JPIL Vol 5 Issue 1 2014 - Article 3

UNIVERSALISM, RELATIVISM AND THE CONCEPT OF LAW

Leon Calleja

Abstract
As a grounding principle of international human rights law, universalism is the position that all humans are entitled to equal human dignity. Though widely accepted, it comes under attack from two angles, each exposing the difficulties the principle faces in practice. First, the cultural relativist argues that since any conception of human rights is contingent on one’s society or culture, no objective conception of universal human rights is possible; second, legal positivists argue that any concept of the rule of law is likewise contingent upon the culture or society from which its rules originate.
After clarifying the objections to universalism from both the relativist and the positivist, I answer these objections by advancing a theory that unites universalism with the positivist’s concept of a system of rules. This theory aspires to elucidate the key insights of universalism and positivism in terms of two formulations of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. In so doing, universalism can take proper advantage of Kant’s notions of autonomy, freedom, and universal law to give an adequate account of what grounds the necessarily normative aspects of its theory.


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