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Volume XLIV, No.51

Ethical Reasoning on Human Rights and Deliberation on Justice and Otherness

by Sunita Samal

Tuesday 24 April 2007


The concept of human rights presupposes that the individual himself is the basis of rights. The realisation of such rights must depend on the actualisation of these rights in individual relations.1 The major ideological division is between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. It is necessary to discuss ethical reasoning on human rights within the cosmopolitan/communitarian divide in the era of globalisation. A discussion of cosmopolitanism supporting the liberal idea needs a communitarian correction. What is often taken to be the central issue between liberals and their communitarian crisis is the constitution of self. Contemporary liberals are not only committed to a pre-social self but to a self capable of reflecting critically on values that have governed its socialisation. Cosmopolitanism and communitarianism can be understood as mutually corrective rather than mutually exclusive positions. What such an ethic suggests instead is a continual ongoing conversation, which itself contributes to the building of a community of shared under-standing and practice. It is possible that by belonging to a particular community one does not have to exclude the possibility of belonging to a larger community. The liberal perspective grounds justice in quasi-Kantian assumptions about individual and primary good, the communitarian grounds justice on history and emancipation. The first postulates equal liberty and second postulates solidarity. In communitarian thought moral conversation could only take place within a community of shared values. In order to move beyond the cosmopolitan/communitarian divide and beyond the practice of assimilation and coexistence while aspiring for universalism, it is desirable to adopt an ethic of communication.2

The concept of justice must be able to gain the support of all reasonable citizens who are free and equal. Rawls seems to believe that whereas rational agreement among comprehensive moral, religious and philosophical doctrines is im-possible, in the political domain such an agreement can be reached. As justice emcompasses both contempla-tive activities and comprehensive good, human rights encompasses both procedural and substantive justice.

Pluralism is constitutive of modern liberal democracy. By pluralism, Chantal Mouffe means a substantive idea of good life. Such a recognition of pluralism implies a profound transformation in the symbolic ordering of social relations.3 Extreme pluralism tends to be very critical of liberalism because of its refusal to any attempt to construct “we”. Here some existing rights have been constructed on the very exclusion or subordination of others. But it is also important to recognise the limits of pluralism which is required by the democratic polity that aims at challenging a wide range of relations of subordination or inequality. Extreme pluralism misses the dimension of the political.4 Relations of power and antagonism are erased and we are left with the typical illusion of pluralism without antagonism.5 Just as the advocates of natural rights posed a revolutionary challenge to existing power relations in an earlier era, so socialist theories and working class activists posed a revolutionary challenge to the prevailing power relationship in the nineteenth century. Any discussion on the ethical reasoning of human rights must take into account the relationship between power, moral inclusion and limits of pluralism.

In the view of Habermas, the moral question can in principle be decided rationally in terms of justice and the generalisability of interest. Evaluative questions present themselves at the most general as issues of good life.6 In his view, questions of justice are posed only within the horizon of questions concerning good life which is an ethical question.

According to Hegel, morality emphasises the inviolability of the individual by postulating equal respect to the dignity of each individual. It also protects the web of intersubjective relations of mutual recognition by which the individual survives as a member of the community. Levinas proposes inter-subjective relations not as reciprocal but as asymmetrical relations. It is precisely in taking the other as one’s point of departure that transcendence can emerge. The non-egalitarian and interpersonal structure of ethical relations, that transcends the political order, is corrected by the requirement of equality which comes by taking into account the third party.7 In the view of Todorov, the veil of ignorance in Rawls’ theory excludes any meaningful difference from deliberation regarding justice. Behind the veil of ignorance both the other and the self are robbed of any identity.8

Kantian philosophy uses right in the sense of justice. His categorical imperative reads: “Act according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From this follows the universal imperative of duty and obligation. In his view, the formal condition under which nature can alone attain its final design, is the arrangement of relation of individual to one another which we call civil community. Only in this the greatest development of natural capacities takes place.9 In the view of Kant, it is only the public use of reason that produces enlightened people. In his view, the maxim of common human understanding is guided by think for oneself, think from the stand- point of the other and consistent thought.10 Linklater elaborates his vision of dialogic community where particular social bonds remain but they are reconstituted in the light of normative commitment to engage the systematically excluded in dialogue.11

Ethic has a chance of being ethical only in becoming. In the view of Derrida, ethic is essentially pervertible and that pervertible is the positive condition of all positive values (the good, just so on) ethics enjoy to seek. Justice is the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction and it seems that this must have some ethical resonance if it is to be intelligible to the discourse of rights. Human political community differentiates from animal community through reasoned deliberation than simple devotion to common good. The end of antagonism is the end of politics. We must create a dialogue between modernism and post-modernism to enrich ethical reasoning on human rights by making the question of reasoned deliberation central to justice and otherness. Deliberation is possible in the political sphere. Otherness can only be constituted outside the ethical reasoning on human rights. n


1. John Charvet, A Critique of Freedom and Equality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
2. Richard Shapcott, ‘Beyond the Cosmopolitan/Communitarian Divide: Justice, Difference and Community in International Relations’ in Value Pluralism, Normative Theory and International Relations, edited by Maria Lensu and Jan-Stefan Fritz, London: McMillan Press, (c) 2002.
3. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London: Verso, 2000, p. 18.
4. Ibid., p. 20.
5. Ibid., p. 20.
6. Jurgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, translated by Christian Lenchrdt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Blackwell Publishers, Polity Press 1990, p. 108.
7. Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, translated by Michael B. Smith, London: The Alhone Press, 1999.
8. Richard Shapcott, ‘Beyond the Cosmopolitan/Communitarian Divide: Justice, Difference and Community in International Relations’ in Value Pluralism, Normative Theory and International Relations, edited by Maria Lensu and Jan-Stefan Fritz, London: McMillan Press, (c) 2002.
9. Mark F. N. Franke, ‘Immanuel Kant and the (lm) possibility of International Relations Theory’, Alternative 20, 1995, p. 279-322.
10. Onora O’ Neill, Construction of Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 31-35.
11. Moly Cochran, Normative Theory in International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 78-118.

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