of the victims that we begin to speak of human rights, responsibilities, and social transformation. . . . O’Neill’s reminder that human rights, religion, and the common good are intrinsically linked to the safeguarding of human dignity is key to deepening our common human experience."—Elias O. Opongo, SJ, director of the Centre for Research, Training and Publications, Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR), Hekima University College, Nairobi, Kenya

"In compact yet lyrical prose, O’Neill synthesizes and extends his scholarly reflections on political philosophy, restorative justice, refugee rights, and Catholic social thought."—Commonweal Magazine

"Even without a strong knowledge of the philosophers to which O’Neill is referring, his arguments are interesting and bring an important corrective to ongoing discussions of human rights."—Review of Politics

"I commend this book firmly for human rights scholars and ethicists, especially those within Catholic traditions. It goes beyond legal reflection to engage with the rhetorical value of rights, enabling the voices of activists and victims to contribute substantively to reimagining human rights."—Studies in Christian Ethics

"Reimagining Human Rights is just the book we need in an age when critics are increasingly decrying the language of human rights, the rule of law, and representative democracy as vectors of Western cultural and economic neo-imperialism."—Theological Studies

"William R. O’Neill has given us a demanding and rewarding book. With a range and depth of scholarship that is awe inspiring, Reimagining Human Rights: Religion and the Common Good reintroduces us to what has surely been the most important moral discourse of our time—the grammar and the practice of human rights."—Hastings Center Report

"The work is complexly argued, making respectful use of sources one might not usually see relied on in such a theoretical work. Its forthright suggestions regarding the place of CST in dialogue with (and as challenge to) secular codifications of rights will provide direction for further scholarship and action."—Catholic Books Review

"[T]his monumental book puts Western and African traditions and philosophies of rights in dialogue. It revolutionizes the idea and meaning of human rights."—Journal of Catholic Social Thought


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

William O’Neill, SJ, is a professor emeritus of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. He held the Jesuit Chair at Georgetown University from 2003-04 and has served on the editorial board of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics and the board of directors of Theological Studies. He is the author of numerous articles on moral theology and ethics and The Ethics of Our Climate: Hermeneutics and Ethical Theory (Georgetown University Press, 1994). He is currently serving as a member of the Mission and Identity Task Force for the Jesuit Refugee Service, stationed in Nairobi, Kenya.

192 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-64712-034-4
Jan 2021

192 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-64712-035-1
Jan 2021

192 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-64712-036-8
Jan 2021

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