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  • Human Rights and Democratic Legitimacy:Navigating the Challenges in a Pluralistic World
  • Deen K. Chatterjee (bio)
Carol C. Gould , Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Two pronounced features of modern globalization are an emerging global human rights culture and the growing trend toward democratization. The prospect of transnational extension of the ideas of democracy and human rights is transforming the scope of political philosophy, leading to a serious exploration of alternatives to the legitimacy of nation-state politics in the contemporary world. If democracy is understood as the political institution where the affected parties have a say in their governance, then the domain of political legitimacy in today's interconnected world needn't coincide with national boundaries.

This has important ramifications for our understanding of the moral foundations of democracy and human rights. Based on this newly emerging vision of global reality, ethicists, political philosophers, and legal and political theorists are now debating the cosmopolitan challenges to democratic norms and political participation. For instance, the global trend of cross-border participation among dispersed communities bound by common interests would require a re-evaluation of the normative status of national boundaries, with implications for the standard idea of democracy based on state sovereignty. While the question of how to globally apply national norms has become the challenge of the contemporary era, the contested issues of identity and diversity have become the focus of heightened debate. Globalization of democracy and human rights raises new questions about the viability of applying the norms of legitimacy and justice to diverse cultures and communities. Carol Gould's important book, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights, provides innovative ideas on these issues as it explores the philosophical challenges of the "situatedness" of transnational democracy and human rights. It examines the theories of rights that provide for a cosmopolitan framework but have room for local variations consistent with alternative versions of democratic decision-making. Along the way, it raises new questions regarding the foundations of democratic theory and practice, democratic legitimacy in a pluralistic world, justice and globalization, and human rights and their implementation.

To appraise the relevance of Gould's ideas on human rights and democracy in a global world, it is necessary to place her thoughts in the context of the challenges the liberal theorists face in extending the ideas of democratic equality and human rights to the global arena. Not only are the claims of universal liberal values resisted by illiberal societies and ideologies, they also pose a dilemma for the core liberal value of tolerance in a diverse and pluralistic world. Besides, whether rights claims should be extended universally regardless of national boundaries or whether co-national partiality should trump global impartiality is a topic of disagreement among the liberal theorists themselves.

The debate points to the dilemma of liberalism on the question of human rights. Liberalism's commitment to moral equality for all seems to be at odds with the demand for special obligations to those who are within our own borders of special ties and communities. In response, some liberals try to justify partiality on impartial grounds whereas others attempt to show that what we take to be partiality is not really partiality but rather a variation of the same global equality principle, minus its cosmopolitan prescription for justice, thus making the principle compatible with distinct norms of equality within the national context (Blake, Nagel, Wellman). The latter position is a version of liberal nationalism, which seeks a legitimate, impartial ground for partiality toward one's fellow citizens, with the aim to show that the seeming exception on the home front is not really a deviation from the global equality principle.

Theorists of liberal nationalism make a distinction between absolute deprivation and relative deprivation, arguing that though the rich countries have an obligation to ameliorate absolute deprivation in the world, their obligation does not extend beyond a certain threshold, whereas relative deprivation at home creates a more urgent obligation to respond to citizens' basic needs. This point is usually based on the idea of shared citizenship and its related implications. The claim is that distinct principles of justice are applicable within the national context because they are grounded...


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