Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Floors without Foundations: Ignatieff and Rorty on Human Rights

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Floors without Foundations: Ignatieff and Rorty on Human Rights

Article excerpt

Compare the following passages:

   As the International Declaration of Rights published by the
   United Nations in 1948 showed very clearly, it is doubtless
   not easy but it is possible to establish a common formulation
   of such practical conclusions, or in other words, of the various
   rights possessed by man in his personal and social existence.
   Yet it would be quite futile to look for a common rational
   justification of these practical conclusions and these rights. If
   we did so, we would run the risk of imposing arbitrary dogmatism
   or of being stopped short by irreconcilable differences. (1)

   Political liberalism, then, aims for a political conception of
   justice as a freestanding view. It offers no specific metaphysical
   or epistemological doctrine beyond what is implied by the
   political conception itself. As an account of political values, a
   freestanding political conception does not deny there being
   other values that apply, say, to the personal, the familial, and
   the associational; nor does it say that political values are separate
   from, or discontinuous with, other values. One aim, as I
   have said, is to specify the political domain and its conception
   of justice in such a way that its institutions can gain the support
   of an overlapping consensus. (2)

   One of the shapes we have recently assumed is that of a human
   rights culture. I borrow the term "human rights culture"
   from the Argentinian jurist and philosopher Eduardo Rabossi.
   In an article called "Human Rights Naturalized," Rabossi argues
   that philosophers should think of this culture as a new,
   welcome fact of the post-Holocaust world. They should stop
   trying to get behind or beneath this fact, stop trying to detect
   and defend its so-called "philosophical pre-suppositions." On
   Rabossi's view, philosophers like Alan Gewirth are wrong to
   argue that human rights cannot depend on historical facts.
   "My basic point," Rabossi says, is that "the world has changed,
   that the human rights phenomenon renders human rights
   foundationalism outmoded and irrelevant." (4)

   Far better, I would argue, to forgo these kinds of foundational
   arguments altogether and seek to build support for human
   rights on the basis of what such rights actually do for human
   beings.... People may not agree why we have rights, but
   they can agree that we need them. While the foundations
   for human rights belief may be contestable, the prudential
   grounds for believing in human rights protection are much
   more secure. (4)

All four authors believe that, even though some type and level of agreement can be reached on the ascription of specific rights to human beings, there remains an insoluble philosophical problem in speaking about such practical matters in speculative terms. The problem can be variously described as metaethical, metaphysical, or foundational. At its center is the plurality of competing comprehensive views of the good. Because such views have largely proven incompatible, at least three of the authors quoted shy away from invoking them. Yet not all agree that conflicts between conceptions of the good are irresolvable; nonetheless, all do agree that in pragmatic terms--in terms of trying to accomplish some modicum of justice here and now in world politics--engaging in a debate between comprehensive views is unsatisfactory. This does not entail that the views themselves are irrelevant to the kinds of and participants in agreements reached. Obviously, some comprehensive views are simply unacceptable, as it were, particularly those that exclude toleration. Agreement on specific rights prioritizes particular practices to universal justifications. Such justifications cannot be permanently ignored, however. And yet to prioritize pragmatic political agreement about what can and should be done here and now in this way is, I think, an inescapable, even though radically incomplete, panacea for peaceful coexistence in modern, globally connected communities. …

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