Outrelativizing Relativism: A Liberal Defense of the Universality of International Human Rights

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Vanderbilt University, School of Law




This Article seeks to provide a new framework, rooted in classical liberalism, for understanding and defending the universality of international human rights. After reviewing the philosophical and historical development of the idea of universality, I argue in Part II that none of the traditional justifications for conceiving of international human rights as universal succeed. Cultural pluralism therefore must be accepted as a descriptive truth. But to acknowledge the cultural contingency of values as a descriptive claim does not, by itself, undermine the normative claim that human rights are, or should be, universal. Instead, it points to the need to justify universality within a framework that acknowledges the descriptive truth of cultural pluralism. Part III distinguishes two plausible normative claims that a cultural relativist could advance on the basis of the descriptive vindication of cultural pluralism provided in Part II: narrative relativism and crude relativism. Narrative relativism questions whether it is appropriate and desirable to apply the Western liberal conception of rights to cultures whose traditional narrative frameworks - deeply rooted norms, perceptions, and values - may not be able to accommodate them without upsetting societal institutions in potentially dangerous ways. This raises an issue that undoubtedly merits consideration when applying human rights law internationally. But it does not, I argue, refute the universality of international human rights law any more than acknowledging value pluralism within a state refutes the uniform application of domestic law to a state's diverse citizenry. I then argue that crude relativism - the broader normative claim that it is wrong to impose human rights on cultures that claim to reject them - suffers from several deep logical and empirical flaws that undermine its philosophical coherence as an argument and also call into question the sincerity of its proponents' views.

In Part IV, I argue that a distinctively liberal conception of autonomy both underlies and, upon analysis, undermines the central normative assertions of cultural relativism. This is because the liberal imperative to respect the value of autonomy originates in a unique conception of the self, which finds expression, among other places, in Isaiah Berlin's classic essay Two Concepts of Liberty. I argue that cultural relativists in fact invoke - and, absent some presently unarticulated alternative, must invoke - the liberal conception of autonomy in any argument that aims to repudiate the universality of international human rights. But because the liberal conception of autonomy is rooted in a distinctive conception of the self as agent, a state elite cannot, for example, appeal to the liberal values of autonomy to challenge human rights law as imperialistic - for failing to extend adequate tolerance to cultural pluralism - but then conveniently reject these very same values when individuals within their polity invoke them in the form of human rights claims.

Any assertion that cultural groups or political entities also merit tolerance and respect for their autonomy, I suggest, is derivative, not independent, of the rationale for respecting individual autonomy. A cultural elite remains free to repudiate this value. It cannot, however, then demand respect for cultural autonomy as a rhetorical device to deflect criticism of its human rights practices. By contrast, to embrace the liberal conception of autonomy is perforce to acknowledge the normative claim to universality that this Article argues international human rights law enjoys. Despite the descriptive truth of cultural pluralism, I therefore conclude that there is a compelling philosophical rationale - beyond the political, historical, and legal approaches conventionally invoked in defense of international human rights - for choosing rights as the appropriate and universal functional concept to promote human dignity internationally.

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