The starting point for the paper is the Vienna convention on human rights in 1993, in which a group of Asian ministers presented the Bangkok Declaration. The Bangkok declaration initiated the debate over ‘Asian Values’, which made extensive use of Confucian philosophy. Central to the debate has been the claim that Confucianism is at odds with a morality in which individual autonomy is emphasized at the expense of collective entities like the family and the community. As Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew claims, Asians have “little doubt that a society with communitarian values where the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual suits them better than the individualism of America”.
The theme of the paper broadly conceived is the relationship between culture and human rights. By human rights I mean the rights that are expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two subsequent Covenants. The paper refers to these rights as the Universal Declaration Model (UDM). The aim is to provide a method for how to reasonably conceive of the relationship between culture and the UDM. Human rights are universal and as such they apply to all people no matter whom, when or where they are. Still, people live in cultures and cannot be viewed independently from that culture. The question becomes whether culture matters in human rights questions. After all, people are entitled to their rights no matter what culture they live in.
The paper has argued that there are ways of taking both culture and human rights seriously by distinguishing between levels of human rights. I have argued that (1), the rights formulated in the UDM express certain core principles of basic human interests but (2), the UDM does not give any detailed account of how these rights are to be applied. In sum, there is a role for culture in making human rights specifications.
Having established that different cultures have legitimate room for applying human rights differently, the main thesis of the paper has been that intercultural agreement on human rights must take culture as its point of departure, by exploring how cultures recognize, justify and specify human rights. By doing that one may move towards a genuine overlapping consensus on human rights. The paper constitutes one step in that direction. I have explored Confucianism as a cultural perspective on human rights.
The main conclusions in the paper were that classical Confucianism entailed the moral resources to recognize, justify and specify human rights. The conclusion, therefore, challenges some of the arguments put forward in the ‘Asian Values’-debate, in which it was claimed that Asians value family, harmony, and economic development more than freedom and individual rights. The paper has not denied that Confucianism gives precedence to communitarian values. On the contrary, the Confucian stress on family, the common good and social harmony has been emphasized. However, I have shown that there is room for individual interests also in Confucianism and that these interests may take the form of rights and freedoms. Confucianism is not at odds with human rights as such although it may be at odds with aspects of Western liberal political morality, and the way human rights are justified and specified therein.
The paper has contributed but one step of the project of moving towards an overlapping consensus on human rights from within cultural traditions. This has been done by exploring Confucianism with regard to human rights. It is beyond the scope of the paper to evaluate whether a genuine overlapping consensus on human rights is feasible. What has been demonstrated in this paper, however, is that Confucianism has the moral resources to take part in such a consensus.