Why On Earth Would Someone Need Human Rights?

[You may have noticed a lack of blog posts recently. At least I hope you have. For personal reasons I’ve been having a hard time writing anything these last weeks, so here’s one from the archive (with a new title). It’s almost 5 years old but I still think it’s one of my best.]

Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.

Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.

I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.

Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.

I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:

The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis

A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).

Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.

However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.

Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant

If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.

This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.

If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.

The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.

Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.

But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).

I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.

As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.

John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.

Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.

You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.

Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.

But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.

It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:

  1. You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
  2. You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.

Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.

The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.

It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.

The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.

Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut

Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument

Claim:

Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument

Claim:

Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.

Facts:

Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument

Claim:

Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.

Facts:

Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument

Claim:

Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.

Facts:

Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument

Claim:

Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.

Facts:

Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument

Claim:

The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.

Facts:

A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument

Claim:

Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Conclusion

All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (4): Boomerang Human Rights Violations

We usually see human rights violations are zero-sum: a rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. I mentioned before that this isn’t always the correct way of viewing rights violations, but it’s adequate in most cases. One case in which it’s only superficially adequate is what I would call the boomerang human rights violation: you think that violating someone’s rights may produce some benefit for you, and it does so initially, but the actual and final results mean that you become worse off. There’s the obvious and uninteresting example of the dictator using extreme oppression and causing revolt, but here are some other, more intriguing examples. The first one has to do with the right to work.

Gene Marks is … a small business owner (he sells customer relationship management tools), who is attempting to speak to other small business owners, all of whom, presumably, are also delighted that the potential hiring pool is so chock full of talent desperate to be exploited right now. But one wonders who exactly is supposed to purchase all those products and services from the small businesses of the world, if unemployment creeps up to the 10 percent mark or higher? High unemployment means low consumer demand. Which usually means small businesses end up going out of business, or at the very least, laying off more employees, who push the unemployment rate even higher. And so on. (source)

If, as a “capitalist” (i.e. employer), you want to take advantage of unemployment – or the risk of unemployment – to put downward pressure on wages and workers benefits – and thereby violate workers’ rights (a fair wage is a human right, as are favorable working conditions) – you’ll end up shooting yourself in the foot because neither hard working laborers who don’t earn a lot nor the unemployed will consume many of your products or services. I can see the appeal of the statement that generous unemployment benefits discourage people from finding a job, but such benefits do have advantages that go beyond the mere self-interest of the direct beneficiaries.

An ideal policy … would allow people to collect unemployment insurance indefinitely, and let the unemployed borrow or save money. This way, unemployment insurance would not merely be a financial band-aid letting people take risks on the job market and endure some jobless spells, but a critical source of “liquidity,” allowing the unemployed to keep spending reasonable amounts of money — which in turn helps create demand, something sorely lacking from the economy at the moment. (source)

And here’s another example, related to gender discrimination. In many countries, there’s a son preference: male offspring is considered more valuable than female offspring, for reasons to do with gender discrimination and social, cultural or religious views regarding the proper role of women in society. One of the consequences is the “missing girls” phenomenon. The sex ratios in many countries – India and China stand out – are out of balance. Some estimates say that 90 million women are “missing” worldwide. In somewhat overwrought rhetoric this is called gendercide. Girls are often aborted in selective abortions (a one child policy can make this even more widespread), and young girls are often prejudiced against when it comes to nutrition and health care resulting in higher mortality rates. The son preference and the missing girls phenomenon have their roots mainly in cultural beliefs, but economic considerations also play a role. Some professions are open only to men; girls marry “into” other families and hence can’t continue the family business; there’s the dowry problem etc. However, these economic considerations don’t stand on their own and are often the result of discriminatory cultural beliefs. When we accept that gender discrimination and the will to sustain patriarchy is the cause of the son preference and the missing girls phenomenon, then we are dealing with a human rights violation. And also this rights violation can come back to haunt those responsible for it.

A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match. (source)

Rather than cementing patriarchy, the son preference and the resulting unbalanced sex ratios give women more bargaining power. These and other boomerang rights violations are variants of what I’ve called self-inflicted rights violations: people violate other people’s rights, and in so doing they ultimately violate their own 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?

Religion and Human Rights (13): Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty, How Much Can We Discriminate?

Same-sex marriage to me is a no-brainer. Although international human rights law doesn’t explicitly grant gays and lesbians the right to marry, the notion of equal rights can be used to counter discrimination of homosexuals, including discrimination of marriage rights. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration states that everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in it, without distinction of any kind. And the right to marry is recognized in article 16.

Furthermore, article 7 outlaws discrimination. On the basis of articles 2 and 7, many countries have enacted anti-discrimination legislation which outlaws racial discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and sometimes other types of discrimination as well. Such legislation punishes citizens who discriminate other citizens, for example restaurant owners refusing access to homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans etc.

However, the Universal Declaration and many constitutions also grant the right to religious liberty. Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Now, I think it’s fair to admit that freedom of religion and anti-discrimination laws can sometimes clash with each other (although the importance of such conflicts is often artificially inflated by opponents of same-sex marriage, see here for example). Anti-discrimination laws can force people to do things that violate their religious beliefs, if these beliefs require them to discriminate. Such laws can, if we stick to the previous example, force restaurant owners, who believe that homosexuals and Jews are sinners, to open their doors to homosexuals and Jews. When people are forced to act against their religious beliefs – no matter how bigoted these beliefs – it is fair to say that their religious freedom and freedom of conscience and belief are violated. These freedoms are not contingent on the quality of beliefs. All beliefs and religions, even the most bigoted ones, deserve protection (as long as they don’t cause harm to others of course).

It is not uncommon to see contradictions in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. I’ve covered this problem extensively here and here. Rights are not always compatible, in which case one has to decide which of the conflicting rights has priority (or “trumps the other”). The normal (but not the only) rule is the extent of harm caused by a limitation of one right or the other.

In the case of discrimination of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, anti-discrimination laws based on article 2 of the Universal Declaration (or relevant articles of a national constitution) come into conflict with religious liberty (based also on the Universal Declaration or constitutional provisions). Both rights are very important (and I say this as a non-religious person), so the decision in favor of one or the other will never be an easy one.

Take again the example of the restaurant owner. At first sight, the answer seems obvious: let the restaurant owner refuse entry. The harm done by forcing him to grant access is clearly greater than the harm of forcing homosexuals to find another place to eat. On top of that, the restaurant owner can rightfully claim that not only his religious liberty and freedom of belief would suffer from forced access, but also his right to property (and to use it as he pleases). However, on closer inspection, things aren’t so clear. The harm done to homosexuals is likely to be much greater than just a dinner inconvenience. If a restaurant owner is allowed to discriminate, then this sends a signal to others that discrimination is OK. Choosing the side of the restaurant owner is in fact choosing the side of discrimination and legitimizes discrimination, causing harm that is potentially very widespread. After all, in a great majority of cases of people refusing to do something because of their discriminatory beliefs, there is someone else available to do what they refuse to do. So allowing people to refuse in one case because there is someone else who will not refuse (another restaurant), opens the door to a great number of refusals, and hence to widespread discrimination.

Furthermore, many cases are much more complicated than the restaurant case. How about a doctor refusing fertility treatment to a lesbian couple (married or not)? Or a Muslim doctor refusing to treat a female patient? Or a Christian university refusing to grant a gay person a place in its dormitory? Or a Catholic adoption agency refusing to place children with same-sex couples (married or not)? It’s clear that in many of these cases, the rights of those discriminated should take precedence over the freedom of belief of those discriminating because the harm done by discrimination is greater than the harm done by outlawing discrimination.

We should also distinguish between refusal by private persons and refusal by public officials. It seems much less acceptable for the latter to refuse to grant their services to certain types of people. The government should never discriminate people on the basis of religious belief. Governments should be religiously neutral as much as possible, and should respect the separation of state and church.

Anyway, sometimes anti-discrimination laws will trump other rights such as the freedom of religion, and sometimes not. So equal rights for gays, including the equal right to marry, will not “kill” religious freedom as some on the right believe. If we can convince opponents of anti-discrimination in general and same-sex marriage in particular that the concerns of religious beliefs are taken seriously and are not systematically deemed of lesser importance compared to equality, then they may give up some of their opposition. After all, even in those cases in which the concerns of equality are deemed to outweigh the concern of religion, the harm done to religion is not of catastrophic proportions. No one will ever force a priest to marry anyone, or a church to modify its doctrine, or someone wishing to express a preference for “traditional marriage” to shut up. In all these discussions on same-sex marriages, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Hysteric reactions on either side aren’t helpful at all. Compared to other rights violations, this problem is a minor one.

Much of this concerns discrimination in general, not just discrimination in the application of the right to marry. It just happens to be the case that the ongoing efforts to reduce marriage discrimination seem to cultivate the fears of many religious people that anti-discrimination laws will impose even further restrictions on religious liberty when same-sex marriage is recognized by law. These fears, however, are not substantiated by the evidence of countries or states which have, sometimes long ago, recognized same-sex marriage. Another reason to put things in perspective, something which is clearly captured by this quote:

While marriage and religious belief are one creature in the minds of many people, they are separate things in the law. Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, for example, refuse to recognize secular divorce. But few argue that we should refuse to let people divorce for this reason. One can be divorced under the law but married in the eyes of the church. The statuses can be separated without a diminution of religious liberty. And nobody thinks that this de-linking of the two constitutes official oppression or the obliteration of religious freedom. Similarly, in principle, it should be possible to have a regime in which same-sex couples are married under the law but not married in the eyes of a given religion – all without extinguishing religious faith. Dale Carpenter (source)

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).

The Ethics of Human Rights (10): Universality of Rights Through Dialogue

It’s true that most if not all human rights can be found, implicitly or explicitly, in all cultures and religions of the world. However, there’s also cruelty everywhere and universal respect for human rights requires more than simply looking for similarities and making the sum. Unity, consensus and universality will only be the result of hard-fought influence and difficult and prolingued processes of persuasion, not of the simple detection and addition of things that are equal and that exist, as such, independently of each other.

Persuasion, however, implies dialogue, intercultural dialogue for example. One culture or religion can discuss with others and try to convince others that something which is considers to be important is in fact important.This dialogue doesn’t have to be unconditional (dixit Obama) but too many conditions make it impossible. And progress can only be achieved through dialogue.

This kind of intercultural dialogue can engender universality or can at least bring universality somewhat closer, but then it has to be a dialogue between equals. Nobody is persuaded when one of the parties to the dialogue believes himself to be superior, speaks without listening, and considers the other to be “evil” (e.g. part of an “axis of evil” dixit Bush) and a legitimate target of a bombing campaign (dixit McCain).

It also has to be a dialogue where there is at least a possibility that one convinces the other – in both directions. A “dialogue de sourds” – a dialogue of the deaf – cannot create consensus. We must be open to the possibility that those whom we abhor may have something interesting to tell us. And anyway, we have to listen if we want to understand them, and to see why they act the way they act. Only then can we have a chance of changing them.

This means that extreme cultural relativism is not an option. Cultures have to be allowed to influence each other, to open themselves and to mix with each other. Sealing off cultures and keeping them out of each other’s way because of the protection of identities, makes a dialogue impossible. Being persuaded means changing certain elements of one’s identity.

The need to convince one another implies that no one should believe themselves to be in possession of the truth, and of the only correct and just system. It implies self-criticism, and also a certain degree of tolerance, freedom of expression etc. It seems as though the conclusion is implicit in the premises. The attempt to universalize human rights through intercultural dialogue already requires human rights. You cannot hold a dialogue with someone who is intolerant or who is not allowed to speak his or her mind.

A dialogue in this case is not a negotiation. There can be no negotiation on human rights. It is “take it or leave it”, even if one can accept a partial adoption of human rights for strategic reasons (the theory of basic human rights or rights minimalism). Something is not as good as everything, but it is better than nothing.

And an inter-cultural dialogue is even less a conversation, in which one culture needs to convince other cultures, as if some cultures need more convincing than other cultures. Persuasion is a two-way street and at least, as much an intra-cultural affair as an inter-cultural one.

The Ethics of Human Rights (5): China, Confucianism and Authoritarianism

Confucianism, the traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), is often blamed for the lack of freedom and the authoritarian and anti-democratic form of government in China. This post examines the merits of this attack.

Confucianism is not a religion, although many believe it is, perhaps because of its emphasis on morality and the extent to which it has shaped and become synonymous with the culture of much of East-Asia, including of course China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and many other countries with large Chinese communities. It is rather a philosophy and a culture.

Although vigorously attacked by the Chinese communists, it is beyond doubt that Confucianism still remains a strong force in Chinese thinking.

Arguments against the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Confucianism does not have to lead to authoritarianism. Indeed, Confucianism places more value on internalized morality than on external repression of deviant behavior:

Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. (source)

The exercise of rituals or rites (not in the religious sense but in the sense of everyday ritual actions or routines) teaches people to internalize norms and respect them voluntarily, not because of fear of punishment. Formalized behavior through rituals becomes progressively internalized. Laws and governmental power are relatively unimportant to Confucianism.

Another reason why Confucianism is not necessarily autocratic is the teaching that the king’s personal virtue spreads a beneficial influence throughout the kingdom. With a virtuous king, the need for the use of force is limited.

Arguments in favor of the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Rituals are not only used to internalize morality and to instill a sense of propriety or politeness, but also to assign everyone a place in society, a kind of relationship to others and a form of behavior towards others.

While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. (source)

This leads to a strict hierarchy in society, which is opposed to equal rights, universality of rights and the equal influence that is found in a true democracy.

Social harmony is the ideal that results from every individual knowing his place in society, assuming his role and responsibilities towards others and establishing the right kinds of relationships and forms of behavior. However, this social harmony is clearly opposed to adversarial democratic politics.

There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Confucius, Analects XII, 11).

There can be no objection to filial duties and filial piety. But the duty of benevolence and concern of the older towards the younger, and the extension of this duty to the rulers with regard to the people, can lead to paternalism and an infringement of the right to chose one’s own style of life.

Confucianism sees a moral role of government, and a responsibility of the government for the physical and moral well-being of the people. Filial piety is extended within Confucianism to political loyalty of the subjects of a state or even outright submission to authority. This leads to political inequality and elitism which is hard to reconcile with democracy.

However, the original teachings of Confucius forced the subjects to obey only as long as the rulers showed moral rectitude and responsibility for the well-being of the people. When the rulers assume their duties, strict obedience is required. But when they fail, the people can rebel. So no “might is right” or absolute power. Later rulers of course interpreted Confucianism in a more authoritarian way, for their own benefit.

Other aspects of Confucianism, such as the priority of the state and the community over the individual, meritocracy etc. make it hard for a democratic culture of freedom to take root.

Incompatibility of Confucianism and democracy, human rights and freedom?

Democracy, rights and freedom are not the exclusive product of the West and they are compatible with all cultures and religions. However, all cultures and religions also contain elements that inhibit the development of freedom. But it is possible tochange these elements.

Other causes of authoritarianism

One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of culture. First of all, culture is often used by rulers to justify themselves, and in doing so they tend to distort the real meaning of the culture in question. As is evident from the examples above, many elements of Confucianism cannot justify authoritarianism. Secondly, authoritarianism has other, non-cultural causes. In the case of China: the legacy of communism, the priority accorded to the economy (a priority that is supposed to warrant human rights violations) etc.

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).

Causes

  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.

Consequences

Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.

Numbers

Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide

 

Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Migration and Human Rights (6): Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the contempt or fear of strangers or foreign people, often people of a different race or ethnic group, is not considered to be a disease like other “phobias”. It is part of a political struggle against adversaries, much like racism is. (Whereas racism is certainly xenophobic, xenophobia doesn’t have to be racist; it can be directed against groups which are not racially different from the xenophobes).

Xenophobia often takes places within a society rather than between societies. A group present within a society is not considered a legitimate part of that society and has to be expelled or assimilated in order not to corrupt or damage the interests of the rest of society. Hence the link to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Causes of xenophobia include:

  • Ethnically-based nationalism (e.g. xenophobia in the Balkan countries)
  • Migration, although xenophobia may be directed against a group which has been present for centuries, or against very small numbers of immigrants or foreigners (e.g. Japan in the 19th century)
  • Perceived threats to culture or national identity
  • Religious doctrine (e.g. the attitude of some Muslims towards unbelievers)
  • Perceptions of neocolonialism (e.g. present-day Zimbabwe)
  • Political imbalances (e.g. one group holding a disproportionate share of political power, e.g. anti-Tutsi xenophobia in Rwanda before and during the genocide)
  • Terrorism (e.g. anti-Muslim xenophobia following 9-11)
  • Competition for scarce resources
  • A mix of the above.

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? (10): Dependent on Prerequisites

People often oppose the universal application of democracy and human rights because they believe that in some places, some of the prerequisites are absent. Their point of view is not that democracy and human rights are in themselves objectionable or undesirable, but that some countries are not mature enough yet (as in the case of economic prerequisites for example) or will perhaps never be mature enough (as in the case of cultural prerequisites for example). Instead of being undesirable, democracy and human rights are (as yet) impossible.

One has to deal with this line of argument, for two reasons. Firstly, because we will dispose of a reason to universalize democracy and human rights if we can show that the argument is incorrect. Secondly, because we will know what to do or change in order to universalize democracy and human rights if it is established that the argument is correct.

In some cases it is correct. Democracy and human rights are indeed conditional. They depend on certain prerequisites for their existence, survival and development. However, this is not a reason for fatalism or for the rejection of universality. It does not mean that democracy or human rights are forever impossible. The necessary conditions can invariably be created, with more or less effort. An example of this is the absence of media monopolies. It is impossible to introduce democracy if the pre-democratic and authoritarian monopoly ownership of the media is maintained. If this monopoly is not abolished with the introduction of democracy, then the old rulers will use their monopoly of the media in order to maintain or to return to power. The absence of this kind of monopoly is a prerequisite for democracy but it is a prerequisite that can be created. The same is true for most if not all the other prerequisites.

What is most interesting is that democracy and human rights do a lot themselves to create or promote the conditions necessary for their survival and development. Instead of “fit for democracy”, we should say “fit through democracy”, in the words of Amartya Sen. You can only become fit for democracy when you already have a democracy. Once democracy and human rights begin to win ground, they improve the chances of their own survival and future development. Here’s a post on peace, which is obviously a precondition for but is also promoted by democracy and rights.

However, it remains a fact that, without important efforts, democracy and human rights are not universally possible yet, even if they are universally necessary or desirable. Fortunately, there are many different kinds of prerequisites and the absence of one can be compensated for by the presence of others. Furthermore, many so-called prerequisites are in fact no more than excuses for rights violations and authoritarian government. If some people claim that a particular country is not yet mature enough for democracy and human rights, then it is very likely that these people have an interest in rights violations and authoritarian government. Those who suffer never claim that they are not mature enough for rights. We should not rush to conclusions. It is very tempting to call something a prerequisite, especially for opponents of democracy and rights.

Among the prerequisites that are not really prerequisites, culture is probably the most important one. Democracy and human rights develop somewhere and have their origins in the life of a community, but this does not mean that their development in this community was necessary or that their development in other, very different communities, is impossible. Democracy and rights can develop in communities with very different cultures, even in communities that do not have a democratic tradition (take the case of post-war Germany for instance). They are connected, not to a culture, but to mankind and to the values of mankind. Of course, there can be elements in some cultures which promote the development of democracy and rights and elements in other cultures which hinder this development (perhaps Protestantism and Catholicism respectively). However, the main causes and prerequisites, namely the values which need democracy and human rights, are present everywhere.

The argument for cultural prerequisites implies that certain cultures are destined for democracy and that other cultures can never be democracies. At an even deeper level, it implies that cultures cannot and should not change. The different cultural identities must be protected against more powerful and hostile cultures engaging in cultural imperialism. A culture which is supposed to be incompatible with democracy must remain undemocratic for its own sake. However, this obscures the fact that cultures and traditions do change and often even want to change. On top of that, many traditions are not as old as they seem. They are often recent creations (anti-democratic traditions are in most cases inventions of authoritarian rulers). So why not create a democratic tradition?

Cultural Rights (2): Clash of Civilizations

Theories about the “clash of civilizations” are very popular these days. According to this strand of cultural reductionism, the struggle between capitalism-democracy and communism, which was mainly an ideological struggle, is now replaced by the struggle between civilizations or cultures, a struggle no longer based on convictions, ideology or the economy but on identity.

The identity of one culture may be threatened by another one, or one culture may be expansionist at the expense of others, which causes conflicts. The bloody borders between civilizations (in Israel, Serbia, Russia etc. or even lower Manhattan – 9-11 – given the virtual nature of borders in our globalized age) are given as proof. In order to avoid these conflicts, one has to separate cultures. Multiculturalism, immigration etc. have to be avoided, and the borders have to be defended militarily against aggressive and hostile other cultures. Every civilization should strengthen its identity if it wants to be in a strong position vis-à-vis others.

All this is true to the extent that culture is the cause of conflict. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not, and then other measures are more adequate. Conflicts between the West and Islam are perhaps in part caused by differences in culture, but probably also by economic circumstances, the Palestinian problem, etc. In any case, there are just as many conflicts within civilizations or cultures than between them (Iraq, Rwanda, Korea…). The differences between members of one civilization are often more important than the differences between members of different civilizations.