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  • Cited by 14
  • Print publication year: 2001
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - Following the movement of a pendulum: between universalism and relativism


Universalism and relativism are often presented as two opposite and irreconcilable moral (or epistemological) positions as regards human rights. Most often, the debate is phrased as if one should embrace either one or the other position. This chapter argues that these two positions cannot be considered independently of each other. Each is untenable by itself and needs to accommodate the other to be sustainable. The position I advocate, which encompasses both the universalist and the relativist stances, is not a middle position that would constitute a happy compromise, putting at rest, once and for all, the debate concerning the respective strengths of universalism and relativism. Rather it is a position which makes sense of the fact that a moral agent is inevitably drawn into a pendulum motion. Thus, as one accepts being drawn towards relativism, there is a moment when, getting as it were too close to it, one is compelled to revert towards universalism – and vice versa. My image of the pendulum indicates that the in-between position I advocate is unstable. That my position is characterized by instability does not imply that one should abandon striving to ‘get things right’, for example by drafting human rights legislation, but that one should pursue political struggles in awareness of the limitations that any achievement in this field, however remarkable, entail.