"We hold these truths to be self-evident..." So begins the U.S. Declaration of Independence. What follows those words is a ringing endorsement of universal rights, but it is far from self-evident. Why did the authors claim that it was? William Talbott suggests that they were trapped by a presupposition of Enlightenment philosophy: That there was only one way to rationally justify universal truths, by proving them from self-evident premises.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the authors of the U.S. Declaration had no infallible source of moral truth. For example, many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence endorsed slavery. The wrongness of slavery was not self-evident; it was a moral discovery.
In this book, William Talbott builds on the work of John Rawls, JA1/4rgen Habermas, J.S. Mill, Amartya Sen, and Henry Shue to explain how, over the course of history, human beings have learned how to adopt a distinctively moral point of view from which it is possible to make universal, though not infallible, judgments of right and wrong. He explains how this distinctively moral point of view has led to the discovery of the moral importance of nine basic rights.
Undoubtedly, the most controversial issue raised by the claim of universal rights is the issue of moral relativism. How can the advocate of universal rights avoid being a moral imperialist? In this book, Talbott shows how to defend basic individual rights from a universal moral point of view that is neither imperialistic nor relativistic. Talbott avoids moral imperialism by insisting that all of us, himself included, have moral blindspots and that we usually depend on others to help us to identify those blindspots.
Talbott's book speaks to not only debates on human rights but to broader issues of moral and cultural relativism, and will interest a broad range of readers.
"Talbott introduces an ambitious framework for identifying as universal those human rights essential to propelling moral 'progress.' The author's provocative discussion features numerous prominent philosophers and richly examined and illustrated philosophical issues. Highly recommended."--American Library Association
"There is much to admire in Bill Talbott's appropriately ambitious and nicely argued new book on a very important topic. I appreciate his courageous defense of universal moral principles, making room for the critique of other cultures where required, and his full and truly feminist support for women's equality, which plays an important role in the volume. I like his idea of moral discovery and the related idea of moral justification as a 'social project.' Furthermore, Talbott's recommendation that we should take a more 'bottom up' approach to moral principles and human rights is certainly attractive."--Carol Gould, Human Rights Review
"This book deserves a wide readership. Whatever one's thousand disagreements with it, it is a fascinating exercise in ambitious liberal minimalism. By this I mean that it is not yet another lame attempt to promote a liberalism without universal rational foundations, but rather an effort to supply these as parsimoniously as possible. Whatever our doubts about the feasibility of this project, we are beholden to Talbott for undertaking it, and can all benefit from wrestling with the ingenuity with which he prosecutes it. --Clifford Owin, University of Toronto
"No other work I am aware of comes close in making the consequentialist approach to rights come alive. Talbott somehow manages to provide the most detailed and skillful account of the philosophical, institutional, and empirical complexity of this approach without ever letting us lose sight of the simple humanitarianism that motivates it."-- Liam Murphy, New York University
"One of the many virtues of Talbott's work is its sympathy for the aims of the human rights movement without any of the theoretical dogmatism found in so much contemporary writing about human rights. It is based on a wide-ranging critical appraisal of the modern history of thought about its subject. With clarity and economy, it sets forth a comprehensive and plausible position about the basis and content of what Talbott regards as the core of any reasonable doctrine of human rights."--Charles R. Beitz, Princeton University, from the symposium Which Rights Should Be Universal?, Human Rights & Human Welfare, An International Review of Books and Other Publications
"William Talbott's Which Right Should Be Universal?
is a book with many virtues. Most impressive is his demonstration in Chapters 6 and 7 ('Autonomy Rights' and 'Political Rights') that a wide range of basic human rights are vital contributors to the core value of personal autonomy. Based on 'the claim to first-person authority'--the idea that normal adults, placed in the right environment, can be 'reliable judges of what is good for them'(123-128, 174)--Talbott powerfully rebuts standard arguments for paternalistic authoritarian rule, even in cases where the motives of the rulers are impeccable. And, in an intriguing twist, he manages to do this with a consequentialist argument that makes no appeal to the intrinsic value of choice."--Jack Donnelly, Denver University, from the symposium Which Rights Should Be Universal?, Human Rights & Human Welfare, An International Review of Books and Other Publications
"A plausible defense of universal human rights must respond to the challenge of cultural relativism on the one flank, and the charge of moral imperialism on the other. In his well-written and carefully argued book, Which Rights Should be Universal?
, William Talbott does a fine job of navigating between these two poles. Talbott warns against the infallibilistic and overly-confident attitude of the moral imperialist on the one side, but rejects 'the wishy-washiness' of the moral relativist on the other. This book is an exemplary study of how this epistemic modesty can go hand in hand with a metaphysical immodesty to order to defend an account of human rights that is at once culturally sensitive but universalistic in aspiration."--Kok-Chor Tan, University of Pennsylvania, from the symposium Which Rights Should Be Universal?, Human Rights & Human Welfare, An International Review of Books and Other Publications