Is it still necessary these days to promote the virtues of human rights and democracy (democracy being just one of many human rights)? Is it not kicking in an open door?
It seems that the end of the Cold War has settled the intellectual dispute. Democracy and human rights no longer have any rivals. There are no alternatives.
I’m not so sure. Democracy and human rights, to the extent that they are measurable, do not seem to flourish beyond expectations after the end of the Cold War, unless we limit democracy to a system of elections and human rights to the absence of extreme cruelty. And even then.
There is progress, but not enough. There are also still theoretical challenges to the foundations of human rights and democracy (I’m thinking of radical nationalism, all sorts of religious fundamentalism, economic theories advocating limits on human rights etc.). Moreover, people in established Western democracies seem to exhibit a growing unease about the nature of their victorious political systems.
So a theoretical defense of the universal value of rights and democracy and of the reasons why they are so important, and universally important, is not useless or out-of-date. History, in other words, has not ended.
Why does the world need human rights and democracy? A lot depends on the definition of these words. I would favor a “heavy” definition: democracy is more than elections and representation. Human rights are more than freedom rights or the absence of genocide.
Of course, I can see practical problems: not all the necessary (never mind sufficient) preconditions for a heavy system of rights and democracy are everywhere available. So lighter versions are obviously acceptable, temporarily, and often a great leap forward compared to current political and legal systems. And much needs to be done to promote the conditions for going further. A reasonably well-functioning democracy without a solid protection system for human rights is much better than a dictatorship, but it’s not enough. Purely representative democracy as well is not enough, but is great progress in many places. Shortcomings in imperfect democracies and imperfect systems for rights protection should not lead to us reject democracy and rights altogether, but should convince us to make them better.
I’m convinced that democracy and human rights promote certain universal human values, and hence are universally desirable themselves. Universal human values are things which humans invariably deem important for their lives. Some examples: control over your own life, economic wellbeing, peace, physical security, property, belonging, identity etc.