Should universalism be redefined? Several books to try to answer this question

“Classical Universalism” [est un] paradigm whose values ​​and limits have the peculiarity of having been defined under the Old Regime, the Revolution and the IIIY Republic, in relation to the “civilizing” mission of France”write the academic Mame-Fatou Niang and the writer Julien Suaudeau, in universalism (Anamosa, 2022). Further on, a passage summarizes the position of the so-called “political” anti-racism, advancing “the assumption that what pseudo-universalists call universalism is neither a value, nor a principle, nor a concept. It is a doctrinal weapon to which three main functions have been assigned: to repress the history of French colonialism, to control the national novel and to present racism as a distant, alien, obsolete object, without reality or actuality in today’s France».

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Critics for or against universalism have been on the rise for at least a decade. On the (extreme) “left”, along the lines of South American decolonial theorists, Houria Bouteldja denounces a “white universalism” or Françoise Vergès denounces the fact that ” [l]European universalism that imposes uniformity based on its particularism is unbearable”. On the extreme right, an Éric Zemmour issues reactionary and nationalist-inspired analyses. Overseas, ultimately, various dictators reduced universalism and human rights to Western cultural imperialism, an argument shared by decolonial theorists.


Although these are only the most “extreme” positions, the questioning of universalism also comes from more moderate voices. However, if this and the corollary values ​​(republican equality, fundamental freedoms, humanism, human rights, secularism, etc.) have always been hated by reactionaries, it is surprising that the criticism comes from the left. Is it universalism itself that is questioned or the modalities of its application? “We are looking at a project that has not come to an end”Niang and Suaudeau believe. “Universalism, in effect, is the path by which the pseudo-universalist mind understands that the world is not its plaything, the infinite field of its conquests. This consciousness is neither black nor white. »

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Short of deliberate dishonesty or ideological denial, who will deny that universalism served as an alibi for the worst? Inside Universalism on trial (Le Bord de l’eau, 2021), Alain Policar dedicates a chapter to this “perverted universalism” and remember in particular that, for Jules Ferry “”in front of the inferior races”, the European nations absolved themselves “with amplitude, greatness and honesty of this superior duty of civilization””. But, the author also points out, the so-called “civilizing work” of colonialism was far from being unanimous. This is evidenced in particular by the conviction of Georges Clemenceau: “Let us not try to cover up violence with the hypocritical name of civilization. Let’s not talk about rights or duties. The conquest you advocate is the pure and simple abuse of force […] appropriating man, torturing him, extracting from him all the strength that is in him for the benefit of the so-called civilizer. It is not the right, it is the denial of it. »

The words of the “Tiger” are part of a universalist tradition that Tzvetan Todorov synthesizes in the spirit of enlightenment (The Pocket Book, 2006). It shows that, already in the eighteenth centuryY century, several thinkers denounced slavery unequivocally: “Slavery is opposed to civil law as far as natural law” (Montesquieu) ; “These words, slavery and right, are contradictory; are mutually exclusive” (Roseau); “To enslave a man, to buy him, to sell him, to keep him in servitude, these are real crimes, and crimes worse than theft” (Condorcet). The partial and dependent reading of universalism that, within the left, has spread in recent years, is simply false. It is in fact “forgotten” that the Enlightenment and its heirs have regularly condemned violations of universalist or republican principles of the equal dignity of all human beings as human beings.

mistakes and misunderstandings

So is there not a misunderstanding of what universalism is or is not? Are we not confusing universalism as an ideal and the crimes committed in its name by those who, claiming it, betray it? ” This criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the status of universalism: it is not a fact that can be described, but a value to be realized. », sums up Nathalie Heinich in bold universalism. against communitarianism (At the edge of the water, 2021). ” A value […] therefore, it cannot be invalidated by the acknowledgment of its breach […]. This criticism is therefore a sophistry, a lack of reasoning, based on the confusion between the descriptive level of the facts and the normative level of the values. […]. » basic test, Plea for the Philosopher’s Universal Francis Wolff (Pluriel, 2021) advances a “ defense of humanism inseparable from universalism. She “it breaks down into three theses: humanity is an ethical community; it has intrinsic value and is the source of all value; all human beings have the same value.

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One of his analyzes contradicts the common opposition between universalism and relativism: “There are two types of relativism. One observes “There is no universal value”. The other prescribes: “No value should claim to be universal.” For this reason, he specifies, “the humanist must necessarily be a relativist: he admits humanity in all its diversity and variety […]. But on the other hand, the humanist is necessarily anti-relativist: he must condemn the “barbaric” or inhuman practices in use in this or that human community. » Proclaiming and pointing to the autonomy of the individual, universalism is certainly opposed to the “culturalism” of Zemmour or Bouteldja that “naturalizes” culture and considers the individual as a sample of a community that determines its values ​​and beliefs. However, says Alain Policar, “ [l]The liberation of humanity in man implies […] a tearing apart of all naturalization, which opens it to the autonomy that is its destiny, at the same time as to true human universality. »

For Francis Wolff, it is the “dialogical rationality” that founds humanity, that is, the ability to dialogue rationally about the world, with oneself and with others. “Human dialogue is based […] in three formal conditionshe explains: everyone can say and think “I”, and in effect address anyone (universality), considering him, because he says “you” (reciprocity), as another “me” (equality). » This is what allows reciprocity, because man is “a purely rational being capable of considering any other as his equal for the good of each and every one; the good of every human being is to consider all other human beings of the same value as himself and vice versa..

Universalism: a condition

Although humanity is rich in its diversity of value and moral systems, universalism considers that there is an “ethical community” that extends to all humanity. Abstraction? No, according to Wolff: “The ethics of reciprocity, we experience it daily when we feel that emotion that characterizes it par excellence: indignation. » It is the humanity in us that is moved when the harm done to another resonates within us, whether we are showing solidarity by raising funds against a distant famine or war, or grieving at the sight of a dead child on the beach. us when we hear of the stoning of women or homosexuals in an Islamic theocracy or dismay at the misery in our streets. Therefore, according to the author, indignation is “Proof that we are ethical animals”.

Therefore, the universalist horizon is cosmopolitanism, the opposite of communitarianism or nationalism. Far from aspiring to uniformity and denying diversity, universalism is the condition, because it wants the sovereignty of the individual and demands dialogue, not the balance of power, for the common good. It is not exclusive or belongs to the West. Furthermore, Wolff writes: “Thus are civilized, in the moral sense, these historical moments, these geographical spaces, these cultural areas or these communities that allow the coexistence, both de facto and de jure, of various communities, including their reciprocal co-penetration and their mutual understanding. . A civilization is rich in a virtual or real plurality of diverse cultures, while a community is barbaric when it can only be itself. […]. »

If many of the critics of universalism denounce its charmed, abstract, even disconnected nature, and how can we prove them wrong when the most vociferous political and media figures wave it around without acknowledging its inapplicability? –, perhaps they do not realize that this horizon should be theirs.

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