A Defense of Fundamental Principles and Human Rights: A Reply to Robert Baker
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A Defense of Fundamental Principles and Human Rights:
A Reply to Robert Baker *
Abstract

This article seeks to rebut Robert Baker’s contention that attempts to ground international bioethics in fundamental principles cannot withstand the challenges posed by multiculturalism and postmodernism. First, several corrections are provided of Baker’s account of the conclusions reached by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Second, a rebuttal is offered to Baker’s claim that an unbridgeable moral gap exists between Western individualism and non-Western communalism. In conclusion, this article argues that Baker’s “nonnegotiable primary goods” cannot do the work of “classical human rights” and that the latter framework is preferable from both a practical and a theoretical standpoint.

Robert baker has written two interesting and thoughtful essays in support of his theory of international bioethics (Baker 1998a & b). Both essays are rich in content and comprehensive in scope. In the first of the two, “Multiculturalism, Postmodernism, and the Bankruptcy of Fundamentalism”—hereafter, “Multiculturalism”—Baker argues that attempts to ground international bioethics in fundamental principles cannot withstand the challenges posed by multiculturalism and postmodernism. As one of the bioethicists whose writings are the object of Baker’s critique, I undertake in this reply first, to elaborate my own position and to comment on related aspects of Baker’s thesis. 1 Next, I offer some corrections of Baker’s account of the conclusions reached by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, of which I was a member. Finally, I compare Baker’s “nonnegotiable [End Page 403] primary goods” with “classical human rights” and conclude that the latter framework is preferable from both a practical and a theoretical standpoint.

In his second essay, “The Negotiable and the Non-Negotiable”—hereafter, “The Negotiable”—Baker puts forth a positive theory designed to meet the challenges of multiculturalism and postmodernism and, at the same time, to justify transcultural and transhistorical moral judgments. Baker (1998a, p. 203) describes his theoretical model as an effort “to validate the conception of international bioethics as a continually renegotiated moral order.” Although I find Baker’s proposal intriguing, I believe his rejection of fundamental principles can result in an unacceptable ethical relativism. To abandon “classical human rights,” along with the fundamental moral principles from which they derive, opens the door to all forms of cultural oppression in the name of “the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to define primacy for oneself” (Baker 1998b, p. 246). Alternatively, one can view Baker’s “nonnegotiable primary goods” as virtually equivalent to classical human rights, but much more difficult to identify, both theoretically and practically.

Moral Fundamentalism

The difference between my defense of universal moral principles and Baker’s critique rests, at least in part, on an interpretation of what is meant by “moral fundamentalism.” (I must confess to a distaste for the ‘ism’ because of the connotations and consequences of fundamentalism in other spheres.) Baker (1998a, p. 203) defines “moral fundamentalism” as the position “that certain basic or fundamental moral principles are accepted in all eras and cultures and thus are universally applicable to agents and actions in any era or culture.” A central feature of this definition is the requirement that all eras and cultures accept these fundamental moral principles. By this definition, the position I embrace does not count as “moral fundamentalism,” because I maintain that certain fundamental moral principles ought to be binding on all cultures or societies even if those cultures or societies do not accept them. 2 Universal acceptance is not a necessary condition for universal applicability.

Part of the problem with Baker’s (and probably also my own) analysis is that it shifts constantly and imperceptibly back and forth between a variety of concepts: “moral principles,” “ethical standards,” “morality,” and “moral judgments.” In one instance, Baker (1998a, p. 209) notes my citation of a remark of Ruth Benedict (1934) that “morality differs in [End Page 404] every society.” That is what Ruth Benedict wrote; but nowhere did she specify that she had moral principles in mind. Indeed, her complete sentence reads as follows: “Morality differs in every society and is a convenient term for socially approved habits” (Benedict 1934, emphasis added...