Universalism and Cultural Relativism: Understanding the clash of human rights ideas

By | April 21, 2021

The Doctrine of Cultural Relativism represents moral rules, social institutions evidence, and astonishing cultural and historical variability. Being an undeniable fact, cultural relativity holds that at least some of such variations are exempted from legitimate criticism by outsiders. The doctrine is strongly supported by notions of self-determination and communal autonomy. Since human rights are vested with everyone simply because one is a human, moral rules would seem to be essentially universal by definition.

The present article discusses how the competing claims of universalism can and cultural relativism ideas in human rights can be reconciled? To discuss so, the articles specify the nature of the relationship between universal human rights and cultural relativity and argue for a pragmatic approach that preserves the tensions between the two, and the insights of both the concepts of relativism and universalism.

I. Introduction

The expression of “Human Rights” is relatively new to International Law, introduced only post World War II and the establishment of the United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 says that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”[1]. In the history of human rights, this adoption and proclamation of human rights by the General Assembly of the UN in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 is indeed a milestone document.

The international protection of human rights is indeed a revolutionary idea; however, traditional disciplines of international law have nothing to do with it at all. It has been an accepted doctrine that international law is to regulate the relations between nation-states, but not individuals.  However, the debate on the internationalization of human rights, as to whether all human rights are universal, or there are certain rights and freedoms of human beings that can be avoided for the cultural features.

The dilemma of internal protection of human rights is the ideological conflict of the approach of Universalism and Cultural Relativism concepts. This article separately examines this long debate of understating the prism of human rights through Universalism and Cultural Relativism.

 II. The notion of Cultural Relativism

The notion of cultural relativism suggests it as the assertion that human values, far from being universal, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives.[2] It signifies views on the connection between morals, and culture, or humanity. Apart from the universalism concept, cultural relativism is also based on the ethics, morals, and customs of each human society and it typically differs from one another. Then, what is the crux or importance of cultural relativism in civil society? Well, it is the set of vision that all morals, beliefs, and traditions are in respect to the person inside of his own community setting.

We know the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are society centric, and what is considered as good in one society may be seen as morally wrong in another society, and, since no international standards regulating morals and ethical behaviours exist, nobody has the privilege to judge traditions of another society. Additionally, no one can judge someone, or a person for having different cultural values, in particular morals and ethics in community.

The notion of cultural relativism is an aphoristic standard introduced by Franz Boas and advanced by his successors from human science in the 1940s. The concept was then mixed with moral relativism during the meeting of the Human Rights Commission of the United Countries in setting up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1946-1948.

In 1887, Franz Boas created this principle and described it as “… civilization is not something complete but is relative, and our thoughts and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes”[3], whereby he formed a percept of anthropological research.

Thus, one of the major drawbacks of this theory is that the perception of ‘culture’ in relation to the concept as something stable and constant, with no scope of change. In fact, all kinds of cultural relativism suggest culture as a stable conception that fails to recognize the actual flexibility of culture to bring social changes in society and ideological innovations.

Indeed it is an ongoing process of historical development, adaption, and evolution, however, some argue that it can be dangerous for the effectiveness of international protection of human rights since the very nature of the notion fundamentally justified human rights abuses linking it to the traditions and customs prevailing in the society. This indicates that the concept of cultural relativism leads to the idea that the essential social unit is the society and not individuals. This leads to the question of whether the society as a whole has the rights to impose its will on an individual of the society, or whether it has the right to limit any eliminable right of an individual?

In my opinion, despite a country’s unique cultural traditions and ethics, the traditions should always be meant to be more flexible in order to meet the challenges of time.

III. The approach of Universalism

The approach of universalism concept of human rights can be founded not only in common law, equity, injustice, response to dignity, and fairness of appreciation, but also moral agency, capacities of a human being, and self-ownership, among other people, universal sets of rules, standards, and values are based on Western countries prospects.

The history of the universalism concept can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, as a pivotal guide to mankind. The declaration expressed a novel denotation to the word “universalism.”  It suggests that the fundamental principles and values highlighting the human rights concept are of a universal character. Thus, these principles and values referred to the concept of individual freedom and liberty, the belief in a democratic system and political rights, the acknowledgement of social and economic rights. It can be said that to a larger extent, universalism is one of the indispensable ideas of human rights.

Accordingly, it won’t be incorrect to say that human rights are civil rights with universal rules and values to be followed. All individuals being human are the possessor of these civil rights, independent from, where they come from, what they actually do, where they reside and from their national background, their community, etc.[4]

IV. Clash between Universalism and Cultural Relativist Model

The concept of universalism indicates individuals as the social unit of society, possessing inalienable human rights, which are driven out of the pursuit of self-interest. The concept simply holds that each individual possesses certain inalienable human rights because he or she is a human being, regardless the gender or age, national background, political or religious views. The proponent of the Universalism concept claim that “the international human rights like rights to equal protection, physical security, free speech, freedom of religion and free association are and must be the same everywhere.”[5]

The concept of Universalism is based on three fundamental jurisprudential theories. They are discussed as follow:

  1. The natural law theory: the roots of natural law theory go back to ancient times. The main significance of this theory is that natural law is defined as the eliminable human rights and is standing above any man-made positive law. This theory is necessary to be followed in all nation-states.
  2. The theory of rationalism: The theory of rationalism is a closely related concept with natural law theory and says it “is a theory of universal laws based on a belief in the universal human capacity to reason and think rationally.”[6] Rationalism theory supersedes the idea of the divine origin of natural law with the theory that each individual is bestowed with certain eliminable rights due to the universal capacity of all individuals to think rationally. In essence, both the theories of natural law theory and theory of rationalism considers that universal human rights should not depend on cultural diversities and specialities.
  3. The theory of positivism: The theory of positivism represents the existence of universal human rights noting the acceptance and ratification of human rights instruments by the vast majority of states regardless of their cultural background. It appears that the concept of Universalism with its supporting theories of natural law, rationalism and positivism finds the source of human rights in international law, rather than in individual cultures. Human Rights are extra cultural.

On the contrary, as discussed, the cultural relativist model sees community as the basic social unit which means that human rights ideas such as freedom of choice, equality, and individualism are absent. Cultural Relativism always recognizes community as the first social unit, which evidently indicates its loophole is leaving room for several human rights cases of abuse.

The doctrine of cultural relativism has been exploited in so many states, which decry any impositions of western rights as cultural imperialism. The concept is in itself a very arbitrary idea, where different cultures are rarely unified in their viewpoints on different issues, it is always those “who hold the microphone [that] do not agree”.[7]

V. Conclusion

After close inspection of the concepts of Universalism and Cultural Relativism, the author has come to a conclusion that not limited to only societies but also the notions are extended to regulations of social relations of several communities which are done through the native traditional norms. While on the same note, it is to say that every other rejection of the concepts of international human rights may lead to serious systematic abuses of human rights within our societies or communities.

It is also seen that sometimes international protection of human rights is used for political purposes and any human rights violations may lead to the intervention of armed forces of one country into another country’s territory. When this occurs, the concept of cultural relativism becomes unjustifiable; however, its existence is not. To conclude, cultural relativism is an outcome of natural historical development, thus, it is a problem that could not be avoided.

[1] Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

[2] Universalism and Cultural Relativism in human rights International Law,  Available here

[3] Franz Boas 1887 “Museums of Ethnology and their classification” Science 9: 589.

[4] Universality of Human Rights,  Dr. Peter Kirchschläger, Co-Director of the Centre of Human Rights Education, University of Teacher Education of Central Switzerland – Lucerne, Available here

[5] https://www.academia.edu/35645672/Universalism_versus_Cultural_Relativism_of_Human_Rights.

[6] https://satorimeditations.com/site/2e0f8f-universalism-theory-of-human-rights.

[7] Universalism versus cultural relativism philosophy, Available here

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Author: Deepshikha

Deepshikha is a law student from National Law University, Odisha.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.