Postmodernism and Universal Human Rights

Why Theory and Reality Don't Mix

by Xiaorong Li

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 4.

Caesar: Pardon him Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II
George Bernard Shaw

Last summer, President Bill Clinton's visit to China renewed the worldwide debate over the relationship between nations with a disparate human rights standards. On the occasion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' fiftieth anniversary, it is only fitting to visit the challenges posed by postmodern ethical relativism and official government rhetoric. A comparison between them, their unlikely alliance and inevitable frictions, will illuminate some of the issues that face the movement of universal human rights. I will focus on China in my comments, although the same situation exists in many other countries with autocratic rulers.

In 1947, on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly's vote to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the American Anthropological Association (AAA) submitted a statement to the draft committee making a strongly worded cultural relativist case against a Declaration. The AAA argued that respect for the individual entails a respect for cultural differences since the individual realizes his or her personality through his culture; that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that have grown out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole. [1]

This is perhaps the most articulate voice of postmodern relativism. That it came from anthropologists is not a surprise since their trade advises the preservation of indigenous cultures. Claims to universality of such values as human rights are claims to power and cultural hegenomy in disguise.

Fifty years later, challenges to universality of human rights have continued and, more specifically, have flared up in China, where government leaders have asserted particularist cultural values. Confucianism and other traditions of thought were long derided in favor of Marxism. Having faced the need to counter international criticisms of its human rights record since 1989, the Chinese authorities now claim that their political repression is justified by traditional "cultural values." Replying to questions about human rights during Clinton's visit, Chinese president Jiang Zemin thus defended the government's authoritarian policies: "[t]he two countries differ in social system, ideology, historical tradition and cultural background, the two countries have different means and ways in realizing human rights and fundamental freedoms." Official statements [2] have declared that China has its own unique cultural values (such as obedience to authority, collectivism, family, and other dispositions), which are said to be opposed to human rights ideals that cherish individual freedom and tolerance.

Both the AAA and official Chinese statements made strong relativist claims, not simply empirical ones about the world's great diversity of views on right and wrong that grew out of diverse cultures, or about a lack of commonly accepted criterion for judging across cultures. They made normative claims: the diverse views on right and wrong (or values) should not be judged by, or relocated to, other cultures; or, a culture should not impose on other cultures its own ideas. [3] For them, international human rights are merely disguised Western cultural ideas.

As globalization now more rapidly erodes the once stronger traditional notions of sovereignty, domestic jurisdiction, and cultural autonomy, the current debate reflects pains, pride, and memories of humiliating events that are acutely experienced by nations undergoing radical transformation. Recognizing the great diversity of values and their roots in cultures was once one step in the direction of moral condemnation of colonialism and brutal missionary expeditions. But ethical relativists' insistence on an incommensurability of cultural values - that each culture and its values are unique and cannot be compared with other cultures - is rather a denial of overlapping and converging values between different cultures in human history.

Unique or Universal?

Uniqueness requires that the set of values in a culture be well-defined, self-enclosed. But the task of neatly defining and clearly drawing the borders of a culture has many methodological problems. If cultures have fuzzy borders, as they do, then, they would necessarily have something shared with neighboring cultures. As soon as values become shared and thus comparable, then there must be some standards for making the comparisons.

Fortunately, the claim to uniqueness is empirical and can be verified. For example, one can try to verify the propositions that relativists commonly make about Chinese values, such as, "The Chinese place the collective interest of family, community, and society above that of individuals," or "In disputes, the Chinese place greater importance on subsistence than on freedom." Are these propositions untrue or inappropriate about any other cultures in the world? Can anyone credibly make the statement that, in no other societies at no time in their history, people other than the Chinese have placed collective interest above individual interest? There is certainly clear evidence that such statements can be made about many communities or cultures in the world, including those in the West.

Confucian sayings have often been cited to support the proposition that, when it comes to judging social justice, the Chinese culture is centered on the interest of the family. If the sage king, Shun's father, committed murder, Mencius advised, the moral action for Shun was that "He would have secretly carried the old man on his back and fled to the edge of the Sea and lived there happily, never again a thought to the Empire." [4] Now consider the following quote:

... [F]riendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship and they aim at concord above all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity. Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice ... [5]

The person who wrote this was Aristotle. Here, the values espoused (collective interest, community, concord, friendship) would find sympathetic ears among the Confucian scholars who seemed at times to have placed filial piety above justice. Their respective views are undeniably comparable or commensurable.

Flaws in the Argument

Cultural relativists largely rested their normative claims on the empirical claim that cultural and value diversity exists. But the existence of moral diversity does no more to justify that we ought to respect different moral values than the existence of disease, hunger, torture, slavery do to justify that we ought to value them. Empirical claims thus are not suitable as the basis for developing moral principles such as "Never judge other cultures" or "We ought to tolerate different values." [6] Consequently, if it is proved that China had its distinct culture and values, this fact does not entail that such values should not be judged by other cultures and values.

Another problem with ethical relativism has to do with a "genetic fallacy," the assumption that value norms of originating elsewhere should not be suitable to apply here. It assumes that a norm is suitable only to the context of its origin. But the origin of an idea in one context - cultural or religious or historical - does not entail the imperative that it never be adapted to another context. The Chinese leaders will contradict themselves if they claim that an idea's being born or grown outside China is a reason for rejecting it from being accepted in China. They have officially appropriated many foreign ideas in China, including, first, Marxism and, now, market capitalism.

Considering for a moment the AAA statement that "respect for individual differences entails a respect for cultural differences." If a disagreement exists between a culture and an individual who was born and raised in it, if conflicting interpretations of some cultural code of conduct occur and divide up a community, how would individual differences be respected by "a respect for cultural difference?" What if the respect or tolerated culture disrespects and advocates violence against individuals who dissent? When a girl fights to escape female genital circumcision or foot-binding or arranged marriage, when a widow does not want to burned to death to honor her dead husband, the relativist is obliged to "respect" the cultural or traditional customs from which the individuals are trying to escape. In so doing, the relativist is not merely disrespecting the individual but effectively endorsing the moral ground for torture, rape, and murder. On moral issues, ethical relativists can not possibly remain neutral - they are committed either to the individual or to the dominant force within a culture.

Relativists have made explicit one central value - equal respect and tolerance of other ways of life, which they insist to be absolute and universal. [7] Ethical relativism is thus repudiated by itself. An ethical relativist should respect and tolerate the differences between individuals within a culture. And in so doing, he will be endorsing individual freedom.

One can recognize cultural distinctiveness without being a relativist. One may observe that "The Chinese, more than other peoples, place collective interest of family, community, and society above that of individuals," and so on. This type of proposition admits that this Chinese cultural attribute is comparable to an attribute in other cultures, though perhaps it is distributed differently and is more widespread among the Chinese. The differences between cultures are thus in degree and configuration. Based on such an assessment, one may legitimately caution that deeply entrenched local beliefs may resist efforts at implementing human rights. Such a caution is not relativistic since it accepts the possibility of cross-cultural comparison values.

Academic Theory vs. Politics

Since postmodern relativism is an epistemological and socio-psychological norm, while official Chinese statements are political, their marriage is sure to split. True, the AAA statement is outdated since techniques of qualitatively evaluating cultures have been improved, [8] if not perfected, and it contained some fallacious assumptions and arguments. Yet some of the issues it raised still exist at the end of the twentieth century, such as the psychological issue of culture as a community of meaning for individuals, the philosophical issue of the role of culture or community in formulating individual moral dispositions, and the practical issue of the cultural impact on the effective implementation of human rights.

Thus, while anthropologists are concerned about indigenous traditions, Chinese authorities defend current political practices and institutions. The "culture" the authorities refer to is supposed to speak for the whole society or nation, which, as the anthropologists know well, includes a diverse range of indigenous cultures. Critics have made serious intellectual efforts to question the assumption of one uniformed and changeless set of Chinese or Asian values. Confucianism is only one cultural, intellectual tradition, and itself has embodied diverse interpretations and ideas. It is difficult to dismiss the significance of Buddhism, Taoism, Moism, Legalism, and even Marxism in Chinese political thinking and intellectual discourse. Moreover, among the diverse values that are embraced by Asians, one finds plenty so-called Western values. [9]

If one takes seriously the AAA position on equal respect to indigenous peoples and tribes, one should oppose the Chinese state's discriminatory policies and destructive practices toward officially unrecognized religions and ethnic minority cultures. One would find that international human rights standards, which are primarily concerned about individual rights against the state, do not contradict the anthropologist's intention. Modern states have been the worst threat to indigenous peoples. Their struggle for survival, autonomy, and empowerment has much in common with the struggle for individual freedom from repressive states. In Asia, many indigenous groups have joined the United Nations' Nongoverning Organizations' movement to demand rights both for their groups and the individuals in them. They declared that "[w]e affirm that all peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status, and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. The right of peoples to self-determination must, therefore, be observed by all governments." [10] The right to self-determination is declared a right of indigenous peoples against the state, rather than a state's right to "trump" its citizens' rights to free association, free religious worship, and free assembly.


  1. American Anthropological Association, "Statement on Human Rights," American Anthropologist 49 No. 4 (1947): 539.
  2. Information Office, the State Council of the People's Republic of China, Human Rights In China ("The 1991 White Paper"), Beijing Review 34, no. 44 (November 4-10, 1991) and The Progress of Human Rights in China ("The 1995 White Paper"), China Daily, December 28, 1995.
  3. The anthropologist Melville Herkovits once wrote, "[T]he need for a cultural relativistic point of view has become apparent because of the realization that there is no way to play this game of making judgments across cultures except with loaded dice." Quoted from Henry Steiner and Philip Alston, ed. International Human Rights in Context (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 190.
  4. Mencius, translated by D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin Books, 1970), Book VII, part A, 35, p. 190.
  5. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985) 1155a22, p. 208.
  6. For a discussion of this point, see Elvin Hatch, Culture and Morality: The Relativity of Values in Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) chapter 4, "The Call for Tolerance."
  7. According to Herskovits, "[t]he very core of cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences - of mutual respect. Emphasis on the worth of many ways of life, not one, is an affirmation of the values in each culture." Henry Steiner and Philip Alston, ed. International Human Rights in Context, p. 195.
  8. For social scientific studies of culture and cultural comparisons, see Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture, abridged ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965); International Social Survey Programme, Role of Government - 1985 Codebook ZA-NO. 1490 (Ann Arbor: ICPSR, University of Michigan); Frederick W. Frey, "Cross-Cultural Survey Research in Political Science," in Robert T. Holt and John E. Turner, The Methodology of Comparative Research (New York: Free Press, 1970). For studies of Chinese political culture using social scientific methods, see Lau Siu-kai and Kuan Hsin-chi, The Ethos of the Hong Kong Chinese (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1988); Andrew Nathan, China's Transition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), particularly, chapters 10 and 11 (with Tianjian Shi).
  9. See Yash Ghai, "Human Rights and Governance: The Asian Debate," The Occasional Paper Series, No. 4, produced by the Asia Foundation's Office of Public Affairs, November 1994; Amartya Sen, "Our Culture, Their Culture," the New Republic, April 1, 1996; Tatsuo Inoue (1996), "Liberal Democracy and Asian Values"; and this author, "Asian Values and the Universality of Human Rights," Report from the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 1996.
  10. The Bangkok NGO Declaration on Human Rights (Bangkok, March 27, 1993), a document adopted at the Asian Regional NGO Preparation Conference for the Vienna International Conference on Human Rights in June 1993.

Xiaorong Li is a Research Scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is former Executive Director and current Vice-Chair of Human Rights in China.

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