A Proposal for an "Unforced Consensus"

Human Rights Dialogue 1.5 (Summer 1996): "Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia"

Charles Taylor, professor of philosophy at McGill University, opened the workshop by laying out a proposal for how to develop an "unforced consensus" on human rights that is sensitive to varying cultural norms. His paper, "Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights," begins with Harvard philosopher John Rawls's concept of an "overlapping consensus"4 and adapts it to the human rights discourse: Different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc., would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behavior. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing on why they were the right norms. And we would be content to live in this consensus, undisturbed by the differences of profound underlying belief.

The current Asia-West dialogue on human rights, Taylor suggests, should be moving toward an "unforced international consensus" that includes:

Agreement on norms, yes; but a profound sense of difference, of unfamiliarity, in the ideals, the notions of human excellence, the rhetorical tropes and reference points by which these norms become objects of deep commitment for us.

Making the distinction between norms and underlying justifications would allow us to accept differences in culture and worldviews, for example, while ensuring that human behavior everywhere is governed by a common set of norms. The point, as Taylor puts it, is to "achieve convergence on the substance of human rights in spite of differences n form."

Thus, rather than analyze Asian cultures for what they say about rights as defined in the current discourse, Taylor proposes that we first examine specific norms, and then determine whether or not they are equal to human rights as defined in, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In making this point, Taylor cites the compatibility between the Buddhist reverence for life and the humanistic rights tradition in the West, both being supportive of human life and dignity yet vastly different in their philosophical bases and outlook.

Taylor urges caution, however, for human rights advocates who are trying to effect change in cultures that do not readily accommodate certain rights (such as gender equality) that have otherwise gained acceptance in international regimes. In such cases, Taylor advises human rights advocates to refrain from presenting these rights as a radical break from the past so as to prevent fundamentalist backlashes that will only serve to hinder the movement toward agreement.

How, then, do we go about identifying cultural norms from which we can begin to build such a consensus? Several suggestions were made during the workshop: cultural dialogue starting at the grassroots level; the appropriation of texts that manifestly support human rights; and what An-Na im calls "a deliberate strategy of internal discourse and cross-cultural dialogue to deepen and broaden consensus." In each of these efforts, participants reiterated that an open dialogue is essential to the consensus-building process. The wholesale exclusion of certain social groups from internal discourse, or the refusal to submit one's views to comment and critique by others, would defeat the purpose of consensus-building. The idea is to be exhaustive in identifying approaches to norms so that points which cannot be conceded for whatever reason can be identified and dealt with as reasonably as possible.

Donald Emmerson added a caveat to the discussion by calling attention to the particular liberal democratic context from which Taylor's "unforced consensus" arises. In authoritarian states, the space for arriving at such a consensus would be circumscribed and the process highly constrained. The relationship between human rights and the operational institutional framework therefore becomes significant. A few workshop participants asserted that participatory democracy is the most viable institutional framework for human rights practice, although conceptual definitions of democracy (for example, whether it needs to be liberal or nonliberal) were not fully explored.

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