Volume 3, 2007
Comprehensive Doctrines in Human Rights Discussion
In the discussion of moral diversity the most influential approaches have been relativism, monism and minimum universalism. In this paper I argue, however, that this kind of general distinction is not as such very helpful. It does not show what is really decisive in those approaches and what is the crucial distinguishing feature among them. The most important issue, I think, is the relationship between rules that guide human beings in their pursuit of the good life and rules that specify what people can do in relation to one another. Generally speaking, moral doctrines, or theories, can be divided into two categories on the basis of their answer to this question. Some doctrines—which may be called comprehensive—begin with a definite account of the highest good and determine the rights and duties of human beings on the basis of this account. Other theories, non-comprehensive, treat these two as separate issues that should not be mixed.
Although such a distinction is seldom explicitly made, its significance is evident, for instance in the current discussion of human rights. Various religiously and culturally motivated reinterpretations of human rights quite distinctively stand for the former view. Moreover, even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly represents the latter approach, it has been claimed that it nevertheless puts forward a specifically Western life ideal.
In order to make sense of the human rights discourse at all, it is of fundamental importance to distinguish between comprehensive and non-comprehensive approaches. Without such a distinction it is difficult to determine how to deal with competing claims about the origin, range and content of human rights (or common moral standards), not to speak of deciding between these claims.