Is "human rights" a Western concept? I'd say, yes and no. Yes because the modern concept of human rights arose in the West during the Enlightenment. No because it is only the latest episode in the long human preoccupation with justice, compassion, and many localized personal and communitarian rights. The current edifice of human rights adopted by the UN rests on the idea of moral reciprocity—that others too never wish to be abused in mind or body—variously evident in all human societies.
But consensus on precisely what rights all humans deserve in a world with a diversity of histories, is far from settled (recall the "Asian values" debate?). This sometimes causes much acrimony, with critics calling human rights a tool of western hegemony aimed at non-Western societies, only to be accused in return of undermining liberty in the name of culture, order or tradition.
I think the question that underlies all debate on human rights is this: Is there a set of ideas, beliefs, values—a secular morality and the institutions to safeguard it—that ought to be promoted universally, and the rest left alone in the interests of truth, negative liberty, and diversity? To better understand how various approaches here relate to each other, I’ll first define three contending visions of morality:
- Relativism: There is an essential and endless multiplicity of plausible moral values that are equally valid, and there is no reason to expect any of them to be universal (note: values don’t need to be universal to be adopted by multiple people or groups).
- Pluralism: There is a finite multiplicity of plausible moral values that are not necessarily equally valid (but some can be), and some of them are universal by virtue of our common humanity (if not today, we will eventually find evidence for this claim).
- Universalism: Though we see a multiplicity of moral values, they are all departures from the universal morality of an essential human nature, and we should all eventually converge to it (though history may take its own time getting to it, if ever).
Going from relativism to universalism, what we have is a "spectrum of human rights morality". The tenor of any debate on human rights is partly determined by where the debating parties fall on this spectrum. I consider myself a pluralist, closer to relativism than universalism. Abrahamic-religious and scientistic folks are usually universalists, whereas romantics or post-modernists are usually relativists.
As I see it, the smart debate today is among the pluralists who cannot agree on the details: which moral values are universal and how to further them (the strategy). As with the idea of justice, I hope there isn’t a consensus on this question anytime soon. Keeping the debate alive may be the best we can do, and that’s not bad at all. I only wish the debate will keep factoring in our best insights into human nature and moral reasoning.
Finally, I believe it is irresponsible to speak of human rights but never of personal responsibility. What good is the former without the latter? This was perhaps what Kierkegaard had in mind when he cynically quipped, "People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use." What happens when our exercise of rights and freedoms get increasingly divorced from personal responsibility? Indeed, where is the universal declaration of human responsibilities?!