The Ethics of Human Rights (23): Cultural Relativism, Challenging the Universality of Human Rights

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.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (9): Too Small Sample Sizes in Surveys

So many things can go wrong in the design and execution of opinion surveys. And opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights.

As it’s often impossible (and undesirable) to question a whole population, statisticians usually select a sample from the population and ask their questions only to the people in this sample. They assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population. But that’s only the case if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being chosen – and if the sample hasn’t been distorted by other factors such as self-selection by respondents (a common thing in internet polls) or personal bias by the statistician who selects the sample.

A sample that is too small is also not representative for the entire population. For example, if we ask 100 people if they approve or disapprove of discrimination of homosexuals, and 55 of them say they approve, we might assume that about 55% of the entire population approves. Now it could possible be that only 45% of the total population approve, but that we just happened, by chance, to interview an unusually large percentage of people who approve. For example, this may have happened because, by chance and without being aware of it, we selected the people in our sample in such a way that there are more religious conservatives in our sample than there are in society, relatively speaking.

This is the problem of sample size: the smaller the sample, the greater the influence of luck on the results we get. Asking the opinion of 100 people, and taking this as representative of millions of citizens, is like throwing a coin 10 times and assuming – after having 3 heads and 7 tails – that the probability of throwing heads is 30%. We all know that it’s not 30 but 50%. And we know this because we know that when we increase the “sample size” – i.e. when we throw more than 10 times, say a thousand times – we will have heads and tails approximately half of the time. Likewise, if we take our example of the survey on homosexuality: increasing the sample size reduces the chance that religious conservatives (or other groups) are disproportionately represented in the sample.

When analyzing survey results, the first thing to look at is the sample size, as well as the level of confidence (usually 95%) that the results are within a certain margin of error (usually + or – 5%). High levels of confidence that the results are correct within a small margin of error indicate that the sample was sufficiently large and random.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (1): Impossible?

Freedom vs. Equality, or Equal Freedom/Free Equality?

In this blog series, I want to look for philosophical arguments in favor of the link between freedom and equality and against the traditional opposition between these values. The conclusion will be that the best way of defending this link is by adopting a certain definition of freedom, namely freedom as self-realization, self-development and autonomy. Other types of freedom are more difficult to combine with the demands of equality.

An important part of the link between freedom and equality is the law and the state. Protection by the law, security because of the law, the creation of a public space by the law, political participation in a democratic state based on the law, are all factors which combine in producing an equal liberty for all, liberty in the sense of self-rule, freedom of choice and the possibility to determine your own life and to develop your self.

In this first post of the series, I will limit myself to the statement of the problem. Why should there be a contradiction between freedom and equality? Over the last centuries, it has indeed become kind of a tradition to juxtapose freedom and equality and to view these two important human values as opposing goals, one inevitably leading to the limitation of the other.

Some examples

One can point to the way in which the claims of equality, as they are expressed in economic rights and policies of income redistribution, limit the freedom of the wealthier parts of the population, in particular the freedom to do with their possessions as they want.

Moreover, the struggle against poverty can become the overriding preoccupation and often even an excuse for violations of freedom rights (the Chinese government can be criticized for this). Non-economic injustices are often readily accepted once people are convinced that these injustices are needed to combat economic injustices.

Another example of the way in which the struggle for equality limits the freedom of certain groups is given by some kinds of affirmative action programs. And a final example, the principle of non-discrimination may require limiting the freedom of expression of those who promote racism or other forms of discrimination.

Conversely, freedom can also limit equality. Although I’m all in favor of economic freedom, I have to admit that the unfettered free market and the absolute protection of property – a freedom right – can produce or exacerbate economic inequalities. When the unequal distribution of talent and starting-capital is not checked by government intervention then the outcome tends to be more economic inequality, the exceptional “rags to riches” story notwithstanding. It is obvious that people who are born in wealthy families have more opportunities and less risks than others.

This is true even if we don’t assume that people only use their abilities and starting capital for selfish purposes. There is charity and solidarity, but even if we combine this with so-called trickle-down effects or Invisible hand effects (the wealth of the wealthy benefits the less wealthy because they can work for the wealthy etc.) we have to admit that some people will lose and will find themselves in a situation which is not only economically unequal but also detrimental for their wellbeing.

Economic rights, the rights to these basic resources and capabilities, are not the automatic product of voluntary caritas, free solidarity, economic freedom or the invisible hand. Some kind of government intervention and coercion is necessary in order to redistribute wealth and undo the most heinous forms of economic inequality.

Another example: an absolute freedom of expression which includes the protection of hatred and racist speech, can lead to inequality, discrimination and even genocide.

The choice between freedom and equality

Most if not all people consider both freedom and equality to be important human values and goals. But because of the apparent contradiction between these goals, people tend to make a choice, and prefer one to the other. It is this choice which separates conservatives and liberals, or people from the right and left; the former preferring liberty, the latter equality (simplistically).

No one, however, throws the other value overboard. Either equality or freedom is merely deemed somewhat less important in certain specific cases. Not all things that are good and desirable are necessarily compatible. Sometimes one good thing will have to be abandoned or limited in order to protect another good thing. And I don’t exclude that this can be the case of equality and freedom. However, what I will try to do in this series is to show that things aren’t so problematic and that, given a correct understanding of freedom in particular, conflicts are not necessary.