Universalism vs Relativism (Human Rights)

Universalism: human beings are entitled to same fundamental rights in all times, regardless of where they live.
Relativism: human rights must be determined by examining cultural/religious/historical/social contexts.
For ALL ???

Opposing to Universalism/universal human rights:

• “True universality of human rights cannot be presumed without overlooking the nations other than the 50 original Member states. Most African and Asian countries did not participate in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of human rights because, as victims of colonization, they were not members of the United Nations.
• Many international legal scholars assert that the Universal Declaration has the status of customary international law, meaning states are bound by the norms it enumerates irrespective of their manifestation of intent to be or not be bound. Also, other core human rights treaties, human right council resolutions and regional treaties are just a few examples of the wide-ranging sources of authority for international human rights norms today. Perhaps because of this great body of law, it remains important to assess to what extend certain norms may be considered universal.
• As developed by Thomas Aquinas, the theory of natural law asserts that individuals have certain unchallengeable rights of the highest order granted to all individuals by God or Providence, and that man-made laws are only viable to the extent that they do not clash with the natural laws of the universe. This theory provided one of the early justifications for the universality of human rights by contending that individual rights are part of the natural law as designed by a higher power. However, in a modern global society where conflict over the existence and nature of God is intense, outdated reliance on natural law theory to support the universality of human rights would be misplaced.
• The heart of the relativist position is that nothing is good and nothing is bad for every human being, and what is good or bad for a particular human being is always relative to something about him or her or about his or her context or situation.”
• The feminist critique of human rights: “Human rights treaties assume that the rights-bearer is a man and the head of a household. Many feminists argue that this reflects more than an old-fashioned linguistic convention. The classical political and civil rights assume that the rights-bearer will be living, or would wish to live, a life of active citizenship but until very recently, such a life was denied to nearly all women in nearly all countries.” (John Baylis)

John Rawls on the idea of an overlapping Consensus (reasonable and just)

• “Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason.
• Political power is the power of equal citizens as a collective body.
• Constitutional democracy should be, so far as possible, presented as independent of comprehensive religious, philosophical and moral doctrines. It does not provide a specific religious, metaphysical, or epistemological doctrine beyond what is implied by the political conception itself.
• We must accept the need for clear and simple principles, the general form and content which we hope can be publicly understood.” (John Rawls)

Opposing to Relativism:

• “Relativists hold the view that personhood is irrelevant to moral status, however the Universalists may respond to that by putting forward the accident of birth into a particular social group or culture is not an ethically relevant circumstance and has no bearing on that individual’s essential human worth.
• Cultural relativism is often criticized as being self-contradictory. The assertion that there are no universal principles is incompatible with the assertion that all rights and values are culturally relative, because this latter statement in a universal principle in itself. This criticism has been tempered by many, including Donnelly with his continuum, which acknowledges that relativism can be expressed in such a way as to resolve this logical flaw, e.g. one might say that 1) there are no universal principles, except one and 2) the only universal principle is that moral rights are relative to culture.
• Many reject relativism in favour of an evolutionary analysis by observing that societies do indeed change their customs by developing more humane habits in conjunction with the growth of their economic, technological, and scientific capabilities. Related to the ever-changing nature of culture is the fact of transcultural influences, especially in a globalizing world.”


Human rights do not have to be a “mere modus vivendi” (John Rawls), “the phrase modus vivendi is to characterize a treaty between two states whose national aims and interests put them at odds.”
After examination of relativism and universalism, a moderate position that accepts universal norms but allows for some degree of cultural-dependent interpretation presents a compelling alternative. In order to ensure that basic human rights, including the right to self-determination, are protected worldwide, global society must strike a balance between respecting cultural norms and ensuring that fundamental freedoms are available to all citizens of the globe. Richard Rorty actually calls this the human rights culture. This approach would involve abandoning the idea that it is possible to demonstrate that human rights exist, instead it involves persuading on behalf of the soft culture in which rights exist. “The basic point is that human life is safer and more dignified when rights are acknowledged than when they are not.”

Essay: Are Rights universal?,d.Yms
John Rawls – Political Liberalism – 1993-Columbia University Press
John Baylis & Steve Smith – The Globalization of World Politics – 2005-Oxford
Johannes Morsink – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, drafting and intent -1999-University of Pennsylvania Press


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