The Ethics of Human Rights (34): Human Rights, Moral Universals, and Cultural Relativism

The universality of human rights is arguably their most important attribute. I won’t repeat my arguments in favor of this claim. “Universality” here obviously means something like “universal value”, “universal importance”, “universal moral claims” or “universal desirability”, not factual universality. Human rights aren’t universally protected. If they were, we would hardly need them. I also won’t repeat what I’ve said before on the means to go from merely moral or legal universality to actual universality.

Now, I’ve gone so far as to claim that human rights not only should be universal values (for reasons specified elsewhere), but in fact are universal values. The fact that they are regularly violated doesn’t change the equally salient fact that they are universally recognized as important moral goals.

However, claims of the existence of so-called moral universals, and especially claims that some moral values should be universals, immediately provoke the counter-claim of cultural imperialism. Supposedly, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is a more important goal than moral universals. This counter-claim is often categorized under the heading of cultural relativism.

Personally, I believe that moral diversity and cultural identity are indeed important values, but also that moral diversity and relativism can be and often are used as a justification for rights violations that are contingently rather than culturally motivated (see here and here for my criticism of cultural relativism). And anyway: the existence or the promotion of moral universals in some areas of life doesn’t have to exclude moral diversity in other areas. It’s not because some values are or should be moral universals that all other values, cultures or identities are in danger of disappearing altogether. We can have both: moral universals and moral diversity. And both can reinforce each other if we manage to argue convincingly that some moral universals aren’t just export products, or the result of colonialism or of the omnipresence of the western type of state. Indeed, I believe that globalization, assimilation, colonialism, trade and universality of the modern nation state all contributed to the existence of moral universals, but also that some universals are the product of a global convergence of genuinely local moral rules. (I’ll try in a future post to give an overview of the origins of human rights in different cultures of the world). If we can show that all or most cultures in the world have independently arrived at the same or similar moral rules, then we have moral universals that are build on respect for moral diversity and not just on the export and imposition of one morality on the rest of the world.

However, that’s extremely difficult to prove. It’s relatively easy to show that some moral values are in fact moral universals, but it’s much harder to show why they are moral universals: are they because they have been imposed through colonization, promoted through trade etc. or because they have grown “organically” from within the different cultures that have converging rules? Still, what we can argue is that when there are universals, the burden of proof is on those wanting to argue that they are not genuine but the result of external imposition. The existence of universals is a prima facie argument for their “genuineness”. Also, what’s genuine? Even values that have been imposed or imported a long time ago can have become the genuine morality of the people concerned.

Some evidence of the actual existence of moral universals comes from a paper about a comparative law investigation into the universality of the prohibition of homicide. Such a prohibition is an indication of the moral value of the right to life. The paper shows that this prohibition is in fact universal. Of course, the paper focuses on the law, and the law is at best an imperfect witness of morality (Marx would argue that it is rather an instrument of immorality). But the law is easier to find than morality. And – again – the burden of proof is on the opposing side: if the law indicates universality – as it does in this case and in many others – then it’s up to those claiming non-universality to give counter-evidence.


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