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Cultural Relativism versus Universalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3670 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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When it comes to human rights, the issue of cultural relativism is widely discussed. Majority of the human rights literature encompasses the western and non-western argument on what best illustrates what human rights should be. As a result of these debates, comes the discussion of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism, at first glance, seems like quite a reasonable argument towards safeguarding different cultural groups. However when we begin to analyse the cultural relativism theory, we come to find that it is not quite as reasonable or even as practical as it seems to be.

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Cultural relativism seems to not only ignore human rights violations, but actually seems to approve them. Furthermore, it hardly disapproves any cultural or religious practices. Cultural relativism ignores the necessity to oppose violations and other human rights, and also ignores the freedom of choice to do so. This paper seeks to prove that there is no conceivable claim in supporting cultural relativism, and will discuss and analyse the issue of conflict between human rights and cultural relativism. This will provide some insight on how some scholars, anthropologist, philosophers, and political scientists have debated over this issue and how some of them have questioned the validity of cultural relativism in relation to human rights. I will discuss both cultural relativism and universal human rights and analyse the conflicts that have risen between them and their ensuing practices, as well as give examples to show the absurdity of the cultural relativist claim. I will conclude by providing evidence that shows that cultural relativists are indeed human rights violators, as well as show that their notion on cultural relativism proves to be highly contradictory and unreliable, now and in the future.

The Human Rights Debate: Cultural Relativism versus Universalism

2.1 What is Cultural Relativism?

The idea of Cultural relativism was developed by Franz Boas (1858-1942) in 1911.

Robert Redfield described cultural relativism as “values expressed in any culture are to be both understood and valued only according to the way people who carry that culture see things.”

Melville Herskovits gives an even more elaborate definition of cultural relativism as “a philosophy which, in recognizing the values set up by every society to guide its own life, lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and on the need of tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one’s own.” He continues by going on to say that “each culture is said to constitute a total social world that reproduces itself through enculturation, the process by which values, emotional dispositions, and embodied behaviours are transmitted from one generation to the next”.

From the descriptions above, we can therefore say that cultural relativism is the principle by which a human being’s beliefs should be perceived in accordance with his or her own culture. This concept of cultural relativism came about during discussions about the origin of human rights. There are quite a few ideas and claims that have led to the concept of cultural relativism, one of them being Kant’s argument that human beings are incapable of gaining unmediated knowledge of the world, and that the human mind interferes with all our experiences of the world, thus structuring our perceptions universally. However Herder disagreed with Kant’s argument saying that human experiences were mediated by cultural structures as well. As a result of this debate between Kant and Herder, came the belief of ethnocentrism.

The Universal Human Rights Doctrine

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set the pattern for the contemporary conception of human rights.It was established as a result of the World War II atrocities as a means of protecting citizens and residents of various states.

The conflict between the universal human rights doctrine and cultural relativism came about during the establishment of the Universal human rights doctrine in 1948. The conflict arose due to the theory that there was some kind of dominance over some cultures, and that the universal human rights doctrine come from ‘European’ or ‘Western’ philosophy. This doctrine was the Universalist approach to human rights that placed value on individuals. On the contrary, some theorists believe that the enactment of these human rights is not the only way that human rights exist. There is the theory that people are born with natural, God-given rights and that God is the absolute law-maker who bestowed upon us some basic human rights. For this reason itself, cultural relativism critics therefore argue that there should be no exception to the universal claim to human rights as some of these rights are already natural and God-given.

2.3 Cultural Relativism versus Universalism

Now that we have defined cultural relativism and the universal declaration of human rights, one question comes to mind based on the two theories. Can universal human rights exist in a multicultural world? In other words, can the concept of cultural relativism really coexist with the notion of universal human rights?

Naturally, cultural relativists argue that there are indeed moral justifications underlying the claim that various practices and beliefs differ from society to society and should be accepted as being relative to other cultural beliefs. For example, women in some cultures that undergo female genital mutilation are regarded as “clean” and “pure”. One culture may believe that there is indeed some moral justification towards this practice, as women who don’t go through the “cut” are considered “unclean and are seen as outcasts in their societies. On the other hand, a different cultural group may practice eating of dead bodies as a ritual. Cultural relativists would therefore claim that one cannot justly say which culture is right or wrong as this proves to be relative within different cultures. It is therefore possible to say that, from the cultural relativist point of view, there is no particular ‘truth’ in what is right or wrong but rather the truth depends on what a particular culture believes is right or wrong. This observation in turn then brings me to my next point. If the views of the ‘truth’ on what is right or wrong is relative, then the issue of morality definitely plays a huge role in this debate.

Our moral beliefs indicate the kind of environment or culture we grew up in. Therefore, if we were born in Somalia, we would believe that it is morally right to go through female circumcision as a rite of passage. However, if we grew up in the western world, then we would not believe in female circumcision. We can therefore see the relativist’s argument of cultural relativism in this case, because if cultural relativism exists, then naturally, morality will also be relative. Additionally, to support his stance, the relativist will also argue that tolerance comes into play when it comes to cultural relativism.

Contemporary society is often referred to as a multicultural world, with people from various cultures increasingly becoming accustomed to interacting with people from other cultures. As a result of this, the ability to learn to respect and tolerate different cultural practices and beliefs has developed. In today’s society, people have shown an increased reluctance to criticise other cultures for various reasons. One of these reasons could be the fear of history repeating itself. An example of this is the European invasion of different parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and America, in the name of spreading Christianity and education. The aftermath of this resulted in slavery, apartheid and many other violations. The reluctance to criticise other cultures in this case arises from the fear of making the same violations as in the past. Another reason why there is the reluctance to criticise other cultures is that people feel the need to be tolerant of other cultures. Truth be told, tolerance is indeed essential for the sake of living in this multicultural world of ours peacefully. However, one should not feel obligated to tolerate particular cultural beliefs, especially if it involves some form of human rights violation.

However, relativists can argue that tolerating these different cultural practises has led to the acceptance of some of these various practices especially in the western world, for example, the Muslim veil. The contradiction here comes about when these same Muslim women are undergoing various human rights violations as a result of their cultural beliefs, for example, female genital mutilation. In this particular case, is it possible for relativists to defend human rights as well as justify cultural relativism? This surely indicates some contradiction in the cultural relativism theory, for one cannot support cultural relativism and defend human rights at the same time.

It is true that people from different cultures have different ideas of what is right and what is wrong. Warburton describes moral relativism as “values held by a particular society at a particular time.However, moral relativism, just like cultural relativism can also be perceived in different ways by different cultures. In other words, relativists see that moral values are valid only within some cultural boundaries. Some examples illustrated by anthropologists as morally acceptable in some cultures and condemned by others are polygamy, genocide and sexism. Consequently, the moral difference in these cultures brings about the issue of ethics. Ethical relativism also promotes the belief that morality is, and cannot be universal. Moral relativism is therefore justified by relativist through various examples. For instance, practices regarding clothing and decency. This can be justified by one culture in that it is their moral obligation and duty to have women dress in a decent manner so as not to compromise their ethics. Some cultures would therefore agree with these practises under the moral principle that it is the duty of society to protect the women of their society.

With that beings said, I do not believe that there is any logical connection between cultural relativism and tolerance as is illustrated in the relativism point of view. Furthermore, I disagree with moral relativism because despite some moral beliefs being culturally relative, there are other beliefs that are not relative. Practices such sexism and dressing depend on the local customs and traditions. However, violations such as torture, slavery and genocides, should definitely have universal moral standards. Therefore not all practices should be deemed as being relative just because some practises are deemed as being so.

The “Asian Values” Argument

Today, there has been a tremendous improvement over the years towards the universal system of human rights. There is now the increased need for accountability and responsibility for individuals and society. However, this is not the case in Asian societies. The Asian society claims to come from a culture with an exceptional set of values. This was done while they criticised western ideas and culture. According to Asian values, human rights are culturally specific, communities take precedence over individuals, social and economic rights take precedence over political and civil rights, and rights are a matter of national sovereignty.This concept has therefore been celebrated by relativists, and used as an example to support the relativist theory of cultural relativism.

The issue of “Asian values” was brought about during discussions by East and South Eastern government leaders. The Journal of Democracy explains that the basis of “Asian values” is said to contribute to high growth rates to certain cultural traits. These characteristics include hard work, frugality, discipline and team work. Western democracy hinders rapid development.With that being said, it was easier for relativists to justify their rejection towards universalism because there was an increase in economic growth in the Asian region that accompanied this debate. In the 1970s, some countries in the Sub Saharan region had tried to oppose these liberal views of the “Western world”. This proved to be unsuccessful as they did not harbour the same economic results as their Asian counterparts. In addition to this, as a result of the tremendous economic growth in the Asian region, the “Asian values” debate received the attention and even admiration of the international community. “Asian authoritarians argue from a position of economic and social success”. This has therefore presented a challenge towards the universal theory of human rights because developmentalists have used the concept of “Asian values” to justify cultural relativism, and have even presented evidence that has shown tremendous success in some Asian states.

In spite of this, the Asian values argument has still proven to promote various human rights violations. An example of these human rights violations is the situation of the Harijans, or the people outside the Indian caste system, who had the lowest social status? The Harijans, are also referred to as the untouchables of the Caste System.

In more economically advanced Asian states, the use of “soft authoritarianism” is said to be sufficient.

Additionally another way in which cultural relativism in conjunction with the “Asian values” argument poses a threat toward universalism is the issue of technology. As we embrace the growth of information technology, we see that this improves globalisation as communication and other forms of interaction are enhanced. However, in states such as Malaysia and Singapore, there has been an establishment of authoritarian interferences by the government, where services such as the internet are being monitored or even blocked. This poses a potential risk and hindrance towards globalisation.

In spite of the “Asian values” seemingly strong argument, the Asian region’s success seems to have been short-lived as the decline in economic growth has somewhat changed the way in which the international community views their “Asian values” argument.

With that said, if we really take all this into consideration, it is possible to see that it is ridiculous to create standards of morality based on these societies as every society perceives morality according to their own interests and interpretations. It is also quite impossible to permit these major differences in the interpretation of human rights standards, if they are to protect individuals. The Asian Values argument is therefore highly irrelevant, as we can see, because the Asian society places its citizen’s lives at risk as it violates various human rights in the name of “Asian values” and attempting to justify their actions as being culturally relative.

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Criticism of Cultural Relativism

We live in a world where cultural relativism is constantly questioned and debated. As earlier stated, relativism came about as a result of arguments on ethical issues. In support of cultural relativism, Benedictexplains that “cultures are coexisting and equally valid patterns of life, which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.”According to Benedict, all cultures are equally valid as they embrace different views on morality and ethics. However, Kluckhohndisagreed with Benedict’s doctrine on cultural relativism saying that this excluded any kind of moral criticism, his argument being that if one accepted Benedict’s theory, then they could not, complain about any kind of evil against humanity including slavery, communism, terrorism and many other forms of evil.The perception of cultural relativism is that people’s rights depend on their nationality, culture, and religion. Therefore according to relativist, the rights of people in Nigeria are different from those in China or anywhere in the world. Namazie gives the following examples to demonstrate the absurdity of these cultural relativist claims;

[1] An 18-year-old woman was burnt to death by her father after having refused to marry the man he had chosen, in Germany. The courts gave her father a reduced sentence, saying he was practicing his culture and religion. [2] In Iran, women and girls are forcibly veiled under the threat of imprisonment and lashes, and cultural relativists say that it is their religion and must be respected. [3] In Holland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that Iran’s prisons are ”satisfactory” for third world standards”, allowing the forcible return of asylum seekers.

With each of these examples, among all other forms of evil against humanity, we can clearly see that cultural relativism promotes these crimes. Namazie goes on to argue that the basis of the cultural relativist debate opposes the imposition of “western” views onto “non-westerners”. How, then, is it that when it comes to using the telephone, or the car, the mullah does not say it is western and incompatible with Muslim society?It is therefore safe to say that these countries are using the claim to cultural relativism as an excuse to get away with various human rights violations. Relativists using “the imposition of western culture” as an excuse does not hold water as these same countries still use “western” ideas in different aspects of their lives. Furthermore, these countries are, in fact, quite westernised societies. The fact that these are former colonies of the British and French empires, who now speak “western” languages, is proof of their westernisation.

In addition to this, Namazie goes on to say that in respect to cultural relativists, there should be a clear distinction between human beings and human beliefs and cultures. She adds that human beings are the element of importance in the universalism-relativism argument and not their beliefs. She adds that human beings are sacred and worthy of the highest respect and it is human beings that are meant to be equal and not their beliefs.The reason as to why cultural relativism is deemed as racist and discriminatory is because, while the universal human rights doctrine aims to protect human beings as being the most sacred creature, relativists are seen as merely choosing to forgo the human being and are only worried about protecting their culture, which in most cases harms the human beings in their societies.

Cultural relativism also promotes minoritism, as different cultures embrace the classification of people in their societies. For example, the Caste system of Hinduism which rejects equal treatment of different caste members in Hindu society. As stated earlier, these individuals are denied various rights such as education, healthcare and jobs. Cultural relativism, in turn, denies the victims of these situations any access to universal standards. Furthermore, since cultural relativism supports groups of cultures, it logical to say that individual rights in these cultures are disregarded. This means that individuals have no say in anything as society speaks for them and decides what is right or wrong for the individual. Moreover, Universalists believe that cultural relativism has caused more harm than good towards cultures. An example of this is the war in between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli culture claims that they are fighting to get their holy land, Jerusalem, back. However, this war has killed thousands of Muslims in the name of doing what is culturally “right” in accordance with the relativist theory.

In the past, anthropologists were not afraid to show their discontentment about various unjust practises such as Apartheid against South Africans and the acts of genocide performed by the Nazi. Today, however, they have not spoken against similar practises that endanger human life such as female circumcision and even genocide in Rwanda and Sudan. How, then is it possible for one to rely on a theory that contradicts itself in this manner? If we therefore reflect on these relativist theories, cultural relativism just seems very unrealistic and impractical.


All in all, although we learn about the virtue of tolerance from the cultural relativism theory, it is safe to say that the reason why we believe it is so important to be tolerant of other cultures is because we are also want to experience our own freedom, thus we do not want other cultures to criticize our own. Nobody wants to have their freedom restricted, and therefore if we want to enjoy the freedom to enjoy our beliefs we would not dare to limit the freedom of the beliefs of cultures we do not agree with.

Furthermore, we can clearly see how overall, the cultural relativism theory seems to make sense. However, under careful scrutiny, it does not make for sound argument. It is obvious to see, just as Rachels argues, that “the mere fact that there is no real “truth” when it comes to morality due to the difference in cultural beliefs, proves to show that the cultural relativism argument attempts to extract the definition of morality from the simple basis that people do not agree with it in the first place.”

While different countries have the right to demand their rights in various ways, there are fundamental doctrines that should be made universal. Dress, Language, food and other minor beliefs and traditions can vary, and cultures should be allowed the freedom to practice them. However practices such as slavery, sexism, female genital mutilation, and infanticide, among other human rights violations must be held up to universal standards.

Cultural relativism is therefore not an answer to human rights concerns, nor will it be in the future.


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