Updated: Dec 12, 2020
HUMAN RIGHTS: UNIVERSALISM VERSUS CULTURAL RELATIVISM
Today, 10 December is the annual International Human Rights Day. I put in perspective the problem of universalism versus cultural relativism as the basis for accepting human rights.
The search for universal truth, laws, nature of things and so on has fascinated human beings throughout history. The Stoics were the first group of thinkers in the ancient period who started arguing for universal rules and recognized a common humanity. Most of the world religions also claim to present the universal truth based on revelation in different forms. In the modern period, the search for universal truths and laws was accelerated by the scientific revolutions. The laws of physics were found to be true irrespective of culture and context. The establishment of secular branches of learning in the universities and later the emergence of social science in the 19th century as a systematic study of various facets of society encouraged the search for universal truths and social laws. The search for true human nature has historically been central for moral and political philosophy. Therefore ideas of modern human rights can be traced to theories of natural law and justice; hence the observation of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776): ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
No doubt it took nearly a century for the United States to abolish slavery and another hundred years before race laws in the southern states were abolished but it was all done by invoking the equality of all human beings irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or sect. Moreover, the emancipatory ethos of the European Enlightenment provided a secular basis to ideas of rights and over time it has been extended beyond European men to women and to all cultures, races and peoples. The centrality of the human person rather than some deity in establishing legitimate political community characterizes the modern approach to human rights and democracy. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) expresses the idea of the individual as the original bearer of rights rather than as a receiver of a favour from some secular or religious benefactor or founder. The 30 articles included in the UDHR assume that respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are axiomatic to human nature and therefore ipso facto universal. In other words, the current package of human rights can be considered universal because it does not exclude any individual or group of individuals from claiming and enjoying these rights. On the other hand, there is no reason to assert that the modern package of rights cannot incorporate ideas and values from other cultures provided it can be demonstrated that such ideas are good for all human beings. The contrasting approach of cultural relativism holds that each culture is a unique specimen of the historically formed collective personality of a people. The beliefs, values, symbols, practices, modes of communication and the various organised and institutionalized forms of interaction which constitute a culture give shape to stable patterns of thinking and behaving. Culture is thus simply the way people think and act in accordance with their own standards and norms. Consequently, notions of rights and obligations obtaining among a people are culturally specific. The origins of cultural relativism are also very ancient. Mainstream Greek thinkers believed that their culture was unique and therefore looked down upon non-Greeks. Aristotle tried to intellectualize this approach by asserting that truth differed from culture to culture and therefore laws and rights also differed from culture to culture. Historically, the religious establishments of the two main universalist religions, Christianity and Islam, also took up a relativist position on truth in spite of theologies which were assumed to be universalist. The reason was that they were not willing to accept the truths established by pure reason or through the modern scientific empirical methods of testing theories and hypotheses. Much of the Christian resistance to scientific truths is now muted but the Islamic world remains hostile in behaviour as well as in terms of ideas and ideologies to the discoveries made by natural and social sciences and the universalist values of modern humanist thinking. The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite. For example, the interests of the Brahman priests and Thakurs cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society. Similarly the Islamic message cannot be identical for the decadent class of landlords and the landless tenants and rural proletariat, but since official religion is always defined by the rich and powerful the voices of the oppressed classes and sections of society within a culture are seldom heard and rarely allowed to assert an alternative interpretation. Consequently, the most objectionable aspect of cultural relativism is that it not only assumes uniformity but also a stationary position on cultures. All cultures are ridden with dissensions and at least in the present period rapid changes within cultures can be identified easily. Thus for example the ulema issued fatwas against the use of loudspeakers and travelling in trains, but now mosques are almost invariably equipped with loudspeakers which the maulvis tend to overuse, while the more established ones with international networks at their disposal are frequent globetrotters flying in the latest jumbo jets to their disciples all over the world, especially where their sermons fetch lucrative fees as in the USA and UK.
Thus, cultural relativism is a poor and unconvincing basis for objecting to modern human rights, we need to establish on what basis can a non-Western culture retain its historical identity while simultaneously incorporating and internalizing modern human rights within its modern identity? Undoubtedly outmoded religious practices will have to be discarded and the core universal ideas of each culture retained.