Human Rights, the Need of an Intercultural Dialogue
Sebastiano Maffettone 9 March 2007

I would like to begin by thinking about the ceremony that preceded this meeting. There were two persons that were recognized in a particular way: one was Jewish, the other was Arab. Maybe it was very important for the reasons that Professor Al-Azm pointed out so nicely before, in the sense that as philosophers and scholars at least we feel reciprocal sympathy and admiration for reasons that are independent from religion, culture, tradition, which is not so bad after all. When we speak of religion and politics our immediate reaction is to refer to the Muslim culture. It is not necessarily so. Quite recently, for example, asked about his favourite philosopher, the U.S. President George W. Bush answered “Jesus”. And asked about his favourite book he answered “the Bible”. And as far as I know Mr Bush is not a Muslim…

In the same spirit, I remember that not many years ago, the former Iranian President Khatami during an interview with CNN was pushed by the journalist to admit that there was too much religion in politics in Iran. And very nicely indeed, he began to read a passage of Tocqueville on US, where Tocqueville asserted that the real privilege of the US was the fact that religion was so popular in politics. That is why if we can accept that religious movements and traditions are more politically important today, however Professor Filiali Ansary is right in saying that they never disappeared from the world scenery. Now they may be more important in the public life and in political experience, but of course not just in Islamic countries. The US is a clear example. This is a very wide phenomenon. How could we react, not only practically but philosophically, to this event?

The first natural, secular reaction is to separate things, as was shown here by many of the speakers. Religion is private, politics is public. Political institutions must be freestanding or independent from any particular religious sentiment or tradition because they belong to all people, so they cannot be particularistic nor favour any religious sentiment or movement. The U.S. philosopher John Rawls puts a kind of proviso on the way in which comprehensive doctrines – among which is religion – can enter the public life. This proviso is based on the idea of public reason. So I would say that religions, as well as religious people and people of faith, must somehow translate themselves if they want to enter the public life in a decent way. A religious person cannot say, just to give an example, “I am against abortion because the Pope said this yesterday”. But he-she could legitimately say instead “I am against abortion because the human life is sacred and abortion violates this principle”.

Many religious scholars, among them Paul Weithman, whose work is here particularly interesting because he was a former student of Rawls, claimed that the Rawlsian proviso I mentioned is unfair because it assigns a sort of asymmetric burden. It is not correct, from this point of view, that only people of faith and religious individuals must translate themselves. We need more fairness, which is by the way a famously Rawlsian term. So the criticism starts from within. Jürgen Habermas put forward another criticism to Rawslain proviso based on public reason starting from the idea of a post-secular society. Habermas made a good move as he recognized that adaptation between lay and religious persons must be reciprocal. It is not fair, as Whitman said, that the translation effort is sustained entirely by religious persons, so it must be shared. Every non-religious person in a lay state or a secular society must move toward the other, that is, religious people. The idea that I find most interesting within all that is that one cannot impose one’s secular ideas on religious people. It must come from within, that is, from the self-reflection of educated religious people. And indeed this already happens in many parts of the world, so it is not just a theoretical proposal but one with its own practical implications. But there is a problem.

Habermas maintained this thesis at a seminar in New York last Fall (2006), and when I asked: “Professor Habermas, does it mean that you are in favour of cultural pluralism and the secular or religious solutions are equal and on the same level?” he answered: “Absolutely not. I am on the secular side, on the side of the Enlightenment”. That is why I think that this proposal is very helpful humanly and practically, but theoretically it is weak. The real problem is: are there two truths or just one? Rawls’ idea of translation is based on the fact that there is one main way, and all people must adapt themselves to the way that is privileged for theoretical and practical reasons. According to Habermas this is too much as it results into an asymmetric burden which is for this very reason unfair. We must put everyone on the same level, then. But if you take it radically, it implies that there are several truths, and the real point is how much one accepts of the others.

The limits of multiculturalism

Generally speaking, many of us are definitely multicultural. The problem is where are the limits of multiculturalism. Would we accept that, in order to favour pluralism, women are ill treated? Would we accept cliterodoctomy and so on? I think that a majority of us are not ready for that step, so the problem is not being in favour of cultural difference: all we are, more or less. The problem is where to put the limit on one’s readiness to go forward to the other. It is a highly important problem. So the fact that we all practically agree that we must go toward the other, as Habermas said, but are theoretically ignorant about the real foundation of this move, is not devoid of practical consequences. I will present today a short version of a philosophical model designed to found theoretically the relation between religion and politics within a specific area, the area of human right. Actually, the problem I have in mind does not concern just religion and politics, but more generally culture and politics. We can imagine however that when we say culture here, we say mainly religion. The standard interpretation of human rights is secular. How can we make it coherent with many religious foundations that draw your force and meaning from the religious experience?

I intend in particular to debate the problem posed by cultural differentialism, in the special form posed by s.c. “Asian Values” and Muslim exceptions. The matter in hand is the controversial issue that relates to the potential universality of human rights in the face of the evidence of cultural diversity, often based on religious presuppositions. In fact, there is little doubt that human rights, as we normally conceive them, have a universal aspiration, that is to say they are deemed to apply to all human beings. In this sense, they set a structural limit to cultural pluralism. However, in their present form, they originate from a specific tradition, the Western legal tradition of liberalism. Therefore, to question their universality is to ask ourselves what are the limits within which their validity may be extended beyond the cultural tradition from which they came. For many philosophers, the theoretical background of the theme under consideration is the classical relationship between universalism and relativism. I will confine myself to considering the relationship between universalism and relativism within the context of the foundation of human rights as far as this context is potentially touched by criticism invoking Muslim exceptions and Asian values.

My way of doing so is by broaching the subject in terms of that essentially political proposal that I have elsewhere called “pluralist integration from below”. This proposal holds that human rights, just like political democracy and the rule of law, may not be asserted by the center and then subsequently imposed in the peripheries of the world system. Far from it, their success depends on the possibility of their becoming the heritage of individual national cultures. I believe there to be little doubt about the political reasonableness of this proposal. If it is meaningless to impose Western certainties on members of cultures that do not perceive them as such, it does not make much sense, on the other part, to sanctify local cultures, abstaining from a critical evaluation of their contents. In any event, the necessity to balance these two needs and the political reasonableness of my proposal does not constitute automatically its philosophical strength. This is the reason why my basic purpose is to find a philosophical background consistent with the prima facie political proposal of a pluralist integration from below.

The pluralist integration model

The pluralist integration model I propose suggests a peculiar way to realize an “overlapping consensus” on human rights. As we know, an overlapping consensus strategy presupposes that there is one institutional reality that we can found on different moral, religious and metaphysical premises. This option is clearly linked to the fact of the nation state. In this case, it is not implausible to think that the majority of intellectual conflicts are so to say partial (or “reasonable”, to use the standard term) and that in other words everybody can accept the institutional framework within which these conflicts take place. The same strategy could not seem applicable to the international domain. Here, there is no such thing as a common institutional framework to uphold. My thesis attacks such an impossibility theorem. If we assume – as it seems normal to do – that human rights are not only a set of moral imperatives but also a set of legal requisites, then we can maintain that this set of legal norms constitute a formidable background not easily removable. It is actually difficult to think that one can substitute existing human rights with a different set of moral imperatives, all in principle able to defend and protect human dignity, but without such an historical successful background. This conclusion implies that different moralities, religions and metaphysics can well found the same set of human rights, but also that it is different that we can substitute the second one (the existing set of human rights) with the first ones (world religions etc.). In other words, it is better to accommodate different religions, moralities and metaphysics within the existing human rights package than viceversa. The integration of an already existing platform of human rights and several profound justifications of them must however be in my view pluralist and critical. This means that existing human rights – as we shall see – cannot be taken for granted and their legitimating force must be discussed and evaluated by an open intercultural dialogue. If we accept this thesis, then the overlapping consensus model can be applied within the human rights domain.

The fundamental philosophical idea that underlies pluralist integration from below envisages dual levels of belonging and loyalty on the part of each person. At an ethical and metaphysical level, each maintains his or her own traditional cultural and religious perspective but, at the same time, at a political level, chooses a vision that is convergent with that of the other members of the international community through the progressive affirmation of a sort of multicultural “overlapping consensus”. According to the overlapping consensus thesis applied to human rights, human rights are shared elements, of legal and political nature, that are consistent with various moral, religious and metaphysical foundations. Hence, this thesis presupposes the existence of a critical potential inherent in all cultures that, eventually, will cause them to converge partially in the direction desired by the advocates of human rights. This vision permits us to reconcile two contrasting views concerning this issue. On the first view, cultural sensitivity to local traditions is supposed to override the universality of human rights. On the second view, to the opposite it’s the universality of human rights which is supposed to override local traditions. My thesis based on the pluralist integration tries to reconcile to an higher level these two theses.

The fact is that a philosophical foundation of human rights is an intrinsically difficult undertaking, regardless of the type of preferred theoretical approach. Naturally enough, this undertaking becomes even more difficult when it comes to dealing with the question of cultural diversity. Luckily, it is not hard to understand the most obvious conceptual reason underlying this difficulty. This reason is related to the ambiguous nature of human rights, which is both empirical and philosophical. Human rights are essentially moral rights and, therefore, independent of any legal system and any application in concrete norms. Indeed, it is their moral nature and their independence of the legal plane in a strict sense, that turns them into a touchstone and a critical standpoint for positive law. Nonetheless, it is practically impossible to think about human rights without considering the fact that they have an effective validity and there is a series of recognized sources. In plain words, the philosophical debate on the moral nature of human rights cannot leave their actual institutionalization out of consideration.

This background has a more strictly philosophical counterpart. A philosophical foundation of human rights may assume either a point of view that is external to the practices where the rights assert themselves or a point of view internal to these practices. In the former case – the external point of view – due emphasis is given to the moral aspect of human rights and the foundation appears strong and significant in the perspective of a normative critique of the existing practice. However, by ruling out the hypothesis of a classical natural law theory or, in any case, the sharing of a religious Weltanschauung, as is the case in the Christian doctrine of natural law, the foundation turns out to be much more problematic. And of course, it becomes still more problematic in the case we confront ourselves with a perspective like the Asian values and Muslim exceptions perspective. On the other hand, in the latter case – the internal point of view– what happens is just the opposite. While it is more plausible to find agreement, rather than founding a theory of human rights an attempt is often being made to find a theoretical confirmation of an existing legal practice, and this leads to a considerable weakening of the critical capacities of one’s theoretical position. There are those who, like Jacques Maritain, support the compatibility of these two points of view. According to this vision, one should be fervidly convinced of a specific foundational thesis but, at the same time, any plausible agreement on real human rights would be based on the need to put the foundation-related dispute temporarily aside. I consider my own thesis like a variant of this compatibilist thesis.

A distinction between justification and legitimation

I believe that most critiques to the philosophical foundation of human rights fail to answer the question posed by this impasse (too-internal versus too-external). When debating human rights and cultural diversity, even the two main perspectives, namely moral relativism and monistic universalism, oscillate between these two polarities. Typically, relativism appears as a foundation of human rights that is too internal with respect to their relationship with culture, while universalism seems too external. My thesis regarding this problem is, quite simply, that this contrast provides us with a good enough reason to look for a third solution with respect to universalism and relativism, so as to eschew the dilemma posed by these extremes. Within the context of a general justificatory process, I believe it is necessary to draw a distinction between justification and legitimation. In a liberal-democratic prospect, both depend on citizens’ consensus but, as I have said in a different occasion, while legitimation is procedural and empirical, justification is transcendental or virtual. This means that in the background of legitimation there is empirical consensus assuming the correctness of a procedure, while in the background of justification there is hypothetical consensus under ideal and suitably defined conditions. Later on, I will endeavor to apply this distinction between justification and legitimation to the issue of the relationship between the universality of human rights and the protection of cultural diversity.

Thinking over what has just been said, we notice that the main problem of relativism is the impossibility of allowing criticism to count, while the main problem of universalism is the neglect of cultural diversity. The standard intermediate theoretical options seem to be incapable of getting us out of this impasse. If we bear in mind what was said earlier about the intrinsic difficulty of a philosophy of human rights, namely the fact that it oscillates between an excessively external and an excessively internal foundation, none of this should be too surprising. On this account, it may be assumed that we need to find a solution that, while not being trivially intermediate between relativism and universalism – between internal foundation and external foundation – preserves the merits of the two alternatives without running into their main faults. The distinction between justification and legitimation with the further proposal of intercultural dialogue, provided that it is adequately specified, may represent such a solution. Intercultural dialogue succeeds in reconciling the philosophical aspect (the justification) and the empirical aspect (the legitimation) of the human rights issue.

But justification and legitimation do not present themselves as pure in the case on focus. Both oscillate between two different levels. To be simple, we can call them respectively justification A and justification B, to be contrasted of course with legitimation A and legitimation B. Justificaton A nature is typically philosophical and moral. It addresses the totally of human subjects in an universalistic way. Potentially, no human beings is excluded from it. We shall say that justification A is universal. Justification B, on the other side, is the one that gives meaning to the dual strategy of overlapping consensus we mentioned at the beginning. Its purpose consists in rooting justification A in the basic metaphysical premises that characterize every culture. In such a way, justification B is typically culturally sensitive. It roots justification within different cultural backgrounds that depend on tradition and history of every people. We can have, from this standpoint justification B based alternatively on religious and secular traditions. They can be Christian or Confucian, Islamic or secular and so on. So interpreted, justification B is special.

Also legitimation can be seen in a similar dual way. Legitimaton A refers to the empirical agreement on the existing platform of human rights, beginning from the 1948 UNDHR. We can say there is on it a widespread consent of almost all the peoples of the earth on it. As consequence, if we imagine to figure out even the purest and most perfect model of human rights different by this canonical one, it is implausible to think that this model could de facto substitute in a reasonable time the existing one. That’s why we shall say that legitimation A is general. It depends on the general consent of the peoples of the earth. On the other side, legitimation, as legitimation B, is also path dependent. It clearly depends on the history of the consent on human rights in different cultures and traditions, typically on the way in which these cultures and tradition are able to revise their own basic assumptions to converge toward human rights. In this sense legitimation B is local.
To recapitulate, we can imagine a framework like the following one

(I) justification
(IA) universal justification
(IB) special justification
(II) legitimation
(IIA) general legitimation
(IIB) local legitimation

Under the assumption that my model is based on the circulation of justification and legitimation, the model must be reformulated after this framework. The dialectics of justification and legitimation is – in this reformulation – a dialectics of IA and IIB on one side, and of IB and IIA on the other side. In other words, we have to confront universal (moral) justification with local legitimation (the way in which cultures and traditions practice their own internal criticism). And special justification (the metaphysical foundational apparatus) of human rights with general legitimation (the fact that almost all peoples on the earth recognize UNDHR). In the first case, coherently with the process of pluralist integration, we cannot say that the pure justification force, namely the appeal to universal values, can supplement everything we need to make human rights sensible within a determinate cultural horizon. On the other side, this universalistic appeal does make sense in cases in which it meets so to say mid way an ongoing procedure of internal revision within the same tradition. Symmetrically, we cannot rely on what I have called special justification to make human rights work globally. Here again, we could have, in such a way, a foundation of human rights coherent with a specific tradition, but this same foundation could not work outside this limited domain. To obtain this further result, we must be inclined to make coalesce the special foundation with the general legitimation, in other words with the de facto consensus on human rights as they exist now within global network of acceptance. The way in which this circulation of justification and legitimation does happen is through the intercultural dialogue. I will explain what I mean by intercultural dialogue.

Intercultural dialogue takes concrete significance in the actual and unrestricted exchange among representatives of various cultures. This means that it is a partially empirical task. There is also a philosophical counterpart of intercultural dialogue, that may provide minimal a priori conditions the lack of which would make a dialogue fruitless. It is only the dialogue itself that legitimates a shared human rights platform. In other words, we must accept the historical specific value of existing human rights as the core of the legitimation process, but we cannot do so dogmatically and without proper debate. The intercultural dialogue provides form and substance for a critical and pluralist appraisal of this legitimation process. Such a dialogue entails a dual advantage. On the one hand, it has positive consequences of epistemic nature. Mutual frequentation makes it easier to get to know the otherness of different cultures, the points of convergence and those of divergence on fundamental values, on interpretations and applications in this light of existing human rights. Moreover, it furthers awareness of the problems on which the structure of human rights ultimately depends. On the other hand, the dialogue has positive consequences in terms of the extension of the cultural and moral foundation on which human rights rest. If the problem we are facing depends on the fact that human rights concern everybody but come from a specific tradition, then the involvement of a variety of persons coming from different cultures may obviate in part the Western-oriented parochialism of human rights. From this point of view, the intercultural dialogue, conceived as specified above, meets the expectations of those who believe that the human rights issue should be solved through greater participation and, in particular, through the decisive role played by civil society.

Clearly, legitimation does not come from just any intercultural dialogue, but only from a dialogue that abides by certain formal and substantive normative conditions. The underlying idea is that dialogue, free from conditioning and lasting in time, relieves persons of those impediments that prevent them from reaching a reasonable convergence on the main human rights. Liberalism provides an important background for the appreciation of this type of thesis.

This text is the transcription of the intervention held by the author at the round table organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations “The awakening of religion and the open society”, which took place on UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day (Rabat – Morocco, 16th November 2006). The following figures participated at this meeting: the Interior minister Giuliano Amato, the philosophers Abdou Filali-Ansary (Morocco), Fred Dallmayr (U.S.A.), Sadik Al Azm (Syria), Sebastiano Maffettone and Alessandro Ferrara (Italy), the Editor-in-Chief of Reset Giancarlo Bosetti and Reset DoC’s director Nina zu Fürstenberg.



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