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POLI 362 (1)

POLI 362 - Taylor: Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights.doc

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McGill University
Political Science
POLI 362
Catherine Lu

Taylor – Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights “What would it mean to come to a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights?” Answer: different groups, despite holding incompatible views on theology, would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. The justification for these norms may be different, but the content would be the same. Rights and Western Culture The language of “rights” is itself Western. Even if non-Western cultures may hold similar norms, they may express it differently. “One can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery, as well as of, say, “disappearances” and the shooting of innocent demonstrators.” Language of Rights “Everywhere it is wrong to take human life, at least under certain circumstances and for certain categories of persons.” However, to invoke the concept of “rights” – that is, of “your” or “my” rights – is different than to speak of what the right is, or what is the right thing in x circumstance. “Instead of saying that it is wrong to kill me, we begin to say that I have a right to life. The two formulations are not equivalent in all respects... That I have a right to life says more than that you shouldn't kill me. It gives me some control over this immunity. A right is something that in principle I can waive. It is also something which I have a role in enforcing.” “Some element of subjective right exists in all legal systems. The peculiarity of the West is that, first, the concept played a bigger role in European medieval societies than elsewhere in history, and second, it was the basis of the rewriting of Natural Law theory... [which] became transposed. The fundamental law was reconceived as consisting of natural rights, attributed to individuals prior to society. At the origin of society stands a Contract, which takes people out of a State of Nature, and puts them under political authority, as a result of an act of consent on their part.” “The modern Western discourse of rights involves, on one hand, a set of legal forms by which immunities and liberties are inscribed as rights... On the other hand, it involves a philosophy of the person and of society, attributing great importance to the individual... In both these regards, it contrasts with many other cultures, including the premodern West.” There are those that are “ready, even eager to espouse some universal norms, but... are made uneasy by the underlying philosophy of the human person in society” that is found in the West. Alternative Legal Forms Western notions of rights, centred on the individual, has bad consequences. “It focuses people on their rights, on what they can claim from society and others, rather than on their responsibilities. It encourages people to be self-regarding and leads to an atrophied sense of belonging.” The eventual outcome is a war of all against all. One critique points out that a too exclusive focus on rights neglects the importance of political trust. The danger is not necessarily individualism, but in “any form of either individualism or group identity that undercuts or undermines the trust that we share a common allegiance as citizens of this polity.” Alternative Foundations Buddhism -> democracy. 1) Ultimately, each individual must take responsibility for his or her own Enlightenment 2) Nonviolence -> respect for the autonomy of each person “In the Western mind, the defense of human rights seems indissolubly linked with this exaltation of human agency.” On the other hand, Buddhism starts with ahimsa (nonviolence). Thus, an unforced world consensus on human rights appears to be “agreement on norms... but a profound sense of difference, of unfamiliarity, in the ideals, the notions of human excellence, the rhetorical tropes and reference points by which these norms become objects of deep commitment for us.” Problem: “To the extent that we can only acknowledge agreement with people who share the whole package and are moved by the same heroes, the consensus will either never come or must be forced.” The task then becomes a process of mutual learning, “in which the moral universe of the other becomes less strange.” Hierarchy and Identity However, the initial consensus “doesn't need to be based on any deep mutual understanding of these respective backgrounds. Each may seem strange to the other, even though both recognize and value the practical agreement attained.” However, a deeper attempt at understanding is necessary for two reasons: 1) Agreement is never complete
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