On March 21, 2015, Pacifica Institute Seattle kicked off its lecture series with a
stimulating discussion on universal human rights by Prof. William Talbott of
University of Washington. Being a professor of philosophy, Dr. Talbott challenged
the audience with his daring questions on mainstream beliefs regarding universal
human rights –if any, as the professor argued- that are usually taken for granted.
Talbott first surveyed the audience on their belief in universal human rights. Having
seen the consensus, he continued to ask the questions “What do you mean when you
say universal human rights? How do you define them?”, a challenge to answer for
One prerequisite for a right to be called “universal”, it has to be self-evident, the
professor argued. He made a particular reference to the US Declaration of
Independence, which stresses “human rights” and is supposedly based on the idea
that they are self-evident. However, as Dr. Talbott questioned its foundations, it
turned out to be based on assumptions instead.
“We have to be able to step out of our 21st century way of looking at things and be
able to recognize that way of looking at things is the result of a long historical
development. And at every stage of that development what’s happening is people
are making claims that go against what most people think are self-evident.” Talbott
concluded, speaking of the time when issues including human rights, equality
between men and women were discussed for the first time.
Another possibility for the human rights in the declaration to be called universal is
they are called universal by religious authorities, as it’s a moral issue. Here, Talbott
questioned and refuted the belief, “Often times, religious people played an
extremely important role role in the development of human right.” The fact was they
did not really play role in, for example, slavery or equality of women and men, until
they became active movements, he recalled.
Third reason, maybe the most common one according to Talbott that makes us think
that human rights are universal is the assumption that all cultures and religions
agree on them. However, as the professor presented examples from the UN’s
Universal Declaration of Human rights, it became obvious that it’s not the case as
they lack universal agreement. Interestingly enough, those examples included rights
against slavery and torture, which people assume to be unquestionably universal.
Next, Dr Talbott concluded if we base our definition of human rights on these three
items we would end up with zero human rights. Maybe what made them to be
recognized as universal is they were Westernized. However, specific examples from
the Western tradition like religious tolerance; democracy or equal rights for women
contradicted the idea that the Western tradition cannot be an example of universal
In conclusion, Dr. Talbott underscored that by claiming there are universal human
rights people are unknowingly support the idea of moral imperialism. Speaking of
who is right or wrong regarding the universality of human rights, Dr Talbott said,
“We are living through a centuries-long or, maybe, millennial-long moral discovery.
Our advantage against the writers of Declaration of Independence is that we came
later and what’s in it became inadequate but not wrong.” “It’s an evolving process
during which we make moral discoveries,” Talbott added.
The discussion, which was highly interactive from the very beginning, continued
with a Q&A session where the audience gained more insights on the topic.