Exploring universal rights: a symposium.

Author:Mayerfeld, Jamie
Position:Critical essay


Which Rights Should Be Universal? by William J. Talbott. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 232pp.


by Jamie Mayerfeld

The struggle for human rights has been shadowed by philosophical doubt. Can we assert universal human rights without engaging in moral imperialism? Can we have confidence in the moral beliefs that underlie human rights claims? Can we justify human rights to those who do not believe in the intrinsic value of autonomy? Which Rights Should Be Universal?, the first of two projected volumes on human rights, is a significant contribution to this literature. In a series of original and mind-opening arguments, William Talbott, a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, lifts us over one philosophical impasse after another. Admirers of Which Rights Should Be Universal? will find their thinking about human rights enlarged and enhanced by a wealth of new concepts; critics will be kept busy in answering the book's copious arguments. From any perspective, Professor Talbott's book moves the conversation about human rights onto a new plane.

This symposium emerged from two public panels devoted to Professor Talbott's boo----the first in Seattle on April 10, 2006, to mark the formal inauguration of the Program on Values in Society of the University of Washington, and the second in Philadelphia on August 31, 2006, at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The participants are all leading scholars of human rights: Brooke Ackerly (Vanderbilt University), Charles Beitz (Princeton University), Jack Donnelly (University of Denver), Henry Shue (Oxford University), and Kok-Chor Tan (University of Pennsylvania). Jamie Mayerfeld (University of Washington) leads off with a synopsis of Talbott's book. The critical essays raise the following questions and challenges for Talbott's arguments: what theoretical approaches best promote the human rights of women? (Ackerly). Do we need the idea of moral objectivity to make sense of human rights? (Ackerly and Donnelly). Should values other than autonomy be highlighted in the justification of human rights? (Donnelly, Shue, and Tan). Does empirical evidence support the view that democracy is a human right? (Beitz). Should human rights include cultural rights? (Tan). Which criteria may justify external intervention in a state's domestic affairs? (Tan and Beitz). How should we distinguish paternalist from non-paternalist strategies of promoting human rights? (Shue).

In an essay published concurrently in Human Rights & Human Welfare, Professor Talbott responds at length. He uses the occasion to provide detailed answers to his colleagues' questions and criticisms, and to elaborate upon the arguments of his book.

An Overview and Appreciation

by Jamie Mayerfeld

Some of us believe in a human right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, in the equality of men and women, in a human right to democracy, and in a human right to economic subsistence where that includes adequate nutrition, basic health care, safe drinking water, and elementary education. We believe that all human beings have these rights. That is our moral belief. But some people, and perhaps some cultural groups as a whole, do not share this belief. They deny that all these things are human rights. What should we say about this situation? Are these people mistaken in their moral beliefs, or is that an unacceptably arrogant thing to say? Are we arrogantly imposing our views on other cultures?

To ask the question another way: are there any universal human rights, rights that ought to be honored even in cultures that do not believe in them? And if so, what rights belong in the list of universal human rights? These are the questions that William Talbott sets out to answer in his book. He argues that we should believe in universal human rights. He is a moral universalist because he believes that "there are moral truths that apply to everyone, even those who disagree with them" (15). This view strikes many people as morally imperialistic, so one of Talbott's main goals is to show that you can be a moral universalist without being a moral imperialist. We avoid being moral imperialists so long as we acknowledge that our belief in certain universal human rights is fallible--that we could be wrong--and so long as we do not try to impose our beliefs on others for their own personal good. The view that Talbott adopts is one he describes as "epistemically modest" but metaphysically "immodest" (15): no belief, not even the belief in universal human rights, is infallible, yet the most reasonable belief is that there exist universal human rights, that it is wrong to violate those rights, and that these claims are true, whether or not people agree.

Talbott is sensitive to the history of Western imperialism, marked by the destruction, enslavement, and savage mistreatment of entire groups of people. The Western imperialists were moral imperialists, convinced of the superiority of their moral code, and willing to impose it by force on other peoples. Talbott gives the example of requerimiento, the ultimatum delivered by the Spanish conquistadors to American natives, ordering them to convert to Christianity and submit to the Spanish monarch, or else become slaves and lose all their property. Because we are repulsed by the tyranny and cruelty of the conquistadors, we may draw the lesson that it is wrong to believe in a universal moral system, valid across cultures. But that is the wrong lesson to draw. The correct lesson is that the conquistadors acted on the wrong set of universal moral beliefs, emboldened by a sense of infallibility and the idea that they could paternalistically impose their values on others for the others' good.

Why should we believe in universal human rights? We must first unlearn some familiar arguments. In the history of philosophy, a recurrent argument has been that human rights are self-evidently true, or are derived from self-evident truths. The argument appears in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." There is an old cartoon that shows a boy tugging on Thomas Jefferson's sleeve and saying, "If these truths are self-evident, why do you keep harping on them?" Like the boy in the cartoon, Talbott is suspicious of the argument used in the Declaration of Independence. Human rights are not self-evident. Nor can they be derived from self-evident premises. For this reason, they cannot be proven. This is not an embarrassment for human rights, because it is in fact doubtful that any moral beliefs can be proven (22). Talbott asks that we give up the assumption, so long ingrained in Western philosophy, that proof is necessary for holding justified moral beliefs (23-35).

What justifies moral beliefs if not proof? The answer is that human beings are capable of forming reasonably reliable moral judgments when they adopt a universal moral standpoint that attaches due weight to the interests and perspectives of all affected parties. To adopt a universal moral standpoint, we must cultivate empathic understanding; that is, we must try to imagine what it is like to be someone else affected by our actions. Even so, our moral judgments may be mistaken because they can be distorted by self-serving beliefs, some of which are socially enforced. So, we must strive to correct the bias of socially-enforced, self-serving beliefs. When we do this, and when our views are informed by empathic understanding, we can form reasonably reliable, though not infallible, moral judgments about particular kinds of acts. These moral judgments in turn justify broader moral principles that make sense of our beliefs as a whole and that, in some instances, cause us to re-examine and revise our particular moral judgments. The more we bring our particular moral judgments and moral principles into equilibrium, and the more we test our moral beliefs against other people's arguments and against the known facts about human nature and human society, the more reliable our moral beliefs become. This model of moral reasoning is more inductive than deductive, more bottom-up than top-down.

Any real hope for moral progress, Talbott argues, lies in bottom-up reasoning of this kind. He offers the example of Bartolome de las Casas, the 16th century Spaniard who, after participating in the conquest of the "New World," gradually came to oppose the mistreatment of the indigenous population and then devoted his life to defending their freedom. How did Las Casas come to oppose a policy supported by the full weight of the Crown, the Church, and their intellectual servants? The most plausible explanation, Talbott argues, is that Las Casas, having gotten to know the indigenous population and observed their way of life, and having allowed himself to empathize with their situation, perceived directly that what was being done to them was wrong. He thus formed a set of particular moral judgments incompatible with the official Spanish policy. His fellow Spaniards, by contrast, locked themselves into a pattern of top-down moral reasoning that excused the continuation of the morally inexcusable. Can we prove that Las Casas' position represented moral progress? No, we cannot, but any other suggestion is implausible. It would be odd to deny that Las Casas' position was morally superior to that of his fellow Spaniards.

The same kind of bottom-up reasoning that led Las Casas to challenge the policies of the Spanish Crown gives us reasons for believing in universal human rights. Particular moral judgments reached from a universal moral standpoint show us the overriding value of a right to autonomy: the right of individuals to form and act on their own judgments of what is good. Talbott dwells...

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