Human Rights and Cultural Relativism

October 7, 2009

The notion of the dialogical character of human identity as developed by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his Ethics of Authenticity gives rise to a need for further discussion, this time at the level of the identity of cultures. A requirement for proper authenticity is that a person is a part of a society which recognises that person’s distinctness as worthy of respect. Taylor focuses on how this notion is entangled with the problem of multiculturalism, which is an inevitable feature of all modern states. The importance of culture cannot be denied in the development of a person’s identity. Furthermore, if being authentic means being true to oneself within a specific tradition, then it also involves being true to one’s background or culture. The core of the Politics of Recognition is the emphasis on culture and the notion that ­- as was the case with the authenticity of an individual – in order to maintain its identity a specific people must also be true to itself.

The tension that Taylor exposes, and hopes to provide a solution for, is one between the politics of universalism and the politics of difference. How the tension between the two arises is best summed up in Taylor’s following statement:

With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognize is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity.[1]

The characteristic of the two opposing principles is that the second arises from the first. It was the move towards the equal status of all human beings as citizens that made the claims of the politics of difference possible in the first place.

It should be stressed that Taylor’s account does not contain any nostalgic elements, nor does it call for a restoration of the old world order. This is extremely important because the notion of equality is irreversible. There are people who glorify the times of the Athenian democracy as a ‘Golden Past’, where this kind of talk would not have made sense. The reason why it would not have made sense, however, is because of the lack of the politics of universalism. The only people who were considered citizens at all and who could partake in the political life were free male Athenians. Between them the need for a politics of difference did not arise because their identity was developed against the same background.

Today, however we have reached a stage of recognizing all human beings as possessing a certain potential due to which we ought to accord them the respect which they deserve. That potential is something all humans share and is the basis of sameness and equality. There is another vital need, however, which arises out of this principle and that is the need to be recognized for what one is. It is important to such an extent that “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”[2] The need for the recognition of difference logically arises out of the politics of equality, but once it arises it becomes extremely hard to integrate the second into the first. Taylor realizes this fact and hopes to show why both principles are necessary to coexist in modern states, and why the second should not be rejected in order to preserve the first.

A serious problem arises when we examine the actual demands of the politics of difference and what they imply for a society. Namely, the basis of respect as developed in the politics of equality demands that we show a person due respect because of a certain potential that that person possesses. We are not demanded to show respect for the actual outcome of the person’s potential. The politics of difference, on the other hand, demands of us that we recognize cultures that have already evolved and realized their potential. The problem is that “the demand for equal recognition extends beyond an acknowledgment of the equal value of all humans potentially, and comes to include the equal value of what they have made of this potential in fact.”[3] In my opinion, this is a valid demand to some extent, since the characteristic of the so-called superior cultures has been theft and domination to such an extent that the underdevelopment of some cultures has been caused by their abuse.

It is at this point that we can confront the claim quoted in the title of this essay. Taylor does not agree with the above quote and seeks to show that our decision regarding this issue must not be an either/or one. The inevitable question that we must face is: on what grounds should we equally recognize evolved cultures and why should we allow for exceptions to certain cultures in order to help them remain in existence? Taylor’s answer to this seems to be that since certain cultures have provided a background for the identities of individuals over a long period of time they must have something worthy of respect. This can never be a final value judgment, however, but only an assumption with which one should start the study of another culture. The key here is the knowledge of other cultures and Gadamer’s notion of the ‘fusion of horizons’. In this way it might be possible to overcome the fact that there is no divine objective standard by which to judge evolved cultures. What we should do, according to Taylor, is “learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of the formerly unfamiliar culture.”[4]

Taylor uses the example of Quebec to show how the two opposing principles can become reconciled and even complementary. Concerning the recognition of the distinctness of French-speaking citizens, Taylor suggests that it

need not violate liberal principles so long as restrictions – like requirements that Francophones and immigrants attend French-language schools, large businesses be run in French and commercial signs appear only in French – do not infringe on ‘the fundamental liberties’ of English-speaking citizens of Quebec.[5]

The notion of a universal potential has here been further developed to include securing the conditions for the outcome of that potential. This is undoubtedly related to the view that cultures, as much as individuals, are determined to an enormous extent by the conditions in which they had evolved. It is an extension of the view held by Bertrand Russell that “different conditions bring out different sides of our natures, which is why it is worth thinking about political arrangements at all.”[6]

The politics of universalism has established as necessary the equality of opportunity. What the politics of difference demands is equality of outcome. A liberal society cannot enforce substantive views about the ends of life. All it is permitted in establishing is a procedural commitment, whereby it commits itself to treating people with equal respect. The demands for the equality of outcome are that the collective goals of a certain culture should be treated with equal respect and even be helped to achieve by the broader community of which it is part. There should be exceptions made on the part of the legal system concerning the minority culture in order for that culture to preserve its collective goals. The following is a typical statement of objection to the demands for the equality of outcome:

Equality of outcome can thus be seen as an ‘unnatural’ result which can only be achieved by massive interference and the violation of any notion of a ‘fair’ race. Faster runners will have to be handicapped . . . In short, talent is penalised and an equal result is achieved by a process of ‘levelling downwards’.[7]

In my opinion, what Taylor argues for is that the situation need not necessarily be a “levelling downwards”, and it is to that extent that I agree with him. Taylor sees the difficulty in the demands for the equality of outcome and tries to find a middle path by claiming that what is necessary is that we start with the assumption that every culture is equally worthy of respect. What are conclusions will be cannot be established a priori.

Taylor does not outline the final solution to the problem, but his claim is a powerful one to the extent that it can set in motion the process of overcoming ethnocentricity. It is precisely ethnocentricity that prevents us from seeing the specific value of a different culture. We cannot demand, as Saul Bellow does, that the Zulus produce a Tolstoy.[8] Western feminists have no right to demand from Muslim women that they liberate themselves. There is no ground for demanding that and there certainly is no telling whether a Muslim woman feels more liberated in following the norms of her own tradition than the Western feminist does in rebelling against male domination. “We are always in danger of seeing our ways of acting and thinking as the only conceivable ones. That is exactly what ethnocentricity consists in. Understanding other societies ought to wrench us out of this; it ought to alter our self-understanding.”[9]

Taylor is in favour of a liberalism that sees the importance of cultural survival and is not reluctant to allow for exceptions in the principle of universalism. However, as quoted above, it must not allow for injustices to be done against the majority culture, yet still support the struggle for the preservation of a minority culture. Taylor does not by this mean that liberalism should be completely neutral concerning culture. It itself must be able to draw the line. In referring to the case of Salman Rushdie, Taylor argues that “there will be variations when it comes to applying the schedule of rights, but not where incitement to assassination is concerned.”[10]

Although he does not think that his solution is a simple one, Taylor is not convincing about his notion of liberalism having to draw the line at a certain place. We come again to the question that we started from. Namely, what is the standard by which we should judge where to draw the line? Not only is the line drawing relative to cultures, but also relative in time. Where we draw the line today concerning the punishment of criminals is certainly different from a hundred year ago.

I certainly find Taylor’s arguments worthy of discussion, but fail to see why he does not think it necessary to address the issue of power concerning these matters. The notion of the “fusion of horizons” seems to be taken rather simply. The conflict perspective still stands in the background of all we have discussed so far and the fact that it has not been addressed does not make it less important. Power manifests itself in all spheres of public life and the standard by which we will draw the line at the end of all discussions will be the standard as established by a dominant culture, which is not a permanent standard as realized by that culture, but vulnerable to the passing of time. The standard that determines the drawing of the line will change over time and by other cultures becoming more prominent. It could even be the case that certain resources will become so scarce that this discussion will go on from an altogether different point of view, however trivial and unimaginable that might sound to us now.


[1] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’, edited with an introduction by Amy Gutman, Princeton 1992, 38.
[2] Ibid., 25.
[3] Ibid., 42.
[4] Ibid., 67.
[5] Lawrence Vogel, Critical Notices, in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies 1 (2), London (n.d.), 329.
[6] Alan Ryan, The Moderns: Liberalism Revived, in Plato to NATO. Studies in Political Thought, introduced by Brian Redhead, London 1995, 176.
[7] Andrew Heywood, Political Theory, Hampshire 1999, 295.
[8] The Politics of Recognition, 42.
[9] John Rothfolk, Questions and Answers #4: ‘Understanding and Ethnocentricity’ (1996) (on-line) : http://www.uraweb.org/writing/2Tay4.html
[10] The Politics of Recognition, 62.

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