Except that—as Frank Hakemulder has pointed out to me—they do. They appear in the history of human rights. As historian Lynn Hunt (2007) has shown, the establishment of human rights has been strongly affected by literary art.
We now think of human rights as universal, but Hunt shows that 300 years ago even the idea of human rights was not present in European society. It had to be invented. By the end of the eighteenth century a change was accomplished. Hunt offers three landmarks, which she cites (pp. 215-229). In the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 we read: "all men are created equal … with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In The French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, the first article is "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." Now, in our present age we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, in the shadow of the Nazi era. Its first article is: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
The full establishment of these principles in society world-wide is still some way off, but important steps have been taken. Slavery is no longer tolerable. Torture is no longer accepted as a legal procedure. Women and people of ethnic minorities, who previously lacked legal rights, are now established in many countries as having full rights of citizenship.
Hunt's finding is that invention of the idea of the equality of rights, declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which really is a human universal. "It depends," says Hunt, "on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one's own" (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people's immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially. "Reading novels," she says, "created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative" (p. 39). Many novels contributed. One that Hunt discusses is Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) written by a man and inviting empathetic identification with a woman of a humble social class. Hunt quotes from Pamela:
… he kissed me two or three times, as if he would have eaten me.—At last I burst from him, and was getting out of the Summer-house; but he held me back, and shut the Door.Pamela and other novels of the middle of the eighteenth century were hugely successful and enthusiastically discussed by a rapidly growing reading public. Hunt cites Diderot as writing of Richardson's narrative: "In the space of a few hours I went through a great number of situations which the longest life can hardly offer across its entire duration" (pp. 55-56). Readers learned to enter into the emotions of ordinary people, says Hunt; and then she says: "Human rights grew out of the seedbed sowed by these feelings. Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion" (p. 58).
I would have given my Life for a Farthing. And he said, I'll do you no Harm, Pamela; don't be afraid of me. I said I won't stay! You won't, Hussy! Said he. Do you know who you speak to? I lost all Fear, and all Respect, and said Yes, I do Sir, too well!—Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.
I sobb'd and cry'd most sadly. What a foolish Hussy you are! said he: Have I done you any Harm?—Yes, Sir, said I, the greatest Harm in the World: You have taught me to forget myself, and what belongs to me (Richardson, p. 23).
Lynn Hunt (2007). Inventing human rights. New York: Norton.
Samuel Richardson (1740). Pamela. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2001).
Jerome Stolnitz (1991). On the historical triviality of art. British Journal of Aesthetics, 31, 195-202.