- Reframing the Intercultural Dialogue on Human Rights: A Philosophical Approach by Jeffrey Flynn
Can we respond to the charge that human rights are a Western product without relinquishing human rights altogether? Can we be sensitive not only to the dominant [End Page 301] voices in the non-Western world but also to the "margins of the margins" ("those demanding human rights in opposition to dominant interpretations of their own culture") (p. 5)? Can the academic discussion on human rights be more attuned not only to scholarly arguments but also to "human rights activism and struggles for human rights" (p. 4)? Can it also be attuned to the fact of the new "globalizing modernity" (p. 5)? In Reframing the Intercultural Dialogue on Human Rights, Jeffrey Flynn thoughtfully addresses these hugely important and challenging questions. The book in fact does not simply "reframe" an existing dialogue, but more ambitiously advocates for a new one. Flynn makes a forceful and much-needed case against those skeptical that it is possible to answer the questions above in the affirmative.
In its most concrete form, Flynn's proposal, as it emerges at the end of the book, is as follows: First, the institutional site for the dialogue is a United Nations "reformed General Assembly that includes a parliament of world citizens" (p. 199) (the exact nature of representation in the Assembly—who the "world citizens" are and how they are to be chosen—is left unspecified). The second subject is the "procedural conditions that must be met in order to achieve a justified consensus" (p. 200) are drawn from Jürgen Habermas' discourse theory, albeit in a slightly revised form (more on this below). Third, the content of the dialogue is left open. However, Flynn emphasizes two subjects that he views as crucial components of the dialogue. First are social and economic rights. Flynn considers the inclusion of these in the dialogue as necessary for it to be relevant at all to the third of the world living in extreme poverty (p. 179). Second, there is the legacy of colonialism and, relatedly, the "long and growing list of cynical attempts to use the language of human rights to the advantage of Western powers" (p. 188). Confronting colonialism directly is a way to "challenge human rights to live up to their emancipatory promise" by "unmasking" the "insidious subtext" that often arises in human rights practice (p. 32).
Flynn's central argument concerns the advantages of Habermas' discourse theory over its alternatives, namely the proposals of philosophers John Rawls and Charles Taylor, for thinking about human rights. According to Flynn, Rawls' list of international human rights, which includes the rights to life, liberty, and personal property (p. 47), but not the right to democracy (p. 51), is "somewhat arbitrary" (ibid.). The dialogue on human rights as conceived by Taylor, on the other hand, is too "open-ended" and "indeterminate" (p. 80): starting from the premise of "pluralism about [normative] foundations," it is difficult to find the basis upon which participants in Taylor's dialogue would deliberate and, more pointedly, "what normative authority an overlapping consensus would have if it were achieved through this dialogical process" (p. 80). Habermas' third way, in Flynn's view, avoids both problems by specifying conditions for the dialogue—an appropriate "deliberative framework"—but ones that do not a priori constrain its conclusions.
But isn't discourse theory, just like Rawlsian liberalism, subject to the concern that it is parochial, its aspirations to universalism notwithstanding? Flynn is sensitive to this worry and addresses it with a few arguments. First, he suggests that Habermas' premises are less controversial than Rawls'. More specifically, he contends that they are less vulnerable to the charge of individualism. Given that discourse [End Page 302] theory locates rights in the "intersubjective foundations of a legal order," it does not fall victim to a belief in "possessive individualism," often associated with Western moral thought (p. 115). Flynn also tackles the vexed question of secularism by proposing to...