Human Rights in Context of Cultural Relativism

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The world is composed of many different groups of people who have unique perspectives on what they believe the proper way of thriving and surviving is. Each group and civilization has created their own unique culture and systems that have lead people to view life and lifestyle differently, and has raised the question of whether we can determine who’s ultimately right and wrong.

According to Cultural Relativism, we can’t. Cultural relativism is an established theory that sates that an individual’s set of personal beliefs, values, customs, ethics, and activities are relative to each individual within their own social context and cultural background, and should be understood by others in those terms. It implies that there is no universal standard of morality by supporting the idea that there is no universal “right” or “wrong”, and that instead these are very culture-specific; what is considered to be right in one society, may be considered a total taboo in another. It was established in the early decades of the 20th century as a postulate statement in anthropological research by Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist and pioneer of modern anthropology who has been referred to as “The father of American Anthropology”. People who believe in the concept of cultural relativism tend to not judge other societies and their practices no matter how controversial they may be. The purpose is not to change one’s beliefs, but to accept and see the value and worth of other cultural groups.

One of the biggest examples of cultural relativism in today’s society is the treatment of women in Middle Eastern countries compared to the treatment of women in western countries. In Muslim countries, the way a woman is treated can be considered as harsh to many people who are not part of that culture. In these countries’ women aren’t free and must obey sexist social norms, such as only being able to work or travel with a written permission of her husband or male guardian. They tend to live a life full of restrictions set by males and are seen mostly as housewives who’s main and sole purpose is serving and obeying her husband and family. Despite the clear inequality between men and women that takes place in these countries for many of these women freedom of expression and equality is not something they consider meaningful, or any less strive to obtain. Instead, they see our western way of life as irresponsible and a danger for their native culture, bringing with it the disintegration of family structure and social breakdown. It’s important to recognize that not all Middle Eastern women believe and accept this way of life. In fact, there are a few feminist organizations settled in those countries, but they tend to be small and therefore lack the force to make a significant input and political change. Islamic fundamentalists tend to be against any alteration or advancement that deals with the treatment of women and their rights; they fear it will ultimately lead to an end of male domination in both family and society. Western countries may see these unjust laws, discriminatory constitutions, and biased mentalities and immediately label them as unfair, but cultural relativists oppose this. As mentioned above, they believe that even though we may not agree with the living conditions of women in Middle Eastern countries, we must simply accept their culture and their way of life. In fact, a true cultural relativist may not even see a problem as they don’t believe there are objective standards by which society can be judged. They may not share or practice these customs, but they will never criticize since, to them, each culture is entitled to their own beliefs and accepted practices. Although it’s general message may seem compelling and, in some way ideal, it does bring about several concerns such as: are cultural relativists willing to overlook even the most bizarre and extremist of practices?

Several issues have come about between cultural relativists and the International Human Rights Peace commission; an organization whose aim is to advocate, promote and protect human rights by propagating the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights across the nation states. Relativists hold the idea that various freedoms have different meanings in different societies. Some human rights that to many of us matter such as the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, freedom of association, or freedom of movement are not regarded by them as a requirement imposed by international law. They claim that substantive human rights standards can vary among different cultures and therefore what may be considered lawful in one country, may be a complete rights violation in another. These believes create concern regarding the creation of the IHRP; Since there should be no judgement between cultures how will the IHRP handle certain human rights violation cases? And under what authority will this judgment be made? The absence of a centralized International organ weakens and makes it hard for one to give core meaning to international human right norms. But, if one disregards the human rights branch because of the lack of an enforcement mechanism, then the concept of international law as a whole should be disregarded as well.

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So, can cultural relativism coexist with human rights? Here is where the concept of natural human rights comes into play. Natural rights are rights that are independent of laws and customs of any particular culture or government; they are inherited when are born by virtue of human nature. However, it begins to get difficult when trying to establish what exactly those rights are; what are we entitled to? If you have ever read the American Declaration of Independence you may say some of the basic rights are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or property if you we replace it with Locke’s trinity. The concept of natural rights is closely related to the theory of Natural law- ideology that sees law as an expression of the will of God that can be discerned through proper faith and reason. Although there are several known versions of this theory, the longest standing and therefore most influential is that of catholic priest Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that morality was important for human life and that being a good person was an essential part of the plan that God had for each one of us. Aquinas, just as any other catholic or believer, believed that God made all humans beings in His own image, and theorized that God equipped all humans with the proper tools needed to differentiate good from bad. This idea later became known as the Natural Law Theory.

Aquinas argued that God created the world in accordance with natural laws- a body of goal driven, predictable, and unchanging principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct that help life be sustainable and allows for all functions to run smoothly. This theory is based on the idea that God wants us to want things, specifically good thing things. God essentially instilled in humans the intuitive desire for things that he designed to be best for us and we “discover” these by faith. One of the things that all humans desire and seek is self-preservation. We are all born with a need to preserve our own life or a survival instinct that stops us from doing things that cause us harm. This means that we see our lives as valuable. Because we recognize the value in our lives, reason leads us to see that others have valuable lives as well: my life is valuable and your life is like my life, therefore your life is valuable too. From there we derive the belief that life is a natural right and that killing is a violation of natural law. Same thing with liberty; we all seek to be free to make our own choices, so we see the value of being independent and therefor see how freedom for everyone is essential. The human desire for love and acceptance is another trait that all of us humans share. Because of our natural instinct to be accepted and be a part of a community, we avoid taking actions that might turn someone against us or that might hurt one of our “group members”, which also explains why we feel shame and guilt when we do so. Although Aquinas thoughts derived from his beliefs in the bible and in God, we don’t necessarily need these to understand natural law. Instead, we can use our own instincts to show us the basic rights and derive the natural law from them. The importance of these basic rights should be applied and thought to the same level as Jus Cogens norms; you don’t consent to them but no derogation is permitted.

Of course, as with everything else in life, the Natural Law theory has raised many questions and has been subject to loads of criticism. People make the argument that if God did indeed create us with the ability to recognize and seek good, then why do people violate natural laws all the time? Ignorance is one of explanations to this question. Sometimes we may seek what we think is good, but we’re in fact wrong because of our ignorance. Emotion is also a good explanation as to why people do wrong. Even though were rational creatures, we also tend to be very emotional ones. At times even though it may be evident to us what we should do our reason is overpowered by our emotions and end up leading us to do the thing that we know we shouldn’t be doing. Going back to our example of the treatment of women in Middle Eastern countries; men may believe that them having full authority over woman is the way it should be, be in reality they might just be ignorant to the concept of equality. And if the not the case, then their emotional attachment to power and their fear of losing causes them to overlook reason and continue to mistreat woman and continue with their discriminatory laws and biased mentalities.

After stating my arguments, we can conclude that cultural relativism isn’t a sufficient argument against the creation of the international body of human rights protection (IHRP). There are indeed specific human rights that should be protected, respected and that not even cultural traditions or political backgrounds can override. Some of these rights include the right to life, liberty, and protection. Anyone who violates these could and should be held accountable and punished by law. We are all human beings born with the same desires such as self-preservation, freedom, acceptance, and happiness. We are all able to see the value in these natural rights, and therefore can conclude that the protection of them is something that should be universally ensured.

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