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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: November 2009

2 - Two Concepts of Universality and the Problem of Cultural Relativism


In Chapter 1, I sketched a conception of democratic participation framed by human rights, deriving from a fundamental notion of equal positive freedom. I pointed there to the need to see democracy and human rights themselves as open to multiple interpretations from diverse cultural perspectives, but I suggested as well that the conceptions of equal freedom and human rights have universalistic aspects. The potential conflict between such universalist norms and the multiplicity of varying and sometimes conflicting cultural traditions and practices has generated considerable discussion among philosophers in recent years. It is of course desirable to avoid a relativism of fundamental norms to cultures, but it is also important to see these values as drawing strength not only from our own but also from other, sometimes quite different, people, cultures, and traditions. In this chapter, I analyze the idea of universality that is ingredient in the conception of equal freedom and human rights and consider two of its possible meanings.

Universalist norms have recently been appealed to in order to come to grips with the existence of cultural practices that violate human rights or that oppress women or minorities, or again, in order to deal with the problems of persistent poverty and disregard of basic needs in less developed countries. Several philosophers have argued that we have to return to a fundamental conception of human beings and their functioning, in place of prevailing views that emphasize differences in cultures, genders, and so forth.