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Relativism and Human RightsReview - Relativism and Human Rights
A Theory of Pluralistic Universalism
by Claudio Corradetti
Springer, 2009
Review by Andrew Lambert, Ph.D.
Jan 19th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 3)

Claudio Corradetti's book is a thoughtful attempt to find an adequate theoretical foundation for human rights. Its approach is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on issues in analytical philosophy as well as contemporary political theorists, and the result is a densely argued text aimed at scholars already familiar with the issues covered.

The main project of the book can be understood as a response to two prominent positions in debates about the basis for human rights. The first position can be described as 'relativism': the identification of human rights is necessarily confined to the limits of a particular culture or community. What counts as a right, on this view, has weight only within that particular community. When other communities identify different and conflicting human rights, or deny those rights identified by the host group, there is no way to determine which right takes priority and which should be given up. The other position that the book defines itself against is that of objectivism, or the claim that certain universal human rights are invariant across cultures and across the globe. The problem with this approach lies in identifying exactly which human rights have such universal validity; one particular difficulty is finding rights that are both authoritative and yet also sensitive to cultural difference.

Corradetti's aim is steer a course between these two positions. He seeks to rebuff epistemic and cultural relativism as well as crude universalism, and sketch a limited and conditional form of universal rights. He aims to, 'Show that neither an absolute incommensurability nor an absolute commensurability between competing moral systems can be proved to be at all convincing' (p. xi)

How does he develop such a position? Stated briefly, he defends the idea that standards or norms, when properly understood, are irreducibly social in nature; they are not merely subjective constructs that are unique to a particular individual's view of the world. He also emphasizes the link between embodied experience and norms: the limits of the human body condition the experiences of any person, and in a way that gives rise to pan-human universal constants. As we shall see, these two arguments ground his claim that human rights include a universal element.

Corradetti's starting point for his account is the claim that all experience involves standards or norms. Norms apply not only in situations where norms are appealed to explicitly, as when discussing etiquette or moral dilemmas; norms also structure all human experience and judgments. This sensitivity to norms is an everyday experience. We judge whether someone's garden is tidy or whether a piece of pottery is stylish (p. ix), and such judgments require the prior acceptance of standards that ground or 'justify' them. This point is significant because the ubiquitous, a-cultural nature of such norm-sensitivity forms the basis for a qualified positing of universal human rights. Rights are, after all, one kind of standard.

Regarding the structure and detailed arguments of the book, it is divided into two parts. Part I (chapters one and two) deals mainly with relativism and objectivism, while Part II (chapters three and four) develops Corradetti's own position. Chapter one begins with an attack on cognitive relativism -- the view that people's normative judgments are not based on any universal standards and that no such standards are available to reconcile conflicting judgments. The author refutes such complete cognitive incommensurability by drawing on the work of Jurgen Harbermas and Donald Davidson on the necessary conditions for meaningful disagreement. Simply put, before any agreement or disagreement is possible, it must be possible to identify the particular claims that each participant in a discussion is making. But, this being so, then reasonable disagreement presupposes a minimal shared conceptual framework. Otherwise disagreement itself could not arise since another's speech would be merely unintelligible. Hence, despite its obvious relativistic implications, disagreement reveals to us that our understanding of the world is shared to an important degree. This line of argument is combined with the claim noted above, that 'conceptual categories are constituted on the basis of specific bodily characteristics not detached from the physical constitution of individuals' (p.19), to support an account of judgment that is, as the author notes (p. 28), broadly Kantian. Namely, experience has a certain unity, regardless of whose it is, and this forms the basis for a regulative ideal about how judgments should be made and how agreement can be reached.

In chapter two, Corradetti discusses relativist positions attributed to thinkers such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, Wittgenstein and the contemporary philosophers Gilbert Harman and David Wong. Drawing on chapter one's arguments, Corradetti is able to claim that such positions fail to take seriously the objective nature of cognitive judgment. But he also challenges the moral objectivism presented by thinkers like Thomas Nagel in The View from Nowhere. Here the author's criticisms focus both on the objectionable nature of declaring first person experiences and interests unethical or a-moral and also the dangerous political implications of this. When a crude objectivism is embraced, impersonal political authority gains a privileged role in setting standards, to the exclusion of individuals immersed in everyday person-to-person interaction: we have 'a state constructed independently of inter-subjective democratic processes of participation and civic solidarity' (p. 58).

In Part II (chapters three and four), Corradetti explains his own approach to the problem of grounding standards and human rights. As we have seen, his solution draws on 'how the generalized condition of purposive agency implies that of communication action...I elaborate how the condition for the realization of one's goals requires a preliminary condition of social coordination in order to be fulfilled.' (p.73). In other words, Corradetti offers an account of human rights that is both universal in scope yet culturally sensitive. Any successful action involves social interaction through the medium of language, and from these formal features of action it is possible to derive an account of human rights. Simply put, purposive and successful action is dependent on the achievement of a degree of social coordination and this need for coordination can be translated into the language of human rights.

  Chapter four develops the practical implications of this theoretical point, by focusing on the legal implications of his account of human rights. Corradetti is concerned to present an account of morality that translates into meaningful legal strictures, rather than an overly abstract account of morality whose relation to practical decision making is obscure and which, as a result, can provide only minimal guidance in the fields of international relations. Here Corradetti appeals to the Hegelian notion of 'recognition' (p. 111): standards for action are to be derived from the fullest consideration of all relevant individuals and such universal recognition is the basis for human rights; further, this way of positing and  recognizing human rights has implications for international relations. This approach to human rights contains within it a demand for democratic institutions, since only democratic institutions do in fact proceed from such universal recognition.    

In order to execute his ambitious project Corradetti deals with a broad range of disciplines, touching on issues in ethics, legal philosophy, the philosophy of language and political philosophy. Given such scope, the text sometimes risks simplifying multi-faceted debates and inviting the objection that possible responses to the author's objections have been overlooked for the sake of a bigger picture. On the other hand, perhaps such risks are offset by the creation of a novel framework that can be developed to provide new critical perspectives.

A more serious reservation, given the technical nature of the material, is the lack of careful proofreading. In a text that seeks to make subtle analytical arguments, this is a significant disservice to an author who is a non-native user of English. Consider this sentence: 'My understanding is that, for how desirable a people's democratic enjoyment of rights can be, it is normatively wrong and pragmatically counterproducting to orient Western democratic states foreign policy to a global process of democratization' (sic, p. 112). For a book containing such ambitious arguments, the reader might expect the text be as clear and smooth as possible.

 

© 2010 Andrew Lambert

  

Andrew Lambert, Dept Philosophy, University of Hawaii


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