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.” 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”, and we should not be too respectful of authoritarian claims, if only because today they have greater powers than ever to silence opposition. [...]
[...] Amy Gutmann identifies cultural relativism as one of the answers that can be provided to the challenge of multiculturalism in the field of political ethics. There is no such thing as a universal morality. “Standards of justice are relative to particular cultural understandings such that the cultural meaning of each social good is what defines its just distribution”. As she remarks a bit further, it is important to note that the important thing is common shared understandings, not practices: it may very well be possible that people agree on the fact that one should be able to chose what one likes in any given domain. [...]
[...] References Afshari, Reza, Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly (May 1994) 235-276 Amstutz, Mark R., International Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield An-Na'Im, Abdullahi A., “Religious Minorities under Islamic Law and the Limits of Cultural Relativism”, Human Rights Quarterly (February 1987) 1-18 Donnelly, Jack, “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly (November 1984) 400-419 Franck, Thomas M., Human Rights Universal?”, Foreign Affairs (Jan/Feb 2001) 191-204 Gutmann, Amy, Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics”, Philosophy and Public Affairs (Summer 1993) 171-206 Luban, David, Romance of the Nation-State”, Philosophy and Public Affairs (Summer 1980) 392-397 Sen, Amartya, “Human Rights and Asian Values”, The New Republic, July 14 July 33-40 Sen, Amartya, “Universal Truths”, Harvard International Review (Summer 1998) 40-43 Walzer, Michael, Communitarian Critique of Liberalism”, Political Theory (February 1990) 6-23 Walzer, Michael, Moral Standing of the State: A Response to Four Critics”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, (Spring 1980) 209-229 Notably the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights on the one hand, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the other hand (1966). [...]
[...] I have argued in this first part that cultural relativism used as a way of rejecting the idea of basic human rights for some countries is an untenable position. Yet, insights of cultural relativism have made a positive contribution to intercultural understanding, mutual respect, tolerance, and cooperation between the peoples of the world.” However universal the human rights claims may be, we must always be aware of the danger of cultural ethnocentrism and its worst aspect, imperialism. Caution is indispensable. [...]
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