Preamble section 7:
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Concepts and Ideas

  1. Cultural Relativism and Universal Values
  2. Jack Donnelly--Defining "Cultural Relativism" (1)
  3. Jack Donnelly--Defining "Cultural Relativism" (2)

Cultural Relativism and Universal Values

As noted in the Introduction, a common understanding of the rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration is challenged by several scholars and world leaders. How truly "universal" is the Universal Declaration and how persuasive are the arguments of cultural relativists who challenge the Declaration's claim to universality?

Cultural relativity is an undeniable fact; moral rules and social institutions evidence an astonishing cultural and historical variability. The doctrine of cultural relativism holds that at least some such variations cannot legitimately be criticized by outsiders. On the other hand, if human rights are literally the rights everyone has simply on account of being human, then they must be universal by definition. How can the competing claims of cultural relativism and universal human rights be reconciled?

A wealth of literature has been produced on this question with scholars from anthropology, law, political science, area studies, religion and philosophy all examining different aspects of this complex relationship. In the discussion that follows, the views of two contemporary human rights thinkers are presented. First, the argument on cultural relativism and universal values in Jack Donnelly's book, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press,1989) is presented. At page 114 of his book, Donnelly indicates that his argument is self-consciously empirical and functional. The discussion below commences at page 109 of his book. Second, Amartya Sen's response to the so-called "Asian values" objection as laid out in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993 is outlined.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University