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Cultural relativism or universalism ? An essay in political ethics

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Cultural relativism versus universalism: The human rights debate.
    1. Cultural relativism and empirical considerations.
    2. The moral justification underlying relativist claims.
    3. Another conclusion to Walzer's argument.
    4. The Asian argument.
    5. The absence of normative aspect to cultural relativism as opposed to human rights.
    6. Would victims of human rights abuse stick to conservative positions.
    7. Thomas M. Franck and the global development of human rights.
  3. The 'moral standing of the state': A critical assessment.
    1. Communitarians.
    2. Presentation of the state as 'the arena within which self-determination is worked out'.
    3. A 'fit' between any given political community and its government.
    4. Counter-arguing against the communitarian point of view.
    5. Being aware of the dangers of cultural ethnocentrism and imperialism in the field of international as well as domestic ethics.
  4. Conclusion.
  5. References.

This is an essay on cultural relativism in the field of political ethics. Yesterday confined to anthropological studies, the idea infiltrated the domain of international morality after the Second World War. It developed from its original virtues of tolerance and understanding to more defensive claims to self-determination and domestic sovereignty. New multilateral agreements on the promotion of global human rights are today criticized as not so universal as they once seemed to be. There are now demands for revisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 and its several associated treaties , revisions that would insist less on individual rights and more on the duties of every person towards its state and community. Most of these requests originate from non-Western countries eager to defend their own political and legal institutions, often stigmatized as being authoritarian and disrespectful to basic human dignity. Are these claims expressing real concern for domestic cultural productions, or are they rather the egoistic wishes of ruling elites wanting to keep control of their society ? Cultural relativity is a fact that cannot be denied ; we are all socially situated beings. Does that mean there is a moral justification to cultural relativism ? And if so, does it leave some room to the possibility of universal moral values anyway ?

[...] Cultural relativism is there faced with an internal contradiction, where its justification overlaps the limited social understandings that originated the claims. It is true in the case of a community shaped by the beliefs of its most powerful groups, but it is also true in the hypothetical case of a totally non-pluralistic culture, as shown by Gutmann with the example of slavery. social understandings that have been used to justify slavery contain claims about the nature of human beings and the benefits of slavery that stand or fall independently of a social consensus.?[26] Thereby, cultural relativism disagrees with itself, building moral judgments justified by something else than cultural consensus and giving up its ?distinctive premises?. [...]


[...] In the end, counter-arguing against the communitarian point of view raises one critique: there is no such thing as a self-enclosed nation-state. There are two sides to this argument. On an internal or domestic point of view, as we had already shown in the first part, multiculturalism is the standard and cultural homogeneity, the exception. ?Dissidents exist in every society?[39], and we should not be too respectful of authoritarian claims, if only because today they have greater powers than ever to silence opposition. [...]


[...] Because our world is one of cultural pluralism, because we human beings can only express our identity and thirst for social justice in the context of our cultural communities, and because trying to ignore our social background is an illusion that only leads to fragmentation and discomfort, there can be no such things as global values promoted throughout the world. Basic human rights are an illusion, since the only claims to happiness an individual can make is within her cultural framework, never on imaginary universal grounds. [...]

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