Book Summary Topic Analyses

Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times

Jack Snyder, an American political scientist and the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University, offers a bold perspective on systems based on human rights and demonstrates the stability of human rights depends on central power.

“Boiled down to its essence, the path to human rights is a journey from personalistic social relationships based on favoritism toward the individual right to equal treatment according to impersonal rules”

Human Rights for Pragmatists is an expertly crafted and innovative book with different views and arguments on human rights futures. Snyder offers a bold perspective on liberal systems based on human rights and demonstrates that the stability of human rights depends on central power. While this book not only speaks on when human rights may finally thrive, it also assesses and provides ways to address other rights concerns such as the dilemmas of free speech in our digital age and the abuse of women’s and children’s rights. 

Here, we will mainly explore his arguments on when human rights are followed, and more on the political theories of human rights and his hypotheses.

Mainstream Methods” and a Pragmatic Path to Human Rights?

Snyder begins first with the mainstream methods of human rights advocacy. These are strategies that formulate and publicize human rights norms, like codifying them into treaties and conventions, persuading the public to pressure states into ratifying treaties and shaming and punishing violators. 

Snyder acknowledges that such methods may work in larger governments. Larger populations may benefit as their size becomes a risk factor for rights abuses since it is difficult to democratically govern culturally diverse peoples in a single state. Another is that mainstream methods work well in countries that are already fairly democratic with respectable administrative capacities that can tolerate activism. 

However, these pragmatic methods and efforts of activist groups become more difficult in authoritarian regimes, very weak and very strong states, areas where violations are socially decentralized, and where rights-abusing states are supported.

Instead, Snyder offers 5 guiding hypotheses. Rights are finally respected when: 

  1. The prevailing mode of social organization is no longer based on repression and favoritism, but has evolved toward social relations among individuals based on impersonal rules of equal treatment: a rights-based liberal form of modernity depends on impersonal social relations based on the rules and free contracts enforced by a political authority 
  2. Rights serve the interest of a dominant coalition: successful rights-seeking parties define rights in the ways that serve their interests, “advancing their economic power and personal security”
  3. Rights are stabilized by implementing institutions: strong institutions are imperative in carrying out their functions and rules to shape people’s expectations of behavior
  4. Right are stabilized through a locally persuasive ideology: “The main advocate for rights-based norms is the powerful group that will benefit most from their adoption and the weakening of traditional favoritism” 
  5. Shifting to a rights-based society, power and politics lead in the process: the step that envelopes the other 4, as the shift in social power is solidified through legitimacy

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach + Setbacks 

Another area that Snyder stresses is the need for a different approach to human rights. Snyder questions pragmatics on when to begin treating rights as something obligatory or something aspirational because if the power does not lead in the process, that would increase the chances of “triggering and institutionalizing backlash” that set human rights goals behind. 

Within the context of factors that correlate with “rights and democracy, such as high per capita income, a diversified economy, an educated population, and usable administrative institutions… a strategy for strengthening human rights in a given setting should consider what kinds of social interests, configurations of social power, political coalitions, institutional arrangements, and political ideologies can be mobilized to establish a plausible foundation for rights”

He explores contrary views that doubt the centrality of rights to successful modernity, and the important role of rights but also disagrees on how to bring them to attention. For example, there seems to be a need for a liberal system based on rights to bring wealth and stability in modernity, however, when looking at China’s recent successes, their foundations were constructed without any ” functional need for rights, liberal legality, or democratic accountability”.

A single model of modernity can’t fit every nation due to the diversity of the world’s civilizations, cultures, and history. 


 We often see questions that ask us to examine human rights under several contexts: political, social, economic, and how a nation may be pushed into respecting the rights of its people. What we usually consider are more mainstream approaches, but they may not be applicable or a strong approach when dealing with different governments and structures. 

Especially for our IX-ers, I hope that this book provides a guide on different and more unique ways to approach these questions! 

By Jennifer Wen

Staff Writer, Extemper's Bible.

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