Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Indeed, the belief that rights are absolutes that must be recognized and protected is not simply a Western phenomenon. In 1948, the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that goes well beyond what some scholars call the first- generation or primarily negative set of rights articulated by Locke and Jefferson, to include second-generation or positive rights – for example, the rights to education and health care. These rights have been realized, for example, as duties of the state in Western Europe and Scandinavia, while the right to health care remains hotly disputed in the United States. In any event, a deontological notion of basic human rights has driven much of the political activism and transformation in modernity, both within and beyond the boundaries of “the West,” as Gandhi in India, and multiple other liberation movements, globally exemplify.

To be sure, these claims to univeralism have been critically challenged by feminists, and postmodernist and post-colonialist scholars (among others). These critiques must be acknowledged and evaluated: but, as with contemporary feminisms,3 the complexities are beyond the bounds of this general introduction. At the same time, some of these critiques have become more subdued in light of subsequent developments. For example, we’ve seen contemporary feminists seek to preserve Kantian notions of autonomy and thereby rights – however importantly these are modified, for example in terms of relational autonomies – precisely for the sake of sustaining a central ground of argument for women’s equality, respect, and emancipation. At the same time, recent work in cross-cultural psychology offers extensive empirical evidence for shared values and norms across cultures, thereby arguing again in the direction of some form of universalism

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