Human Rights, China and Cross-Cultural Inquiry: Philosophy, History and Power Politics

38 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2004

See all articles by Randall Peerenboom

Randall Peerenboom

La Trobe University - Faculty of Law and Management; Oxford University - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies


In "Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry," Stephen Angle considers the claims that countries have different concepts of human rights, and that we ought not demand that countries comply with human rights concepts different from their own. These two claims (or something similar) are central to China's official position on rights and to human rights debates more generally, including the debate about values in Asia. Angle's response in short is that there are distinctive concepts of human rights in China, and that "there have been both continuities and changes in the ways that rights have been conceptualized over the course of China's rich and distinctive rights discourse." However, the only way a community can unilaterally declare its values and practices immune from the scrutiny of others is through "parochialism," which according to Angle cuts off that community from making legitimate demands on others. Rather, he suggests, we "should seek an accommodation of differences with one another in the spirit of toleration, and on that basis engage one another on as many levels as possible."

I will use Angle's book as a platform for consideration of a number of issues regarding the role of philosophy, history and power politics in relation to human rights in China and elsewhere. Specifically, I address the following: (i) What is distinctive about Chinese rights discourse? (ii) How do we choose between or appraise competing concepts (or conceptions or interpretations) of human rights? (iii) What are the limits of cross-cultural inquiry in overcoming differences in concepts (conceptions or interpretations) of rights? (iv) What does Angle tell us, if anything, about the limits of tolerance, accommodation and moral pluralism? More specifically, when, if ever, should dialogue aimed at overcoming differences give way to coercion? (v) What role, if any, does abstract philosophy play in human rights as practiced in the real world? (vi) To what extent is cross-cultural dialogue undermined by power politics? (vii) What are the main factors that determine whether people actually enjoy the benefits promised by rights-talk? (viii) To what extent has the emphasis on rights contributed to and/or impeded alleviation of human suffering and misery? (ix) Given the large gap between the utopian promises of human rights rhetoric and the reality of widespread poverty, massive starvation and unspeakable human misery, at what point should we look for a new discourse, paradigm or approach to replace or complement rights-talk?

I start, however, by clarifying some conceptual issues raised by Angle's social practice theory of concepts. Angle's discussion of concepts, and in particular his application of Brandom's view of concepts as a shared practice of interpretation, without the additional commitment to communication as coming to shared meanings, is perhaps Angle's most novel philosophical contribution to the intra- and cross-cultural dialogue about human rights in China. It is also, at least at first glance, crucial to Angle's arguments about whether China has a distinct concept of human rights, and thus, one would think, central to the success of Angle's project. Certainly Angle sees it that way. However, I will suggest that while the discussion about concepts is interesting and perhaps an improvement over the view of concepts as coming to shared meanings, in the end, the debates about whether there are multiple concepts or a single concept with different conceptions, whether discourses are incommensurable, and whether we share meanings or "commitments," are all largely irrelevant.

Keywords: Human rights

Suggested Citation

Peerenboom, Randall, Human Rights, China and Cross-Cultural Inquiry: Philosophy, History and Power Politics. Philosophy East & West, Vol. 55, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Randall Peerenboom (Contact Author)

La Trobe University - Faculty of Law and Management ( email )

Department of Economics and Finance
Victoria 3552, 3086

Oxford University - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies

St. Cross Building
St. Cross Road
Oxford, OX1 3UJ
United Kingdom

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