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Human Rights? We're Still Learning

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It started as a lecture. Then an article. The article grew into two chapters, and finally a book—which was so long the publisher split it into two volumes. Clearly William Talbott has plenty to say about human rights.

The first of his two volumes on the subject is Which Rights Should Be Universal?, published by Oxford University Press this year. Talbott, professor of philosophy, references earlier philosophers and historical movements to address this complex, politically charged question. 

Bill Talbott

Bill Talbott. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

Talbott’s bottom line? There are some rights that should be universal, regardless of national, religious, or cultural differences.

“My book is a way of explaining why human rights should be understood expansively, not narrowly,” says Talbott. “That puts me in disagreement with many people. But that’s okay. Philosophy is disagreement.”

Talbott distinguishes his view from two popular views of human rights. One, the moral minimum conception, holds that the human rights are the rights that are so important that international intervention is warranted when they are violated. The other, the overlapping consensus conception, focuses on seeking consensus, with the idea that different cultures have different mores and those differences must be respected.

Talbott takes issue with both positions. The first, he says, fails to recognize that there are other ways to promote rights than by forcible intervention. The use of forcible intervention is reminiscent of the moral imperialism of the European colonists, with one group forcing its views on all.

The second conception, the overlapping consensus conception, is a version of moral relativism. “When you ask, ‘Who am I to make a judgment about another culture?’ you are moving toward moral relativism,” says Talbott. “This is an attractive idea, but ultimately it is too wishy-washy. My goal is to work out a position between moral imperialism and moral relativism.”

To make his case, Talbott first takes an historical view. “Human rights had to be discovered by a long process of trial and error,” he says. “It was long thought that the best government for human beings was a benevolent dictator who would decide what was best for everyone. Plato was the defender of this kind of paternalistic government. It took thousands of years to find out that paternalistic governments don’t do a very good job of promoting the well being of their people.”

Talbott’s position, which builds on philosopher John Stuart Mill’s concept of an experimental society, is that citizens should be able to use their judgment to decide what is good for them rather than having all decisions dictated. To enable people to make reliable judgments, governments should protect certain basic rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press.

“It is a way of designing a government that gets reliable feedback from its members about how it is doing and is responsive to that feedback,” says Talbott. “It promotes well being not top down but bottom up, by allowing people to experiment and see what makes a ‘good life.’ It is a society that will make itself more just over time.”

This idea—that the goal of basic human rights is to provide a framework within which societies will tend to become more just over time, even though no one has a definition or complete understanding of what justice is—is emphasized throughout the book. Talbott points out, for example, that an important part of 
any constitution is the ability to amend it, because “every tradition is a rights violating tradition. No tradition has gotten it totally right. There is always room for improvement.”

Talbott makes his point through the example of women’s rights, which he considers “a microcosm for the development of human rights.” 

While men were developing theories of rights in the eighteenth century, says Talbott, author Mary Wollstonecraft was pointing out how the men’s grievances against paternalistic tyrants were the same grievances women had against men. “She was not criticizing the opponents of rights but rather the advocates of rights,” says Talbott. “She showed that they had a blind spot. And she was ridiculed. It should give one real humility. These were the people who were making important contributions to human moral development and they still had blind spots.”

Usually that blind spot comes down to some manifestation of paternalism. “Each time you have a group being oppressed, the justification is that they are like children who need a stern parent,” says Talbott. “But that is a mistake. Good parents educate their children so they can grow up to make their own decisions.”

Talbott recognizes that philosophers will have objections to some of his 
arguments. His second volume, Human Rights and Human Well-Being, will address those objections and further develop his argument.