A Response to ‘Cultural Relativism’

The World Cup starts today. The festivities have been overshadowed by the fact that host-country Qatar has an appalling human rights record. It abuses its migrant workers and homosexuality is criminalised.

In a controversial press conference, FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended Qatar and accused critics of hypocrisy.

Who are we in the West to lecture others on what values are appropriate for their societies? The universality (or not) of human rights and other values is a topic that I have often considered on this blog. It’s also an issue I had the opportunity to study recently as part of my LLM at the University of Law. Below is an excerpt from an assessment essay I wrote for the International Human Rights Law module. (It was graded ‘as a ’Distinction’ don’t ya know!)

What is Cultural Relativism

Andrew Buchanan defines parochialism in these terms:

… human rights are not really universal in the sense of being rights of all individuals but instead merely reflect (1) an arbitrarily restricted set of moral values; or (2) an arbitrary ranking of certain moral values.

This is a variation on the concept of cultural relativism, that is, the “double observation that moral systems are embedded in culture and that different cultures produce different moralities.”When applied to the international human rights order, the complaint is that it amounts to cultural imperialism; a Western imposition. The moral implication is that to impose a ‘universal’ set of rights upon all peoples is unjustifiable colonialism.

In the context of the ‘international order,’ the threat posed to the human rights project by this critique is two-fold. First, it provides a plausible rhetorical device for states to avoid their treaty obligations. Elites sometimes “[exploit] the language of cultural relativism to justify and rationalize [their] own repressive actions” even though the “arbitrary exercise of power that cannot be justified by claims of philosophic or cultural distinctiveness.”

As the Dalai Lama has said, ordinary citizens — the victims of human rights abuses — do not make the same complaints.

Elite disingenuity cannot be defeated through rational debate, but it can be undermined by appeals to the populations for whom they claim to speak. Such appeals need to show either that the cultural relativist argument is wrong, or, at least, that cultural differences are respected within the international order.

Second, the parochialism objection can undermine the rights framework in the minds of the minorities that universal rights should protect. A particularly strong complaint is that the ICCPR does not consider social and economic rights (such as food and shelter) to be fundamental. This is only partially answered by the existence of the ICESCR: why are social rights not considered worthy to stand alongside the right to (say) freedom of expression?

This critique also chimes with the complaints of indigenous groups that the existing rights framework is ill-equipped to deal with the particular abuses they face, which have their roots in competing claims to land and are exacerbated by the global ecological crisis.

If vulnerable people do not believe that the existing framework can accommodate and promote their conception of human flourishing, they will not engage with the mechanisms that give effect to their rights. A convincing response for these groups is therefore one that can demonstrate precisely how they will be accommodated. This is attempted in the sections that follow.

The Anthropological Response to Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism presupposes that there are such things as ‘cultures’ with values that may be articulated, and upon which a rights dispute could be adjudicated. Such values could potentially differ from those set out in the UDHR and descendant treaties.

The problem that arises is that those values would themselves be open to challenge. Every country has internal political and social divisions and many have a mix of ethnic groupings. There will be factions and sub-cultures within those groups too. Any of them could deploy the same relativist critique to question the legitimacy of whatever values have been delineated and the authority of whoever articulated them.

Those in power might attempt a positivist argument in response: that a state’s ‘values’ are whatever is enacted in its laws. However, this would be unconvincing because the state’s laws and values would also include ratified treaties, which for 173 countries includes the rights enumerated in the ICCPR!

Moreover, as a matter of political reality, any values embedded into national laws only reflect the preferences of the ruling elites. Since human rights are intended to transcend, and indeed act as a bulwark against raw state power and the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ those elites (whether elected or not) cannot cite their higher status as a reason why their values should prevail. Why should the values of the liberal blogger and former political prisoner Raif Badawi be considered any less ‘Saudi Arabian’ than those of the Crown Prince?

As well as the difficulty in identifying whose values are relevant, the cultural relativist critique faces a more fundamental problem in the conception of culture itself. Cultural exchange has occurred over millennia. The Thousand And One Nights is a collection of Indian and Persian stories that were retold in caliphate Mesopotamia and then popularised by a French literary explorer. Aristotle, one of the founders of Western philosophy, was reintroduced to Europe by Ibn Rushd (Averroes). There is a region in Patagonia where the inhabitants speak Welsh. Ravi Shankar collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, André Previn and The Beatles.

Cultural anthropologists now accept the fluidity of culture. A strong response to the cultural relativism critique is to posit that no coherent ‘cultures’ exist at all, just transient manifestations of messy human interaction. If this is true, then the project of annunciating human rights shifts focus. It is not about seeking commonalities between different fixed cultures but simply identifying the rights and practices that human beings as a species have found useful. Such a project cannot give rise to parochialism because everyone is within the parish.

My view is that this is correct but unhelpful. Changes to culture and society occur glacially and moral evolution takes place over generations. For most people, the idea that culture is transient does not match their experience, and to tell them otherwise will not be persuasive. Indeed, those living within cultures at risk of eradication may be particularly hostile to the argument. So while this approach has utility in response to theorists and perhaps the political elites, it is unlikely to swing popular opinion.

A pragmatic response is also required. A more effective answer to the parochialism objection is to show how, in practice, the human rights system already respects cultural differences.

The rest of the essay described the differences between the three regional human rights systems (the European Convention, the Inter-American Charter, and the African Charter) and sought to demonstrate how the charge of ‘cultural relativism’ was unsustainable in light of those differences.

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