Human Rights, Dignity, Confucianism and Capability: An East and West Debate

Chan, Benedict S. B. (2016). 'Human Rights, Dignity, Confucianism and Capability: An East and West Debate' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In the debate of the universality of human rights between the East and the West, scholars argue whether human rights are universal or culturally relative. On one side, some scholars argue that East Asian cultures, especially Confucianism, affect the justification of human rights, and hence at least some items of human rights (e.g., political rights, economic rights, or rights to health) are not universal. On the other side, some scholars emphasize the universality of human rights from Liberalism and deny that cultural factors play any role in the justification of human rights.
While I agree that East Asian cultures (especially Confucianism) are important, I do not think that cultural justification would limit the list of human rights. In my paper, I develop a philosophical argument as a cultural justification of human rights. This argument is based on the idea that all human rights derive from human dignity, as mentioned in many international human rights documents. I first examine the ideas from some philosophers (such as Irene Bloom) on the Mencian notion of human dignity. I then discuss the notion of dignity in the capability approach from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. I compare these notions and argue that based on my comparison, we can easily explain why human rights are universal and still justified by East Asian cultures, especially Confucianism. My argument shows that Confucian factors can be one of the jointly sufficient conditions to the justification of human rights, and such a cultural justification does not limit the list of the items of human rights. I use examples from the debates of rights to health to explain my argument.
Key Words: Human Rights, Capability Approach, Confucianism, East Asian Cultures, Minimal Values

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