Reflections of a Broken Man


On the Cutting Room Floor I by StephenMac
October 26, 2011, 5:11 pm
Filed under: Reflections

“Where do human rights come from?”

If human rights are universal, then they must have a universal ground for them. Or do they? Why do we need to ground them? Charles Taylor, in his essay “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights” (Taylor, 2011: 105-123), makes an argument for an ungrounded consensus on human rights. In other words, rather than dealing with the substructure of rights, he argues that as long as the superstructure of rights (rights in practice) is uniform, this is enough. He writes,

That is, different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc., would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing on why they were the right norms (Taylor, 2011: 105).

In essence, Taylor suggests that in order to overcome the profound differences in the substructure of rights debates, we need to move past the substructures themselves and focus on how the various substructures might produce similar results in the superstructure of rights. By looking at four cases of conflicting “grounds” for human rights and/or democracy, Taylor demonstrates how the same result, the same practice of human rights, can be achieved, despite the different theological/cultural/philosophical/legal “grounds”. The consensus lies purely in practice; the grounds remain conflicting (Taylor, 2011: 122-123). But at the same time, it requires a deep commitment to sympathetically understanding the different grounds, and working through them to draw out what this practical consensus might look like (Taylor, 2011: 122-123).

The key problem with this idea is something that Taylor notes himself: that a different in substructure will lead to a difference in the superstructure. Different reasons for the practice will lead to different practice. He writes,

All this must lead to differences of practice, of the detailed schedule of rights, or at least of the priority ordering among them (Taylor, 2011: 117).

But this difference, he continues, is not insurmountable, since it simply requires the appropriate amount of compromise:

Now the demands of a world consensus will often include our squaring these differences in practical contexts, our accommodating, or coming to some compromise version that both sides can live with (Taylor, 2011: 117).

Yet he realizes that this is quite a difficult task, and so he highlights that in order to overcome such differences of opinion, there’s a need for each side to sympathetically understand the substructure of the other in order to better promote compromise:

These negotiations will be inordinately difficult, unless each side can come to some more fine-grained understanding of what moves the other (Taylor, 2011: 117).

The problem is, however, that this seems to fail in practice. Taylor begins with the kind of universal conception of human rights espoused by Jacques Maritain:

I am quite certain that my way of justifying belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity is the only way with a firm foundation in truth. This does not prevent me from being in agreement on these practical convictions with people who are certain that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine or opposed to mine…, is equally the only way founded upon truth (quoted in Taylor, 2011: 103).

It is from this starting point that he begins to see if this is actually possible, and what might it look like. He defines what rights are in general, and then moves to how they are enshrined in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The second thing he notes is the objection, however, of someone like Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, who suggests that such conceptions of “universal” human rights are merely western conceptions of human rights. Since the Universal Declaration has its foundations in the western tradition of rights talk, it is therefore prejudiced towards a western conception of human rights, and thus neglects other conceptions (such as those that Taylor would label “Confucian”).

But herein lies the issue: the quote with which Taylor begins from Maritain is in the context of a UNESCO symposium which would lead to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document effectively was the unforced consensus that Taylor is envisaging. The Declaration was drafted in 1948 by representatives of the Commission on Human Rights with members from seventeen nations. True, “western” nations are predominantly represented, with only one nation from Africa (Egypt), three from Central/South America (Chile, Panama and Uruguay) and two from Asia (China and the Philippines). The Drafting Committee of nine was still mainly western, but it too had representatives from a variety of backgrounds. As Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of the Committee would write,

“Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality. The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach. His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humprhey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!” (United Nations, 2011)

The Declaration was adopted by forty-eight nations, with no votes against, and of the eight abstentions, none were from “Confucian” nations (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, The USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). Even though this is the kind of consensus on human rights that Taylor is envisaging, it is still subject to the critique of people like Lee Kwan Yew – a consensus at the level of the superstructure will still involve conflict because of the conflicting substructure. One might conclude that an unforced consensus on human rights has been tried, and has failed.

But furthermore, as we will see below, different substructures belie a different “moral ontology” (what I have hitherto called the substructure) and therefore lead to different answers to moral problems. As O’Donovan helpfully explains,

[Both O’Donovan and Wolterstorff agree] that a lot depends on moral ontology. It shapes the way we conceive moral questions; how we conceive moral questions shapes the way we describe practical problems; how we describe practical problems shapes the way we deliberate to resolve them… Certainly, those who have ontological disagreements may see eye to eye on a range of practical questions, but there is no guarantee they will always do so. The moment will come when their different readings of the world cash out in different practical determinations. (O’Donovan, 2009: 203).

If this is the case, then a universal substructure must be found.