Reasonable Disagreement and Metaphysical Immodesty: A Comment on Talbott’s Which Rights Should be Universal?

Research paper by Jeppe von Platz

Indexed on: 08 Feb '08Published on: 08 Feb '08Published in: Human Rights Review


Talbott grounds human rights in a moral epistemology that supports metaphysical immodesty but requires epistemic modesty. Metaphysical immodesty provides prescriptive confidence, while epistemic modesty prevents moral imperialism. I offer some reasons for doubting that Talbott’s moral epistemology yields the desired result. Insofar as Talbott aims for a determinate conception of human rights that could serve as the backbone of a system of international law, Talbott must deal with issues of reasonable disagreement, and for these issues, epistemic modesty provides no guarantee against moral imperialism. In particular, I outline two sources of reasonable disagreement, that no social world is without loss and the complexity of the concept of autonomy, which illustrate how Talbott’s prescriptive confidence borders on moral imperialism.