Week 4 INR

Week 4 Discussion

1.) Following Pogge, how do some of the world’s largest Multinational Corporations (MNCs) violate international human rights standards?

2.) Explain negative duties-–i.e., to avoid certain actions, and their role in human rights protection.

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3.) Define the elitist perspective of Cultural Relativism . Do you agree?

4.) Explain Kanarek’s attack of cultural relativism e.g., what are its deficiencies.

answer only 1 question of the 4 

250-300 words.

please cite

students examples 


As cultural relativism being the way of sense, instincts, and opinions that come from our experiences and culture, Kanarek argues that it lacks 1. reason, 2. identity, and 3. reality”. This is due to having cultures that, even though it is normal to have preferred opinions, choose to decide which views and actions are the best and which ones are invalid, when all perspectives should be treated with merit. It brings the idea that one’s identity is wrong for having certain practices, for seeing something differently than somebody else. The problem with that is that not only are practices neither “good” nor “bad”, it is completely against many of the human rights that we, as people, are entitled to. Cultural relativism also lacks standards and places horrible actions onto others, such as every act committed by the Nazis in World War II, from Germany taking over Poland, they believed that there was a moral claim to conquer and to not respect Poland’s sovereignty. This could also explain why Hannah Arendt had called the holocaust “banal”, for having a lack of humanity with nothing to defend everyone else that was not of the same belief, practice, and culture.


1.) Following Pogge, how do some of the world’s largest Multinational Corporations (MNCs) violate international human rights standards?

A  challenging problem which arises in Multinational Corporations is the debate of profit vs exploitation of humans. Today a lot of developing countries are rich in resources and population. Hence, multinational corporations take advantage of this due to their advantage of capital. The governments of these developing countries usually lower the barriers for these multinational companies to bring in income therefore the people may work lower wages, long hours and in unstable conditions. Pogge states “ Being illiterate or uneducated, they may not know what their legal rights are, or they may lack either the knowledge or the minimal economic independence necessary to claim these rights through the proper legal channels.” This illustrates that the people being taken advantage of due to the economic pressure because having low wages is better than having no wages. Additionally, the people who live in poverty are often too uneducated to work on the enforcements of their rights. Instead they rely on government officials or state representatives which are usually corrupt and take bribes from the multinational corporations. Pogge writes “In the existing global order, which allocates property rights in natural resources territorially to the various states or their governments, hundreds of millions suffer severe poverty and malnutrition and all the associated, easily and cheaply curable but still often deadly diseases.” Governments have a lot of control when it comes to the rights of their citizens, they are the ones who determine how the people live. Pogge suggested a “Global Resources Dividend” which is an initiative to secure the poorest people their fair share of the benefits from natural resources. With this program, governments are required to pay a proportional dividend on any resources they decide to use or sell. The word “dividend” indicates that the proposal regards all human beings, including those whose access to resources. I believe this a good plan because then the people who work will earn higher wages not only profiting the country as a whole but also the quality of life for the people. 



The fundamental trouble in talking about everyday freedoms starts with the purpose of takeoff. What do individuals mean when they speak about fundamental liberties? Is it the option to cast a ballot in a political race? The opportunity to say practically what we pick? The choice to love however we see fit? Is it the privilege not to be victimized due to race, sex, sexual direction, ethnic source, or age? These rights? An essential inquiry concerning any conversation about fundamental liberties includes the meaning of everyday freedoms. Exactly what do we mean by legal privileges? In the United States and without a doubt in different nations, individuals throw out the expression of everyday freedoms frequently, as though it is obvious what they mean. The truth, however, is that this suspicion of information can be deceiving. Do we truly understand what we mean when we talk about fundamental liberties? Maybe we have some thought of what we are discussing, yet doubtlessly, we are summing up. When we have gotten some information about fundamental freedoms, we experience a mental blackout. 

Again and again, the expression “basic liberties” gets thrown around like a verbal football, as though everybody naturally understands what everyday freedoms mean and can intuitively play the game with no training. In actuality, fundamentally understanding freedoms require much more exertion than essentially alluding to nations like China, Cuba, or Iran and their apparent common liberties infringement. Everyday releases incorporate a wide assortment of ideas and cover numerous zones of the human condition. While no single definition might cover the whole extent of what fundamental liberties are included, the possibility of basic freedoms can, for the most part, be characterized as those rights, which are inborn in our inclination and without which we can’t live as individuals. Common liberties and essential opportunities permit us to ultimately create and utilize our human characteristics, knowledge, gifts, full heartedness and fulfill our otherworldly and different requirements. The dependence on humankind’s expanding interest for a day to day existence in which the characteristic pride and worth of every person will seldom ever get regard and security.

Week 4: Cultural Relativism

INR 4075

SPR 2019

Significance of International Human Rights—Thomas Pogge 2001
Two basic components: the Concept and the Substance
So What are Human Rights? And What Human Rights are there?
What: Universally express moral concerns relating to human beings.
Substance: Any instant understood as an outright abuse of once relative civil liberties—inherently challenges cosmopolitanism.
”Every person has a negative duty not to collaborate in the avoidable imposition upon others of an institutional order in which they lack secure access to the objects of their human rights.”
“Do not the Chinese, the Indians…have traditions of their own from which they can construct their own moral conception—perhaps wholly without the individualistic concept of human rights?”

Pogge (2001) Cont’d
When we imagine human rights as moral obligations pegged to global institutions, then it makes sense that we a plurality of rules may govern a regime of international partners, regardless of differing histories.
Alternatively, said universal application neglects similar refutes international diversity.
“There can be…only one global institution.”
Defends the utility of placing international regimes and institutions under moral claims as a way of mitigating some human rights violations.

Review of H. Lauterpacht
How can law and international law maintain a free society?
To elucidate this, the author examines human rights provisions expressed in the UN Charter, and the subsequent efforts to make the provisions effective.
The Rights of Man and the Law of Nations
Human Rights Under the Charter of the UN
International Bill of the Rights of Man
The Law of Nature and the Rights of Man: Contemporary concerns for human rights is set deeply in “antiquity” and human nature.

Lauterpach Continued
The Law of nature, acts as an ”instrument of reaction” as well as a ”lever of progress.”
Article 55, promotes the legal duty to respect human rights…and establish agencies for the effective international support of these rights.
Though throughout the remainder of his book, Lauterpacht deplores the “timidity and inadequacy,” of various proposals for the Covenant of Human Rights, the Covenant itself and simliar draft instruments, though these she be regarded as steps in the process of adopting the International Bill of Human Rights.

International Human Rights & Cultural Relativism
Term borrowed from anthropology and moral philosophy ( Alain Locke 1924).
”The position according to which local cultural traditions (including religious political, and legal practices) properly determine the existence and scope of civil and political rights enjoyed by individuals in a given society.”
Relativists argue: HR standards vary considerably between different cultures.

The Elitist Theory of Human Rights
Democracy only works for superior cultures
“The Conspiracy Theory of Human Rights” – Popper
Machiavellian creation of the West, calculated to impair the economic development of the Third World.
Marxists assumptions is that civil and political rights are ”formal” bourgeois freedoms that serve only the interests of the “capitalists.
Cannot Detract from their Beneficial Features
HR Movement has resisted the relativist attack: Social Inst (international law) are created by and for the individual.

“International human rights law embodies the imperfect yet inspired response of the international community to a growing awareness of the uniqueness of the human being and the unity of the human race. It also represents an eloquent body of norms condemning the effects of organized societal oppression on individuals.”

“Coercing Religious uniformity leads to far more social disorder than allowing diversity.”
Before and without government, there would have been a state of nature. But later voluntarily consented to cede some of their rights, which later gave protection to other rights.
Tabular Rasa

Follow up Questions
1.) Following Pogge, how do some of the world’s largest Multinational Corporations (MNCs) violate international human rights standards?
2.) Explain negative duties-–i.e., to avoid certain actions, and their role in human rights protection.
3.) Define the elitist perspective of Cultural Relativism . Do you agree?
4.) Explain Kanarek’s attack of cultural relativism e.g., what are its deficiencies.

See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226474666

The International Significance of Human Rights

Article  in  The Journal of Ethics · January 2000

DOI: 10.1023/A:1009852018252





1 author:

Thomas Pogge

Yale University



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The International Significance of Human Rights
Author(s): Thomas Pogge
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 1/2, Rights, Equality, and Liberty Universidad
Torcuato Di Tella Law and Philosophy Lectures 1995-1997 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. 45-69
Published by: Springer
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(Received 15 October 1998; accepted in revised form 17 May 1999)

ABSTRACT. A comparative examination of four alternative ways of understanding what

human rights are supports an institutional understanding as suggested by Article 28 of the

Universal Declaration: Human rights are weighty moral claims on any coercively imposed

institutional order, national or international (as Article 28 confirms). Any such order must

afford the persons on whom it is imposed secure access to the objects of their human

rights. This understanding of human rights is broadly sharable across cultures and narrows

the philosophical and practical differences between the friends of civil and political and
the champions of social, economic, and cultural human rights. When applied to the global

institutional order, it provides a new argument for conceiving human rights as universal
– and a new basis for criticizing this order as too encouraging of oppression, corruption,

and poverty in the developing countries: We have a negative duty not to cooperate in the

imposition of this global order if feasible reforms of it would significantly improve the


of human rights.

KEY WORDS: cosmopolitanism, cultural diversity, democratic governance, foreign lend

ing, global institutions, human rights, international law, justice, nationalism, Universal

Declaration, universalism


A conception of human rights may be factored into two main components:

? the concept of a human right used by this conception, or what one

might also call its understanding of human rights, and
? the substance or content of the conception, that is, the objects or

goods it singles out for protection by a set of human rights.

We face then two questions: What are human rights? And what human

rights are there? I believe that these two questions are asymmetrically

related, in this sense: We cannot convincingly justify a particular list of

human rights without first gaining a clear sense of what human rights
are. Yet we can justify a particular understanding of human rights without

presupposing more than a rough idea about what goods are widely recog
nized as worthy of inclusion. This, in any case, is what I attempt to do


The Journal of Ethics 4: 45-69, 2000.
? 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


It is worth emphasizing that even a fully comprehensive answer to the

first question does not preempt the second. The fact that some formulated

right has all the conceptual features of a human right does not entail that

it exists (can be justified as such) any more than the fact that Robinson

Crusoe as described has all the conceptual features of a human being
entails that there is such a person. Settling what human rights there are

requires not merely careful conceptual analysis, but also substantive moral

argument pro and con.

The concept of a human right has certain central elements that any

plausible understanding of human rights must incorporate. First, human

rights express ultimate moral concerns: Persons have a moral duty to

respect human rights, a duty that does not derive from a more general moral

duty to comply with national or international legal instruments. (In fact, the

opposite may hold: Conformity with human rights is a moral requirement
on any legal order, whose capacity to create moral obligations depends
in part on such conformity.) Second, human rights express weighty moral

concerns, which normally override other normative considerations. Third,
these moral concerns are focused on human beings, as all of them and

they alone have human rights and the special moral status associated there

with. Fourth, with respect to these moral concerns, all human beings have

equal status: They have exactly the same human rights, and the moral

significance of these rights and their fulfillment does not vary with whose

human rights are at stake.1 Fifth, human rights express moral concerns

that are unrestricted, i.e., they ought to be respected by all human agents

irrespective of their particular epoch, culture, religion, moral tradition or

philosophy. Sixth, these moral concerns are broadly shamble, i.e., capable
of being understood and appreciated by persons from different epochs
and cultures as well as by adherents of a variety of different religions,

moral traditions and philosophies. The notions of unrestrictedness and

broad sharability are related in that we tend to feel more confident about

conceiving of a moral concern as unrestricted when this concern is not

parochial to some particular epoch, culture, religion, moral tradition or


This second component of equality is compatible with the view that the weight agents

ought to give to the human rights of others varies with their relation to them
– that agents

have stronger moral reasons to secure human rights in their own country, for example, than

abroad – so long as this is not seen as being due to a difference in the moral significance

of these rights, impersonally considered. (I can believe that the flourishing of all children
is equally important and also that I should show greater concern for the flourishing of my

own children than for that of other children.)

These six central elements are discussed in greater detail in the first two sections of

my essay, “How Should Human Rights be Conceived?,” Jahrbuch fur Recht und Ethik 3


Various understandings of human rights are consistent with these six

points. Though I cannot here criticize all competing understandings in

detail, I want briefly to present three of the more prominent ones as a

backdrop to my own. I have tried to arrange the four understandings so

that their sequence can be seen as a dialectical progression.
The first understanding, U\, conceives human rights as moral rights

that every human being has against every other human being or perhaps,
more generally, against every other human agent (where this also includes

collective agents, such as groups, firms, or governments).3 Given this

understanding of human rights, it matters greatly whether one then postu
lates human rights that impose only negative duties (to avoid depriving)
or whether one instead postulates human rights that in addition impose

positive duties (to protect and/or to aid).4 A human right to freedom from

assault might then give every human agent merely a weighty moral duty
to refrain from assaulting any human being or also an additional weighty

moral duty to help protect any human beings from assaults and their


I do not deny that there are such universal moral rights and duties, but

it is clear that we are not referring to them when we speak of human rights
in the modern context. To see this, consider first some ordinary assault,
in a pub, perhaps, after some drinking and argument. Though the victim

may be badly hurt, we would not call the assault a human-rights violation.

A police beating of a suspect in jail, on the other hand, does seem to

qualify. This suggests that, to engage human rights, conduct must be in

some sense official. This suggestion is confirmed by the human rights that

have actually been postulated in various international documents. Many
of them do not seem to be addressed to individual agents at all in that,
rather than forbearance or support of a kind that individuals could provide,

(1995), pp. 103-120. If we can agree that these are indeed elements of the concept of

human rights, then each human right will have these six features. The converse, however,

does not hold, as alternative conceptions of human rights go beyond the shared core in two

ways: (a) by further specifying the concept of human rights through additional elements
and (b) by selectively postulating a list of particular human rights (cf. second paragraph

3 Here is an example of U\: “A human right, then, will be a right whose beneficiaries

are all humans and whose obligors are all humans in a position to effect the right”
– David

Luban: “Just War and Human Rights” in Charles Beitz et al. (eds.), International Ethics

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 209.

The first of these possibilities is exemplified in Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and

Utopia (New York: Basic Books 1974), the second in Henry Shue, Basic Rights (Prin

ceton: Princeton University Press, 1996). Nozick and Shue prefer to write in terms of,

respectively, fundamental and basic rights. U\ would lead to views like theirs but phrased
in terms of human rights.


they demand appropriately constrained institutional arrangements such as

equality before the law (?7), a nationality (?15.1), and equal access to

public service (?21.2).5 Finally, many of the rights postulated in these

documents would also seem to be limited in scope to the territory of the

state to which the right holder belongs or in which s/he resides: the right
to equal access to public service in his country (?21.2) and the right to an

education (?26.1). These rights are generally understood as not imposing
duties upon foreigners.6

These shortcomings of U\ suggest another understanding, Uj_,

according to which human rights are moral rights that human beings have

specifically against governments, understood broadly so as to include their

various agencies and officials. This understanding solves the first problem

by supporting a distinction between official and unofficial violations,
between assaults committed by the secret police and those committed by
a petty criminal or a violent husband. It solves the second problem insofar

as governments are in a position to underwrite and reform the relevant

institutional arrangements, at least within their own territory. And it allows

a solution to the third problem in that one can distinguish between human

rights that one has against one’s own government and those one has against

any government. A human right to education is a right that every human

being has against his or her own government and therefore one that gives

every government a weighty moral duty to ensure that each national or

resident in its territory receives an appropriate education. A right not to be

subjected to arbitrary arrest (?9), on the other hand, is presumably meant to

be one that every human being has against every government whatsoever

and therefore one that gives every government a weighty moral duty to

refrain from arbitrarily arresting any human being at all.7

5 I use the symbol “?” throughout to refer to articles of the Universal Declaration of

Human Rights, which was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United

Nations on December 10, 1948, as resolution 217A(IH). By drawing on the Universal

Declaration for examples and illustrations, I am not implying that all the rights it lists are

human rights or that its list is complete. Rather, I am using these rights as evidence for how

the concept of human rights has been understood in the post-W.W.II era, on the assumption

that any plausible understanding of human rights must be critically developed out of this

established and customary notion.
6 The right to equal pay for equal work (?23.2) would seem to be doubly limited

in scope. No duty to help maintain such equality within some country is imposed upon

foreigners. And the principle needs to be satisfied only within each state, not internation

ally: Equal work may be more highly rewarded in Switzerland than in Bangladesh.

This distinction will not be clear-cut as some human rights may have components

that differ in scope. The human right not to be subjected to torture (?5), for example,

is presumably meant to give each government negative duties not to use torture
as well

as positive duties to prevent torture. The negative duties are most plausibly construed as


The main problem with U2 is that it completely unburdens private
human agents. So long as one is not a government official, one need not

worry about human rights at all. In response, it might be said that in a

democracy it is ultimately the people at large who, collectively, constitute

the government. But this response does not solve the problem in regard to

other kinds of regimes. Persons who live under an undemocratic govern
ment need not worry about human rights at all, because it is the duty of

that government alone to fulfill human rights

including the human right
of its subjects to take part in government (?21.1). On this understanding,

wealthy and influential nationals would have no moral duty to do anything
to stop or to mitigate human-rights violations that their non-democratic

government is committing against their compatriots or against foreigners

at least they would have no moral duty arising from the human rights of the

victims. This limitation is not only morally implausible; it also goes against
common parlance in that we speak of a society’s human-rights record

and of how well human rights are respected in some country, thereby

suggesting that we do not assign sole responsibility to the government.
This problem is avoided by yet another understanding, J73, according

to which human rights are basic or constitutional rights as each state ought
to set them forth in its fundamental legal texts and ought to make them

effective through appropriate institutions and policies.8 So understood, a

human right might be said to have two quite distinct components: juridifi
cation and observance. Through its juridification component, a human

right to X would entail that every state ought to have a right to X enshrined

in its constitution (or comparable basic legal documents). A human right
to X would contain, then, a moral right to effective legal rights to X, which

gives every citizen of a state a weighty moral duty to help ensure that an

effective and suitably broad legal (or better: constitutional) right to X exists

general: A government must not order or authorize the torture of any human being at all.

But the positive duties are most often construed as being limited in scope: A government

must prevent torture on territory it can effectively control, but not elsewhere.

Thus, for example, Jurgen Habermas, “The concept of human rights is not of moral

origin, but

by nature juridical.” Human rights “belong, through their structure, to a

scheme of positive and coercive law which supports justiciable subjective right claims.

Hence it belongs to the meaning of human rights that they demand for themselves the

status of constitutional rights.” Jurgen Habermas, “Kants Idee des Ewigen Friedens
– aus

dem historischen Abstand von 200 Jahren,” Kritische Justiz 28 (1995), pp. 293-319. The

quotes are from p. 310 and p. 312, italics are in the original, the translation is mine. Though

Robert Alexy explicitly refers to human rights as moral rights, he holds an otherwise

similar position which equates the institutionalization of human rights with their transfor

mation into positive law. See Robert Alexy, “Die Institutionalisierung der Menschenrechte

im demokratischen Verfassungsstaat” in Stefan Gosepath and Georg Lohmann (eds.), Die

Philosophic der Menschenrechte (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997), pp. 244-264.


within this state.9 Through its observance component, a human right to X

would give a weighty moral duty to each government and its officials to

ensure that the right to X
– whether it exists as a legal right or not

– is


Though a definite improvement over U\ and ?/2, this understanding still

faces three problems. First, C/3 may render human rights too weak, for even

when a human right is appropriately juridified and the corresponding legal
rights are observed and reliably enforced by the government and the courts,

citizens may still be prevented by social obstacles from enjoying the object
of the human right in question.10 Being illiterate or uneducated, they may
not know what their legal rights are, or they may lack either the knowledge
or the minimal economic independence necessary to claim these rights

through the proper legal channels. This problem can be avoided by inter

preting “observance” in a demanding sense as requiring that human rights
be made fully (not merely legally) effective so as to ensure secure access

to their objects.11 I use the word “fulfillment” for this demanding sense of

“observance” and say more about this notion below.

The second problem with J/3 is that, in regard to some human rights,
its juridification component would seem to be excessively demanding.

Consider a human right to adequate nutrition (?25.1). A society may be so

situated and organized that all its members have secure access to adequate

nutrition, though not a legal right thereto. Would this leave the human

right unfulfilled? Having the legal rights required by the juridification
component is good, to be sure, but hardly so important that it must be built

into the concept of a human right. Secure access is what really matters,

and if this can be achieved through, for example, a reliable kinship system
backed up by efficient charitable organizations, then an additional legal

9 The expression “suitably broad” alludes to how U2 had solved the third problem with

U\. Some human rights
– such as the human right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest (?9)

– are meant to protect every human being regardless of location or citizenship. Such human

rights would not be fully juridified through a constitutional right that prohibits merely the

government’s arbitrary arrest of its own citizens or residents but not that of foreigners. The

juridification component of my human right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest would

then give a weighty moral duty to every citizen of every state to help ensure that his or her

state affords me (and, of course, every other human being) a legal right not to be arbitrarily

arrested by its government.
1 ? This problem could not arise, if human rights had effective legal (constitutional) rights

as their sole objects. I am assuming here that, for at least some human rights, this is not the

1 ]

As the examples indicate, my notion of secure access involves a knowledge condi

tion: A person has secure access to the object of some human right only when she is not

prevented by social obstacles from acquiring the knowledge and know-how necessary to

secure this object for herself.


right to adequate food when needed would not seem to have the essential

importance we rightly associate with demands made in behalf of human

rights. The juridification component of t/3 is likely to lead to a conception
of human rights diluted by elements that are not truly essential.12 Insistence

on the juridification of human rights also provokes the communitarian and

East Asian criticism that human rights lead persons to view themselves as

Westerners: atomized, autonomous, secular and self-interested individuals

ready to insist on their rights no matter what the cost may be to others or

the society at large.13
The third problem with f/3 is that it excessively unburdens agents with

regard to human-rights fulfillment abroad. According to t/3, our task as

private citizens or government officials is to ensure that human rights
are juridified and fulfilled in our own society and also observed by our

government abroad. We have no human-rights based duties to promote the

fulfillment of human rights in other countries or to help suppress human

rights violations by foreign governments

though it may be morally

praiseworthy, of course, to work on such projects. But, you will ask, what

is wrong with this unburdening? How can, and why should, we be held

responsible for the extent to which human rights remain unfulfilled in other

parts of the world?


We find the beginnings of an answer to these questions in what may well

be the most surprising and potentially most consequential sentence of the

entire Universal Declaration: “Everyone is entitled to a social and interna

tional order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration

can be fully realized” (?28). This article has a peculiar status. As its

reference to “the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration” indi

cates, ?28 does not add a further right to the list, but rather addresses

12 This is not to deny that some human rights are difficult or impossible to fulfill without

corresponding legal or even constitutional protections. This is clearly true, for example, of

a human right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating

fundamental rights granted by the constitution or by law (?8). It is also hard to imagine
a society under modern conditions whose members are secure in their property or have

secure access to freedom of expression even while no legal right thereto exists. I assume

below that secure access to the objects of civil and political human rights generally requires

corresponding legal protections.

This criticism has been voiced, for instance, by Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew

and by Mary Ann Glendon: Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New

York: The Free Press, 1991).


the concept of a human right, says something about what human rights
are. It is then consistent with any substantive account of the objects that

a scheme of human rights ought to protect
– even while it significantly

affects the meaning of any human rights postulated in the other Articles of

the Universal Declaration: They all are to be understood as claims on the

“order,” or institutional structure, of any comprehensive social system.14

?28 suggests then a fourth, institutional understanding of human rights,

I/4. According to C/4, postulating a human right to X is tantamount to

declaring that every society (and comparable social system) ought to be

so organized that all its members enjoy secure access to X. To be sure, no

society can make the objects of all human rights absolutely secure. And

making them as secure as possible would constitute a ludicrous drain on

societal resources for what, at the margins, might be very minor benefits

in security. To be plausible, any conception of human rights that uses

the concept I propose must therefore incorporate an idea of reasonable

security thresholds: Your human rights are fully realized (fulfilled) when

their objects are sufficiently secure
– with the required degrees of security

suitably adapted to the means and circumstances of the relevant social


E/4 can be further specified through two plausible assumptions: (1)

Social and international orders that do not satisfy the condition of ?28
can be ranked by how close they come to fully reaUzing human rights:
Social systems ought to be structured so that human rights can be realized

in them as fully as possible. (2) One can judge how fully human rights
can be reaUzed in some institutional order by how fully they generally are,

or (in the case of a hypothetical order) generally would be, realized in it.

In light of these two assumptions, ?28 is then interpreted as holding that

the assessment of an institutional order is to be based primarily on how

My reading of ?28 emphasizes its statement that all human beings have a claim that

any institutional order imposed upon them be one in which their postulated rights and

freedoms can be fully realized. ?28 would seem to make the additional statement that

human beings have a claim that such an order be newly established in any (state-of-nature

or “failed state”) contexts in which no institutional order exists.

Thus, your human right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association is fulfilled

by some institutional order, when it is sufficiently unlikely that your attempts to associate

or assemble with others would be thwarted or punished by official or nonofficial agents or

agencies. Of course, what is unlikely may nevertheless happen. According to U4,
a person

may actually be assaulted even while his human right to physical security (?3) is fulfilled,
and another’s like right may be unfulfilled even while she suffers no actual attack. The task

of specifying, for the object of each particular human right, acceptable probabilities for

threats from various sources belongs to the second, substantive component of a conception

of human rights.


much better or worse human rights are or would be fulfilled in it than in its

feasible alternatives.

Although it leaves open which purported human rights we ought to

accept as such, U4 is nevertheless normative, and this not merely in the

trivial sense that it presents itself as the most plausible explication of a

commonly used expression. It is normative also in that
– on the assumption

that human rights express weighty moral concerns
– it entails a significant

moral thesis (whose precise content depends, however, on which particular
human rights will be included in our conception): Any institutional order is

to be assessed and reformed principally by reference to its relative impact
on the fulfillment of the human rights of those on whom it is imposed.16

Pursuant to t/4, human rights are then the paramount elements in

the comparative assessment of institutional schemes. A human right to

freedom of peaceful assembly and association, for example, implies that

human beings have a moral claim that their society be structured in such

a way that they can securely exercise these two freedoms. To honor this

claim, we must ensure not merely that our government and its officials

respect these freedoms, but also that limitations and violations of them on

the part of other persons are effectively deterred and prevented.
This last point is a crucial element of the institutional understanding

of human rights. An institutional order fails to fulfill human rights even

if it merely fails sufficiently to protect their objects.17 And yet, insecure

access to the objects of human rights is nevertheless more serious when

its source is official. It is, other things equal, more important that our laws

and the agents and agencies of the state should not themselves endanger the

objects of human rights than that they should protect these objects against
other social dangers.18

Relative, because we are making a comparative judgment: about how much better or

worse human rights are fulfilled in this institutional order than they would be fulfilled in
its feasible alternatives.

One may think here of the, still common, official tolerance for domestic violence

against women.

18 This differential weighing is deeply rooted in our moral thinking and shows itself,
for instance, in our attitudes toward the criminal law and the penal system. The point
can be illuminated most economically, perhaps, by distinguishing, in a preliminary way,

six ways in which a social order may affect the goods and ills of its participants. The

following illustration uses six different scenarios, arranged in order of their intuitive moral

significance, in which, due to prevailing social institutions, certain innocent persons are

avoidably deprived of some vital nutrients V (the vitamins contained in fresh fruit, say):
First-class shortfalls are officially mandated, paradigmatically by the law (legal restrictions

prevent certain persons from buying foodstuffs containing V). Second-class shortfalls arise

from legally authorized conduct of private subjects (sellers of foodstuffs containing


lawfully refuse to sell to certain persons). Third-class shortfalls &?zforeseeably engendered


If a society’s institutional order avoidably fails to fulfill human rights,
then those of its members who do not support the requisite institutional

reforms are violating a negative duty of justice: the duty not to cooperate
in the imposition of an unjust institutional order without making serious

efforts within their means toward initiating and supporting appropriate
institutional reforms. On C/4, your human rights are then not only moral

claims on any institutional order imposed upon you, but also moral claims

against those (especially: more influential and privileged) persons who

contribute to its imposition.19


I/4 could be rather close to U3, if “institutional order” were interpreted

narrowly as referring only to national schemes of social institutions.

However, ?28 explicitly rules out this reading by insisting that human

rights involve claims on institutional schemes in general and on our global

(“international”) institutional order in particular. The remainder of this

through the uncoordinated conduct of subjects under rules that do not specifically mention

them (certain persons, suffering severe poverty within an ill-conceived economic order,

cannot afford to buy foodstuffs containing V). Fourth-class shortfalls arise from private

conduct that is legally prohibited but generally tolerated (sellers of foodstuffs containing
V illegally refuse to sell to certain persons, but enforcement is lax and penalties are mild).

Fifth-class shortfalls arise from natural factors whose effects social rules avoidably leave

unmitigated (certain persons are unable to metabolize V due to a treatable genetic defect

but are not receiving the treatment that would correct their handicap). Sixth-class short

falls, finally, arise from self-caused factors whose effects social rules avoidably leave

unmitigated (certain persons are unable to metabolize V due to a treatable self-caused


brought on, perhaps, by their maintaining a long-term smoking habit in full

knowledge of the medical dangers associated therewith
– and are not receiving the treat

ment that would correct their ailment). Behind the moral significance we attach to these

distinctions lies the idea that our social institutions and their political and legal organs

should not merely serve justice, but also symbolize it. The point is important, because it

undermines the plausibility of consequentialist (e.g., utilitarian) and hypothetical-contract

(e.g., Rawlsian) conceptions of justice which assess social institutions from the standpoint

of prudent prospective participants, who, of course, have no reason to care about this

distinction among sources of threats. My critique of such recipient-oriented conceptions

of justice is presented in “Three Problems with Contractarian-Consequentialist Ways of

Assessing Social Institutions,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12 (1995), pp. 241-266, esp.

Section 5 [and in “Gleiche Freiheit fiir alle?” in Otfried Hbffe (ed.), Rawls’ “Theorie der

Gerechtigkeit” (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997)].

This understanding of human rights is laid out more extensively in my “How Should

Human Rights Be Conceived?,” Jahrbuch fur Recht und Ethik 3 (1995), pp. 103-120. That
earlier essay applied the idea only to the case of national institutional schemes, while the

present one applies it mainly to our global institutional order.


essay will concentrate on this more specific moral thesis: that our global
institutional order is to be assessed and reformed principally by refer
ence to its relative impact on human rights fulfillment. This is one way
of saying that human rights in our time have global normative reach: A

person’s human rights entail not merely moral claims on the institutional

order of her own society, which are claims against her fellow citizens, but

also analogous moral claims on the global institutional order, which are

claims against her fellow human beings. Our responsibilities entailed by
human rights are engaged by our participation in any coercively imposed
institutional order in which some persons avoidably lack secure access to

the objects of their human rights, and these (negative) responsibilities are

extended, then, through the emergence of a global institutional order in

whose coercive imposition we collaborate.20

This thesis must be distinguished from another, more common but also

less plausible, moral assertion, which emerges when, in the context of U\,
human rights are interpreted as entailing (positive) duties to protect

– the

assertion, namely, that we ought to defend, as best we can, the objects
of the human rights of any person anywhere. While postulating merely

positive (and thus presumably weaker) responsibilities, this thesis is also

stronger than mine in that it does not make the global normative reach

of human rights conditional upon the existence of a worldwide institu

tional order through which our political and economic decisions have a

significant impact on the lives of persons all over the world. My thesis

does involve this conditionality: What ?28 is asking of the citizens and

governments of the developed states is not that we assume the role of a

global police force ready to intervene to aid and protect all those whose

human rights are imperiled by brutal governments or (civil) wars, but that

we support institutional reforms toward a global order that would strongly

support the emergence and stability of democratic, rights-respecting and

peaceful regimes and that would also tend to reduce radical economic

deprivations and inequalities, which now engender great vulnerabilities

On the stronger reading of ?28 (cf. footnote 14), we would have such responsibilities

to establish a global institutional order that fulfills human rights even if no such order

existed at present. It is doubtful, however, whether these responsibilities could, in such a

context, be considered to be negative ones. Immanuel Kant suggests that they may be: “A

human being (or a people) in a mere state of nature robs me of this assurance and injures

me through this very state in which he coexists with me
– not actively (facto), but through

the lawlessness of his state (statu iniusto) through which I am under permanent threat from

him – and I may compel him either to enter with me into a common juridical state or to

retreat from my vicinity” [Immanuel Kant, “Zum ewigen Frieden” (1795), in Preufiische

Akademieausgabe, Vol. VIII (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1923), 349n (my translation)].


to civil rights violations as well as massive premature mortality from

malnutrition and easily curable diseases.

I have encountered much resistance to this moral thesis, especially
from social theorists. It is not the case, of course, that these critics are

opposed to human-rights fulfillment. Not at all. Rather, they dispute the

empirical presuppositions of my moral thesis, which are that the fulfill
ment of human rights importantly depends on the structure of our global

institutional order and that this global institutional order is to some extent

subject to intelligent (re)design by reference to the imperative of human

rights fulfillment. Let me then try to make plausible that these empirical

presuppositions hold.

Talk of “our global institutional order” sounds horribly abstract and

requires at least a brief explication. There is, first and foremost, the insti

tution of the modern state. The land surface of our planet is divided into

a number of clearly demarcated and non-overlapping national territories.

Human beings are matched up with these territories, so that (at least for

the most part) each person belongs to exactly one territory. Any person
or group effectively controlling a preponderant share of the means of

coercion within a territory is recognized as the legitimate government
of both the territory and the persons belonging to it. This government is

entitled to rule “its” people through laws, orders and officials, to adjudicate
conflicts among them, and to exercise ultimate control over all resources

within the territory (“eminent domain”). It is also entitled to personify
its people against the rest of the world: to bind them vis-a-vis outsiders

through treaties and contracts, to regulate their relations with outsiders, to

declare and prosecute wars in their name, and to control outsiders’ access

to the country’s territory. In this second role, a government is considered

continuous with its predecessors and successors: bound by the undertak

ings of the former, and capable through its own undertakings of binding
the latter. There are, of course, various minor deviations21 and also many

further, less essential features of our global order. But these most basic

features will suffice for now.

I will try to show through two examples that there are feasible reforms

of our global order that would, quite clearly, lead to substantial gains in

terms of human rights fulfillment. My first example concerns the currently

There are stateless persons, persons with multiple nationalities and those who are

citizens of one country but reside in or are visiting another. We have Antarctica, continental

shelves, disputed areas and areas that are contracted out (such as Guantanamo Bay and

Hong Kong, though the latter case is also a beautiful illustration of the continuity condi

tion). And groups are sometimes recognized as the legitimate government even though they

do not control a preponderant share of the means of coercion within the relevant territory

(Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the 1980’s or Bertrand Aristide in the 1990’s).


prominent topic “transition to democracy.” Much has been written on how

a new democratic government should deal with the crimes committed by
an evil predecessor. Much less, and far too little, has been written about

how a new democratic government might reduce the likelihood of demo

cratic institutions being overturned once again in the future. Yet, even

more important is the extension of this forward-looking question to our

global institutional order: How can global institutions be reshaped so as to

become more supportive of democratic government? So long as the inter

national criterion for the legitimacy of governments is effective control,

there are strong incentives (e.g., for military commanders) to overthrow

a democratic government: Once in power, putschists can count on all the

rewards of international recognition. They can, for example, control and

hence profit from the sale of the country’s natural resources.22 They can

also borrow funds abroad in the name of the whole country (the “interna

tional borrowing privilege”) and then spend these funds to entrench their

rule. Foreign bankers need have no special worries about being repaid in

the event that democracy returns, because any future government will be

considered obligated to repay the loans of any predecessor and will have

to comply on pains of being shut out of the international credit markets.

Could we modify our global order so that it exerts a more favorable

influence on the stability of democratic governments? One might begin

by proposing, as a principle of international law, that a people need not

repay loans incurred by a government that ruled them in violation of

constitutionally recognized democratic procedures. This principle prevents
neither putschists from coming to power nor lenders from loaning money
to putschists. But it does render such loans considerably more risky and

thereby entails that putschists can borrow less
– and this on less favorable

terms. It thus reduces the staying power of undemocratic governments and

the incentives for attempting a coup in the first place.
This proposal needs refinement, especially in two respects. First, it

requires the instituting of a neutral council that would determine, in

an internationally authoritative way, whether a particular government is

constitutional or not.23 This council might be fashioned on the model

The great importance of this “international resource privilege” is extensively

discussed in my lecture “On International Redistribution” (Stanford University, April 16.,


This council would work only in the interest of democratic constitutions. Its deter

minations would have consequences not only for a government’s ability to borrow abroad,

but also for its domestic and international standing. A government that has been officially

declared illegitimate would be handicapped in myriad ways (trade, diplomacy, investments,

– a fact that would contribute to the deterrent effect of the proposed institution and

hence to its tendency to reduce the frequency of coup attempts and civil wars.


of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but it should also

have specially trained personnel for observing
– and in special cases even

– national elections. Democratic governments could facilitate

the work of the council, and thereby contribute to the stability of democ

racy in their country, by incorporating into their written constitutions or

basic laws clear legitimacy criteria that also fix precisely how these criteria

can be legitimately revised.

Second, a destabilizing influence on existing democratic governments
must be ruled out. Such an influence might come about as follows. If

an officially illegitimate government cannot, in any case, borrow abroad

in the name of the entire country, it may see no reason to service debts

incurred by democratic predecessors. This fact might make borrowing
abroad more difficult for democratic governments perceived to be in

danger of being overthrown
– which would not be, of course, in the

spirit of my proposal.24 This difficulty might be overcome through an

international loan insurance fund that services the debts of democratically

legitimate governments whenever illegitimate successors refuse to do so.

This fund, just as the council proposed above, should be financed jointly

by all democratic states. This would require some states, the enduringly
stable democracies, to contribute to a fund from which they will hardly
ever profit directly. Their financial contribution would, however, be small,

because my proposal would render the overthrow of democratic regimes
much less frequent, and it would also be well justified in view of the gain
for democratization, which would bring with it gains for the fulfillment of

human rights and the avoidance of wars and civil wars.25

24 I want to thank Ronald Dworkin for seeing this difficulty and for articulating it


An existing alternative proposal would allow each country to authorize military

interventions against itself for the event that a future government significantly violates

democratic principles (Farer) or human rights (Hoffmann) [see Tom J. Farer, “The United
States as Guarantor of Democracy in the Caribbean Basin: Is There a Legal Way?” Human

Rights Quarterly 10 (1988), pp. 157-176; “A Paradigm of Legitimate Intervention” in Lori
Fisler Damrosch (ed.), Enforcing Restraint: Collective Intervention in Internal Conflicts

(New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993), pp. 316-347; and Stanley Hoff

mann, “Delusions of World Order,” New York Review of Books 39 (1992), pp. 37-43],

Proposals of this kind have two drawbacks: Military interventions will, sometimes at

least, be bloody, and decisions about intervention will generally be co-determined by
extraneous (e.g., strategic) interests of the potential intervening states. Without rejecting

(or supporting) such proposals, I have here suggested a less radical and less risky modifi

cation which shows more clearly I believe (though I could not present all its details and all

significant objections against it) that our current world order could, with some good will on

the part of the rich countries, be modified so that it would exert a significant force toward



My other example concerns severe and widespread poverty in the

context of extreme socioeconomic inequality. In the existing global order,
which allocates property rights in natural resources territorially to the

various states or their governments, hundreds of millions suffer severe

poverty and malnutrition26 and all the associated, easily and cheaply
curable but still often deadly diseases.27 I have argued elsewhere that this

suffering could be abolished rather quickly through the introduction of a

Global Resources Dividend (GRD).28 This proposal is modest in that it

accepts the existing state system and, in particular, leaves each national

government in control of the natural resources in its territory. Governments

are required, however, to pay a proportional dividend on any resources

they decide to use or sell. The word “dividend” indicates that the proposal

regards all human beings, including those whose access to resources is now

severely restricted, as owning an inalienable stake in all limited natural

resources. As with preferred stock, this stake confers no control over

whether or how natural resources are to be used, but merely a claim to

share in their economic benefits. The GRD could cover all mineral wealth

as well as the use of soil (in agriculture) and of air and water (e.g., for

discharging pollutants).

1.3 billion persons, that is 22 percent of the world’s population, live below the inter

national poverty line, which means that their daily income has less purchasing power than

one Dollar had in the US in 1985, less purchasing power than $1.53 has in the US today.
As a consequence of such severe poverty, 841 million persons (14 percent of humankind)

are today malnourished, 880 million (15 percent) are without access to health services, one

billion (17 percent) are without adequate shelter, 1.3 billion (22 percent) are without access

to safe drinking water, two billion (33 percent) are without electricity and 2.6 billion (43
percent) are without access to sanitation [UNDP: Human Development Report 1998 (New

York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 49]. As a further consequence of such severe

poverty, a quarter of all children between 5 and 14, 250 million in all, are compelled to

work, often under cruel conditions in mines, quarries and factories as well as in agriculture,

construction, prostitution, textile and carpet production: “At least 120 million children

between the ages of 5 and 14 work full time. The number is 250 million, or more than

twice as many, if we include those for whom work is a secondary activity” (International

Labor Organization: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/270asie/feature/ch ild.htm).

About one third of all deaths, some 50,000 daily, are due to poverty-related causes

such as measles, pneumonia and diarrhea, which could easily be prevented through

adequate nutrition and safe drinking water or be cured through cheap rehydration packs

and antibiotics [United Nations Children’s Fund: The State of the World’s Children 1998

(New York: Oxford University Press 1998)].

Thomas W. Pogge, “A Global Resources Dividend” in David A. Crocker and Toby
Linden (eds.), Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice, and Global Stewardship

(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998). This essay discusses the details of the proposals,
reasons for and against, as well as an important alternative to it: the so-called Tobin Tax.


Proceeds from the GRD are to be used toward the emancipation of the

present and future global poor so that finally all human beings will be able

to meet their basic needs with dignity. The point is then not merely to

improve the nutrition, medical care and sanitary conditions of the global

poor, but also to ensure that they themselves can take care of their basic

interests and defend these effectively against the ambitions of politically
and economically more powerful persons and groups. To achieve this, they

must be free from relations of personal dependence and be literate, they
must have certain basic rights and be able to understand and defend them,
and they must be able to learn a profession and to participate as equals in

the economy as well as in politics.
In an ideal world, GRD payments could be made directly to the govern

ments of the poorest societies, which could use them to free their poorest
citizens from taxes and debts, to improve their education, medical care and

infrastructure, and to offer them, or their organizations, land, capital, or

low-interest loans. So long as governments are prone to corruption, it will

often be more efficient to use other channels for the same purpose: inter

national organizations such as UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, or Oxfam, which

would need to be reorganized in light of their new tasks and whose perfor
mance, like that of governments, would have to be continuously monitored.

The inefficiency of conventional development aid29 underscores the need

for these organizations to be oriented exclusively toward poverty eradica

tion and hence to be insulated, as far as possible, from the strategic and

economic interests of all governments.
A government may make it entirely impossible to improve the circum

stances of the poor in its country. In such cases, the funds should go

elsewhere, where they will make a difference in reducing poverty and

disadvantage. The point of the GRD is, after all, to secure for the poorest

persons (not states) their fair share of the benefits from natural resources.

GRD payments will, indeed, not merely improve the conditions of their

intended beneficiaries, but indirectly also those of their governments and

compatriots. The rules of the GRD scheme should take advantage of this

fact. The more effectively a government reduces poverty in its country, the

more of this country’s theoretical GRD share should be allocated to this

country and the more of this allocated share should be paid out directly
to its government. In this way the governments and economic elites of the

29 There are various studies showing how development aid often benefits those capable

of reciprocation, i.e., the “elites” in the politically more important developing countries.

In addition, such aid is often focused on expensive high-visibility projects in which firms

of the donor country can profitably participate. For more on this theme and for relevant

references, see the cover story “Why Aid is an Empty Promise,” The Economist, May 7,

1994, pp. 13-14 and 21-24.


poor countries have a clear incentive to contribute to the success of the

GRD regime. This incentive may not always be effective, because at least

some of those in power will also have an interest in keeping the domestic

poor ignorant, impotent, dependent and exploitable. The incentive would

nonetheless shift the political balance of forces in the right direction:

With the GRD regime, reforms would be pursued more vigorously and

in more countries, and would also succeed faster and more often, because

this regime would stimulate a peaceful competition in effective poverty
eradication among governments and international organizations.


These brief remarks on two examples illustrate the following important

points. (1) The fulfillment of human rights in most countries is strongly
affected not merely by national factors (culture, power structures, natural

environment, level of technical and economic development), but also by

global ones. (2) Explanations in terms of national and global factors do

not simply compete with each other. Only their synthesis: one explanation
that integrates factors of both kinds, can be a true explanation. This is

so, because the effects of national factors are often strongly affected by

global factors (and vice versa) and because global factors strongly shape
those national factors themselves (though the inverse influence is gener

ally slight). (3) The influences emanating from our global order are not

necessarily the way they are, but are co-determined by relatively minor

and humanly controllable institutional features (such as the presence or

absence of the two institutions I have proposed).
That these facts are so often overlooked is due to the following circum

stances: In contrast to the often dramatic institutional developments within

national societies (such as recently in Eastern Europe), change in our

global order has been glacial. In contrast to the colorful variety of national

institutional schemes, our global order also has no simultaneous alterna

tives with which it might be compared. These circumstances explain the

tendency to perceive this order as natural and inert. Great international

variations in the fulfillment of human rights tend furthermore to draw

our attention to factors with regard to which countries differ. Through an

exhaustive analysis of these factors, it seems, all phenomena relevant to

the fulfillment of human rights can be explained. And yet, it is not so:

When human rights are better fulfilled in one country than in another,

then there must be, of course, some difference that contributes to this

discrepancy. But an explanation that merely points to this difference leaves

many questions open. One question concerns the broader context which


determines that national factors have these effects rather than others. It is

quite possible that in the context of another global order the same national

factors, or the same international differences, would have quite another

impact on the fulfillment of human rights.30 Another question concerns

the explanation of the national factors themselves. It is quite possible that,
within a different global order, national factors that tend to undermine the

fulfillment of human rights would occur much less often or not at all.31

These considerations show that the global level of human rights fulfillment

cannot be explained in terms of national factors alone.

Our two examples thus illustrate the empirical background against
which the global demand of ?28 makes sense. It is the point of human

30 An analogous point plays a major role in debates about the significance of genetic vis

a-vis environmental factors: Factors that are quite unimportant for explaining the observed

variation of a trait (e.g., height, IQ, cancer) in some population may be very important

for explaining this trait’s overall level (frequency) in the same population. Suppose that,

in some province, the observed variation in female adult height (54-60 inches) is almost

entirely due to hereditary factors. It is still quite possible that the height differentials among
these woman are minor compared to how much taller they all would be (67-74 inches) if

it had not been the case that, when they were growing up, food was scarce and boys were

preferred over girls in its distribution. Or suppose that we can predict quite accurately, on

the basis of genetic information, who will get cancer and who will not. It is still quite

possible that, in a healthy environment, cancer would hardly occur at all.

This point is frequently overlooked

by John Rawls, for example, when he attributes

the human rights problems in the typical developing country exclusively to local factors:

“The problem is commonly the nature of the public political culture and the religious and

philosophical traditions that underlie its institutions. The great social evils in poorer soci

eties are likely to be oppressive government and corrupt elites” [John Rawls, “The Law

of Peoples” in Stephen Shute/Susan Hurley (eds.), On Human Rights (New York: Basic

Books, 1993), p. 77]. This superficial explanation is not so much false as incomplete. As

soon as one asks (as Rawls does not), why so many developing countries (“LDC’s”) have

oppressive governments and corrupt elites, one will unavoidably hit upon global factors

such as the ones discussed in my two examples: Local elites can afford to be oppressive and

corrupt, because, with foreign loans and military aid, they can stay in power even without

popular support. And they are so often oppressive and corrupt, because it is, in light of

the prevailing extreme international inequalities, far more lucrative for them to cater to the

interests of foreign governments and firms rather than those of their impoverished compa

triots. Examples abound: There are plenty of LDC governments that came to power and/or

stay in power only thanks to foreign support. And there are plenty of LDC politicians and

bureaucrats who, induced or even bribed by foreigners, work against the interests of their

people: for the development of a tourist-friendly sex industry (whose forced exploitation

of children and women they tolerate and profit from), for the importation of unneeded,

obsolete, or overpriced products at public expense, for the permission to import hazardous

products, wastes, or productive facilities, against laws protecting employees
or the environ

ment, etc. It is perfectly unrealistic to believe that the corruption and oppression in the

LDC’s, which Rawls rightly deplores, can be abolished without a significant reduction in

international inequality.


rights, and of official declarations thereof, to ensure that all human beings
have secure access to certain vital goods. Many persons currently lack

such security.32 We can assign responsibility for such insecurity to the

governments and citizens of the countries in which it occurs; and doing
so makes good sense. But leaving it at this does not make good sense. For

the hope that these countries will, from the inside, democratize themselves

and abolish the worst poverty and oppression is entirely naive so long as

the institutional context of these countries continues to favor so strongly
the emergence and endurance of brutal and corrupt elites. And the primary’

responsibility for this institutional context, for the prevailing world order,
Ues of course with the governments and citizens of the wealthy countries,
because we maintain this order, with at least latent coercion, and because

we, and only we, could relatively easily reform it in the directions indi

cated. ?28 must be read as a recognition of these points: a clear repudiation
of the common and ever so convenient conviction that human rights do not

reach beyond national borders, that the human rights of foreigners (living

abroad) normally involve no moral claims against me.33

The institutional understanding of human rights thus tends to under

mine the self-satisfied detachment with which the governments and

peoples of the wealthy West tend to look down upon the sorry state of

human rights in many of the so-called less developed countries: This

disaster is the responsibiUty not only of their governments and populations,
but also ours, in that we continuously impose upon them an unjust global
order instead of working toward a reformed one in which the human rights
of all could be fully realized.34

This is so no matter which of the available substantive accounts of human rights one

might endorse.

For a different argument, which attacks the same conviction by appeal to the inher

ently regrettable incentives it provides, see my “Loopholes in Moralities,” Journal of

Philosophy 89 (1992), pp. 79-98.

Participants in an institutional order will be differentially responsible for its moral

quality: Influential and privileged participants should be willing to contribute more to the

maintenance of a just, or the reform of an unjust social order. Moreover, we must here

distinguish responsibility from guilt and blame. That we share a negative responsibility
for an injustice means that we contribute to it causally and that we can and should act

differently. It does not follow from this that we are also guilty or blameworthy on account

of our conduct. For there might be applicable excuses such as, for instance, factual or moral

error or ignorance.



Having shown that the global moral thesis embedded in the institutional

understanding of human rights makes sense, let me now say a little more

about the advantages of this understanding. Some important advantages

emerge from the discussion of U\-Uy. The institutional understanding
is more suitable for singling out the truly essential elements in human

quality of life and, in particular, avoids any conceptual connection with

legal rights. Even those who are hostile to a legal-rights culture can share

the goal of establishing for all human beings secure access to certain vital

goods (the objects of our human rights). In this section and the next, I will

try to lay out two further important advantages of the institutional under

standing through which it can facilitate agreement on the specification of

that goal and on how to pursue it on the global plane.
The first of these additional advantages is that the institutional under

standing of human rights greatly reduces the gap between civil and

political rights, on the one hand, and social, economic and cultural rights,
on the other – a gap that has led to much discord in the UN and elsewhere.

On the institutional understanding, it is not true that civil and political

rights require only restraint, while social, economic and cultural rights
demand positive efforts and costs. Rather, the division of negative and

positive duties now cuts across the various categories of rights: Every

person has a negative duty not to collaborate in the avoidable imposition

upon others of an institutional order in which they lack secure access to the

objects of their human rights.35 Moreover, when our duty is to fulfill human

rights in my sense, then there is no straightforward correlation of means

and ends. In fact, there is no way of telling in advance what the fulfillment

of any given human right will require. In order to fulfill the classical civil

right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, for instance, the

political and economic elite of India may have to do much more than create

and enforce appropriate criminal statutes. They may also need to establish

adequate social and economic safeguards, ensuring perhaps that domestic

servants are literate, know about their rights and options, and have some

economic security in case of job loss. Conversely, in order to fulfill a

human right to adequate nutrition, perhaps all that is needed is an effective

criminal statute against hoarding of, and speculation in, foodstuffs.

These considerations greatly narrow the philosophical gap between

those who, like many Western governments, want to highlight civil

Being negative, this duty is of considerably greater weight than any positive duty we

may have to seek to improve the conditions of those upon whom such an order is imposed

by others without our collaboration.


and political rights and those who, like most socialist and developing

states, want to single out social, economic and cultural rights for special

emphasis. Let me now show how the institutional understanding of

human rights would also greatly reduce the practical significance of such


Suppose that only civil and political human rights are worthy of

the name, that the social, economic and cultural rights set forth in the

Universal Declaration (foremost, of course, the much ridiculed right
to “periodic holidays with pay” of ?24) should hence be repudiated..

Conjoining this view with the institutional understanding of human rights,
we get the moral assertion that every human being is entitled to an interna

tional order in which his or her civil and political human rights can be fully
realized. Our global order falls far short in this respect, and does so largely
on account of the extreme poverty and inequality it reproduces: In most

developing countries, the legal rights of ordinary citizens cannot be effec

tively enforced. For many of these countries are so poor that they cannot

afford properly trained judges and police forces in sufficient numbers; and

in many of them social institutions as well as politicians, officials and

government agencies are in any case (partly through foreign influences) so

thoroughly corrupted that the fulfillment of civil and political human rights
is not even seriously attempted. In those few developing countries where

the legal rights of ordinary citizens can be effectively enforced, too many
citizens are under too much economic pressure, too dependent on others,
or too uneducated to work on the enforcement of their rights. Thus, even

the goal of fulfilling only the recognized civil and political human rights
– if only they were interpreted in the light of ?28

– suffices to support the

demand for global institutional reforms that would reduce global poverty
and inequality.

Or suppose that only social, economic and cultural human rights are

worthy of the name. Conjoining this view with my reading of ?28, we

get the moral assertion that every human being is entitled to an inter

national order in which his or her social, economic and cultural human

rights can be fully realized. Our global order falls far short in this respect:
More than one billion persons today live in abject poverty, without the

most elementary education and health care, and without reserves for even

a minor emergency. Several ten thousand of them, mainly children and

women, die every day from malnutrition and easily curable diseases. This

suffering is in large part due to the fact that the global poor live under

governments that mostly do very little to alleviate their deprivations and

often even contribute to them. The global poor are dispersed over some

150 states, which are ruled, mostly, not by general and public laws, but


by powerful persons and groups (dictators, party bosses, military officers,

landlords), often sponsored or supported from abroad. In such states, they
are unable to organize themselves freely, to publicize their plight, or to

work for reform through the political or legal system. Thus, even the goal
of fulfilling only the usual social and economic human rights

– if only

they were interpreted in the light of ?28
– suffices to support the call for a

global order that would strongly encourage the incorporation of effective

civil and political rights into national constitutions.36

I certainly did not mean to contend, in this section, that it makes no

difference which rights we single out as human rights. I merely wanted to

show that both the philosophical and practical-political importance of the

actual controversies about this question would diminish, if human rights
were understood not in the conventional sense, but in mine: as moral

claims on social institutions. Even if we have rather diverse views about

which goods should be placed under the protection of a conception of

human rights, we will then

provided we really care about the fulfillment

36 A global order could give such encouragement through centrally determined

economic (trade, loans, GRD payments) and diplomatic privileges and penalties. Stronger

sanctions, like embargoes and military interventions, should probably be triggered only in

cases of extreme oppression.
Some of the governments that profess allegiance solely to social, economic and cultural

human rights maintain that (legal) civil and political rights are currently unnecessary in
their country: unhelpful, or even counterproductive (distracting and expensive). But most

of these governments would, I believe, concede that more extensive civil and political rights

would often be helpful elsewhere or at other times. The Chinese government, for example,

would certainly maintain that instituting more extensive civil and political rights in China

today would not work to the benefit of the Chinese poor, for whom the Party and the

government are already doing all they can. But the same government might acknowledge,

if only unofficially, that there are other regions today

Africa, perhaps, or Latin America,

Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Indonesia
– where more extensive civil arid

political rights would help the poor and ethnic minorities to fend for themselves. Even more

privately, it would probably also have to concede that the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,

whose staggering death toll of nearly 30 million has become widely known only recently,

could not have occurred in a country with independent mass media and a competitive

political system. Compare an analogous domestic case. A decent police officer, who cares

deeply about the suffering caused by crime, may see no good reason why she and her fellow

officers at her station should not just do everything they can to nail a suspect they know to

be guilty, without regard to procedural niceties. But would she also advocate a civil order

in which the police in general can operate without procedural encumbrances? She must

surely understand that not all officers would always use their greater powers in a decent,

fair and judicious fashion, and also that some persons with criminal intentions would then

have much greater incentives to try to join the police force. This example shows that one

may consistently believe of certain safeguards that their observance should be strongly

encouraged by social institutions and that they are unnecessary or even counterproductive

in this or that particular case.


of human rights, and not about ideological propaganda victories
– work

together on the same institutional reforms rather than argue over how much

praise or blame is deserved by this state or that.


The other important advantage of the institutional understanding lies in its

profound implications for the debate about the universal validity of human

rights. One often hears that human rights are the expression of a provin

cial, i.e., European, moral conception whose worldwide imposition would

manifest a new form of imperialism: “Do not the Chinese, the Indians

and the Zulus have traditions of their own from which they can construct

their own moral conception

perhaps wholly without the individualistic

concept of rights? If you Westerners want to make a conception of human

rights the centerpiece of your political philosophy and realize it in your

political institutions, then go ahead, by all means. But do leave others the

same freedom to define their values within the context of their own culture

and national discourse.”

Even if such admonitions are often put forward in bad faith,37 they
nevertheless require a reasoned response. Once human rights are viewed

as moral claims on global institutions, a novel and much more plausible
such response becomes available, as follows: When we think of human

rights as a standard for assessing only national institutions and/or govern

ments, then it makes sense to envision a plurality of standards for states

that differ in their history, culture, population size and density, natural

environment, geopolitical context and stage of development. But when we

think of human rights as a standard for assessing global institutions, we can

no longer accommodate international diversity in this way. There can be,

at any given time, only one global institutional order. If it is to be possible
to justify this global order to persons in all parts of the world and also

to reach agreement on how they should be adjusted and reformed in the

light of new experience or changed circumstances, then we must aspire to

a single, universal standard which all persons and peoples of this world

can accept as the basis for moral judgments about our global order.

Attaining such a common standard for assessing shared social institu

tions does not presuppose thoroughgoing agreement on all or even most

37 As when we were told by Ernest Lefevre, former US President Ronald Reagan’s

candidate for Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, that torture is an accepted

part of Argentinean culture or still are told by other Westerners that child prostitution is

essential to the Thai way of life.


moral issues. It may merely demand that global institutions be so designed

that, as far as possible, everyone has secure access to a few goods that

are vital to all human beings. Now it is true that designing social institu

tions with an eye to a few key values will have collateral effects on the

prevalence of other values. Global institutions designed to encourage the

fulfillment of human rights may affect the cultural life in various societies

or the popularity of the various religions. But this problem of collateral

effects is simply unavoidable: Any institutional order can be criticized on

the grounds that some values do not optimally thrive in it. Yet, we can

mitigate the problem by choosing our moral standard in such a way that

the institutional order it favors will allow a wide range of values to thrive

locally. The standard of human rights meets this condition, because it can

be fulfilled in a wide range of countries that differ greatly in their culture,
traditions and national institutions.

The crucial thought here is this: Once we view human rights as moral

claims on global institutions, there simply is no attractive, tolerant and

pluraUstic alternative to conceiving them as valid universally. While the

world can contain societies that are structured in a variety of ways, some

Uberal and some not, it cannot itself be structured in a variety of ways. If

the Algerians want their society to be organized as a religious state and we

want ours to be a liberal democracy, we can both have our way.38 But if the

Algerians want global institutions to be designed on the basis of the Koran

and we want them to render secure the objects of human rights for all,
then we cannot both have our way. With respect to our global institutional

order, one conception will necessarily prevail

through reason or force.

There is no room for accommodation here, and, if we really care about

human rights, then we must be wilUng to support the global order they

favor, even against those who, perhaps by appeal to other values, support
an alternative world order in which the objects of human rights would be

less secure.

We might, of course, understand human rights as a standard for

assessing only national (institutions and) governments and then accept that

other states use other such standards. But such “modesty” is pointless,
For we cannot behave neutrally with regard to the future development of

the global institutional order. Our political and economic decisions will

certainly co-determine its development. It is, for the future of humankind,

the most important and most urgent task of our time to set this develop
ment upon an acceptable path. It would be entirely irresponsible to deprive

Mutual toleration with regard to this question is at least possible. This is not to say

that we ought to tolerate the national institutions of other countries no matter how unjust

they may be.


ourselves of any moral basis for the assessment and reform of our global
order. And the only such basis that could be both plausible and capable of

wide international acceptance today is a conception of human rights.


According to a widely held opinion, the content of international law

is settled by actual government conduct and rhetoric as recorded and

interpreted by the foremost international lawyers. By that criterion, my

explication of ?28 and my theses about the concept and reach of human

rights may well be far-fetched. But my ambition here was not to satisfy
that criterion – but rather to keep alive, against the living examples of

actual government conduct and rhetoric, an understanding of human rights
as moral claims on global institutions. Though marginalized, this under

standing is no less compelling today than it was fifty years ago. And it

does not rule out viewing human rights also as moral claims on national

institutions and on the conduct of governments and their officials.

Department of Philosophy
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027


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  • Issue Table of Contents
  • The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 1/2, Rights, Equality, and Liberty Universidad Torcuato Di Tella Law and Philosophy Lectures 1995-1997 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. i-xiv, 1-172
    Volume Information
    Front Matter
    Editor’s Introduction [pp. ix-xiv]
    If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re so Rich? [pp. 1-26]
    Welfare Rights [pp. 27-43]
    The International Significance of Human Rights [pp. 45-69]
    In Defense of the Jurisdiction Theory of Rights [pp. 71-98]
    Liberty and Welfare Goods: Reflections on Clashing Liberalisms [pp. 99-113]
    The Role of Rights in Practical Reasoning: “Rights” versus “Needs” [pp. 115-135]
    Mill’s Liberalism and Liberalism’s Posterity [pp. 137-165]
    Back Matter

  • The Intellectual Standard
  • Volume 2 | Issue 2 Article 1


  • Critiquing Cultural Relativism
  • Jaret Kanarek
    Illinois Wesleyan University, jkanarek@iwu.edu

    This Article is brought to you for free and open access by The Ames Library, the Andrew W. Mellon Center for Curricular and Faculty
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    ©Copyright is owned by the author of this document.

    Recommended Citation
    Kanarek, Jaret (2013) “Critiquing Cultural Relativism,” The Intellectual Standard: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 1.
    Available at: http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/tis/vol2/iss2/1








    The Intellectual Standard

    Critiquing Cultural Relativism
    Jaret I<:anarek


    Cultural relativism is the ever-popular theory claiming that, “any

    set of customs and institutions, or way of life, is as valid as any other:’l

    In its appeal to tolerance-the seemingly incontrovertible “virtue” of the

    modern era-it has gained wide appeal amongst myriad disciplines, most

    notably in the social sciences.2 However, the theory is destructive in both

    theory and practice. In theory, cultural relativism emphatically denies rea­

    son and objective reality.3 In practice, it sanctions the worst manifestations

    of violence and oppression.


    That cultural relativism is not simply a statement about the equal

    validity of cultures, but a theory dependent on explicit philosophic funda­

    mentals’ is central to its proper understanding. Franz Boas, oft referred to

    as the father of American anthropology, first expounded the theoretical

    basis of cultural relativism in a number of essays published in the 1920s.4

    Melville Herskovits, a well-known anthropologist and student of Boas, fur-

    Frank E. Hartung, “Cultural Relativity and Moral Judgments:’ Philosophy of
    Science, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1954), pp. 118-126. Published by The University of Chicago
    Press for the Philosophy of Science Association.
    2 Tolerance is often touted as an end in itself, and on a grand scale. In the Dec-
    laration of Principles on Tolerance, created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific
    and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), tolerance is upheld as “a moral duty ” and “as the
    virtue that makes peace possible” (Article 1, November 16, 1995).
    3 In her essay, “In The Name of Culture: Culture Relativism and the Abuse of the
    Individual:’ Elizabeth M. Zechenter points out that cultural relativism has many variants
    and, as such, cannot be spoken of a monolithic theory (pp. 323). She isolates three broad
    yet distinct variants as follows: descriptive relativism (or weak relativism), normative
    relativism (or strong relativism), and epistemological relativism (or extreme relativism). In
    this essay, it is the latter two that I am explicitly critiquing. The reader is free to apply the
    arguments herein to descriptive relativism at his or her discretion. Also, “objective reality:’
    as it is used in this essay, is defined as reality existing independent of man’s mind, feelings,
    perceptions, wishes, et cetera. That is, it is the facts of reality are facts regardless of whether
    men choose to believe them.
    4 Marguerite Holloway, “The Paradoxical Legacy of Franz Boas – father of Ameri-
    can anthropology:’ Natural History, 1997.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 2

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    ther elucidated the theory. Cultural relativism, posits Herskovits, begins

    with the notion that experience is man’s primary connection to reality. It

    is through experience that man comes to know about the world, and it is

    from this experience that judgments are derived. Herskovits wrote, “judg­

    ments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each in­

    dividual in terms of his own enculturation:’5 Enculturation is the process

    by which a culture conditions man’s mind, thus influencing his conceptual


    Enculturation is not latent. Herskovits remarks that, “the force of

    the enculturative experience channels all judgments:’7 As one scholar fur­

    ther explains:

    “Cultures inculcated their members with moral and ethical rules

    through involuntary socialization and enculturation and … few, if any,

    individuals were consciously aware of the arbitrary character of be­

    liefs that were ingrained into them:’8

    There are two defining aspects of this process. First, enculturation

    is “involuntary:’ Second, it is in large part unconsciously accepted. Resul­

    tantly, any conviction of an individual or group is inherently “arbitrary”

    because they are determined solely by accident of birth.

    Thus, the starting point of cultural relativism is an assertive epis­

    temological claim about man’s nature. Judgment, it holds, is reliant on ex­

    perience-experience that is inseparable from its cultural context. Since

    man’s judgments are culture-bound, so too are his methods of reasoning

    and knowledge. As Herskovits states, “Evaluations are relative to the cul­

    tural background out of which they arise:’9 This does not solely pertain

    5 Paul F. Schmidt, “Some Criticisms of Cultural Relativism:’ The Journal of Phi-
    losophy, Vol. 52, No. 25 (Dec. 8, 1955), pp. 782.
    6 Ibid. pp. 782
    7 Melville Herskovits, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism (New
    York, Vintage Books, 1973).
    8 Elizabeth M. Zechenter, “In The Name of Culture: Culture Relativism and the
    Abuse of the Individual:’ Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 53, No. 3, Universal Hu­
    man Rights Versus Cultural Relativity (Autumn, 1997), pp. 324.
    9 Melville Herskovits, Man and His Works (New York, A. A. Knopf, 1948), pp.
    63. Note: Herskovits remains unchanged in his views regarding the subject in the 1955
    abridged version of his work, Cultural Anthropology.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 3

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    to value judgments, but to all reasoning and to all knowledge. Herskovits

    continues, “Even the facts of the physical world are discerned through the

    enculturative screen, so that the perception of time, distance, weight, size,

    and other ‘realities’ is mediated by the conventions of any given group:’lO

    As such, reality is interpreted according to each man’s inherently

    culture-bound perceptions. Reality is not objective, but rather subjective in

    that its nature is determined by and dependent upon its perceiver. The fol­

    lowing is one scholar’s summation of the cultural relativist’s view of reality

    and man’s knowledge of it:

    ”All experience is culturally mediated. There is no reality known to

    man beyond, or in addition to, cultural reality … it follows a priori

    that all modes of perception and all value judgments are also cultur­

    ally conditioned … This thesis implies that culture is an absolute real­

    ity … and that all modes of human experience and thought are relative

    thereto because they are functions of culture and dependent on it for

    their form and contenf’ll

    Consequently, the philosophic basis of cultural relativism becomes

    quite clear. Epistemologically, man’s mind-in content and form-is in­

    evitably culture-bound and arbitrarily defined. Metaphysically, “there is no

    such thing as objective reality, truth, or reason:’12

    This philosophical groundwork gives rise to cultural relativism’s

    socio-political claim for the “unqualified tolerance of all cultures:’13 Given

    that its foundation is mutually exclusive with any objective cross-cultural

    standard, value, or method, cultural relativism thus eliminates the possi­

    bility of cross-cultural judgment. There are, in fact, innumerable cultures

    and thus innumerable realities, each with their own truths and moralities.

    There can be no universally “good” or “bad” practices since what consti­

    tutes “good” and “bad” is relative to each culture. Even in regard to the vast

    bodies of knowledge and progress science has brought mankind, cultural

    relativism asserts that science is no more than “a culturally biased way of

    10 Ibid. pp. 64.
    11 David Bidney, “The Philosophical Presuppositions of Cultural Relativism and
    Cultural Absolutism:’ Ethics and the Social Sciences (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1959), pp. 66.
    12 Zechenter, pp. 325.
    13 Ibid. pp. 326.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 4

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    thinking that is no different from magic or witchcraft:’14

    Evidently, cultural relativism is much more than a simple state­

    ment claiming the equal validity of all cultures. It is a full-fledged philo­

    sophic theory, which “asserts that there is no absolute truth, be it ethical,

    moral, or cultural, and that there is no meaningful way to judge different

    cultures because all judgments are ethnocentric:’15


    By definition, cultural relativism does not just dismiss even the

    slightest possibility of objectivity; it vehemently scoffs at any attempt to in­

    tegrate knowledge beyond one’s own culture-bound reality. The premises,

    upon which cultural relativism is based, as well as its assertive claim about

    the equal validity of all cultures, are anything but vague on this issue. This

    is the first way in which cultural relativism emphatically denies reason and

    objective reality.

    The second way cultural relativism denies reason and objective

    reality is in its very formulation. Reason is the faculty that identifies and

    integrates the material provided by man’s senses.16 Identification is the pro­

    cess by which man applies the law of identity to his existence. It is his rec­

    ognition that each existent has a specific identity-that A is A, and that A

    has a specific nature by which it can be nothing other than A. Integration

    is man’s process of abstracting from his identifications, thus allowing him

    to move from the perceptual to the conceptual level. The perceptual level

    is defined by the direct awareness of existents. If man’s concepts are to be

    valid, i.e. in accord with reality, they must be non-contradictory-all of

    what he has identified about reality must be consistent. He cannot hold A

    and not A to be true simultaneously. A fact of reality and its opposite can­

    not both be logically integrated within the same consciousness. Logic is the

    art of non -contradictory identification and integration. 17

    In its formulation, cultural relativism violates the most basic law

    14 Ibid. pp. 325.
    15 Ibid. pp. 323.
    16 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics;’ The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 20. It should be
    noted that the following is a much -abbreviated summation of Objectivism’s (the philoso­
    phy of Ayn Rand) stance on reason. This is the framework that will be utilized herein,
    and there is no full proof of the aforementioned here. For proof of the underlying theory
    presented, see Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
    17 Ayn Rand, “Galt’s Speech;’ For the New Intellectual, pp. 125.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 5

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    of logic: the Law of Identity-the law stating that A is A. Its philosophic

    premises and its conclusion are necessarily at odds. If the theory is valid,

    then the conclusion is nullified. Cultural relativism holds that all convic­

    tions, even the laws of physics, are culture-bound. These convictions have

    neither applicability nor truth outside of the cultural context from which

    they originate. Such a conclusion must then apply equally to cultural rela­


    If cultural relativism is valid then we should regard all theories and

    beliefs, including cultural relativism, as culture-bound phenomena. Cul­

    tural relativism is, in fact, a predominantly western theory situated primar­

    ily in the subculture that is the ivory tower. It would be wrong, by its own

    accord, to apply cultural relativism cross-culturally since it is just another

    culture-bound theory. Indeed, some cultures hold cultural relativism to be

    valid while many others hold it to be invalid. According to cultural relativ­

    ism, it is necessary to conclude that both views are equally valid. Yet, they

    are opposing theories: one states A, and the other, not A. A conclusion and

    its negation cannot both be right-logically, they are mutually exclusive.

    Yet, the very formulation of cultural relativism necessitates a logical con­


    The consequence of this contradiction is damning. Concludes one

    scholar, “the theory destroys its own basis:’18 He continues:

    “[ Cultural relativism] is intended to be an empirical truth of anthro­

    pology and sociology holding for all cultures, but it destroys the basis

    for the objectivity which is required to make meaningful assertions

    that are cross-cultural. It destroys objectivity because the frame of

    reference for measurement in each culture is somehow peculiarly

    ‘true’ for that culture and no over-arching or inter-cultural standard

    is available to objectively adjudicate inconsistent reports. Thus the

    cultural relativist cannot have it both ways: he cannot claim that the

    truth of factual judgments are relative to their cultural background

    and at the same time believe in the objectivity of sociological and

    anthropological investigations:’

    This, at the very least, makes cultural relativism untenable-no

    18 Schmidt, pp. 78I.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 6

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    theory can uphold a contradiction of this nature and be considered logi­

    cally valid. To attempt to do so not only is an evasion of reason, but an at­

    tempt to obliterate it. Yet, there is another notable evasion taking place in

    the formulation of cultural relativism.

    That evasion is in regard to a critical fact of reality : man’s volitional

    nature. Cultural relativism regards man as a product of enculturation­

    an involuntary and uncritically accepted process by which the content of

    man’s mind is determined by his culture. There can be little room for voli­

    tion in this framework since man is unaware of, let alone able to challenge,

    the force that is determining his conceptual make-up. Everything men

    “choose” to value, believe, and pursue, is simply a product of his cultural

    conditioning, and as such, is inherently arbitrary. Such an assertion could

    only make B.p. Skinner blush. 19

    Contra cultural relativism, man’s mind is not a ball of clay on

    which incontestable and unknown forces exert themselves. Man is un­

    doubtedly a volitional being, i.e. he is able to choose his values, ideas, and

    actions. In every issue and with respect to every idea, he can choose to

    evaluate it or not, and he can choose to accept it or not. This is fundamental

    to man’s “metaphysically given nature;’ observes philosopher and novelist

    Ayn Rand.20 She elucidates:

    “A man’s volition is outside the power of other men. What the unal­

    terable basic constituents are to nature, the attribute of a volitional

    consciousness is to the entity ‘man: Nothing can force a man to think.

    Others may offer him incentives or impediments, rewards or punish­

    ments’ they may destroy his brain by drugs or by the blow of a club,

    but they cannot order his mind to function: this is in his exclusive,

    sovereign power:’

    Man is undoubtedly shaped by his culture in numerous ways, but

    he will only be so to the extent that he chooses to accept its customs and

    beliefs. And history has shown that many individuals refuse to accept such

    19 B.P. Skinner is a famous psychologist and behaviorist claiming that environ-
    mental factors determine man’s behavior. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he states that, “a
    person does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him:’
    20 Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made:’ Philosophy: Who Needs It,
    pp. 3l.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 7

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    beliefs, often breaking entirely with the dominant thought of their respec­

    tive eras. Aristotle, against the backdrop of centuries of mysticism, offered

    the first rational philosophy in recorded history. Sir Isaac Newton rejected

    the scientific theories of his time and fundamentally redefined physics and

    the methods by which science was conducted. Our nation’s founding fa­

    thers created a political system unlike that of any realized in their time.

    All of these great men were unprecedentedly radical for their time,

    somehow overcoming the supposed beliefs “ingrained into them:’ Barring

    volition, such feats would be neither possible nor explainable. In most of

    the cases, the prevailing cultural attitude was fundamentally opposed to

    the ideas and achievements of these men. If the notion of enculturation

    held true, what would give rise to these unprecedented and radical men?

    How and why did these men do what they did? The thoughts and actions

    of these men were revolutionary in their respective eras, and it is doubtful

    that some abstract cultural phenomenon necessitated these achievements.

    For example, pre-Aristotelian philosophy condemned the material

    world as illusory, instead praising the mystic realm of Forms (as Plato did),

    or some other transcendental world, as the true and supreme reality.21 The

    world had little knowledge or awareness of a non -mystic philosophy prior

    to that of Aristotle’s, and there was hardly any significant cultural impetus

    for a philosophy of his kind. It was Aristotle’s choice to think, evaluate, and

    reject the dogma of his time that made his achievements possible.

    Of course, the cultural relativist could claim that X or Y cultural

    factor gave rise to these achievements, but such a claim is non -falsifiable­

    it is neither testable nor open to empirical investigation. To prove encul­

    turation, it would be necessary to provide a method by which a causal

    relationship between generally held views and the specific content of an

    individual’s mind could be empirically shown. Such a method is not yet

    possible, and even if it were, the cultural relativist would have to denounce

    it as just another “culturally biased way of thinking that is no different from

    magic or witchcraft:’

    Not only that, but enculturation is an empirical delusion. The no­

    tion that moral rules, beliefs, values, and practices are “involuntarily” in­

    grained into the minds of individuals is absurd. Even the most susceptible

    minds, such as those of children, do not operate in this way. Simply im-

    21 See Plato’s Phaedo and Republic, for example.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 8

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    mersing a child with moral rules and the like will neither garner their ac­

    ceptance nor ensure their practice. Instead, the child must actively seek to

    understand and apply them by choice. As Rand observed about the learn­

    ing process:

    “To understand means to focus on the content of a given subject (as

    against the sensory-visual or auditory-form in which it is com­

    municated), to isolate its essentials, to establish its relationship to the

    previously known, and to integrate it with the appropriate categories

    of other subjects:’22

    This view is far from controversial. A child will not learn by osmo­

    sis if he is placed amidst other children in a classroom. At most, the child

    may be able to parrot a concept of which he has no understanding, but he

    will learn nothing without seeking to understand the content of the lesson

    being taught. The fact that so much focus is placed on trying to get kids

    interested in learning is evidence enough to prove this point. If children

    simply absorbed knowledge presented to them with no volitional effort on

    their part, their interest in learning would not be an issue.

    Or take the basic skill of reading. A man could spend years locked

    in a library full of books, yet he would not learn to read without actively

    seeking to understand what was before his eyes. If he wants to read, he

    must choose to open a book, make sense of the various markings, form

    the concepts of letters, sounds, words, meanings, et cetera. Man’s mind is

    not filled with efficacious content “involuntarily:’ Learning is not a passive


    For a theory that is supposed to assert “an empirical truth” about

    man’s nature, it is inexcusable that enculturation cannot be empirically

    verified and explicitly prohibits progress in doing so. That enculturation is

    grounded in a blatant empirical delusion about man’s volitional nature and,

    subsequently, his learning process, is arguably worse.

    So far, cultural relativism has been shown to be vehemently op­

    posed to-and be without any basis in-reason and reality. By definition, it

    is a rejection of both. In its formulation, it unapologetically necessitates an

    untenable contradiction and evades crucial aspects of reality, such as man’s

    22 Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, pp. 68.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 9

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    volitional nature, while relying on non-falsifiable assertions and empirical

    delusions as its “empirical” basis. To this extent it is fully destructive in

    theory, as it undermines not only itself but also all knowledge, including

    but not limited to, scientific methods and the fundamental laws of nature.

    Cultural relativism is therefore a destructive force in theory and is thus

    bound to be destructive in practice.


    It is in practice that cultural relativism sanctions the worst mani­

    festations of violence and oppression. Cultural relativism accomplishes

    this in two ways. First, it makes the innocent morally defenseless against

    those that wish to do them harm. Second, it morally sanctions the actions

    of the aggressors.

    In regard to the first, to be morally defenseless is to be without any

    valid moral ground by which one can justify his actions, convictions, or

    character. Cultural relativism disarms men by proclaiming that there are

    no standards, whether moral of any other form, by which cross-cultural

    judgment is at all possible. Logically, in lieu of any standard, judgmental

    proclamations of any kind are meaningless. What weight can be ascribed

    to the proclamation that something is good or bad without a criterion for

    determining what constitutes the good and bad?

    As it applies to cross-cultural judgments, it is important to note

    that cultures are not monolithic, static, floating abstraction independent of

    the individuals, practices, and ideas that comprise them. In fact, cultures

    do evolve. They often replace old modes of life for new ones, and in doing

    so adopt new ideas and practices.

    That being the case, cultural relativism’s claim “that there is no

    meaningful way to judge different cultures” is to claim just that about the

    individuals, ideas and practices of cultures. When cultural relativism pro­

    claims that all cultures are equal, it says so about real-past or present,

    dominant or underground-ideas and practices as maintained by the indi­

    viduals upholding them.

    Incontrovertibly opposing ideas and practices throughout the

    world’s various cultures, then, become problematic for the cultural relativ­

    ist framework.

    The 1939 German invasion of Poland, for example, elucidates this

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 10

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    issue. During World War II, the German Nazis believed they had a moral

    and valid claim to takeover of the rest of the world. One prominent expres­

    sion of this belief was the Nazi’s principle of Lebensraum, or”living space;’

    supposedly justifying national conquest as an ordained right of the Aryan

    race for the purposes of natural development. Conversely, Poland main­

    tained and acted on the principle of national sovereignty. Despite these

    diametrically opposed principles, Germany invaded Poland under the pre­

    tense that it had a right to do so, while Poland staunchly denied such a


    In the cultural relativist framework, however, the German claim

    to Poland is just as valid as Poland’s claim to sovereignty. Accordingly, the

    Nazi fantasy of world domination and their practice of brutal invasions

    and genocide are equally as valid as the idea of sovereignty and the prac­

    tice of it. On what basis, then, is Poland to claim a right to its sovereignty

    when claims to its enslavement are equally as valid? The result is the moral

    disarmament of the innocent-Poland would be left with few, if any, means

    to effectively rebut Germany ‘s actions and justification.

    As such, cultural relativism makes cross-cultural judgments im­

    possible-it leaves no means by which different ideas and practices of cul­

    tures can be judged. The result is obvious: the innocent are left morally

    defenseless against their aggressors. Its framework-if taken to be true and

    applied as such -automatically disarms the victims. It does so through

    its universal denial of any standard by which an idea or practice may be

    judged, at least cross-culturally.

    But isn’t it equally possible that the Nazi’s are left with no means

    to challenge Poland’s claims to sovereignty? Isn’t cultural relativism the

    theory of tolerance that supposedly prevents acts of aggression? As Frank

    Hartung, esteemed professor of sociology at Wayne State University, elo­

    quently answers:

    “This particular approach to tolerance gives aid to the enemies of

    tolerance. This is because the cultural relativist disarms himself in

    advance against aggression by an authoritarian. He is himself con­

    vinced’ and has publicly announced his conviction, that any way of

    life is as good as his own .. .If every way of life is equally valid, the

    cultural relativist has, logically, no right to insist upon imposing tol-

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 1 1

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    erance on a variant way of life that is based upon intolerance:’2 3

    Cultural relativism, still, goes a step further in that it morally sanc­

    tions the aggressors. It does so by ascribing validity to their actions. If all

    ways of life are equally valid because there are various cultural ideas and

    practices and there is no way to adjudicate them, then the source of their

    validity lies in the fact that they are cultural practices. In other words, an

    idea or practice is valid precisely because it is an idea or practice in some

    culture. As a result:

    “One is compelled to accept any cultural pattern as vindicated pre­

    cisely by its cultural status: slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, or Commu­

    nism may not be congenial to Christians or to contemporary Western

    societies, but moral criticism of the cultural patterns of other people

    is precluded:’2 4

    This means that practices such as forced female genital mutilation,

    which affects millions of women around the globe and often leads to severe

    physical and mental ailment, infection, and death, is valid and has value

    because it is a practice. It means that the kidnapping, brainwashing, and

    transformation of hundreds of thousands of children into child soldiers

    who commit the most abhorred atrocities is valid because it is a practice.

    Coupled with the notion of equal validity, cultural relativism af­

    firms that these ideas and practices are not only valid and valuable, but that

    they are on par with their polar opposites. The cultural relativist must be

    committed to the notion that a culture protecting individual rights for all

    men and women is as equally as valid as one in which women, minorities,

    or other groups are treated unequally and unfairly under the law. He must

    be committed to the notion that a childhood placing emphasis on educa­

    tion’ friends, recreation, and the overall pursuit of happiness is equally as

    valid as a childhood of slavery, abuse, and violence. He must be so as long

    as the practice is a part of the world’s many cultures. One only needs to

    look to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, or Iran, to discover

    that such modes of life are the reality for countless individuals.

    23 Hartung, pp. 125.
    24 Zechenter, pp. 324.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 12

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    Apart from the disarmament of the innocent, the additional di­

    mension is clear; the aggressors are granted a moral blank check for their

    actions. The theory that affirms the validity of any idea or practice because

    it is an idea or practice is the first to grant sanction to the aggressors. In

    this way, cultural relativism precipitates the worst forms of atrocity and

    oppression. As further demonstrated by one scholar’s poignant historical

    application of the theory to World War II:

    “The Nazi thinks that it is right for him to exterminate Jews, con­

    demn without trial, appropriate foreign lands and kill resisting for­

    eign persons, violate international law, etc. Why is it right for him to

    think and act thus? Because these are the accepted value judgments

    of his culture. Hence it is right for him to follow them. The Ameri­

    can thinks that the opposites of the above value judgments are right.

    Why? Because in the United States these are the accepted value judg­

    ments … Each side can legitimately, on this theory, claim it is right

    and both sides can be asserting true propositions:’25

    Note that the innocent are left unable to challenge the claims of the

    aggressors. Also note that the means by which each conviction is granted

    validity is through the fact that they are convictions. Cultural relativism,

    then, can only empower the aggressors: both by disarming the innocent

    and sanctioning the aggressors’ actions. With no means of adjudication,

    it is no wonder why this scholar concludes that “ethical disagreements are

    not solved by cultural relativism … but rather one or the other party is dis­

    solved, liquidated:’26 This is not necessarily always the case, but granted a

    zealous aggressor, it is more than likely.


    Cultural relativism is destructive in both theory and practice. In

    its theoretical denial of reason and objective reality, it sanctions the worst

    forms of violence and oppression in practice. This is unsurprising; a theory

    that adamantly denies reason and reality cannot be suitable for the latter,

    nor be sound according to the former.

    25 Schmidt pp. 786-787.
    26 Ibid, pp. 787.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 13

    The Intellectual Standard Critiquing Cultural Relativism

    The deficiencies with cultural relativism are too important to ig­

    nore’ and the consequences too far reaching. As such, the purpose of this

    essay is to provide a cohesive and integrated response to cultural relativ­

    ism. However, there are many more arguments against cultural relativism

    that are not included in this criticism. Because this is in fact a criticism,

    arguments for a positive account of objective, cross-cultural standards are

    not included. Such considerations are omissions because they are outside

    the scope of this critique, not because this author concedes their impos­

    sibility. Ultimately, it should be clear that cultural relativism deserves to

    be nothing more than a relic. A relic that perhaps one day cultural anthro­

    pologists, social scientists, and those in higher education at large, ought to

    study as a mistake of their intellectual predecessors.

    Vol. 2- Iss. 2 – 2013 14

      The Intellectual Standard
      Critiquing Cultural Relativism
      Jaret Kanarek
      Recommended Citation

      Critiquing Cultural Relativism

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