Relativism and Universalism
The UDHR enshrines universal rights that apply to all humans equally, whichever geographical location, state, race or culture they belong to. However, in academia there is a dispute between scholars that advocate moral relativism and scholars that advocate moral universalism. Relativists do not argue against human rights, but concede that human rights are social constructed and are shaped by cultural and environmental contexts. Universalists argue that human rights have always existed, and apply to all people regardless of culture, race, sex, or religion.
More specifically, proponents of cultural relativism argue for acceptance of different cultures, which may have practices conflicting with human rights. Relativists caution that universalism could be used as a form of cultural, economic or political imperialism. The White Man's Burden is used as an example of imperialism and the destruction of local cultures justified by the desire to spread Eurocentric values. In particular, the concept of human rights is often claimed to be fundamentally rooted in a politically liberal outlook which, although generally accepted in Europe, Japan or North America, is not necessarily taken as standard elsewhere.
Opponents of relativism argue that some practices exist that violate the norms of all human cultures. A common example is female genital mutilation, which occurs in different cultures in Africa, Asia and South America. It is not mandated by any religion, but has become a tradition in many cultures. It is considered a violation of women's and girl's rights by much of the international community, and is outlawed in some countries.
The former Prime Ministers of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, and of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad both claimed in the 1990s that Asian values were significantly different from Western values and included a sense of loyalty and foregoing personal freedoms for the sake of social stability and prosperity, and therefore authoritarian government is more appropriate in Asia than democracy. Lee Kuan Yew argued that:What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective, and efficient. —Lee Kuan Yew, 'Democracy, Human Rights and the Realities', Tokyo, Nov 10, 1992
In response, critics have pointed out that cultural relativism could be used as a justification for authoritarianism. An example is in 1981, when the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, articulated the position of his country regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by saying that the UDHR was "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition", which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. The Asian Values argument was criticized by Mahathir's former deputy:To say that freedom is Western or unAsian is to offend our traditions as well as our forefathers, who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustices. —A. Ibrahim in his keynote speech to the Asian Press Forum title Media and Society in Asia, December 2, 1994
and by Singapore's opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, who states that it is racist to assert that Asians do not want human rights.
Defenders of moral universalism argue that relativistic arguments neglect the fact that modern human rights are new to all cultures, dating back no further than the UDHR in 1948. They argue that the UDHR was drafted by people from many different cultures and traditions, including a US Roman Catholic, a Chinese Confucian philosopher, a French zionist and a representative from the Arab League, amongst others, and drew upon advice from thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi. Michael Ignatieff has argued that cultural relativism is almost exclusively an argument used by those who wield power in cultures which commit human rights abuses, and that those whose human rights are compromised are the powerless. This reflects the fact that the difficulty in judging universalism versus relativism lies in who is claiming to represent a particular culture.
Although the argument between universalism and relativism is far from complete, it is an academic discussion in that all international human rights instruments adhere to the principle that human rights are universally applicable. The 2005 World Summit reaffirmed the international community's adherence to this principle:The universal nature of human rights and freedoms is beyond question. —2005 World Summit, paragraph 121
Famous quotes containing the word universalism:
“The most passionate, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment and ... all forms of rationalism ... was Johann Georg Hamann. His influence, direct and indirect, upon the romantic revolt against universalism and scientific method ... was considerable and perhaps crucial.”
—Isaiah Berlin (b. 1909)