The Ethics of Human Rights (48): Human Rights and Honor

Many human rights violations are perpetrated by people in power for selfish reasons, because they are corrupt or evil, or because they believe they are doing good. In such cases, it often helps to remove those people from their positions of power. Other types of rights violations, however, are deeply ingrained in a society’s everyday culture and are the daily habits of large numbers of people. Think of gender discrimination in traditional patriarchal societies, or homophobia, racism etc.

What can be done about the latter type of rights violation? It’s extremely hard to change cultural customs and beliefs (some say that we shouldn’t even try because we should avoid cultural imperialism). Cultures do change, of course, but very slowly. There’s an inherent inertia. Culture determines personal identity, and people obviously cling to identity. And there’s no identity, it seems, without stability. Culture is also a marker of belonging and community, two other cherished values. When cultures change, the patterns of belonging and community may also change, and that frightens people. The result is again inertia. And finally, there’s the time element: when something has existed for a very long time (or when people believe it has existed for a very long time) it becomes much harder to change because it has the patina of tradition. When something has survived for so long, it surely must have some value.

As a result of all this, appeals to change fall on deaf ears. You can reason, and say that certain practices aren’t in the best interests of anyone, that they aren’t really very old and traditional and that they aren’t anointed by religious texts or cultural transmission. Or you may have other killer arguments. When people’s identity and community are believed to be at stake, all this will fail. You can also outlaw the practices, but then the law will simply be put aside. You can claim that people are being immoral, but they will answer that they have another morality.

Then how to motivate people to do the right thing? Which tools are left? I’ve discussed Rorty’s story telling strategy before. And more recently, another philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has claimed that appeals to honor may be successful catalysts of change. He

singles out three historic practices that later were stamped out: dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade. In each case, he says, a successful public campaign to end the misconduct was based not on questions of right or wrong, but on honor. Dueling swiftly perished when attitudes changed among gentlemen, who went from considering it highly honorable, to disreputable. The excruciating binding of women’s feet disappeared with great abruptness once China began to worry about its reputation among nations, early in the 20th century — national honor seeming at stake. A similar sense of honor led Great Britain finally to ban the slave trade after all appeals to morality had proven futile. (source)

Shaming people or nations, and trying to convince them that they bring dishonor upon themselves by way of the rights violations they commit or condone, may indeed be more successful than simply telling them that they are morally wrong or that they act in an irrational manner against their own self-interest. People need the esteem and approval of others. Few of us can survive a constant barrage of contempt.

However, as Appiah also notices, honor has often been a force against human rights, sometimes even a deadly force. It may have contributed to the demise of dueling, but it was also its origin. And then there are the infamous honor killings, when fathers or other relatives kill girls after accusations of sexual or romantic misconduct. That’s a practice that has survived until today. Furthermore, shame and dishonor have often been used as cruel forms of criminal punishment, with convicted criminals forced to endure public humiliation. Hence, honor is a two-edged sword at best. Sharpening one edge may also make the use of the other edge more common.

Gender Discrimination (22): Gendercide

The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of

  • selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
  • childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
  • prejudice, preference for male offspring and
  • population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.

Interestingly, the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.


In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:

  • individual choices based on
  • plain prejudice against girls
  • cultural and legal traditions, or
  • economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.

Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).


The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.


Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.

Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.

Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.

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?