In the last chapter we considered human rights and religions as competing universalist moral visions. The idea of universalist ethics has itself been attacked by various defenders of some form of cultural or ethical relativism. We should be careful, however, not to overstate these challenges and their salience for human rights. The points raised by Sally Engle Merry and Josiah A.M. Cobbah, above, both herald potential pitfalls for a serious discussion of the issues of universalism and relativism in the context of human rights: there is the risk of essentializing nuanced and complex aspects of the debate, and there is also the risk of failing to grasp the precise sites of disagreement. The fact that a critic of human rights raises doubts about their universality does not entail that they affirm relativism. Outside of university seminars, full-blown relativists are fairly rare: few people actively deny the validity of any universal precept. But both the idea of relativism at a philosophical level, and the persistence of conflicts between what are taken to be cultural values and the freedoms and values protected in human rights, present challenges for a defence of human rights that merit careful consideration.
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