Relativism versus universalism is a well-debated topic when it comes to human rights and cultural diversity. The question being asked is whether there can be a universal set of human rights that can be applied to all people worldwide or if it’s a matter of different personal and cultural values which make universalism difficult. The divergence between these two theories is particularly problematic when it comes to reconciling cultural difference and human rights.
Relativism asserts that the cultural background of an individual should shape how that individual views and regards human rights. This means that what may be considered acceptable in one culture may not be the same in another culture. By contrast, universalism emphasizes that all human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights regardless of their respective cultures or societies. Universalism holds that there are fundamental principles of human rights, which should be identical across different cultures.
The primary issue with using either of these theories exclusively is that it could be detrimental to the dignity and rights of people in different parts of the world. Supporters of universalism argue that some rights, such as the right to life, are non-negotiable, and should be respected universally. While such arguments have merit, critics argue that universalism can result in a naïve imposition of values and constitutes cultural elitism. For example, there have been cases where western countries have imposed their ‘democracy’, a western value, upon other nations in the name of promoting human rights, without recognizing the cultural nuances that are unique to each country.
At the same time, a strict cultural relativist approach could lead to a disregard for basic human dignity and human rights abuses within different societies. For instance, the justification of female genital mutilation through cultural relativism is regarded as backward and hugely unfair to women in different societies.
This dichotomy creates a dilemma, and it is worth noting that the most valuable approach is a hybrid between relativism and universalism. In reconciling cultural difference and human rights, it is essential to recognize and value the uniqueness of different cultures while keeping in line with fundamental human rights principles. This approach respects cultural, religious, and traditional beliefs while ensuring that basic human rights are protected.
An instance of hybrid approach to human rights, and cultural diversity is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration recognizes the importance of universalism in the form of affirming the principle of equal rights and dignity for all people, but it also pays homage to relativism by respecting the regional and national laws that could vary from one society to another. If everyone, regardless of culture and society, has respect for basic human dignity and rights, the rights of people worldwide is preserved, whilst still respecting the values and customs of other societies.
In conclusion, the universality versus cultural relativism debate is far from settled when it comes to human rights. However, a hybrid approach to this topic is gaining traction as it encompasses the best of both sides. It allows for fundamental human rights to be recognized, while still respecting the various cultures, traditions and historical contexts that determine the values and perceptions of people. This is the practical end game for human rights.
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