Are Human Rights "Merely" Western Constructions?

A Case Against Cultural Relativism

Essay, 2014

8 Pages, Grade: 62 (Merit) UK System


Are Human Rights „merely“ Western Constructions?

I will take “Western” as a notion corresponding to both the geographical and historical origins of human rights. I will not, though, associate it with the values deriving from the content of human rights. Such, I will refer to as “universal”. This is because they go beyond any particular regional considerations. I shall explain this below.

Philosophical contemplations and geopolitical issues relating to arguments of imperialism and external imposition of human rights, won't concern us here. They will, therefore, be excluded from discussion. This is due to the genetic fallacy these considerations are prone to, when used as arguments for “Western” parochialism; a term used for referring to “Western” standards as “local prescription, posing as a universal value system”. (Meckled-Garcia in Scheithauer, 2013, 22) Just because the concept of human rights has its particular origins, it does not follow that its underlying ideas and values are tainted. (Halliday, 1995, 166)

In this essay, I shall focus on the very content of human rights, thereby, relating to the debate between universalist and cultural relativist theory. While the former promotes the idea of equal rights for all human beings and considers culture irrelevant for the validity of moral rights, the latter views culture as the exclusive source of moral rights (Donelly, 1984, 400) and stresses, that “right” and “wrong” differ from culture to culture. (Tilley, 2000, 501)

In the light of this debate, I will argue, that human rights are not merely “Western” constructions, as they withstand, despite their historical and geographical significance, accusations of cultural superiority (Tilley, 2000, 527) and of evaluations of other cultures according to the terms and conditions of “Western” culture (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013), or in short: of “Western” ethnocentrism.

I will hold this premise as response specifically to the allegation of cultural insensitivity brought forward by cultural relativism, which emphasizes human rights' ignorance towards cultural complexities by prioritizing some values over others, thereby, disregarding the collective spirit of some communities. This is said to render the concept of human rights inapplicable in non-”Western” societies. In this sense, property rights, family rights and religious rights, focusing on the individual rather than the tribe, clan or any other collectivity, are said to be particularly incompatible. (Cerna, 1994, 746) Moreover, proponents of this argument point to human rights as destroying local culture in that they exhibit a lack of tolerance for local customs and traditions. Campaigning, in the name of human rights, against morally grotesque practices with deep cultural roots such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) can be taken as one example of many for such intolerance. (Scheithauer, 2013, 22)

I will counter-argue that the human rights conception is culturally sensitive, as it recognizes diversity of moral views by promoting freedom of choice and the inclusion of voices otherwise left unheard under the umbrella of collectivism. Thereby, I will show that universal values can indeed be justified, while cultural relativism fails to provide a sufficient explanation for moral validity. In this respect, I shall challenge the term “culture” and will show that human rights advocate tolerance. They do so through their stress on the preservation of cultural pluralism. Thus, they are not set out to destroy local culture but rather arguments of authority; of political elites, who propagate extreme conservatism in order to further their self-interest while ignoring the needs for moral progress in their country. (Tesón, 1985, 388) Hence, proponents of human rights demonstrate a desire not to seem narrow minded and to offer protections for the particularly vulnerable in society. (Scheithauer, 2013, 21)

From this I will conclude, that the premise set out above holds true. Consequently, human rights by upholding universal moral values and by promoting cultural diversity, despite their geographical and historical distinctiveness, are more than “Western” constructions.

Cultural Insensitivity: To Whom?

Human rights are often said to be culturally insensitive, representing a “Western” concept and reflecting “Western” values, which are considered incompatible with the values of non-”Western” societies, and therefore, cannot be justified to them. (Erez, 2013) This cultural relativist claim is based on the assumption that morals vary with cultural norms and stresses the importance to maintain cultural diversity. (Tilley, 2000, 501) This brings up the question of why the belonging to a specific cultural community is morally relevant. We certainly don't choose which environment we are born into. Consequently, there's no reason why we deserve or should be held responsible for our place of birth or cultural community rendering our cultural context irrelevant to our moral worth. (Tesón, 1985, 386) In this spirit, universalism - by its critics referred to as “Western” outlook - promulgates the universal validity of some moral judgements, and with it the idea of human rights as equal rights for all human beings. (Tilley, 2000, 505)

The core issue of this debate relates to the question of compatibility of values, as cultural relativists argue, human rights with their emphasis on individual rights ignore cultural complexities as, i.e. they aren't obviously applicable in communities following a collectivist approach. Not only do they focus on the individual, but completely neglect communal rights. For example, everyone's right to own property clashes with social ownership, a concept, where land is owned collectively. (Pollis and Schwab, 1979, 17) But, with view to such incompatibility, the dilemma only starts when cases of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion arise under such collective spirit. For instance, in many cultures women are prohibited from owing property including its inheritance. The cultural relativist sees nothing wrong in this, justifying the practice in terms of his/her cultural norms. But by systematically excluding some of its participants in the name of culture, the relativist refutes himself, as it is him, who has become the culturally insensitive one, hindering culture from flourishing to its full extent. (Scheithauer, 2013, 21)

In this sense, the biggest challenges, however, rest in the private sphere, especially regarding family and religious rights. The former provides for full age and “free and full consent” of both partners upon marriage. Further, it guarantees for religious, national and racial non-discrimination, equal rights in marriage and upon its dissolution, as well as to found a family. (Universal Declaration, 1948) Relativists claim that these provisions demonstrate a clear disregard for different moral views and with it for certain cultural practices and traditions, since these rights are neither compatible with practices of arranged and underage marriage, nor with some Islamic conceptions prohibiting interfaith marriage, nor with certain family planning strategies such as i.e. female infanticide. Here, the matter is of similar nature, centering on exclusion from decision-making. But by precluding certain voices from speaking out, the danger arises that people's conformity with cultural norms is a result of coercion rather than conviction. (Meckled-Garcia, 2013)

This exemplifies, that cultural relativism by determining the rightness of an act by one's cultural norms (Tilley, 2000, 527), doesn't allow for differing moral views, whereas universalist provisions, promoting free choice, respect the moral views of others. In the case above, by requiring the coming of age to enable self-determination, the necessity for “free and full consent” (Universal Declaration, 1948) aiming at the authenticity of decisions made, anti-discrimination regulations to open up the pool of choices, and equal rights provisions to guarantee fair conditions for decision-making.

Similar observations can be made with view to the right to freedom of religion, whose provision to freely change one's religion/belief, has earned heavy critique, especially from the Islamic countries, which consider it incompatible with their faith and punishable by death. However, it is to note that the ones invoking the Quran and sharia in this way, don't represent the whole Islamic world: i.e. Turkey has engaged in secularizing its laws. This demonstrates progress in the compatibility of human rights with cultural complexities. Also, there is no one Islamic body of thought, nor is there one central authority representing the whole Muslim religion (Halliday, 1995, 155-156). This indicates a certain possibility for flexibility in interpretation, and in turn, for congruency of Islamic values with universal human rights provisions. In fact, the moderate version of the Islamic faith is found compatible with values of equality and religious freedom, stressing to take into account present-day conditions. (Scheithauer, 2009, 6)


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Are Human Rights "Merely" Western Constructions?
A Case Against Cultural Relativism
University College London  (School of Public Policy)
62 (Merit) UK System
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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430 KB
human, rights, merely, western, constructions, case, against, cultural, relativism
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Anna Scheithauer (Author), 2014, Are Human Rights "Merely" Western Constructions?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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