Cultural relativism versus Human Rights Universality

The Second World War's events paved the way for the development of universal human rights as a strategy for defending the people of many countries and states around the world (Ohlin 241). However, there have been many difficulties in putting the rights into practice, particularly in places where citizens' traditions are thought to be incompatible. Numerous academics consequently emerged to call for the application of the rights while taking into account the native customs. In 1948, a confrontation between cultural relativism and all human rights emerged. Human rights and various cultures are related, according to numerous research. Cultural relativism can be defined as a theory that recognizes values that various societies set up to regulate the conduct of their members. Culture, reproduces itself. Ideally, cultural relativism governs protects different social groups and peoples across the world. Presently, the concept of cultural relativism continues to dominate human rights discussions among scholars, human rights activists, philosophers, and anthropologists globally. The topics that are common focus on the conflicts that are created when people attempt to implement human rights while adhering strictly to norms and practices that various cultures contain. Complexities emerge in the process because the cultures are highly diversified. According to Fischlin & Nandorfy (153)), human rights are founded on universal dignity, which is typically a desire of all persons to be treated with respect and be viewed as ends rather than means to an end. However, the main questions about the rights emphasize on the universality and cultural realism of the rights. In this essay, there is a discussion of the relationship between human rights and cultural relativism and a proof that supporting cultural relativism in the course of implementation of human rights is not inconceivable in the world.

Elements of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is a principle by which people’s beliefs are perceived in accordance with cultures (De Leersnyder et al. 10). The relativism encompasses considering the values that are embodied by different cultures when implementing human rights policies. More specifically, it involves the exercise of human rights while pondering about what each culture values most. Through enculturation, dispositions, values, and embodied behaviors are transmitted from one generation to another. Because of the complexities associated with cultural relativism, the legitimacy of human rights tends to hang in a balance.

The origin of cultural relativism is the argument about the universality of human rights. While advocates of the relativity assert that it is the most effective model of implementing human rights, the opponents assert that embarking on moral relativism promotes the tendency to ignore violation of human rights and freedoms. Cultural relativism was popularized by Kantian ethics in which there is an argument that people cannot gain unmediated knowledge of the world. According to Kant, individual minds tend to interact with the experiences, which structures the person’s perceptions (Phillips 12). In disagreement with Kantian ethics, Herder claimed that human experiences are mediated by cultural structures (Phillips 12). The disagreement between Kant and Herder produced the idea of ethnocentrism.

Since there is no universal culture, there is no universal human right. In fact, some theorists assert that the concept of human rights is anthropocentric. That is, the rights are a human-centered view of the world that is predicated on an individualistic perception that human beings are independent and their utmost desire is to be free from interference by the state and other individuals and groups, as well as enjoy the right to private property and freedom of contract.

Importance of Studying the Relationship Between moral Relativism and Human Rights

Ordinarily, cultural values act as a reflection of how various groups perceive the world around them. The tension between universalism and relativism can be constructive because the advocates of human rights can use the emerging arguments as a basis for improvement of their knowledge and practice of human rights. With such knowledge, the supporters of human rights can gain insights that can strengthen the efforts that bring human rights to life.

The Doctrine of Universal Human Rights

Generally, it is believed that human rights are apply to every person regardless of the geographical, economic and cultural origin of that person. The notion that the rights are equally influential to everyone has triggered multiple deliberations across the world. The recent ones are those that subject the likelihood of having universal human rights in a culturally diversified world to question. The variation of societal attributes makes is hard to determine the cultures that are more important than others. More specifically, the opponents of universalism suggest that it is hard to have highly diversified cultures which address the rights of everyone in an equal measure. The antagonists of universalism, the cultural relativists, argue that taking the underlying cultures and beliefs into consideration when implementing human rights policies is justifiable on the grounds of the potential consequences of failing to abide by the cultural norms and rules. Deviating from the generally accepted code of conduct makes people outcasts. Cultural relativism entails implementing human rights based on what different people agree as universally acceptable. The proponents of cultural relativism assert that there is no truth regarding what is actually right and wrong because the truth depends on the cultural beliefs of a particular group. The variation of views regarding what is right and wrong is an indication that relativity exists among different societies, hence it must be emphasized in the concept of human rights.

Critique of the Universality of Human Rights

Critics of universalism of human rights around the world strongly oppose the consensus among human rights advocates that human rights are universal. To the critics, the idea of universality of human rights globally results in more questions than answers (Jackson 87).The opponents of universalism of human rights suggest that the rights are a western concept, and tend to ignore the political, economic and cultural realities of the different parts of the world. To the criticizers, ignoring the patterns that define the first world and his third world is illogical, the international covenants and religions that sound practices such as wife beating that sound frivolous to some people and not to others.

One of the challenges faced during the implementation of the rights is the dichotomizing of the world into the western and eastern bloc. Presently, the International Human Rights Regime cannot dictate the actions and practices of individual countries with regard implementation of human rights. National governments are likely to oppose any international norm that they consider detrimental to the social values and political interests. However, the International Human Rights Law restricts the use of state power against citizens (Perugini & Gordon 27). In East Asia, policymakers argue that the right that takes precedence over other rights is national development rather than the right of an individual. Consequently, such prioritizing on the unified goal of development comes at a cost of restricting people’s civil and political rights. In contrary, in the Western countries such as the USA, there is a high emphasis on civil and political rights and resistance of socioeconomic rights because of a collective perception that such rights can harm business competition, limit the freedom of speech and infringe autonomy. However, in the west, people are not considered to be part of larger groups such as families and communities.

Le (206) also argues that moral relativism emerges from the tensions between universal norms and local realities over quality, marriage, private ownership and religious freedoms. However, the greatest battles are between supporters of cultural relativism and universalism especially in political matters. More explicitly, there is a close link between the process of implementation of human rights and politicization of human rights. In developing countries and other nations that have not embraced civilization ideas of the West, the rights of ownership of means of production, marriage, equality, and religious freedoms are at odds with traditional practices and norms in the non-Western societies (Le 204). For example, in Asia and Africa, families have rights to possess the land that is owned by the community. The people are allowed to construct premises in such land, a practice which introduces the right of private ownership. In such communities, there is a little acknowledgment that public lands are spaces for fostering a sense of community among people. Failure to instill the sense of community threatens the feasibility of future political and development. On the other hand, in India, the law does not recognize the right to equality. In the society, people’s preference and powers are restricted based on age, ethnicity, gender, and political inclinations. In Saudi Arabia, dominant Muslim groups do not endorse religious freedoms and marriage regardless of internal and external pressures. Among such communities, there is a shared perception that the freedoms contradict with the society’s religious beliefs.

As a matter of fact, the diversified rules that relate to how people socialize and relate to one another in different countries indicate the opposition and rejection of endorsement of universal human right in different countries. An idea emerges that the use, interpretation, and abuse of the rights vary across cultures. The situation reveals how insensitive implementation of the rights of private property ownership threaten the cultural norms and provokes conflicts among communities.

Human rights are also used for advancement of national agendas across the world. Currently, both western and non-western nations see problems in one another with regard to the implementation of human rights. For example, the USA media tends to publish abuse and denial of political rights among Asian governments while downplaying the denial of the same rights within its borders. For instance, the citizens of the USA experience hardly access basic healthcare, job education as a result of the reluctance of the government to provide such services. The USA government also invades the privacy of citizens through programs of surveillance, but does not consider such actions as abuse of human rights. On the other hand, Russia, China, and North Korea are more likely to publish the abuses of human rights within the USA. Interestingly, there are opponents of the way human rights are protected within the USA. The political conservatives within the USA tend to distrust the UN and want the USA to withdraw from the convention because they do not want global police to enforce rules on the citizens of the USA (Le 207).The conservatives are also opposed to the government sanctions against China The illustrations indicate that various governments use the human rights agendas to advance their geopolitical interests and domestic political interests. As a result, there is a confusion about the quality of polite advocacy of human right across the world.

The success of countries that violate human rights is a confusion about the importance of human rights, especially in enhancing national economic prosperity. For example, the rise of China as the largest global economy and an industrial powerhouse in the East makes the Asian official boast about the governance models that enhance economic growth. The country boasts about the success of birth control policy. Forced abortion, involuntary contraception, and sterilization were imposed on women to control China’s population growth rate (Chen 54). As a matter of fact, such policy was an infringement of the rights of women but resulted in a healthy economy. Apparently, the case of China a proof that strict observation of human rights is a precursor to development as suggested by the advocates of universality of human rights.

In non-western cultures, people are not entitled to their rights in the same way as it happens in the west. Sangroula (934) argues that in the Vedic and Confucian traditions, people are required to emphasize on duty more than their rights. On the other hand, in Africa, there are complex structures of communal entitlements that are grounded on respect, responsibility, restraint, and exercise reciprocity. The societies take precedence over individual rights and decisions are made during group consensuses to benefit a larger community rather than a single individual. Ideally, the community is responsible for the protection of an individual in such societies. On the other hand, in some African societies, some rights such as the right for paid vacations and the rights of women are not considered to be relevant. As a result, some African cultures claim that the universal human rights are an attempt to impose the western values on people that do not subscribe to them, or simply a form of ethnocentric bias. They form of western interventionism in the developing world’s affairs. In fact, some scholars have come up with an argument that universal human rights are a tool of the political neocolonialism of the West.

In defense for moral cultural relativism, the advocates of the developing world argue that their societies cannot afford to implement human rights adequately because they are tasked with nation-building, economic development, consolidation of state structure, which is favored by authoritarianism. Such premise prevails in Asian countries such as China, which subscribes to Confucian virtues of order, obedience, and respect for authority. In such regions there is advocacy for the sacrifice of individual rights for group rights.

Wars have been declared against other nations with an assumption that they seek to protect human rights and international laws developed and enacted. The notion of the universality of human rights serves as a tool of convenience of different state-governing individuals and groups, especially in attaining various political, social and economic agendas. According to the relativists, human rights are limited by varied discernments.

Complexities Encountered when Defining Universality

The existence of different types of universality complicates the definition of human rights as universal. For instance, conceptual universality asserts that humans possess human rights simply by virtue of being human. The idea suggests that being human cannot be transformed naturally. Similarly, individual rights cannot be changed. Another form of universality, functional universality, suggests that human rights address a wide range of standard threats to human dignity that are spread globally (Goodhart 186). More specifically, individuals’ reactions are remedies for the most unrelenting universal threats to human dignity. For this reason, human rights create self-respect assurance in the global states that have become highly capitalistic and bureaucratic as well as officials, parents, husbands, religious and social authorities and landowners. Given that the threats that humans respond to are identified, the rights are considered to be contingent and relative.

The extent and nature of arrangement about human rights tend to be confusing as well. The anthropological universality argues that the human rights have always been extant at all times and places. On the other hand, ontological universality suggests that the human rights are based on objective truths (Goodhart 30). More specifically, ontologically, human rights can only be described on the basis of generality, variability, as opposed to relativity and universality as suggested by the proponents of the rights. The terms are not only misleading, but also puzzling and redundant.

Additionally, the debates about the relativism are based on a single historical foundation. The questions about the relativism of human rights extend to metaphysical status, foundations, extensions, and legitimacy, or simply the legitimacy of imposing the rights on cultures holding different values. The close association between legitimacy and universality explains why the nomenclature used in analyzing human rights is important. In this regard, multiple but related claims emerge from the concept of universality of human rights. First, there is an idea of proliferation of threats and responses to them as well as appeal to the human rights. With the definition complexities, challengers human the universality of human rights suggest that it is illogical to claim that human rights are applicable to all people because they are not functionally universal.

Arguments against Cultural Relativism

Globalization has encouraged movement of people to different parts of the world and increased cross-cultural interactions. As a result, learning to respect and tolerate other people of divergent cultures has become crucial. The modern society has reduced criticism of one another’s culture in regard to life perceptions. Ideally, broad-mindedness is essential in the world because is the basic element for peaceful coexistence among people of diverse values and norms. By embarking on tolerance, it has been possible to do away with detrimental practices that have occurred in the human history such as apartheid, and slavery have been addressed. However, some of the cultures tend to promote the violation of human rights such as female genital mutilation.

Human rights protect everyone from domination and oppression of others as well as unwarranted and arbitrary control over interference with other individuals. In fact, there are some cultures approve the infringement of some liberties deliberately. Similarly, some religious and cultural practices that violate liberties are acceptable in some societies. Apparently, it is valid to infer that moral relativists defend the cultures that promote the violation of civil liberties across the world. Consequently, a contradiction arises regarding protecting moral relativism and defending human rights concurrently. People should not be obligated to tolerate other cultural beliefs, especially those that involve violation of human rights.

The nature and functions of human rights make them important in the world. For instance, with the liberties, citizens from all over the world can challenge the authorities that govern them, hold power-holders into account when they are dissatisfied with their conduct, and combat domination and oppression in the innumerable forms. The rights are available to everyone and everyone can use them. As a matter of fact, every person is subject to oppression and domination. Therefore, it is sound to claim that human rights are applicable to everyone globally (Goodale 37). The more the threats of oppression is and the inclusive the account of human rights is, the more the right becomes important to people. Such applicability is the root of the legitimacy that the human rights are endowed with. Because the liberties and freedoms are highly applicable, people accept them widely as the legitimate approach to countering threats of domination and oppression. Therefore, because they promise power to the weak in the society, human rights have are acceptable by everyone.

The primary critics of human rights include feminists, socialists and proponents of imperialism ad colonialism. In most cases the critics refer to the gap that exists between the supposed completeness of the rights that authorities have in the society. Ideally, the postmodern critiques are primarily driven by a desire to claim that they are not globally applicable in order to undermine their legitimacy. Most rulers that advocate for relativism narrow down their definition of human rights because of their desire to dominate and oppress their subjects. Any misuse of human rights discourse seeks to justify all sorts of oppression and domination. Consequently, it is admissible to claim that powerful individuals use cultural relativism as a tool of promoting exclusion, sheer hypocrisy, and double-standards. However, for the advocates of the universality of human liberties, the narrow and loose definition of the rights is a strategy of covering all people to give adequate protection to all of them.

In addition, the relativists rely on a weak idea that norms and values are sacrosanct. It is evident that culture evolves constantly in all societies in response to the external and internal factors. Some actions that are of high value become obsolete and die off as a result of societal dynamics. For example, traditionally, the institution of slavery was universally acknowledged across the world but it is not tolerable in the modern world. Nonetheless, the anti-Semitic ideologies that were deeply-rooted in Europe a few decades ago cannot be used to justify discrimination against Jews presently. As time passes, societies outgrow and discard the cultural elements that they consider obsolete (Schiffer 32). An assertion that people are obliged to protect outdated ideas that violate human rights are therefore unsound.

What is more, cultural relativism subsumes all members of the society of a particular society under a framework of the culture that, might be inimical to them. The conflicts between the rights of individuals and groups are inevitable, and it is hard to argue that the conflicts cannot occur. However, it is possible for the groups to exercise rights within themselves collectively and eliminate infringement of individual rights.

The notion of cultural values can be argued with an escape clause. Ideally, strict regard of group values, norms and demand is associated with coercing dissenters. The human rights advocates argue that individuals are supposed to be given permission to make personal choices without external pressure. Individuals that conform to the societal values ought to be allowed to do so without oppressing people that are in support of disavowing the cultures without infringing the rights of others. For instance, in India, parliament passed a law that obliged women married under the Islamic law to accept the return of bride price as the sole payment of alimony. While multiple feminists and Muslim women opposed the law, they were given an opportunity to marry under civil code in order to avoid being subject to the provisions of the law. With such strategy, a balance between protecting religious group rights and the liberties of individual Muslim women to be exempted from the law was created (Tharoor 4). Similarly, the universal privileges allow people to refuse for permit actions that are done to them such as female genital mutilation. In the society where human right is violated, it is the coercion that promotes the infringement of civil rights, rather than group norms and values as suggested by the relativists.

On the other hand, religion cannot be used as a sanction of the status quo too. Ideally, all religions seek to embody attributes that are comprehensively applicable to everyone. The generally acceptable conduct includes mercy, compassion, justice, and truth. The differences arise in the details of the religious interpretations rather than the values that they advocate for. Freedom is valued not only in the western religions, but also eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Religion should be used to sanction oppression rather than impose it. More so, there is no national-level purity of cultures in areas where rights are violated on the basis of norms and values of societies such as African countries. However, a keen analysis reveals that in such communities, human rights are meant for minority groups that are more westernized. Specifically, holding onto relativism helps powerful or privileged in the societies. Nonetheless, it is illogical for the relativist to argue that they are against the ideas of the west. Despite that they consider themselves different from the west, in their countries, the non-western countries use the nation-state model that is popular among nations that have embarked on the Western system of governance. For example, they are not opposed to the appointment of the president and ambassadors of United Nations. The societies do not remain pristine and western nations. Instead, they are subject to change and distortion eternal influence. Such scenario is an illustration of two sets of liberties and the covenants that codify the right as inseparable, interdependent, sustaining and nourishing one another. Moreover, multiple third world economies such as Cuba, India, Lebanon, and China participated in the drafting declaration of human rights. Therefore, the relativist argument that human rights are values of the west is significantly weak.

There are no generally-agreed rules about economic development as suggested by the relativists who propose authoritarianism. However, the most popular approaches to promoting the development is enhancing literacy levels, participating in international markets, and becoming more open to competition. Other elements of economic success are productive land reforms, industrialization, increasing exports and providing incentives for private investment (Kihl 321). Interestingly, none of such factors requires authoritarianism but all of them are compatible with human rights. Authoritarianism, which is advocated by cultural relativists promotes underdevelopment and repression. Political and civil rights allow people to draw attention to their needs and demand government action. Tharoor (5) asserts that despite that, there are many countries in which authoritarian governments have demonstrated exceptional success in achieving economic growth, such as China, there democratic countries such as Botswana have depicted a faster economic growth than authoritarian states.

Interestingly, national development is acknowledged as a human right, which makes market capitalism triumphant. As a matter of fact, the concept of national growth that prevails among relativists emanates from the theory of human rights such as decolonization, self-determination, the consciousness of the need to improve the living standards of the people that are the subjects. Human rights propose positivity and protection of an individual from the state. They also support protection of every citizen by the state (Máiz & Requejo 32). The primary goal is to permit all individuals to fulfil the basic aspirations of growth and development that poverty and scarcity of resources bring. It is valid to admit that economic exploitation and social deprivation are as evil as racial persecution and political oppression (Tharoor 5). It is through development that human rights that empowerment of the most underprivileged individuals and groups within developing nations is enhanced.

The economic success that the eastern countries have experienced by denying civil liberties is used as the protection for repression of universal values and human rights and in the region. However, the defenses fail to take exceptionalism into account whereby there is an overemphasis of positive aspects of the country in which negative deeds such as abuse of power are accepted. The advocates of the Asian way support the approach of governance because it has never encountered drawbacks such as civil uprisings. The assumption that the denial of freedoms is not destructive emerges from multiple underlying factors influence the stability that is experienced in the region. For instance, the citizens are more tolerant of being guided by the government that acts as a father-figure. Under such circumstances, maintenance of hierarchical societies is possible. In addition, a majority of its citizens are too busy with improving their lives hence they are less likely to pay attention to the rights that are not influential to them such as the freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, the truths surrounding the suitability of the Asian model are normalized to protect the status quo. However, in the long run, the use of the Asian way as means of manipulating the consciousness of the masses will be counterproductive. For instance, the model will eventually portray the Asian governments as authoritarian regimes and traitors of the principle ‘Society’ above ‘self’ of Asian countries.

Asia’s success amidst human rights infringements is similar to American exceptionalism in the 1920s and the Germany exceptionalism in the 19th century. Similar exceptionalism and its associated undesirable consequences are evident. For instance, the Asian Tigers embarked on the Asian Way and resulted in significantly powerful nations; Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea (Le 208). After exceptionally high economic growth rates the 1997-1998 economic crisis exposed the countries to serious structural and social problems.

There are no cases where victims of violations of human rights such as torture or slaver have come out to support the abuses. Those that are tolerant do not cry out for intolerance. The scenarios are unequivocal foundations for the argument that human rights are universal and any form of their infringement dilutes them. The intellectual justification of oppressive government does not have moral defense. Its primary role is to support rulers that are against civil liberties having a concern for preserving their power.

The Universalists argue that relativists such as the Asian societies have hidden agendas. In fact, the abusers of human rights can violate the norms and values that they presume to protect provides that doing so enhances effective pursuance of their interests. The current objections of the universality of human rights are a reflection of their opposition to primacy of individuals and the paramountcy of the society. More specifically, while civil and political rights facilitate protection of various groups and individuals within communities, the social and economic liberties enhance individual protection.

What is more, those that advocate for cultural relativism tend to confuse uniformity with universality (Tharoor 6). More specifically, claiming that human rights are universal, does not imply that the collective views of human rights transcend all possible cultural, religious, and philosophical differences or present aggregation of the global philosophies and ethics. Instead, the assertion implies that they do not contradict the ideals as aspirations of societies and reflect people's shared humanity from which there is no exclusion of any individual. The rights emanate from the mere fact of being human rather than gifts of government and legal codes. The standards of being proclaimed internationally rely on observation of the legal codes and governments in which they are applied. The primary challenge is not the rights themselves but the attempts of indigenizing and asserting them with each target based on traditions and history. Divergent models are acceptable as long as the results that they produce are similar. Eclecticism is a consensus rather than a threat to the implementation of the rights. The flexibility guarantees universality enriches the intellectual and philosophical debate and complements the concept.

It is true that what is right and wrong contrasts significantly depending on culture. Similar to moral relativism, cultural relativism differs significantly across cultures. According to moral relativists, acceptable values are valid within a particular social boundary. While some cultures consider some actions as morally acceptable, others condemn them. The things that are viewed differently among different social groups include polygamy, sexism, clothing and decency, and killing people. Basically, moral relativism promotes the notion that it is impossible to have universal ethics across the world. Failure to adhere to the morals of the particular society translates to compromise of ethics. However, it is important to realize that there are some cultures that are not relative as suggested by the relativists. For example, genocides, torture, and slavery tend to be universally unacceptable. Ideally, there is little connection between tolerance and cultural relativism as illustrated by the cultural relativism point of view. It is not sound to support ethical relativism because some activities are relative.

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