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Moral Relativism and Human Rights

Torben Spaak

Stockholm University

Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 13, 2007

Politicians, human rights activists, scholars, and others disagree about whether human rights are universally true or valid or only true or valid relative to a given culture. Whereas some defend the moral universality of human rights, others appear to believe that human rights can only be valid relative to a given culture. The problem with this latter line of reasoning is that it appears to be premised on the assumption that the theory of moral relativism enjoins tolerance of other moral views or that acceptance of such relativism is otherwise likely to bring about such tolerance. I shall, however, argue that the theory of moral relativism does not enjoin tolerance of other moral views, that there is no reason to believe that moral relativism is otherwise likely to bring about tolerance, and that therefore it does not matter to this debate whether moral relativism is a true (or defensible) theory. I begin by distinguishing three types of moral relativism, including so-called meta-ethical relativism, and argue that meta-ethical relativism is at the core of the cultural relativism/universalism debate (Section 2). I then offer some arguments in support of metaethical relativism (Section 3). Having done that, I proceed to consider the relation between meta-ethical relativism and tolerance (Section 4) and between meta-ethical relativism and the importance of moral considerations (Section 5). The article concludes with some reflections on the prerequisites of cultural imperialism (Section 6) and the enforcement of international human rights law (Section 7).

Number of Pages in PDF File: 18

Keywords: moral relativism, human rights, tolerance

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Date posted: August 9, 2006 ; Last revised: December 3, 2007

Suggested Citation

Spaak, Torben, Moral Relativism and Human Rights. Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 13, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=923445

Contact Information

Torben Spaak (Contact Author)
Stockholm University ( email )
S-106 91 Stockholm
46 8 16 45 89 (Phone)
46 8 612 41 09 (Fax)

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