Human Rights

Human Rights

Confronting Myths and Misunderstandings

Andrew Fagan

This book offers both an introduction to and a critical analysis of enduring themes and issues in the contemporary theory and practice of human rights. The author argues that the moral authority and practical efficacy of human rights are adversely affected by a range of myths and misunderstandings – from claims regarding the moral status of human rights as an allegedly fully comprehensive moral doctrine to the view that the possession of rights is anti-ethical to recognising the importance of moral duties. The author also examines such issues as the claim that human rights can ultimately only be said to exist as legal phenomena and the claim that nation-states are inherently hostile to the spirit of human rights. Discussion cuts across academic boundaries in an attempt to defend human rights against those who have come to expect too much and those who expect too little from human rights.

Chapter 3: Universalism and 'the other'

Andrew Fagan

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, politics and public policy, human rights, public policy


3. Universalism and ‘the other’ INTRODUCTION Chapter 3 takes aim at a myth of moral universalism. This may seem surprising, if not somewhat perplexing, to some readers, given the tone and content of my argument in the previous two chapters. After all, I have suggested that justifying human rights requires a valid commitment to the existence of moral standards which are relatively ‘modest’ in scope, but which must nevertheless retain a degree of critical independence from the conditions to which many human beings are systematically exposed. A chapter devoted to critically analysing universalism would imply that I necessarily align myself with a form of moral relativism and that, in so doing, I effectively invalidate my argument to this point. A tendency to think in crudely dualistic terms, however, rarely does justice to the complexity of human affairs, and this is particularly the case when the concern is with human rights. This chapter does present a critical analysis of a certain form of universalism, whilst seeking to defend a moral commitment to ensuring that all human beings enjoy access to fundamental human rights. So, what then is the precise object of my concern and how does this chapter proceed? Moral universalism has taken many forms. One may distinguish initially between secular and religious forms of universalism, or doctrines which lay claim to the title of universality. Without, at this point, identifying any particular manifestations of each it should be clear that the differing basis and content of each militate against the...

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