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In Defence of Human Rights.

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Recent events in current affairs have shown how world leaders have failed to uphold human right regulations per the UN human rights charter, on the basis that they are culturally inappropriate, or eroding the sovereignty of their respective nation-states. As such, I feel it necessary to remind my readers, and myself above all (!), why such actions are morally wrong and how human rights are logically, and morally, justifiable. 

The following essay argues that we should institutionalise a set of universal human rights even if they are not universally accepted. This assertion is made because there is a moral obligation for all states to provide their citizens with an institutionalized set of human rights. To prove this, I will evaluate cultural relativist arguments through a cosmopolitan lens with reference to specific concepts outlined by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. I conclude that a set of human rights should be institutionalised and universally applied regardless of cultural relativists objections.

To argue for an institutionalized set of universal human rights, with reference to cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and the criticisms posed by cultural relativists on the other, definitions of these two concepts are required. Cultural relativism is an important concept and an appropriate focus for this essay because it provides a key challenge to the notion of institutionalisation of a universal set of human rights. For the purposes of this assessment, cultural relativism is understood to refer to the recognition that social understandings of morals, ethics, and social practices, are dependent on the immediate surrounding culture, and therefore vary according to a given culture. Cosmopolitanism believes that moral values are universal to all, regardless of individual differences because we are all citizens of the world, due to the shared biological fact that we are all humans. With these definitions in mind, I can critically assess cultural relativist claims opposing the concept of institutionalising a universally applicable set of human rights, and this can be compared to the cosmopolitan perspective which takes essentially the contrary view.

The concept of a universally institutionalised set of human rights for moral reasons is challenged by cultural relativism. This challenge usually revolves around the claim that one culture cannot impose its own ethics and morals on another, because these morals or ethics may not be relevant or appropriate to the culture they are imposed. This idea has a certain logic when framed by the work of John Locke. Locke discusses how humans have a right to a set of natural “inalienable” human rights, rights independent of a social structure/civic society. In addition, he says these inalienable rights cannot be determined by individual states because each state will have a different view of civic rights. Locke makes a clear distinction between what morally constitutes and makes a human right morally binding by focusing on the concept of social structure. From the perspective of a cultural relativist, Locke appears to endorse their approach in opposing the notion that one society can define or impose their human rights on another when referring to civic rights.

To better highlight this relationship between cultural relativism and the theory of human rights presented by Locke, let us consider the hypothetical situation of Country A and Country B. Country A provides certain rights for its citizens that fall within the Lockean concept of natural rights. However, as a consequence of ethnic and religious discrimination, it does not provide large portions of its population with the right to vote. In contrast, Country B not only provides natural human rights but also voting rights for all members of its society, regardless of ethnic or religious differences. Lockean thought would suggest that neither country has violated a human right because both countries provide natural rights for their citizens. So, Country B is wrong to assume that Country A is morally obliged to provide all its citizens with the right to vote, nor would it be correct in claiming Country A is violating the human rights of its citizens because, per Locke, the right to vote is not a natural right, rather a civic right dependent on the social structure of that society.  Therefore, cultural relativists could argue how a set of civic rights in any country cannot be subject to criticism from other countries because they are not natural rights. Yet by Lockean’s theory of inalienable natural rights, it would be implied that countries arguing from a cultural relativist perspective would still have to provide natural rights, which would be universal rather than dependent on particular social structures. This logic is furthered by the cosmopolitan view of natural human rights being universally morally binding due to the biological nature of being humans. Cultural relativists, therefore, are morally wrong because there remains a moral obligation for states to provide a set of natural human rights for their citizens, as emphasised by Locke. In fact, there is an inherent unfairness in granting certain states the benefit of the doubt regarding their civic rights, so long as they provide citizens with their natural rights per the Lockean concept of inalienable rights. To prevent the danger of allowing certain societies, embracing the cultural relativist perspective, from determining their cultural interpretation of rights for their citizens, I offer the ‘Social Contract theory’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a solution.  

The Social Contract theory of Rousseau argues how humans are easily corrupted due to human nature. To prevent this, they willingly enter a Social Contract with a sovereign authority (eg the state). The contract would legitimize state power over the individual, by seeing those same individuals voluntarily sacrifice certain liberties for the common goal of a society which, in return, sustains and supports certain fundamental individual freedoms. Furthermore, Rousseau claims any coercive state power should be viewed as illegitimate because it jeopardizes individual freedoms guaranteed by the voluntarily signed Social Contract between the state and the citizen. Since Rousseau viewed coercive power as illegitimate, citizens were morally justified to rebel against such a state to ensure those guaranteed liberties. I propose the implementation of the Social Contract theory on a global scale, by changing the notion of citizenship from a state level to an international level as suggested by cosmopolitanism. This reinforces the validity of the cosmopolitan argument that posits a universal set of human rights for all.

From a cultural relativist perspective, however, this proposal could be rejected, including with reference to Rousseau, since he did not originally intend for a universal Social Contract. As such, this concept could be argued to be state-dependent, rather than universal proving problematic for the cosmopolitan basis of my argument. Conversely, however, this argument has been shown, by both Sen and Donnelly, to be a justification for authoritarian rule. Since authoritarian regimes typically coerce their citizens to conform to their society’s principles; they are therefore illegitimate by the standards of Rousseau. Consequently, according to Rousseau, cultural relativists cannot justify their lack of an institutionalised set of universal human rights based on culture, because they risk violating the Social Contract entered into between the citizens and the state. Therefore, this defeats the challenge posed by cultural relativists that a universal Social Contract is not justifiable because cultural relativists have been shown to frequently seek justification for authoritarian rule which conflicts with the rules of Rousseau’s Social Contract.

With reference to Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, it is possible to extend and elaborate Rousseau’s argument which in itself reinforces the cosmopolitan view that it is morally justified to bind all states to an institutionalised universal set of human rights. According to Kant, morality is determined by the intellect of an individual and the consideration of others, and it should thus be made universal. Morality could not be universal if dependent on religion as this would cause a variance as to what constitutes a moral right between two individuals of different faiths. To argue for a universal moral law, Kant refers to his four categorical imperatives. I have chosen to select the “Formula of Humanity” (FoH) principle as it directly correlates and supplements the cosmopolitan emphasis of my argument. In FoH, Kant states that only by considering how everyone is an “end[s] in themselves” people can rely on others for personal advancement. Treating someone as an “end in themselves” means sympathizing with their personal freedoms. In addition, a recognition that they must agree to be used in a certain way for the treatment to be considered moral is also necessary to establish. Simply put, for Person A to adhere to a universal moral rule they must not use Person B for their own gain, Person B must agree to be used. Failing to adhere to this logic is immoral by Kantian morally universal rule.

FoH focuses on the idea we can never use individuals in a way that conflicts with their personal freedoms. This is related to Social Contract theory, as states are unable to coerce their citizens as this would conflict with the personal freedoms of said citizens. This too reiterates Locke’s natural rights theory that all humans have an “inalienable” set of natural rights. The direct link between FoH and the cosmopolitan premise outlined above means this argument is justifiable in any context. This is highlighted by Sen’s criticism of cultural relativists where he suggests that regardless of cultural differences any individual can recognize when a person has their personal “liberties … violated.” His justification for this criticism can be proven correct both logically and morally because, according to Kant’s FoH, under no circumstances can we ignore the personal freedoms of individuals. Similarly, under the Social Contract and Natural Rights theories, a person cannot have their personal liberties violated. Kant submits the categorical imperative to emphasize how moral principles are indeed universal, thereby lending credence to the cosmopolitan basis of my moral argument regarding the need for all states to implement a universal set of human rights, due to the existing moral obligation they all have to their citizens.

As explained in this essay, a set of universal human rights should be institutionalised despite cultural differences that suggest they may not necessarily be universally accepted. This position was framed by a moral argument heavily rooted in cosmopolitanism including with reference to concepts posited by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Regarding Locke, it was noted that a division between civic and natural rights did not justify cultural relativist arguments against universal human right implementation. Rousseau’s Social Contract theory emphasised the need for all states to grant citizens their personal liberties in exchange for certain rights and protections conferred by the state. I also noted that cultural relativist arguments have been deployed to justify authoritarian regimes including with a view to constrain human rights and eschew their institutionalisation because of different cultural norms and references.  This is in violation of Rousseau’s Social Contract theory regarding his conclusion that coercive power is illegitimate and thus immoral. Finally, I referred to Kant’s categorical imperative FoH to further reinforce the overarching argument that all states must abide by a universal moral rule, which in itself applies to citizens regardless of which state they live in, thereby lending support to the cosmopolitan perspective. Thus, although culture may appear at first to be a relevant factor to consider, its proponents are unable to persuasively explain why there should not be an institutionalised and universal set of human rights, despite their not being universally agreed.

Although I put much effort into originality when articulating the above ideas, I could not have achieved the level of output in writing without the following sources: 

Brown, Garrett W., Iain McLean, and Alistair McMillan. “Cultural Relativism.” In Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics and International Relations. Fourth ed.

Dall, WM. H., and Franz Boas. “Museums of Ethnology and Their Classification.” Science 9, no. 228 (June 17, 1887): 587-89.

Donnelly, Jack. “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 6, no. 4 (November 1984): 400-19.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Ellington. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, US: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.

Kwame, Appiah. Cosmopolitanism. Ethics in a World of Strangers. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2006.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract (Classics of World Literature). Edited by Tom Griffith. Ware, United Kingdom: Woodsworth Editions, 1998.

Sen, Amartya. Human Rights and Asian Values. New York, USA: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, 1997.

Tharoor, Shashi. “Are Human Rights Universal.” World Policy Journal XVI, no. 4 (Winter 200): 1-6.

Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosophy.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified January 11, 2016. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=locke-political.

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