The Problem of Cultural Relativism for Human Rights Advocates

Are human rights universal, or are they relative? What are some of the great philosophers' perspectives on human rights, and are their arguments valid? Given that some cultural practices violate what is considered a universal right, is it correct to state that human rights implementation is hampered by culture? This study investigates these issues in order to establish the validity and applicability of universal human rights in the face of cultural relativism ideology. In as much as there are cultural practices that impend the implementation of universal human rights, the UDHR made tremendous breakthrough in identifying the basic rights that all human beings should be accorded regardless of their cultural and traditional beliefs.

After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) various arguments challenging the aspect of ‘universality arose. Philosophers of the natural laws and the western philosophy such as John Locke Argue that the human rights are inalienable in nature; that such rights are also self-evident and applicable to all people. Donnelly pointed out that the UDHR is the basis upon which the contemporary consensus on human rights that are recognized across the globe is established (Lower 2). The rights are believed by such western philosophers as being pre-political such that they cannot be affected by any cultural and political differences. However, even right from the time, the United Nations declare the universal human rights there are nations which refused to adopt it due to cultural relativism indication that the perspective of this western thinkers is not actual facts. For such countries more so those in Islamic countries such rights are relative because they do not necessarily tally with their religious and cultural beliefs.

Donnelly (p. 281), in trying to elaborate on the issue of relativity of universal rights, starts by differentiating between conceptual and substantive universality. He states that conceptual universality which is inferred in the UDHR comprises of a list of human rights which should be accorded to all human beings simply because they are people. It is a kind of right that can neither be earned nor lost by nature. Such rights are substantially equal and inalienable. However, conceptual universality fails to state whether the rights held by the UDHR and the International Human Rights Covenant (IHRC) are universal. On page 122 of his article, Dolly declares that the universal human rights are only held by all people but unfortunately they are not enforced hence not enjoyed by all people.

The human rights were drafted to ensure that all people are treated equally and fairly. However, in many countries, these rights are not given to some people. There are still reports of human torture and even killing without any legal action being taken against the perpetrators. In such nations, the rights of people are not equal and can, therefore, be manipulated by the rulers of the nations. For instance, recent news questioning the applicability of human right concerns slave trade of black people in Libya. The slaves are regarded as lesser beings and once they have been sold they cease t have their own rights and instead become subject to mercy of their masters. Some basic life such as right to food, worship, life among others is given at mercy.

Direct application of the human rights can also be impeded by cultural relativism which holds that moral rules; historical variability; and social institutions are exempted from legal critic from outsiders. The doctrine of cultural relativism is further supported by notions of self-determination and communal autonomy. The two extreme position of cultural relativism includes radical universalism and radical cultural relativism. The former holds that culture has no relevance to the validity of the universally valid moral rights and rules while the later states that culture is the primary influence on the ethics and morality of the society. The dilemma presented by cultural relativism arises when what is acceptable as a culture in one community violates either of the universal human rights. Advocates in such a dilemma may find it difficult to defend their clients from a legal basis since they also consider the culture of their clients.

James Rachels argues that various cultures have different moral codes which should be considered when determining moral and ethical issue (Rachels 622). The other argument by cultural relativism is that an objective standard that can be utilized in judging one social code as being better compared to the other does not exist. The other argument is that the moral code of one’s society should be considered as one among many hence not be granted any special status. Also, at any given time there cannot be universal truths and ethics which are true for people at all times. The other argument is that societal moral codes determine what is right and wrong according to that society. Lastly, it is arrogant for anybody to try and judge a person’s moral conduct hence tolerance to the practices and cultures of other people should be embraced.

Catharine MacKinnon is one of the philosophers that has extensively spearheaded the concept of cultural relativism. Apart from simply subscribing to the aforementioned assumptions on cultural relativism MacKinnon also believes in the concept theory of false consciousness (Bantekas 113). The assumption of this theory is that people are deterred from acknowledging the actual situation of their cultural practice. The rationale of the theory is that since the people have been born and lived in a society with such cultural practices they have come to believe that what they are doing is right and justified. A person from a different society is likely to experience a great culture shock but community members will not feel as if they have committed something against the person.

False consciousness can be understood from Plato’s allegory of the cave in which prisoners were held captive since birth with their head facing a wall that was illuminated by fire such that the prisoners could see some shadow. The prisoners believed that what they were seeing is the reality and even after one of the prisoners escaped and so the true reality the rest of the prisoners refused to believe him. A similar explanation applies in arguments for cultural relativism. Some people violet the rights of other people, believing that what they are doing is right. When told otherwise they feel as though they are being negatively profiled and attacked. Cultural relativists believe that it would be unreasonable to arrest or even punish those people for what they believe as being true.

There are two lessons identified by Rachels that can be learned from cultural relativism. First, cultural relativism provides an outright warning on making assumptions that personal preferences are grounded on absolute rational standards. He cites an example of the Callatians who ate their father as a sign of respect while most other cultures would judge them as immoral (Rachels 623). The second lesson from Rachel is that it is important to always keep an open mind when dealing with moral and ethical issues across different societies.

An application of the dilemma between universality of human rights and cultural relativism can be witnessed in the case of some societies which perceives female genital mutilation (FGM) as a culture that is necessary for any child about the age of nine to pass after which they can be married off. According to Brennan (373), female circumcision can be traced to about two thousand years in the past and is currently held in different cultures across more than forty countries globally. Basically, the practice involves excision of different degrees of female genitalia. Some culture removes a section of the clitoris, others all the clitoris while others perform infibulation. The traditions that do infibulation often work on all the external genitalia of a girl by sewing it together such that only a small opening is left for passing the menstrual periods and urine. To facilitate healing the legs of the girl is tied for long periods during which they are incapacitated and in great pain

FGM has a lot of negative results on the girl child including; excessive bleeding which could result in death; child undergoing a lot of pain; later problems with reproductive health and other health issues. FGM also causes a substantial risk of infection since the people that perform the practice are not medical experts (Danial 4). If the girl is luck and receives healing they still deprived of sexual pleasure. Besides, FGM is associated with significant risks and extreme pain during childbirth more so if infibulation was performed. Older women who managed to escape death from the FGM encourage the tradition holding that it is a rite of passage that demonstrates courage in women. An advocate for a child undergoing FGM in such a community may have difficulties convincing the people that their tradition is unethical or immoral. Advocates that subscribe to the theory of false consciousness like MacKinnon are likely not to find any guilt on the people performing the FGM because they believe that what they are doing is justified.

In my perspective, when dealing with the issue of human rights then culture should not be used to justify violations of such basic rights. I believe that regardless of the culture that a person comes from there are certain acts that raise some doubts even among the people following them because of the pain that they cause. For example, if a mother witnesses a child die from bleeding after an AGM. Also, people have a conscious which they should consult when engaging in cultural practices that are against universal human rights. A cultural tradition that violets the rights of other people making some group of people to appear better than the others should be dismissed. I don’t believe in the theory of false consciousness because people are by nature rational beings who can innately tell the difference between what is right and wrong. Some benefit of doubt can be allowed to marginalized communities practicing acts against basic right but after a warning legal actions should be taken against them.

Universal human rights are indeed inalienable and equal and should be awarded to all people. It is unfortunate that other nations and society still hold on to primitive cultural practices that cause significant violation to the universal rights; still, others do not even acknowledge the UDHR. False conscious is not an excuse for committing a crime against humanity. People are rational and should utilize there thinking capacity in differentiating healthy from unhealthy cultural practices. Those who follow cultures blindly and violate the rights of others should be tried in a court of law and sentenced. Perhaps the best way to ensure that the UDHR is applied in all nations is by uniting against nations that still deny their people the basic rights and seeking to protect the citizens. After all, if nothing is done innocent people will continue to suffer in the hands of criminals who cover their crimes with backward traditions.

Work Cited

Bantekas, Ilias, and Lutz Oette. International Human Rights Law and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Brennan, Katherine. "The influence of cultural relativism on international human rights law: female circumcision as a case study." Law & Ineq. 7 (1988): 367.

Danial, Sandra. "Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism: Female Genital Mutilation, Pragmatic Remedies." Prandium: The Journal of Historical Studies at U of T Mississauga 2.1 (2013).

Donnelly, Jack. "The relative universality of human rights." Human rights quarterly 29.2 (2007): 281-306.

Lower, Matthew. "Can and Should Human Rights Be Universal?." University of Lincoln, spring (2013).

RACHELS, JAMES. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism." Accessed from: of-Cultural-Relativism-1.pdf

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