Concepts and Ideas
Jack DonnellyDefining Cultural Relativism
In its most extreme form, what we can call radical cultural relativism would hold that culture is the sole source of the validity of a moral right or rule. Radical universalism would hold that culture is irrelevant to the validity of moral rights or rules, which are universally valid. The body of the continuum defined by these typical end-points that is those positions involving varying mixes of relativism and universalism can be roughly divided into what we can call strong cultural relativism and weak cultural relativism.
Strong cultural relativism holds that culture is the principal source of the validity of a moral right or rule. Universal human rights standards, however, serve as a check on potential excesses of relativism. At its furthest extreme, just short of radical relativism, strong cultural relativism would accept a few basic rights with virtual universal application, but allow such a wide range of variation for most rights that two entirely justifiable sets might overlap only slightly.
Weak cultural relativism holds that culture may be an important source of the validity of a moral right or rule. Universality is initially presumed, but the relativity of human nature, communities, and rights serve as a check on potential excesses of universalism. At its furthest extreme, just short of radical universalism, weak cultural relativism would recognize a comprehensive set of prima facie universal human rights, but allow occasional and strictly limited local variations and exceptions.
We must be careful not to use merely quantitative measures of relativism; qualitative judgments of the significance of different cultural variations that must also be incorporated. In a rough way, three hierarchical levels of variations can be distinguished involving cultural relativity in the substance of lists of human rights, in the interpretation of individual rights, and in the form in which particular rights are implemented. As we move down the hierarchy, we are in fact further specifying and interpreting (in the ordinary sense of that term) the higher level, and the range of permissible variations at a given level is set by the next higher level. For example, interpretations of a right are logically limited by the substance of a right. Even the range of variation in substance is set by the notions of human nature and dignity from which the list of rights derives.
Donnelly ultimately defends a weak cultural relativist position that permits deviations from universal human rights standards primarily at the level of form.
Relativity and Universality: A Necessary Tension
The dangers of the moral imperialism implied by radical universalism need hardly be emphasized. Radical universalism is subject to other moral objections as well. Moral rules, including human rights, function within a moral community. Radical universalism requires a rigid hierarchical ordering of the multiple moral communities to which individuals and groups belong. In order to preserve complete universality for human rights, the radical universalist must give absolute priority to the demands of the cosmopolitan moral community over all other (lower) moral communities.
This complete denial of national and subnational ethical autonomy and self-determination is not acceptable. Even if the nation should prove to be a doomed, transitory stage in the development of human moral community, there is no inescapable logical or moral reason why peoples cannot accept or choose it as their principal form of social organization and the locus of important extrafamilial moral and political commitments. Similar arguments might be made for other communities that do not encompass the entire human race.
Once we allow the moral validity of such commitments, we are bound to accept at least certain types of substantive moral variability, including variability in human rights practices. Such moral nationalism may be based on political reasons, such as an inability to agree on the structure of a supranational organization, or a fear of creating an instrument of universal tyranny. More directly moral reasons might also be advancedfor example, the advantage of international diversity provided by a strong commitment to national or local customs. Most important, it rests on the notion of self-determination. But however it is justified, at least certain choices of such moral communities demand respect from outsidersnot necessarily uncritical acceptance, let alone emulation, but, in some cases at least, tolerance.
If this is correct, are human rights in fact relative?
If human rights are based in human nature, on the simple fact that one is a human being, then how can human rights be relative in any fundamental way? The simple answer is that human nature is in itself in some measure culturally relative. There is a sense in which this is true even biologicallyfor example, if marriage partners are chosen on the basis of cultural preferences concerning height, weight, hair color, skin tone, or other physical attributes, the gene pool in a community may be altered in ways that are equivalent to natural mechanisms of selection. More important, culture can significantly influence the presence and expression of many less easily quantified aspects of human naturefor example, by encouraging or discouraging the development or perpetuation of certain personality traits and types.
The effects of culture in shaping individuals are systematic and may lead to the predominance of distinctive social types in different cultures. In any particular case, human naturethe realized nature of real human beingsis a social as well as a natural product. Whether we conceive of this process as involving cultural variation around an unalterable core or as cultural variation largely within a physiologically fixed range, there is a social side to human nature that cannot be denied, at least insofar as that nature is expressed. Human nature is a range of possibilities varying, in part in response to culture, within psychobiological limits; it is as much a project and an individual and social discovery as it is a given. Even if all behavior should prove to be ultimately genetic, the expression of that genetic endowment in human behaviorwhich also merits being called human natureis in considerable measure culturally determined.
The cultural variability of human nature not only permits but requires significant allowance for cross-cultural variations in human rights. But if all rights rested solely on culturally determined social rules, as radical cultural relativism holds, there could be no human rights, no rights one has simply as a human being. This denial of human rights is perfectly coherent and has been widely practiced. Nevertheless, it is morally indefensible today.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University