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)

Jack Donnelly—Defining “Cultural Relativism”


The strongest form of radical cultural relativism would hold that the concept “human being” is of no moral significance, that the mere fact that one is a human being is irrelevant to one’s moral status. Many premodern societies have not even recognized “human being” as a descriptive category, but instead defined persons by social status or by group membership. For example the very names of many cultures mean simply “the people” (e.g., Hopi, Arapaho, Bantu), and their origin myths may define them as separate from outsiders, who are somehow “not-human.” Similarly, the ancient Greeks divided the world into Hellenes and barbarians.

This view, however, is almost universally rejected in the contemporary world. For example, chattel slavery and caste systems, which implicitly deny the existence of a morally significant common humanity, are almost universally condemned, even in the most rigid class societies. Likewise, moral distinctions between insiders and outsiders have been seriously eroded by greatly increased individual mobility and by an at least aspirational commitment to the idea of a universal human moral community. Even more striking is the apparent cross-cultural consensus on a few practices, which cannot be justified by even the hoariest of traditions, and certainly not by any new custom. For example, the prohibition of torture and the requirement of procedural due process in imposing and executing legal punishments seem to be accepted as binding by virtually all cultures, despite profound differences in specifying the practical and substantive meanings of these notions. There is also a striking cross-cultural consensus on many of the values that today we seek to protect through human rights, especially when those values are expressed in relatively general terms. Life, social order, protection from arbitrary rule, prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, the guarantee of a place in the life of the community, and access to an equitable share of the means of subsistence are central moral aspirations in nearly all cultures.

The radical relativist might respond that such consensus is irrelevant. Logically, this is correct; cross-cultural consensus does not necessarily entail any additional force for a moral rule. But most people do believe that such consensus adds force to the rule, so this kind of radical relativism, although logically impeccable, is in an important sense morally defective. In effect, a moral analogue to customary international law seems to operate. If a practice is nearly universal and generally perceived as obligatory, that practice is required of all members of the community. And if there is at least a weak cosmopolitan moral community, it would impose certain substantive limitations on the range of permissible cultural moral variation.

Notice, however, that Donnelly contends only that there are at least a few cross-culturally valid moral values. This still leaves open the possibility of a radical cultural relativist denial of human rights. Such an argument would hold that while there may be universal moral rules or values, human rights in the strict and strong sense of the term (inalienable entitlements held equally by all, grounding particularly strong claims that may be made against the state and society) are but one of several defensible mechanisms to protect human dignity, which in any case is largely a culturally determined notion. Plausible arguments can be advanced to justify alternative mechanisms to guarantee human dignity—for example, natural law, which imposes transcultural moral obligations that are not correlative to rights. Few, if any states, however, actually advance such arguments. In the First, Second and Third Worlds alike, a strong commitment to human rights is almost universally proclaimed, even where practice throws that commitment into question. Moreover, even if such proclamations are merely rhetorical fashion, such a widespread international moral “fashion” must have some substantive basis.

That basis is the moral hazard presented by the modern state. Traditional rulers usually faced substantially more limits in their political power, customary limits that were entirely independent of human rights, and the relative technological and administrative weakness of traditional states and nonstate political institutions further restrained arbitrary uses of power. In such a world, inalienable entitlements of individuals against state and society might plausibly be held to be superfluous (because basic dignity was being guaranteed by alternative mechanisms), if not possibly dangerous to well-established practices that realized a cultural conception of human dignity.

Such a world exists today only in a relatively small number of isolated areas. And the modern state, particularly in the Third World, not only operates relatively free of the moral constraints of custom but also has far greater administrative and technological reach. It thus represents a serious threat to basic human dignity, whether that dignity is defined in “traditional” terms or in “modern” terms. In such circumstances, at least certain human rights seem necessary rather than optional. In contemporary circumstances, then, radical or unrestricted relativism is as inappropriate as unrestricted universalism. Some kind of intermediate position is required.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University