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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 18, 1999 at 02:00 PM
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Human Rights and Cultural Reform
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            Scholars who deny the relevance of culture to the human rights debate usually favor a unilinear view of history that equates moral with technical superiority.  According to this view, human cultures form a continuum in which primitive cultures represent one extreme while modern culture represents the other.  Primitive cultures are seen to be lacking not only in technology, but in morality as well.  Primitive cultures are described as barbaric and savage, while modern culture is seen as refined and civilized.  History, from a unilinear viewpoint, is nothing but the movement from the primitive to the modern which forms the end of history.[45]  The logical conclusion of the conception of history as modernization is that modern culture is the measure of all cultures.  The problem with this conception, though, is that it fails to account for important historical events.  The unilinear conception of history fails, for instance, to explain why the European culture was more vibrant and developed ― politically, philosophically, and artistically ― during the Roman civilization than in medieval times.  From the modernization perspective, culture is not relevant to the debate on human rights because there is nothing for modern culture to learn from other cultures.  Modern culture should set the standards for both moral and technical action, and them pass then on to less developed cultures.

            This is in essence the conclusion of a leading advocate of radical universalism in a chapter published as part of an edited book entitled Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus.  Taking exception to the idea of a cross-cultural consensus on human rights, she writes:

            In this chapter I have argued against the enterprise of surveying world cultures and religions in order to establish consensus on human rights that would answer charges that such are a Western Creation.

                        To look for an anthropologically based consensus on the content of human rights is to miss the point.  There may be aspects of agreement worth noting among what many societies take to be fundamental to a life of dignity and what the modern notion of human rights includes as its content.  The concept of human rights is not universal in origin, however; and it cannot be located in most societies.[46]


Granted that an elaborate set of rights, purporting to protect the individual against an excessive or arbitrary use of power by the state, was first articulated by the modern West, one should not dismiss cross-cultural consensus as irrelevant.  For even if we were to assume that the West could learn nothing from non-Western cultures, a cross-cultural dialogue would still be needed to understand the implications of applying a set of extremely abstract rights in various socio-political milieus.  Such an understanding should help expand the margin of tolerance for cultural differences, and the appreciation of the complexity of cultural reform and the need to allow this process to run its natural course.[47]

            Other proponents of absolute universalism concede that human rights are a cultural concept, and acknowledge the need for a cross-cultural basis for the claim of universal validity.  One interesting proposal has been advanced by Bassam Tibi in the form of international morality to be “shared by all civilizations.”[48]  Noting Huntington’s warning against an impending “clash of civilizations”, Tibi underscores the vitality of international morality for binding the various “civilizations” in a peaceful pact.  He rightly points out that “human rights cannot be established internationally on the basis of overall universalism but rather on such cross-cultural foundations for a universal morality.”[49]  He further emphasizes the importance of “unbiased cultural dialogue and inter-cultural communication,” freed from the limiting concerns of foreign policy and national interests.[50]  It turns out, however, that the cross-cultural dialogue he envisaged does not involve a true cross-cultural exchange, but rather a one-sided intellectual exercise that aims at addressing the question of “what ought to be done to make Muslims speak the language of human rights in their own tongue?”[51]

            It is obvious that an absolute universalistic stance is incompatible with “unbiased cultural dialogue,” even when the proponents of such a stance truly desire this dialogue.  A coercive discourse in which the proponents of one of the contending points of view feel justified by their strategic positioning to dictate on others their own morality cannot be called a cross-cultural dialogue, but rather a hegemonic discourse.  A true and meaningful dialogue requires that the parties involved be truly interested in understanding the opposing views, and are involved in “a completely open and reciprocal form of discursive interaction.”[52]  The transition from a hegemonic discourse to a cross-cultural dialogue requires, therefore, more than the manipulation of linguistic usage.  The transition requires change in attitude and approach, from one that relies on power relationship to one that depends on rational interaction, or, to use Habermasian categories, a transition from a strategic speech act whose aim is to advance the interests of the powerful actor, to communicative speech act, whose goal is to influence the actions of others by appealing to their rational sense.[53]  Put more precisely, for the transition from a hegemonic discourse, denoting a strategic interaction, to a true cross-cultural dialogue, signifying a communicative interaction, to take place, three preconditions must be met: (1) the universalism of human rights must be established objectively, (2) the moral autonomy of the various national and cultural communities that form the world community must be recognized and respected, and (3) the self-righteous claim by any cultural group of the superiority of its moral system must be rejected.

            Arguments for the universality of human rights invoke, more often than not, the subjective rather than the objective dimension of universalism.  Subjective universalism is monological because it takes “the form of a hypothetical process of argumentation occurring in the individual mind.”[54] Subjective universalization process follows the pattern set by Kant in the form of the Categorical Imperative: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[55]  From a Kantian point of view, a rule can be universal if it passes the test of the reciprocity principle, viz. if the person who adopts the rule as a maxim for his/her action is willing to be treated by others according to the same rule.  The principle of universalization as formulated by Kant is a subjective principle that can have a universal validity only in so far as others share the same moral subjectivity with the moral actor. Put differently, the Kantian principle of universalization, which takes the form of a subjective process of generalization, can work only in a homogenous culture in which people share common intersubjectivity.  However, as soon as one moves into a world characterized by cultural pluralism, say a world which resembles the international society, a different principle of universalization would be needed.  Here, a new version of the Categorical Imperative, such as the one formulated by Thomas McCarthy, would be more relevant:

            Rather than ascribing as valid to all others any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality.  The emphasis shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a general law, to what all can will in agreement to be a universal norm.[56]


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