The sentiment that Human Rights are not universal poses legal, political, and philosophical problems. Stephen C. Angle cites the head of a Chinese delegation, Liu Huaqiu (1995), in his book Angle, S. C. (2002). Human rights in Chinese thought: a cross-cultural inquiry. Cambridge University Press, p.2. as follows:

The concept of human rights is a product of historical development. It is closely associated with specific social, political, and economic conditions and the specific history, culture, and values of a particular country. Different historical development stages have different human rights requirements. Countries at different development stages or with different historical traditions and cultural backgrounds also have different understanding and practice of human rights. Thus, one should not and cannot think of the human rights standard and model of certain countries as the only proper ones and demand all countries to comply with them.

Speaking of Human Rights, philosophy is therefore facing justificatory problems: If we want to justify a certain set of rights against claims like these, we would have to both determine a common "human nature" that is present in all humans and in a second step find a way to derive a set of rights as being linked to or making possible the elaboration of that very human nature.

Simon Hope in Hope, Simon (2011): Common humanity as a justification for human rights claims. (In: The philosophy of human rights, ed. G. Ernst, and J.-C. Heilinger, 211–230. Berlin: De Grutyer.) phrases one aspect of the philosophical problem in the following way:

More precisely, my target is the following thought, basic to many philosophical conceptions of human rights: that, by appealing to the moral significance of features of human nature that all of us – of course – share, human rights can be justified by a conception of the human good that is accessible to all. My complaint will be that these bold invocations of common humanity idealize away the depth and breadth of moral diversity, and so cannot give a satisfactory account of the intelligibility of moral reasons in the face of this diversity. (p, 211)

Hope, thereby, criticises the very idea of common humanity by stating a basic incommensurability of moral plurality.

If we want to justify any set of human rights as universal we will, therefore, have to face these (and other) objection(s) regarding finding something that deserves the name "human nature".1

And the more different objections one can argue against the fewer objections remain. Hence, I am looking for more objections like this, no matter from where they come.


Not that I do not have plenty of literature regarding this already, but maybe there's more somewhere:

What are the main lines of argument (and by whom and where) criticising the very idea of a common denominator of humanity (or the human condition) in light of human variation?

I am interested mostly in arguments that meet the following criteria:

  1. The text is referenced and being cited (see Google Scholar), i.e. meets minimal criteria of scholarship.
  2. It is written in English, German, or even French (if must be).
  3. Arguments from different cultural and/or philosophical backgrounds would be most welcome, given the above two points.

Examples would be the above-mentioned argument of incommensurability, Wittgensteinian arguments about the limits of mutual understanding and community and language framing one's reality, or historical and more general contextual limitations of universality (like the Chinese delegate mentioned).

1 For some more elaboration of these points and other objections as well as counter-objections, see Roughley, N. (Ed.). (2000). Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  • 1
    Wittgenstein has a general argument against "common natures" even within a single communal practice or form of life, his argument for family resemblance as the basis of universals. "Common humanity" seems to me a prime candidate for such a trait cluster out of which any trait can be taken, albeit not all at once. What is odd about Hope's objection is that a conception "accessible to all" is deemed to be enough. But Christian conception of good may well be intelligible to a secularist, and not shared (abortion, etc.), it takes an extra Humean leap from commensurability to common values.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:38
  • It is instructive, though, to observe that Hope seems blind to the fact that his entire paragraph is "ideal" (he idealizes away the fact that such rights are largely vacuous) but at the same time by carrying out his project he makes the case for human second nature as deceptions and solutions. (Strictly speaking, this is unfair to Hope because he is not advocating for human rights, he is rather analyzing philosophical conceptions of human rights).
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:20

2 Answers 2


[22] L'homme, tel que le conçoit l'existentialiste, s'il n'est pas définissable, c'est qu'il n'est d'abord rien. Il ne sera qu'ensuite, et il sera tel qu'il se sera fait. Ainsi, il n'y a pas de nature humaine,

(Man as existentialism conceives him is not definissable because originally he is nothing. He will be later and will be the one that he makes himself. So there is no human nature...)

Sartre JP L'existentialisme est un humanisme (1946)

The translation is mine and I am not sure if it is contemporary enough but the it has been repeated countless times untill the end of 20th.c. An other well known phrasing is "l'existence precede l'essence", retold a few lines before the quote and followed by remarks about previous thinkers e.g. Kant.

  • What happens when Sartre wants to talk about "bad faith"? Then, all of the sudden he needs a fixed human nature. No? He needs a fixed ideal in order to say what is bad. So at the end of his life Sartre said we need an ethics for the Left. Yes, he needed it, he saw the problem. This is a recurring problem in philosophy. You have to kill it, freeze it, "Platonize" it, in order to philosophize about it. One way to freeze it is to look back, at dusk, but it's hard to resist looking forward.
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:32
  • Bad faith is believing that you have a nature and you are not free. This is accessibly presented in the early pages of L'Etre et le Neant.
    – sand1
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 20:01
  • Really? I must have missed that. Thank you, I will reread it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 20:34

Addendum. Sartre's name starts popping in the last 50 pages of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980) and in the concluding sections (8.3) one can see perhaps a reworking of his view.

I shall be saying that the wholehearted behaviourism, naturalism and physicalism I have been commending in earlier chapters helps us avoid the deception of thinking that we possess a deep hidden metaphysical nature which makes us "irreductibly" different from inkwells or atoms. (p.373)

'Essence' is perhaps a stronger word than 'nature' and five pages later, with repeted references to JPS Rorty notes:

we do not escape Platonism by saying that "our essence it to have no essence" if we then try to use this insight as the basis for a constructive and systematic attempt to find out further truths about human beings.

  • 1
    Rather than addendum as a separate answer why not edit the first answer to include this?
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 22:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .