Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Human Rights and Cultural Relativism.

The modern view of human rights is the result of successive struggles within Western society. Hence, in historical terms, human rights are a ‘Western’ construct. However this does not undermine the claim of cross-cultural validity, but merely problematizes the issue of cultural rights and their relation to the universal claims of the human rights tradition. This tension and the normative variety of cultural relativism have been crucial points of contestation in human rights theory. Thus, the extent to which human rights are inherently ‘Western’ in character is of vital importance to their practical implantation across cultural divisions. To address this issue, the historical origins of human rights will be briefly sketched and their cross-cultural legitimacy will be evaluated to determine the appropriate cultural designation of human rights.

The question of historical origin, Micheline Ishay argues, is complicated because selection of this point ipso facto “privileges a specific status quo or value-system” and can be used to legitimize and delegitimize historical actors. Following this, the cultural antecedents of human rights and their compatibility with previous value-systems both within and outside Europe has caused considerable contention. However, the intellectual crystallization of both human rights and cultural relativism originate in Europe. The human rights tradition developed out of the intellectual, socio-economic and political transformations of the Enlightenment period and the antecedents of normative cultural relativism can be partially sourced from the birth of cultural nationalism with the consolidation of Germany and Italy in the early 1870s. In this sense, both human rights and cultural relativism are ‘Western’ constructs. However, Jack Donnelly contends that modern human rights are the product of and reaction to abuses prevalent in modernity.Ergo, the development capitalism and bureaucratic nation-state is the vital fulcrum in the evolution of human rights and not the special qualities inherent in pre-modern ‘Western’ value-systems. Furthermore, the spread of both capitalism and nation-states throughout the globe generalises a similar set of abuses that gave rise to the human rights tradition in Europe. Donnelly’s argument is an attempt to firmly ground universal human rights without reference to universal anthropological or ontological claims that he finds empirically indefensible.

The weakness of such universalisms can give credence to normative cultural relativism that is diametrically opposed to the modern conception of human rights. He argues, given a unique historical confluence, that human rights represent the best means to combat threats to human dignity, despite the fact of cultural relativity. In defence of universal human rights claims, Donnelly offers several criticisms of cultural relativism and empirical arguments that attempt to demonstrate the “relative universality” of human rights.

Cultural relativism can be conceptualized in two broad forms. The term cultural relativism was first employed within the discipline of anthropology and referred to a methodological approach to the problem of cultural relativity and ethnocentric biases that undermined objective analysis of different cultures and value systems. Thus, from this methodological approach cultural systems can be analysed in their own terms to ascertain the functional interplay of social practices. From a normative perspective, cultural relativity is given moral force and cross-cultural moral evaluation is reduced to the status of reproducing ethnocentrism. Moreover, claims to universal human right would represent a form of cultural imperialism and signpost the hegemony of the West. From a pragmatic standpoint, cultural relativism provides no means to arbitrate between competing rights claims in a cross-cultural international system. However, this does not imply that cultural relativism is false, per se, but empirically grounded arguments can demonstrate the widespread appeal of human rights and historical tendencies that propel universal human rights claims across cultural divisions.

There is prima facie evidence for the cross-cultural validity of human rights in the widespread adoption of human rights language throughout the globe and the development of non-western human rights organizations. In view of this, Michael Goodhart has argued that human rights need not be grounded in a conception of universality, the continued proliferation of human right’s influenced discourse and organizations testify to its cross-cultural validly beyond its origin in Western Europe. Donnelly moves beyond this prima facie evidence and attempts to ground human right in a “relative universality” that leaves space for “second order claims of relativism”.

Unlike traditional Enlightenment philosophy, that often based rights claims on an a priori conception of the autonomous individual, Donnelly’s appeal to universality is circumscribed by historical contingencies. With the development of capitalism, the nation-state and the rise of the bourgeoisie class rights claims were advanced to counter the traditional authority of the aristocracy and monarchy. The success of these initial claims to rights propagated further rights claims for the advancement of marginalized groups. Karl Marx noted that universal suffrage, a political right, was essentially a “socialistic” measure, so much more than political events on the continent. Thus, with the spread of capitalism and nation-states a case can be made for what Donnelly called “functional universality”, human rights amounting to the best functional response to these transformations. Moreover, the universalism of human rights allowed for the critique of existing conditions relative to normative standards. In fact, human rights discourse has been invoked to redress the excess of power exercised by Western powers in the international system.

The process of decolonization that occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War was often lead by figures educated in the Western tradition of rights. Thus, as Ishay notes, human rights has often been adopted as the language of resistance to power and cultural relativism is adopted to redress marginal groups inability to gain access to social, political and economic rights. In this sense, cultural relativism is one strategy to redress the failure to extend human rights to marginalized groups. Both the human rights tradition and cultural relativism are of European origin. However, both are adapted and adopted by non-western societies and therefore cannot be considered exclusively western.

The European origin of human rights is a historical fact, from the intellectual fervor of the Enlightenment and the socio-economic and political transformation that brought forth the capitalist market system and the nation-state, the human rights tradition developed to combat threats to human dignity and curb excesses of arbitrary power. However, as Donnelly argued, “cultures are immensely malleable” and the development of human rights stemmed more from the problems inherent in modernity than the uniqueness of pre-modern Western culture. The spread of capitalism and nation-state has led to similar threats to human dignity worldwide, in light of this, human rights as conceived of in the Western world have developed a level of functional universality and need not be grounded in universal anthropological and ontological claims. The fact of cultural relativity need not necessarily attain normative power; cultural relativism is often the maladaptive response to failures to extend human rights. Moreover, the use of human rights discourse to resist Western power and the spread of non-Western human rights organization further bolster the argument that human rights are not an inherently Western construct, despite their historical origins.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Donnelly, Jack. (2007), “The Relative Universality of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 281-306.

Cmiel, Kenneth. (2004), “The Recent History of Human Rights”, American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 1, pp.117-135.

Goodhart, Michael. (2008), “Neither Relative nor Universal: A Response to Donnelly”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 30, No.1, pp. 183-193.

Ishay, Micheline. (2004), “What Are Human Rights? Six Historical Controversies”, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 3. No. 3, pp.359-371.

Pegram, Thomas. (2010), “Diffusion Across Political Systems: The Global Spread of National Human Rights Institutions”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3., pp. 729-760.

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