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Navigating Human Rights in IR Methodological Landscape (part 2 of 2)



MINDAVIEWS > MARGINALIA: Navigating human rights in IR methodological landscape (2)

Mansoor L. Limba on December 11, 2016

(Last of two parts)

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews /11 December) – Why are the theory of universal human rights and the everyday practice of human wrongs heaven and earth apart? Are human rights abuses a product of the mere failure of governments to observe universal human rights principles both in letter and spirit? Or, perhaps, is it due to the fact that the very search for moral universals is itself a foundationally fallacious business?

To answer these questions through an exploration of the methodological basis of the claims to universal human rights is the principal burden of this section, nay this column as a whole.

Historically, the idea of rights has embodied, inter alia, two fundamental claims. First, that there is a claim to some substance by an identifiable subject who has entitlements (object of right); and secondly, that the identifiable subject who has entitlements cites some particular ground in support of his or her claim (foundation of the right). In the context of human rights literature, the object of right is the ‘human’ rights as claimed by the human being while the foundation of the right is the human being’s ‘humanness’. Methodologically, the first element (object of right) is pertaining to the ontology of the subject while the second one (foundation of the right) is related to the epistemology of the same.

In this light, four human rights theories according to this ontology-epistemology categorization will be examined below, viz. (1) liberal natural rights theory, (2) traditional communitarianism, (3) communitarian pragmatism, and (4) cosmopolitan pragmatism.

Liberal natural rights theory

According to the liberal natural rights theory, the idea of human rights is that all human beings have rights by virtue of their common humanity. Individuals have certain kinds of rights as members of particular communities, but human rights belong to humanity and do not depend for their existence on the legal and moral practices of different communities. Thus, even if individuals were denied rights by the laws of a particular state, they still can make a claim to rights by virtue of their membership to common humanity. (J. Donnelly, Human Rights Working Papers Number 12, p. 2)

One attempt to provide a defense of common morality historically has been made by the natural law tradition. At its core, natural law maintains that there is a unity among all peoples of the world irrespective of cultural difference. Later society-of-states theorists recognized the intrusion of the ‘law of nations’ into the idea of a cosmic moral law, but nevertheless hold on to the idea that natural law provides an underlying moral foundation. While classical thinking on natural law placed duties at the center of its moral deliberations, the challenge for contemporary advocates is to show how natural law can support a theory of universal human rights. (“Human Rights,” Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 Standard Electronic Edition)

Claims to know what is right are founded on “those basic precepts of common morality [which] are accessible to human reason; they can be known by anyone capable of thought and action.” (Joseph Boyle, Traditions of International Ethics, p. 129) Thus, the faculty of reason which is assumed to be transcultural enables individuals to deduce the correct moral code by which to live their lives. As Tim Dunne and Nicholas Wheeler point out, this is an appealing idea but the fundamental weakness of ‘practical reason’ is that it cannot easily explain why moral practices vary within and between cultures. (Dunne and Wheeler, Human Rights in Global Politics, p. 5) The kernel of this natural rights position is that all individuals have certain basic rights because they share the same essential human nature.

Liberal natural human rights thinking has underpinned the development of the international legal regime in human rights. For evidence of the widespread acceptance of the discourse on ‘natural rights’, we need look no further than the United Nations charter which seeks “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights”. Similarly, the Preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Antonio Cassese, Human Rights in a Changing World, p. 189)

Be that as it may, the fundamental problem with defending the human rights regime in terms of natural rights thinking is the failure of its advocates to provide a convincing theory of human nature which would ground notions of human dignity. (See Donnelly, “The Universal Declaration Model of Human Rights: A Liberal Defense.”)

In an attempt to defend the liberal theory, Ken Booth identifies ‘three tyrannies’ that oppress the theory and practice of human rights: ‘presentism’, ‘culturalism’ and ‘positivism’. ‘Presentism’, according to him, views the social world as natural and immutable, whereas social anthropology propounds that humanity is constantly evolving and that appeals to human nature as the ‘clinching argument’ are always overturned by changing social relations. ‘Culturalism’ accordingly is the belief that cultures can be black-boxed ala billiard ball.  ‘Positivism’ is the tendency to claim objectivity in the social world. (Booth, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 31-70)

Contrary to the cultural relativists and postmodernists who espouse toleration of diversity, Booth addresses the question, “How much diversity should be tolerated?” In retort to the question of what are the foundations for human rights, he asserts that it is wrong to torture, starve, humiliate, and hurt others. For him, human rights are not a matter of opinion, cultural prejudice or one society’s narrative vis-à-vis another; instead, they are a reply to these ‘universal social facts’. (Ibid.)

Like Booth, Donnelly identifies an important relationship between the ideas of human rights and human dignity. He shows how the idea of human rights emerged as a specific historical response to the challenges of modernity. Instead of resolving the meta-ethical foundations of human rights, Donnelly highlights the import of the ‘remarkable international normative consensus on the list of rights’ found in the human rights covenants and treaties. As a whole, the main problem confronting the contemporary human rights regime is the contradiction between the human rights commitments of states and their actual practices. (Donnelly, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 71-102)

Traditional communitarianism

Traditional communitarianism holds the following core assumptions: (1) the liberal view of the individual as a bearer of rights discards or belittles the formative role of the community in constituting individuality; (2) the problem with the liberal position on human rights is that it assumes that rights-bearing individuals exist prior to societies whereas in reality it is societies that confer rights on individuals. (Chris Brown, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, p. 472) As such, different kinds of societies will produce different kinds of individuals, sometimes conferring rights, sometimes finding other ways of giving meaning to people’s lives. Anyhow, the rights of the individuals do not necessarily override the rights of the community.

Corollary to these assumptions is the tenet that there are many different ways in which human beings may lead dignified and fulfilling lives. The idea that dignity only comes with the possession of rights is peculiarly Western, with no claim to universal status. (Ibid.)

In other words, for the traditional communitarians, the existence of the standard is itself the problem. According to them, rights are a consequence of the civilized practices of liberal polities and not the cause of these. Any attempt by international society to close the compliance gap, therefore, is a ‘near-to-impossible task’. The communitarian perspective holds that human beings have rights by virtue of their community and not some abstract notion of ‘common humanity’. This is the argument that has traditionally been mobilized by cultural relativists. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique,” in Human Rights in Global Politics)

The central claim is that morality is culturally bound, and values can only be grounded in tradition. The idea, then, of individuals possessing inalienable rights which they claim against the state is unthinkable in many societies where the individual is embedded in a complex network of communal duties and familial responsibilities. According to Molly Cochram, cultural relativism can be viewed as a form of moral discourse which ‘founds and enables the ethical discourse in which social judgments are possible’. (Cochran, “Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism in a Post-Cold War World,” in Boundaries in Question, p. 48)

According to Tim Dunne and Nicholas Wheeler, cultural relativists are often accused of being unable to judge between competing values. While ‘some kind of lowest common denominator’ might be present in diverse cultures, such a moral standard lacks a ‘critical cutting edge’ because it is reducible to these cultural practices. Nevertheless, certain human wrongs like genocide and mass murder will be caught by this moral minimalism. Although this ‘general moral standard’ provides a means to judge and criticize egregious regimes like Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Amin’s Uganda, it is unable to deal with more routine human rights abuses. (Dunne and Wheeler, “Introduction: Human Rights and the Fifty Years’ Crisis,” p. 8)

Communitarian pragmatism

Communitarian pragmatism involves recognizing that human rights are based on a particular culture and defending them in these terms rather than by reference to some universal cross-cultural code. The particular culture is what Richard Rorty called ‘human rights culture’. (Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality,” in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures) This theory rejects the idea that it is possible to demonstrate that human rights exist; instead, it involves proselytizing on behalf of the sort of culture in which it exists. The fundamental point is that human life is safer, pleasanter and more dignified when rights are acknowledged than when they are not. (Brown, “Human Rights,” p. 481)

By transcending the debate between relativists and universalists, communitarian pragmatism argues that the problem with both positions is their dependence upon epistemological foundationalism: the problem with universal critiques of relativism is that they assume that there is some non-relativist position upon which to stand. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”)

For a pragmatist like Rorty, the idea that reason or science can access ‘justified true belief’ (epistemology) is nothing but a myth. Accordingly, our beliefs are no more than contingent preferences which help us to cope with the complexities of late modern life. Rights, for Rorty, are nothing more than a story that liberal societies have decided to ‘tell’ and as a consequence, it is only liberal societies which provide an epistemological context for human rights justifications. (Ibid.)

The pragmatists’ denunciation of all narratives which posit universal truths seems to imply a deadly blow for the defenders of human rights. However, Rorty argues that it is ‘we the twentieth century liberals’ who have the responsibility to nurture and strengthen the ‘human rights culture’ which is a fact of the post-Holocaust world. Momentously, for Rorty, this culture ‘seems to owe nothing to increased moral knowledge, and everything to hearing sad and sentimental stories’. (Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality,” p. 133) What human solidarity depends upon is the manipulation of the sentiments such that ‘we liberals’ come to realize that our differences with others are less important than our shared capacity to experience pain and suffering. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”)

Yet, Brown criticizes Rorty’s view for nothing to say to those societies which have not undergone a process of ‘education of the sentiments’. Thus, there is no knock-down argument against the Bosnian Serbs who choose to construct Bosnian Muslims as sub-human. He does not want to call these people inhuman or morally wrong as this implies the existence of a universal human nature; instead he wants to argue that they have been deprived of the condition in which to develop feelings of human solidarity. Rorty’s position ‘does not solve all the problems of relativism’ and sentimentality is an ‘inadequate’ response to human wrongs but reluctantly admits that ‘it is difficult to see what other moral vocabulary is available to us once we reach the limits of an ethical community’. (Ibid.)

Cosmopolitan pragmatism

Unlike traditional communitarianism and communitarian pragmatism, cosmopolitan pragmatism is more supportive of universal ideas but on a non-foundationalist basis. For instance, the moral philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues for a conception of universal values which steers a course between the opposites of moral relativism and foundationalist claims of an essential and knowable human nature. For Parekh, the fundamental problem with relativism is ‘that we have no means of judging a society’s moral beliefs and practices’. At the opposite pole to relativism stands ‘moral monism’, a position which maintains that ‘we cannot only judge other societies but also lay down what way of life is the highest or truly human’. Both are equally unsatisfactory because it assumes an essential human nature which can be revealed after the superstructure of cultural embeddedness has been stripped away. (Parekh, “Non-ethnocentric Universalism,” in Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 128-159)

According to him, between these two extremes lies ‘minimum universalism’ which recognizes the fact of moral diversity but believes ‘that moral life can be lived in several different ways, but insists that they can be judged on the basis of a universally valid body of values.’

Although this theoretical position has more to commend it than the other two, Parekh opines that it does not overcome the following objections. First, it relies on an account of human nature which brings it perilously close to monism; secondly, it is questionable whether there is a normative consensus on prohibiting even the most cruel and inhumane practice; and thirdly, universal principles are either too abstract or too weak to provide the possibility of judgment across cultures.

Instead of the three approaches, Parekh advocates a theory of non-ethnocentric universal values which can be constructed by means of a dialogue between equals:

“The point of cross-cultural dialogue is to arrive at a body of values to which all the participants can be expected to agree. Our concern is not to discover values, for they have no objective basis, but to agree on them… Values are a matter of collective decision, and like any other decision it is based on reasons. Since moral values cannot be rationally demonstrated, our concern should be to build a consensus around those that can be shown to be rationally most defensible.” (Ibid.)

In sum, for him universal values can have no ‘objective basis’. Universal values are possible but have to be decided through argumentation. Thus, cosmopolitan pragmatism believes it is possible to recognize the reality of cultural embeddedness while leaving open the possibility for a transcultural consensus which is more than just ‘the lowest common denominator of different cultural traditions’.

Is the claim to universality masking the particular interests and values of its exponents, and is it increasingly contested as a consequence of the rise of new power centers in world politics?

In similar view, in exploring this question in terms of the relationship between human rights and power in the debate between the West and Asia, Andrew Hurrell argues that the ‘Asian values’ challenge to the West reflects the growth of the economic and political power of states like China, Malaysia and Singapore, which interpret human rights concerns on the part of the West as a maneuver in the competition for relative gains. (Hurrell, “Power, Principles and Prudence: Protecting Human Rights in a Deeply Divided World,” in Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 277-302)

Even if the discourse of Asia values is ‘manipulated and abused by governments’ as part of traditional power politics, Hurrell reasons out that the debate reveals ‘real and genuine conflicts over the nature of human rights’. As a consequence, he suggests that instead of worrying about the ‘foundations’ of our human rights claims, we should ‘build on and develop the human rights culture and community that has evolved in practice—the element of consensus visible in the actual practice of states. (Ibid.)

Summary and conclusion

Within the ontology-epistemology matrix, human rights theories can be generally classified into four classes, viz. (1) liberal natural rights theory, (2) traditional communitarianism, (3) communitarian pragmatism, and (4) cosmopolitan pragmatism. Liberal natural rights theory hymns the common ‘song’ that every human being has a set of universal rights by virtue of his or her membership in humanity. This theory represents the universalism-foundationalism ‘box’ in the ontology-epistemology matrix.

Representing the subjectivism-foundationalism subset, traditional communitarianism maintains that though human rights are universally acknowledged, there is no monolithic set of human rights values for all people. Thus, these values are community-based and thus, violation of which must be viewed from the framework of the particular society. This theory is commonly known as ‘cultural relativism’.

By arguing that the problem with both the liberal natural rights theory and traditional communitarianism is their dependence on ‘universal foundation’ and that human rights values are different from society to society, communitarian pragmatism is appropriately placed in the subjectivism-anti-foundationalism ‘box’.

Cosmopolitan pragmatism agrees with communitarian pragmatism in the denial of a common platform to which human rights can be based, but upholds that a sort of universal human rights values can be obtained through agreement among the people of the world.

From the foregoing sections, it is shown that side by side with the progress in the human rights norm cascade is the intensification of violation of the same rights. A methodological examination of the contending theories on the nature of these rights suggests that the debate on the causes of the wide gap between the idea of human rights and the practice of human wrongs goes back to the very question of human rights’ ‘universality’ being based on the ‘humanness’ of human being.

For the years to come, therefore, human wrongs cannot be expected to be sidetracked from the international scene unless these philosophical issues found their absolute settlement. Yet, a probable source of optimism is the fact that although none of the theories taken into account has finally resolved the human rights philosophical problematique, most people are not philosophers who reckon philosophy as master and not servant. As such, the future of human rights lies on the strength, or otherwise, of the popular backing for its universality in the years ahead.  These writings about a massacre, domestication, demolition, and the downtrodden are indeed an illustrious showcase of a continuously growing multidisciplinary trend in the academe.


[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, chess trainer, and translator (from Persian into English and Filipino) with tens of written and translation works to his credit on such subjects as international politics, history, political philosophy, intra-faith and interfaith relations, cultural heritage, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at, or and]

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