The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Proponents of human rights are often cast as moral realists, and opponents as moral subjectivists. Let’s start with the latter. Opponents of universal human rights tend to be cultural relativists who believe that moral standards and values derive from – “are relative to” – different cultures. When those standards and values are incompatible with human rights, then human rights should give way. Giving priority to human rights would mean imposing the standards and values developed in and by one particular culture onto another. And that would be cultural imperialism and disrespect for human diversity.

My use of the word “developed” is intentional: it indicates that most relativists are also constructivists who argue that moral values are constructed and transmitted, rather than discovered. Not necessarily consciously constructed – more often unconsciously and without planning or intent. Relativists/constructivists argue that cultures refine throughout the ages what is best for them. It’s probably best to call this meta-ethical view a form of subjectivism in the sense that moral standards and values are

  1. rules of conduct specific to a particular subject – a culture in this case – rather than universal and objective, and
  2. subjective in the cognitive sense, meaning created by human subjects rather than a fact that can be discovered in the world.

I personally conform to the standard representation of a human rights proponent since I have my quarrels with cultural relativism as a form of moral subjectivism. I believe in universal rights that should override certain cultural norms. Human sacrifice for instance is wrong. Culturally sanctioned gender discrimination is wrong. And so on. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to reject moral subjectivism tout court and adopt moral realism. I don’t want to claim that statements such as “human sacrifice is wrong” are true in an objective sense, even though I have strong beliefs about such statements. Most moral realists do make that claim. Let’s have a closer look at moral realism and then try to loosen the link between moral realism and human rights theory.

Moral realism is a cognitivist and objectivist theory about morality: some ethical propositions are objectively true, independent of subjective opinion, like some propositions about the world are objectively true. And we can know and discover these objective moral truths. The implication is that true ethical propositions are true independently of culture. “Honesty is good” and “slavery is bad” are moral facts according to moral realists. If some – or all – cultures were to reject these facts and adopt contrary moral values, then that wouldn’t change the true nature of those moral facts. Morality is “out there”, but individuals or cultures can decide to ignore it. A moral realist who is also a rights proponent will say that human rights are true and that opponents of rights are simply mistaken about what is objectively right (or lying about what is right).

I don’t have a very strong conviction about the relative merits of different meta-ethical theories (it’s a tough problem), but I do have my suspicions. I tend to believe that moral realism is wrong. Maybe it’s not, in which case it would be perfectly OK to be both a proponent of human rights and a moral realist. Moral realism certainly isn’t incompatible with human rights. I want to argue against the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to be a moral realist in order to believe strongly in human rights. It’s not. And it’s good that it’s not because it may turn out that moral relativism is wrong, as I suspect.

I defend a position which we could call universalist intersubjectivism (and I’m terribly sorry for the ugly term; I’m sure it’s as catchy as everything else I write). Intersubjectivism means that morality is about opinions, but not about subjective opinions, unfounded opinions or opinions that evolve more or less unconsciously and automatically throughout the life of a culture or a nation. Moral opinions can be good or bad. They are good when they are tested in common deliberation and exchange of arguments between rational subjects – hence intersubjectivism. The goal is to come to some form of agreement – hence universalist intersubjectivism. Intersubjectivism is universal rather than relative, and it’s also a weak rather than a strong cognitivism: we can distinguish good from bad opinions because we have the test of the marketplace of ideas, but the good opinions will probably not ascend to the level of truths. Morality is not (only) the product of cultural development, traditions or evolutionary psychology, but also of reasoning and argumentation. Reasoning, however, that will – most likely – fall short of truth claims.

So I don’t believe in the realism of moral realism. There’s only intersubjective agreement about justified opinions, no objective moral truth. Moral claims such as human rights or the foundational values that require human rights for their realization (e.g. “peace is good”) are not objective moral truths or moral facts but justified opinions that have withstood the test of argumentation in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it doesn’t have to be true that individuals should be treated as moral agents with a right to think for themselves. All we need is that this view about individuals is reasonable, justified and able to survive deliberation and argumentation. It need not even be a very common view, since argumentation may not be close to what it can ideally be. The intersubjective agreement that we aim at is limited to what rational actors can decide to agree to in a setting that is favorable to argumentation. In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.

When that is the case, intersubjective agreement on the importance of human rights may be a minority point of view. I believe, however, that we can improve social argumentation and extend intersubjective agreement as long as we make the effort of designing and protecting the marketplace of ideas. And as long as we depart somewhat from the moral realist position. The moral realist who maintains that moral truths are “out there” waiting to be discovered, is unlikely to view argumentation as very important. Those, on the other hand, who claim that morality is about argued opinions that can withstand the test of controversy will be more favorable to fostering institutions for argumentation. Moral realists are also more likely to be dismissive of people with the “wrong” views, and dismissiveness has never convinced anyone.

More on the same topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (34): Which Are the Best Anti-Human-Rights Theories?

Those of us who believe human rights are important have an intellectual duty to engage with the best critics of human rights. “Engage” may be too big a word for this blog post, but what I’ll do here is list some of the best anti-rights theories and link to previous posts where I’ve dealt with them in some more detail.

By “best” I obviously don’t mean “convincing”. If I was convinced by any (or all) of these theories I wouldn’t be writing this blog. None of the theories I list here, or any other anti-rights theories for that matter, are even remotely convincing on close inspection. I won’t provide that close inspection in this post. In most cases I’ve done so before, and I’ll therefore take the luxury of linking back to older posts.


Utilitarianism comes in many shapes, but the most basic form of the theory is evidently opposed to human rights. Human rights limit the things that can be done to maximize aggregate utility, and the efforts to maximize aggregate utility often – in some forms of utilitarianism – justify harm done to individuals if that harm is necessary for greater gains elsewhere in society.

Of course, there is such a thing as rule utilitarianism which claims that respect for rules (e.g. human rights) usually maximizes utility or is the best proxy for utility in the absence of detailed knowledge about consequences of specific actions. Read more here and here about the link between utilitarianism and human rights.

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism doesn’t reject human rights as such, but only their universal applicability and desirability. According to this theory, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is therefore something valuable that needs to be protected. Efforts to universalize human rights will destroy moral diversity and non-western cultural identities, and are in fact exercises in cultural imperialism and cultural genocide.

Read more here, here and here about cultural relativism and human rights.


A related criticism views human rights as a tool in outright power imperialism. Human rights talk only serves to justify violent interventions in so-called “rogue states” or other countries that provide a selfish and imperial benefit to the U.S. (but also Europe). The violent interventions in Kosovo/Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. have all been partially justified by human rights talk but were, according to some, primarily motivated by the strategic interests of the intervening powers. More here.

The economic case against human rights

It’s often argued that economic growth is enhanced by certain policies and actions that imply violations of human rights. The Chinese government in particular is quick to use this argument. And the whole “Asian values” debate – somewhat outdated now – was based on it. Especially developing countries supposedly can’t afford the luxury of human rights. They need discipline and organization in production and consumption, not freedom. Read more here, here and here.

Legal positivism

Legal positivism doesn’t claim that there are no rights, simply that there are no human rights. Rights exist only if they are part of the law. Human rights in the abstract, as something that human beings possess independently of their country’s laws, is simply idle talk. It seems I still have to make the case against legal positivism…


According to Marx, human rights are the rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature and they are designed to protect the wealthy from the poor. More here, here and here.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (51): Human Rights and Universal Moral Grammar

It seems that human morality is to some extent ingrained in the human mind and that humans possess an innate moral faculty which we can call Universal Moral Grammar (UMG). “Innate” here refers to

cognitive systems whose essential properties are largely pre-determined by the inherent structure of the mind, but whose ontogenetic development must be triggered and shaped by appropriate experience and can be impeded by unusually hostile learning environments. (source)

Perhaps it’s evolution that has wired moral grammar into our neural circuits. Social living requires constraints on behavior and those constraints can be favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.

For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*. (source)

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and forced organ transplant (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it? (source)

None of this excludes the possibility that a lot of what we think we know about morality comes from teaching, nurturing, our own reasoning or even our self-interest. Furthermore, innate dispositions, if they exist, can be developed or blocked. Hence, the UMG theory is not necessarily deterministic or self-sufficient, and can accommodate other types of moral cognition as well as the less than universal factual morality of mankind (if UMG were all that mattered and if it were as deterministic as it often sounds, then there wouldn’t be immoral acts).

What does all this have to do with human rights? Those rights are outside of the UMG, partly because they are too specific. UMG is more about very abstract and general rules, such as intent, proportionality, people as ends instead of instruments etc. However, some human rights may be a part of UMG: do not kill, rape or steal are universal moral rules and are part of the UMG that even children know, and they are also translated into human rights.

More importantly, however, the existence of a UMG belies cultural relativism and can support the construction of a detailed universal morality. And finally, elements of UMG, such as the notions of intent and proportionality in moral condemnation and of moral exculpation based on false factual beliefs, have important ramifications for criminal justice and hence for human rights. Human rights restrictions on criminal punishment can be independently supported by UMG.

More posts in this series are here.

* For example killing someone because you mistake the person for a deer, as opposed to killing someone because you believe killing is OK.

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.

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.

What Are Human Rights? (20): Universal Rights

Legally and morally, human rights are universal norms and rules. Almost all countries in the world have accepted international treaties that translate human rights into law, or have accepted membership of international institutions which proclaim to respect human rights or work towards the realization of human rights (such as the UN). Moreover, most if not all national constitutions proclaim human rights to be part of the country’s highest law. Even North-Korea recently changed its constitution in this sense.

The example of North-Korea makes it obvious that legal universality isn’t the same thing as universality tout court. There are in fact three types of universality – legal, moral and factual universality: universal acceptance of legal rules, universal acceptance of moral rules, and universal respect for legal/moral rules. Ultimately, it’s the last one that counts, of course. These three types don’t require each other, but the last one obviously benefits from the presence of the first two:

  • Legal universality. Legal consensus doesn’t require moral or factual universality. Countries can adopt legal rules for other reasons than moral conviction, and legal rules are – by definition I would say, otherwise we wouldn’t need any legal rules – regularly violated.
  • Moral universality: there’s moral universality when human rights are part of the “morality of the world” (or Weltethos), or – in other words – are accepted as peremptory moral rules by all of the world’s cultures, nations, subcultures, religions etc. This doesn’t require legal universality. You can have moral consensus and still have a rogue dictator somewhere who has refused to sign a treaty. Nor does it require factual universality, again because you don’t need a rule – legal or moral – for something that is a fact.
  • Factual universality: human rights are not just norms but facts; there are no human rights violations. Again, this doesn’t require legal or moral universality, since actual respect for human rights may have other causes than legal or moral pressure. However, it’s fair to say that without legal and  – especially – moral universality, factual universality is highly unlikely (although many would say that it’s utopian in any case).

Notwithstanding the prominence of human rights talk in almost all domains of life and all corners of the world, there is no moral universality. There are certain ideologies and schools of thought (yes, there’s a difference) that argue against the universal value of human rights. Either they argue against human rights in general, or – more commonly – they argue against certain elements of the system of human rights: for instance, they may reject certain types of human rights (e.g. economic rights), or they may reject the “absoluteness” of human rights and accept that certain human rights can be bracketed in certain circumstances when higher values are in danger (e.g. the use of torture in emergencies). Examples of arguments against the universality of the entire system of human rights can be found in the theory called “cultural relativism“, or in the view that economic development has priority over human rights.

The Ethics of Human Rights (19): The Universality of Human Rights vs. the Importance of Culture

Is it appropriate, desirable and coherent to impose human rights law and norms on cultures when these cultures have adopted norms and practices that violate human rights? Such an imposition would clearly upset and perhaps even destroy cultural arrangements and traditions, something which would in turn have numerous adverse consequences for people’s well-being and sense of identity (not to mention the consequences for human diversity, humanity’s heritage etc.). Add to that the likelihood that “imposition” usually means “violence”, and you can rest your case.

Or can you? Is it really a no-brainer that culture should by definition have priority and preferential treatment compared to the universality of human rights? I’m very receptive to the requirements of culture and I accept that cultural imperialism and neocolonialism are real problems. But I also believe that the culture-universality problem is contaminated by a long list of mistakes and misunderstandings, making the choice between culture and universality a lot less obvious. Here’s a short list:

  • Cultures need human rights. Especially in today’s multicultural world, cultures need freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc. in order to survive. Sacrificing human rights on the altar of culture ultimately means sacrificing culture as well. So cultures at least have a strategic reason to adopt human rights, even if this means giving up certain of their more cruel and barbaric practices and norms.
  • Cultures change. With or without the prodding of human rights activists, governments or international institutions. So why not promote change in the good direction, meaning in the direction of human rights? Cultures are not, and should not be, untouchable. Changing parts of them – i.e. certain norms and practices – doesn’t necessarily mean destroying them.
  • “Culture” is often a tool in the hands of oppressors. They are all too willing to dress up their tyranny in the clothes of culture, giving themselves an aura of respectability and inevitability. Many of the rights violations that are supposedly “cultural” are nothing of the sort.
  • Cultures aren’t monolithic. They are complicated and self-contradictory. While some elements of a culture generate rights violations, other elements of the same culture prohibit those violations. In fact, most if not all cultures have elements that can back up human rights protection, although often this is implicit rather than explicit. Giving priority to elements of a culture that violate human rights is just one specific interpretation of a culture, and possibly a self-interested one if it’s done by those in power. When human rights and culture contradict each other, often the problem can be solved, not by ditching human rights but by favoring another interpretation of the culture. In the words of Charles Taylor, different cultures will travel different routes to the same goal of universality of rights, each culture finding within itself the resources to justify and ground human rights.
  • Linked to this: who can decide what is a truly cultural practice or norm? Ideally it’s the people making up the culture, not some self-interested spokesperson. The people, however, rarely if ever get to decide this. One can assume that, if they would be able to decide, they wouldn’t favor an interpretation that harms their rights. Also, and importantly, if they would be allowed to decide, they would need human rights to do so.
  • An assumption of those granting automatic priority to culture is that imposing something on a culture, or coercing a culture to evolve in a certain direction, is by definition wrong. They assume that this is a dogma of post-colonialism. However, nobody worries about coercion of domestic practices that violate the law, not even if these practices can justifiably be labeled as “cultural”. We don’t allow “mafia culture” to flourish, or certain violent forms of macho culture or whatever. States pride themselves on the uniform application of domestic law, no matter how diverse their citizenry. And international human rights law is law as well, and also merits uniform application. Why is coercion in one case allowed but not in the other? By the way: many authoritarian countries that claim the right to violate human rights as a means to protect “their” culture (or what they claim is their culture) impose a dominant culture domestically at the expense of minority cultures.
  • The charge of cultural imperialism and the analogy with colonialism imply that human rights advocacy equals the attempt to impose western culture on the rest of the world. That human rights promotion is cultural export, a crusade or a holy war. However, human rights aren’t western rights, not by a long shot. The West violates human rights just as much as anyone else. And other cultures can find human rights within their traditions. Unlike the crusades, human rights promotion doesn’t attempt to impose a worldview, a morality or a religion. If it imposes something, it imposes diversity and plurality.
  • Finally, their is the relativity of relativism. If all values are based on culture and there are no universal values that can take precedence, than that’s true as well of cultural relativism. Why would the rule that all culture can decide for themselves be the only universal and non-cultural rule?

The Ethics of Human Rights (14): Is Morality Linked to Culture and Culturally Relative?

Is morality linked to culture? Or, in other words, is morality culturally relative? Does every culture have its own moral rules? This is relevant from a human rights perspective because human rights can be seen as moral rules for humanity. However, if morality is culturally relative, then this is a problem. Universality of moral rules then seems to be impossible and without universal moral rules it is difficult if not impossible to judge the practices of another culture. These practices may seem morally wrong from the viewpoint of the culture of the West for example, but the rules of the West, i.e. human rights, only apply within the morality of the West. Other cultures have their own rules and can only be judged by their own rules. One cannot apply the rules of American football to European soccer or vice versa.

As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Whereas some moral rules are obviously very specific to particular cultures, other rules are globally accepted (which doesn’t mean respected). It follows that both extremes, imperialism and isolationism, are wrong. Human rights promoters should not go about and destroy cultural diversity, but cultural diversity is not the ultimate goal either. Cultures should not be isolated from human rights criticism. Individual rights matter just as much, if not more, than the rights of cultures. After all, if culture is important, it’s because it’s important for individuals.

The Cognitive Evolution Laboratory of Harvard University has started a project aimed at showing that morality is in essence universal. It has created a moral sense test which everyone can fill in (it’s available here, and takes less than 10 minutes to fill in; you’ll help these people by doing it).

Cultural Rights (10): Tolerating Intolerance?

Some people urge us to accept and respect other cultures, other practices and beliefs unconditionally and without exceptions. Every cultural practice, whatever its content, is valuable and should be protected, even if this means giving up certain or all human rights. This means that rejecting intolerance in a certain culture is intolerant and rejecting discrimination is discrimination. Diversity should be tolerated, even if elements of this diversity are expressions of intolerance or discrimination. Otherwise, we would show a lack of respect for cultural identities and we would de facto return to the days of colonization and imperialism.

Respect is important, and human rights are created precisely as tools to make different people with different beliefs and practices or habits live together peacefully.’a0But they are not designed to protect practices which violate them. We can never tolerate intolerance and that we must always discriminate discrimination. One cannot force an idea to be self-destructive. A tolerant system tolerating intolerance or failing to discriminate those who discriminate, will never last very long. Those who are tolerant must be intolerant of those who are intolerant (and the latter include those who attack the institutions protecting tolerance, such as human rights).

This has nothing to do with “an eye for an eye”. It is purely a matter of consistency and self-preservation. We must accept and respect diversity, but not in an unlimited way. Some things are just unacceptable.

Cultural Rights (4): Cultural Relativism

Are human rights universal? Or is the worldwide application of human rights the imposition of the culture and norms of the West on other cultures? Universal human rights are said to imply the immoral destruction of other cultures, which in turn diminishes the well-being of the people of those cultures. Identity, especially cultural identity, and a feeling of belonging, are important for everyone’s well-being.

The underlying hypothesis of this theory, which is often called “cultural relativism“, is that human rights are part of the culture of the West, typical of this culture, and compatible only with this culture. They are therefore Western rights rather than universal norms. Under this hypothesis, the worldwide promotion of what we call human rights can be seen as the imposition of the culture of the West. Human rights in this view belong to the cultural identity of the West with its emphasis on individualism and individual freedom. Other cultures have other identities, values and norms. They may cherish harmony and collective goals more than individualism, discipline more than freedom, respect for authority more than democracy, tranquility more than adversarial politics, the afterlife more than free consumption and maximum gratification in the present life, etc. Hence, they will have norms that are different from the norms of the West and different from the application of human rights for every individual. Their norms may even be opposed to human rights.

Respect for the cultural identity and the well-being of other people means that they should be allowed to adhere to these norms and to violate human rights when these rights come into conflict with their own norms. Insistence on human rights, then, could mean disrespect, erosion of cultural identity, and hence also erosion of individual well-being.

According to cultural relativism and its many overt and covert adherents, human rights have a claim to existence in the West, where they are part of the culture and are in accordance with cultural norms and values (such as individualism, conflict, etc.), but not in parts of the world where they are at best inappropriate and at worst damaging to cultural identities and therefore also to people who depend on culture for their personal identity and feeling of belonging.

Is there really a perfect analogy between colonialism and human rights policy, and does the acceptance of human rights necessarily mean the loss of identity and belonging? It is true that respect for human rights must lead to the abandonment of some cultural practices (although in most cases it must lead to the abandonment of distinctly non-cultural practices), but certainly not of all cultural practices and probably not the most important ones. Culture or identity is above all something that is in the mind. What is in the mind cannot cause harm and should never be abandoned. To the extent that culture is part of the mind, it enjoys complete protection by human rights. The extension of human rights will never harm culture in this sense. The freedom of thought is perhaps the most fundamental human right and is an example of the way in which rights protect rather than harm culture. Freedom of religion, tolerance and other values embedded in human rights also protect culture.

What Are Human Rights? (3): Universal Rights

Universality means that human rights are valid everywhere. This characteristic is of course inherent in the expression itself – human rights are rights of all humans – but is not universally accepted.

Many people, in particular those who benefit from violations of other people’s rights, reject the claim that human rights are universal, primarily because non-universality would allow the continuation of rights violations and hence the continuation of the benefits which almost inevitably result from violations.

Somebody always benefits from the harm inflicted on others, otherwise there would be no harm inflicted.

These benefits are, however, rarely given in justification of non-universality because a justification is usually a moral undertaking, one which therefore cannot start from the premise that benefits for someone justify harm inflicted on someone else. A more common justification can be found in the theory of cultural relativism or in some variation of it.