Are human rights something every sentient species has, no matter what species they are? Do all human beings have the same human rights, to begin with? We commonly think of human rights as an absolute; a universal set of laws which apply to every human being -no matter which culture they identify with. We know that Klingon culture is different; we accept that we ought not judge Klingon social mores by Federation standards. Conversely, we expect human culture to be homogeneous.

It isn't.

We rarely acknowledge that a being's rights are culturally relative. We often prefer to think that our values supersede those of another culture, right here on our own world. 

Human rights are, in my assessment, universally culturally relative. In my case: I recognize an individual’s right to bear their own culture’s conception of what human rights are. I concede, however, to being a member only of my own culture. In my culture, one may or may not share my perspective that other cultures (including their sub-cultures) should be objectified rather than judged by my own culture’s standards and mores.

I assert that human rights are culturally relative, to a point.

There are superseding, relatively universal conventions of human behavior that preempt one individual’s cultural rights to infringe upon the universal human rights of another.

Michael Ignatieff raises the argument that this kind of doctrine may, as Islamic opponents to the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights suggest, be “just another cunning exercise in Western moral imperialism.” The validity of human rights norms, he points out, and their legitimacy, is put in question with this challenge. He says that “The best way to face the cultural challenges to human rights coming from Asia, Islam, and Western postmodernism is to admit their truth: rights discourse is individualistic.” but further states that “the doctrine of human rights is morally universal because it says that all human beings need certain specific freedoms (from tyranny… and) it articulates standards of human decency without violating rights of cultural autonomy.”

What Ignatieff is saying is that we ought not be using the language of human rights as tools to assert our cultural norms on others, but limit its use to an endless debate we all share in, as to what human rights are, and admits that the only common ground may be the very limited acknowledgment that “pain and humiliation for you is bound to be pain and humiliation for me.” Michael Ignatieff appears to seek less a solution than simply a discussion, to the end that disparate cultures understand one another better. I might add that this could positively affect the economic human rights of those concerned, at the very least, by facilitating trade among new inter-cultural associates. Other benefits would present themselves, despite Ignatieff not looking for anyone to gain from the exchange.

Jack Donnelly might remind us that for many in developing countries, the cultural relativism underpinning arguments to talk but expressly not interfere, face serious problems such as female circumcision, child betrothal and widow inheritance. However, in one discussion on Women’s Rights in Africa, a compromise between adhering to traditional values and adopting human rights values was welcomed when Rhonda Howard argued for legislation enabling women and families (of female children) to “opt-out” of traditional practices. Such talk can lead to codification.

Heiner Bielefeldt cites the earliest conventions of law. He concludes that there is no single conception of human rights, nor will any culture have a monopoly on stipulating what it is. He suggests understanding human rights not as an argument, which Ignatieff describes, but as “the center of a cross-cultural “overlapping consensus” on basic normative standards in our increasingly multicultural societies.” 

Saying of Rawls’ “overlapping consensus" concept: “This poses a critical challenge. What is at stake is not a factual consensus but rather a normative consensus in the sense that people holding different convictions should nevertheless be enabled to agree on some basic principles of justice so as to shape their coexistence and cooperation on the basis of equality and freedom. The “overlapping consensus" is an ideal for a pluralistic modern society, not a description of the status quo. On one hand, it opens up the conceptual space for a plurality of different world views, ideologies, religions, philosophical doctrines, and so on. On the other hand, the "overlapping consensus” also defines limits of political tolerance in a liberal society.”

What Bielefeldt is saying is that the scope of justice is limited, and should be, since we do not wish to live in a draconian society. Likewise, there ought not be an effort to even really think of human rights as (an) all-encompassing doctrine. For example, it doesn’t seek to supplant the doctrines of religion. Bielefeldt clarifies: “The idea of an“overlapping consensus” on human rights does not even require us to work toward reconciliation between all religions and ideologies because people are free to define their identities, provided they respect universal equality in human dignity and rights.” He is describing a universal concept, and yet one that has intrinsic flexibility. Feel free, he says, but, to a point.

Earlier, I asserted that human rights are culturally relative, to a point, because there are superseding, relatively universal conventions of Human behavior that enable the state to preempt one individual’s cultural rights to infringe upon the universal human rights of another.

One could argue that because my conclusion originates from a Westerner whose culture rests on a foundation of Western thought, that this is an inexorably hegemonic approach. Such arguments remain unpersuasive to me. In reality, allowing for cultural relativity is, at best, eminently logical regarding the prosperity of human rights for every culture, and at worst, merely cultural bias.

I can live with that.

-Benjamin Sisko

Follow Benjamin Sisko on Twitter @CaptSisko2018

Works Cited

Ignatieff, Michael. "The Attack on human rights." Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs, 28 Jan. 2009. Web. 01 Nov. 2016. Nov / Dec 2001 Issue


Bielefeldt, Heiner. ""Western" versus "Islamic" human rights Conceptions?: A Critique of Cultural Essentialism in the Discussion on human rights." Political Theory 28.1 (2000): 90-121. JSTOR. Web. 01 Nov. 2016


Donnelly, Jack. "Cultural Relativism and Universal human rights." human rights Quarterly 6.4 (1984): 400. Web.