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Last Updated: 06/14/2005
Universal relativism (or vice versa?)
Sam Wolf

The current discussion on the definition of human rights splits into two basic camps: the universalist, whose approach is to punish violators legally according to a predetermined set of principles; and the relativist, whose approach shies away from judgment and tries to work from within cultures to stop violations before they can happen. Both extremes, however, are “intrinsically flawed” – common ground exists, and a middle way should be sought.

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With this paper I will address the challenge posed to the whole human rights project by the current debate between what are typically called universalist and relativist positions. In summary, I suggest that the debate suffers from an essential failure to recognize the different positions taken within this discourse; that is, there are actually two (at least) conversations contained within the discourse. Without an explicit acknowledgement of the different positions taken, the debate will inevitably fail to be productive. I also argue that both the relativist and universalist positions are intrinsically flawed: close analysis reveals that they contain elements of each other, and their claims to exclusivity dissolve. A recognition of these similarities by both positions can enable the human rights movement to overcome the impasse caused by the perception of difference. However, I suggest that the human rights movement as a whole can nevertheless benefit substantially from a fuller engagement with the numerous valid points brought up by each position if those holding fast to one position or the other can recognize the good and bad in each. Finally, I argue that a conceptual shift on the part of the whole human rights movement away from the location of a right to protection in potential victims and a move instead towards the responsibility of potential violators will assist the whole movement in transcending the philosophical dead end exemplified by the failures of the present debate.


As Ronald Cohen (1989) has cautioned, it is at best irrelevant, or worse even mischievous, to assert and defend simplistic polarities of relativism versus universal moral imperatives. What is desperately needed is a search for some middle ground. I am in this paper intentionally focusing on the extreme end of both the universal and relativist positions; not to imply that all taking part in the debate are simplistic and extreme, but rather to tease out some of what I see as the core flaws within the debate. It should thus be borne in mind while reading this paper that few people likely hold the extreme positions I'm describing. However, by exploring the extreme end of both debates we will also be able to better understand some of the core assumptions of more moderate positions just as a caricature, by emphasizing a few features, can sometimes clarify certain characteristics.


The Many Conversations Within the Discourse

It is first important to acknowledge a point which many proponents of both approaches appear to have missed. This is that it is not merely the argument as to whether the ideals of human rights ought to be considered universal, applicable everywhere; or viewed as culturally specific ideals which may not be appropriate to apply to all cultures. The disagreement goes to the core of each project. Also, there is a distinction that can be usefully drawn between arguments for either position in terms of some kind of pure morality on the one hand, and as a set of legally enforceable norms on the other. Addressing specific threads within the universalist and relativist positions, I argue that the two approaches, though they have very similar goals, have profoundly different understandings of how those goals should be accomplished and even expressed. The result of this, in terms of the discourse, is that misunderstandings are perceived as opposing views: because the foundation of each position is close enough to be mistakenly considered the same and yet distinct enough to necessitate a nuanced understanding of difference, there is an assumption of common ground that does not exist and a consequent failure to see common ground that does.

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Sam Wolf is a Masters candidate at the University for Peace, studying International Law and Human Rights. He is from the United States.