Date of Award

Spring 2017

Thesis Type

Rollins Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Liberal Studies


Dr. Margaret McLaren

Second Advisor

Dr. Julia Maskivker


In 1948, the Human Rights Commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or UDHR) as an authoritative description of universal rights, which was later subsumed by the United Nation’s Charter (Szabo 1982). Although scholars have oft debated about the UDHR’s practical implications, it has nonetheless become an obligatory—if not keystone—component of international law. As such, the UDHR is considered applicable to all nations, regardless of their expressed consent—or implied resistance—to its sweeping provisions. Although anthropologists were instrumental in its initial implementation, its (supposed) ethical absolutism is considered antithetic to Anthropology’s central schema—cultural relativism. Anthropologists have attempted to address this issue by defining cultural relativism as a purely academic—if not amoral—enterprise; whereas international rights are considered inherently practical and moral. But this supposed solution ignores the moral dimension of cultural practices—and of Anthropology itself—particularly as Anthropology has become increasingly applied to the disparate fields of medicine, public health, business, and politics. Likewise, universal rights—when divorced from value pluralism—can be construed as culturally insensitive, if not ethnocentric. Thus, the two schemas, given their contrastive methodologies, create an Agency Paradox (cultural relativism contra universal rights). My thesis will examine the strengths and weaknesses of cultural relativism and universal rights, by delving into their philosophic rudiments. Per my research, I have found that the schemas can best be construed as reflections of another, antecedent paradox—political realism contra Kantianism. Thus, I will explore these earlier schemas to better understand their contribution to the Agency Paradox. I will then offer a possible resolution to the Agency Paradox; one that entails the best aspects of both antecedent schemas, while ameliorating their weaknesses. Specifically, I will rely upon the contemporary theories of Alan Gewirth and Martha Nussbaum to define human rights while also embracing value pluralism and the material basis for rational actions.

Rights Holder

Veronica Leary