There is no universal agreement on the universal applicability, validity and desirability of human rights. This post focuses on what I believe is a particularly strong attack on the universality of human rights, namely cultural relativism (henceforth CR). I’ll describe it, and then I’ll try to poke a few holes in it.
It’s a strong attack because it’s a moral one. It’s not just about things like national sovereignty, non-intervention or the supposed economic necessity of authoritarian government. Why is it moral? Because it’s about the importance of culture for people and for people’s identity, and because it’s about safeguarding cultural diversity. These are obviously important concerns, but not – as defenders of CR assume – the only or most important concerns (see here). It’s not obvious that concerns about culture, identity and diversity have – automatically and in all cases – priority over other moral concerns, e.g. those inherent in human rights. Yet that is the claim of CR.
CR is therefore a one-dimensional moral theory, or one that fails to take into account different values and different moral concerns. It is also a conservative moral theory: it wants to protect cultures and cultural or national identities against externally imposed change. It’s true that the universality of human rights, and human rights promotion that is based on this notion of universality, sometimes require the modification or abandonment of certain cultural practices. Think for example of FGM. We can limit the possible impact of CR on human rights by stating that this is the exception and that human rights in general targets distinctly non-cultural practices (e.g. corruption, state violence, disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, terrorism etc.).
However, let’s assume – for the moment and for the sake of argument – that CR has a residual impact, namely with regard to those cases in which human rights promotion requires modifications in cultural practices. CR draws an analogy between those cases and the experience of western colonialism. Human rights promotion is, according to CR, neo-colonialism. Like colonialism, it destroys cultural identities and cultural diversity. When cultural practices that violate human rights are eliminated following outside pressure, the ultimate result is that all cultures become like the culture of the West. Human rights promotion is the export of western culture, exactly the same thing that happened during colonialism. (I should say that this view defines only one type of CR. Other types argue that human rights promotion harms cultures but not necessarily imposes the culture of the West). The reason for this is that human rights aren’t just legal or moral rules; they are an expression of the individualism and antagonism that is typical of the West and incompatible with the collectivism, harmony and respect for authority that can be found in many other cultures.
I have at least 3 objections to CR.
- Human rights don’t, by nature, promote individualism or antagonism. Many rights are designed to protect communities, bind them together, and allow them to co-exist with other communities (religious freedom, assembly, tolerance etc.). So if we accept that the West is individualistic and antagonistic, compared to other cultures (which I don’t accept), human rights promotion cannot be the imposition of the culture of the West. On the contrary, under this hypothesis, human rights are rather more typical of other, more communitarian cultures. And indeed we see that some of the values inherent in human rights can be found in different cultures. Also, the fact that human rights are regularly violated in the West (as elsewhere) is an indication that these rights are probably not central elements of the culture of the West (if there is such a thing as “a culture of the West”). The struggle for human rights is more a struggle between different parts of a culture than a struggle between cultures.
- Another problem is the understanding of change. The cultural change required by human rights doesn’t imply the destruction of culture. It’s just a certain limited number of cultural practices that have to be modified, not the culture as a whole. Most elements of most cultures are not incompatible with human rights, and can even profit from them.
- And finally, why should the protection of culture be the supreme value? Why should culture always have priority over everything, even human rights? Culture is important to people, but their rights are as well. Accepting rights violations for the sake of culture means that this culture is considered to be more important than the people that are a part of it. Let’s not forget that culture is there for people, not the other way around.