Universalism Essay

Universalism is a philosophical concept that refers to a set of general moral principles. When political scientists use this concept, they usually place it in relation to political institutions such as democracy, human rights, and public policies. The implication is that, in political science, moral principles of universalism come via connections to political institutions and policies.

In political philosophy, universalism is historically connected to the Enlightenment project that was founded on the idea of universal human rights. Universalism’s central historical document is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted during the French Revolution (1789–1799). Based on the philosophical idea of natural law, such rights, including those listed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, are in this tradition said to be legitimate and valid independent of local cultural, economic, and social conditions. They are to be applied equally to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, cultural belonging, sexual orientation, or class and status. Such universalism can trace to an argument for a pluralist political liberalism, which has resulted in concepts like universal citizenship, universal suffrage, and universal legal rights. By creating such institutions, political universalists want to guarantee that all interests and groups in a society have the same chance to influence public policy. For example, impartially administrated “free and fair elections” in a representative democracy are thought to guarantee legitimacy for the political system thereby avoiding the type of civil conflicts warned against by Thomas Hobbes.

An alternative argument for universal human rights has been to base them upon the belief in a universal human nature, and the requirement to respect the dignity of the human person by guarding or securing one’s basic needs; this is accomplished via an equivalent set of universal human rights. In this natural law universalism, human needs can be attributed to the existence of a common physiological human condition, such as the needs for food and physical integrity. Other human needs thought to be universal are grounded in the liberal idea of a universal human self, such as the need for freely expressing ideas, the need for protection from discrimination, the need to be treated with dignity, and the need for freedom of religion.

Universalism, Individualism, And The Rule Of Law

Although historically connected to western liberal societies, universalists claim their theory is global in the sense that it applies to all humans and societies, in all times and places. The theory is ant collectivistic, since it starts and ends with the individual as the sole bearer of the universal rights and also as the sole interpreter on how to use these rights. Universalism also connects to the rule of law theory, implying that laws should be universally and impartially applied so that like cases are treated alike. The idea of equality before the law and impartial implementation of public policies is central to the political theory that follows from universalism. Universalism also puts restrictions on the construction of laws, regulations, and public policies that have to be formulated so that they are generally applicable to a large set of cases. A law or a rule directed to only one person is anathema to universalism. The universalistic principles pertain not only to national law but to international law as well.

Alternatives To Universalism

The importance of universalism can best be described when contrasted to three competing ideas. The first is communitarianism, which states that liberal universalism is metaphysically flawed and built on an unrealistic as well as undesirable idea of humans. Communitarians argue that universalism is too individualistic because humans are constitutively linked to the moral worlds and social goals of the communities they belong to. Without this connection, moral theory is void of any practical implications. A second and related criticism has been launched by multiculturalists, who argue that universalism is in fact a particularistic theory since it is historically connected to the capitalist, male-dominated, Judeo-Christian Western liberal tradition; it is thereby not applicable to societies in other cultures or for groups that have been marginalized. Postmodern theorists launch a third criticism, questioning the validity of the Enlightenment project on epistemological as well as ontological grounds. In this line of thought, the idea of the universal “self,” as well as universal truths and rights is questioned in favor of a more relativistic notion of these concepts.

Universalism And Public Policy

Universalism has also had an influence upon empirical studies of public policies, especially social policies. In rich Western democracies, such policies have either been universal or they have been targeted to specific groups. Universal policies are implemented by general rules that identify the whole or very large segments of the populations. Examples are universal child allowances, universal health care insurance, and universal pensions. Targeted policies rely instead on laws built on principles of means (or needs) tests, where civil servants must decide if the person seeking assistance belongs to the group that the law stipulates and, if so, how much assistance that person is eligible for. The argument for universal systems is that they are less stigmatizing and do not rely on large bureaucracies for implementation. The argument for targeted systems is that with scarce public resources, targeting increases policy efficiency in helping the poor. It is also argued that targeting makes it possible to single out the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor. Empirical research has produced a counter intuitive result, namely that universal systems are better in producing redistribution of resources than are targeted. The reason seems to be that in targeted systems, the majority have no stake in the policies and will therefore not support them and accept the tax levels that they carry. Policies only for the poor tend to be poorly financed policies.


  1. Assiter, Alison. Revisiting Universalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  2. Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  3. Bendor, Jonathan, and Dilip Mookherjee. “Communitarian versus Universalistic Norms.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3, no. 1 (2008): 33–61.
  4. Neier, Aryeh. Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights. New York: Public Affairs, 2002.
  5. Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. Expanded ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  6. Rothstein, Bo. Just Institutions Matter: The Moral and Political Logic of the Universal Welfare State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  7. Talbott, William J. Which Rights Should be Universal? New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  8. Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

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