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Are human rights universal or linked to a particular culture? -

It is a historical fact that it was the "West" that invented the idea of basic human rights. Or did we not invent them, but discovered them, because they are quasi supernatural, universal, they apply to all people and at all times?

But if it is true that human rights are universal, it follows logically that morality cannot be subjective.
In this case, there are fundamental (objective!) moral norms (human rights are basically nothing but fundamental moral norms) which we discover just in the same way we discover natural laws: by using our reason.

For Western liberals, this is a real dilemma: on the one hand, they assume that human rights are universal. On the other hand, most believe that moral norms are associated with certain cultures, that is, each culture has a right to its own values and norms. Anything else would be Western cultural imperialism (a real bad thing to western Liberals).

What about those cultures that reject the idea of universal human rights because they view them as a specific Western set of values and norms? There are intellectuals in China or India or Singapore who say that the idea of universal human rights only makes sense in an individualistic culture, where it is the individual who is the bearer of basic rights, and that the needs of the group or collective (family, caste, state...) is secondary, and therefore they reject the concept of human rights as a Western import that is alien to their own culture.

So what is the status of human rights: Are they necessarily associated to the individualistic Western culture? Or are they independent of the cultural background? If you opt for the latter: Why was it the West that invented or discovered it?

Matias 8 Apr 13

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The only thing that is substantially universal is that all humans have similar needs and tend to see and experience benefit or harm in similar ways. This leads to he evolution of moral systems that are broadly similar from society to society.

I would say that concepts of human rights evolve out of that constant negotiation of morality, but that they aren't universal in some mystical sense. The older I get the more I realize that life doesn't owe me anything just because I exist, including rights. However ... society might think it in its best interest to "guarantee" me certain entitlements because I'll be more likely to work to support and sustain society if I feel it provides the stability, safety and subjective sense of fair play and respect and hope that makes me more self-actualized and content and productive and cooperative.

Besides, as a practical matter, society has to grant me rights so that it has something to take from me if I don't behave.

We surround all this with a lot of soaring rhetoric about natural rights but it really just boils down to a fiction that we all agree to hold sacred (for some given value of sacred, anyway) so that we can coexist and cooperate effectively.

So technically I'm not entitled to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness but in our mutual self-interest, both I and society act AS IF I am, and that makes it real in a sense.


"It is a historical fact that it was the "West" that invented the idea of basic human rights."
This is a terrible way to phrase this, even if it were true. The word I think you're looking for is "codify", and in writing down as law. Sumerians had a code of law 4,000 years ago - long before the "West" existed.

The thing you seem to be calling "Human Rights" are not a natural phenomenon of the Universe. Human Rights are a human invention, intended to ensure everyone starts from a level playing field. We give them because we want to receive them. As for morality being subjective, I think you mean "objective". No definition of morality implies it's objective.

"For Western liberals, this is a real dilemma..."
Since you refer to "Western liberals" as they, I presume you don't count yourself among them. Consequently, you're either "Eastern", conservative, or both. In that light, do you not feel everyone should be treated with a basic amount of respect, and afforded a basic amount of dignity? If not, is it because you're "Eastern" or because you're conservative? In either case, it's an odd perspective. It also paints "them" with a broad brush, presuming all "Western liberals" "assume that human rights are universal", and that "most believe that moral norms are associated with certain cultures". I'd like to see an authoritative source for that statement.

"Anything else would be Western cultural imperialism (a real bad thing to western Liberals)."
But not a "bad thing" to "Eastern liberals", or "Western conservatives", I guess.

"What about those cultures that reject the idea of universal human rights because they view them as a specific Western set of values and norms? "
Name one. Any one. Name ONE culture "that reject[s] the idea of universal human rights because they view them as a specific Western set of values and norms?"

The whole premise of this post is just wrong, and it seems to be steeped in part by a lack of understanding about the definitions of several important words.

You write that No definition of morality implies it's objective.
You are ill-informed: Some of the most prestigious moral philosophers argue that morality is not subjective, they support something called "moral realism":
"Moral realism (also ethical realism or moral Platonism) is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion), some of which may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately" (quote from Wikipedia)

Traditional Chinese or Indian culture do not know the concept of "universal human rights". Neither did Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome (an intellectual giant like Aristotle claimed with certainty that some people are "born slaves".)

(Most of your comment is just polemic and sarcasm. You should avoid this kind of style if you want to be taken seriously.)


There are basics. Those not recognized by the assholes with the weapons are rights denied.

Jacar Level 8 Apr 13, 2019

I absolutely do not see human rights as universal. We are just another life form among millions of others and the idea we are somehow 'special' is a form of arrogance (it's called anthropogenic). It's the same argument that religion tells people a god loves them and that is a heaven that transcends the universe is waiting for them. They also mention there is a hell if they don't do as they are told.

Human rights are, to me, a luxury that we have made for ourselves. That luxury extends only so long as resources exist to support us. Those resources are rapidly shrinking and with them go our so called rights.

I just finished reading the book "1491". In the end the author reports that in much of N. America the natives were early farmers and thus were much less authoritarian than later societies.This was especially true of the Haudenosaunee tribes. "Important historically, these were the free people encountered by France and Britain - personifications of democratic self-government so vivid that some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the U.S. Constitution." I would maintain that the pre- European natives of the American could not be considered 'Western' culture and that probably most early cultures had the same idea toward freedom and rights. One big difference between us and Asia is the huge difference in our numbers. Remember China has a population quadruple ours and also has the same land mass albeit with 11% less arable land. Resources are stretched to the limits and a true democracy could never exist there.

I also see morality and human rights as being two separate issues.


The idea of human rights has existed since ancient times.

In ancient China: []
In ancient Iran: []
In ancient India: []
In ancient Egypt: []

So the concept has been around for a long time ..

In ancient China, India, Egypt... and elsewhere there has been, just like in Europe during the Middle Ages, a large segment of the population, basically small farmers, slaves, women, children... who were denied basic rights.
>They were property of the landlords, of their husbands, of their masters, of the aristocracy.
The lower castes in India were and are not even permitted to touch a Brahmin.
To talk about "universal human rights" in these contexts is just plain propaganda.

@Matias I think that didn’t happen until these societies became Christian. When they were pagans they didn’t do that, did they?

Although to be fair that’s because Christianity the religion seems to have been co-opted as a means of control for the ruling classes.


Perhaps an initial step is to consider the degrees of altruism that exist within different cultures.


Human rights area human conception, a human creation. Each culture has its own definition of what rights accrue to each of us. Our modern "western" concept of human rights is derived from from the belief in the dignity and worth of all human beings. I believe that is derived both from (1)the observation that both the person and the culture do best when each person is treated with dignity and respect and when opportunity is available to all, and (2) a more enabling and open culture. Such norms will not develop in an authoritarian society, or in one controlled by dogma -- religious, political, or economic.

And I would add or areas where resources are few.


I think we have certain rights only because we declare that we have those rights, and if we don’t constantly defend our rights those rights will disappear. Different cultures have different values, and hence different rights—and different ideas about morality also.

But our desire to have those rights has come down to us through a long evolutionary process, and in that sense our rights have been bequeathed to us by nature.

For example, I had a dog that expressed his wish to run freely in the yard. That wish is perfectly understandable in that his ancestors were free to roam with their packs. His nature was to be free.

If I had curtailed his right to roam freely he might still be alive. It is a sensitive subject and a case where conscious awareness has the ability to step in and overrule evolutionary instinctive behavior. Our rights are not absolute but are subject to regulation and modification.


I am British colonialism or colonial rule uplifted the dalita , aboriginal indians oppressed by majarotrian hindu rule.

I think British colonialism actually made India worse. They created homophobic laws there (that were recently overturned) and they manipulated the caste system to make it discriminatory when it wasn't before, to divide Indians. In truth India would be a better, more tolerant country if Britons hadn't gone in there and shit all over it, and the same goes for all the other countries Europe saw fit to invade and occupy.

EDIT: I just learned you live in India. So you know more than me - but that's what I read, that Britain fucked up India like the fucked up every place else because they thought they were so superior to everybody and so much more civilized than any other country. They burned whole cities to the ground but they were so civilized. ha ha

I am here not defend colonialism and Christianity,they contributed to humanism and dignity of more 90% population living in Indian subcontinent which is now India, Pakistan,Bangladesh,Nepal ,where mythical Hinduism and Hindustan denied education,denied their right live dignity and literally kept them in slavery for generations since the inception of caste in Indian subcontinent.chiristinaty and British rule absolved 90% population from Hindu slavery,what west call fondly as spirituality.Please read Dr.B.R.Ambedkar accidentally today his birth anniversary ,he is Martnin Luther king Jr.of India @altschmerz

@William77 very interesting! Thank you for sharing that. He was a great man.

This is where I got the information I had before: []


Rights are neither discovered nor invented. They are agreed upon.

In this case they are invented. Humans invented those rights and then they (or more precisely: some of them) agreed to apply them.
Question : what about those cultures where the majority of people are ignorant of their rights? Do these rights exist even if people do not know them (let alone have agreed upon them)?

@Matias There is a difference between “invented” and “agreed upon.” Consider for instance the first amendment right to freedom of the press. It’s not debatable whether there is a right to a free press in the USA. It’s in the constitution. It’s obvious that such a clearly established right could not have existed for an eternity until it was added to the Constitution by the Bill of Rights. One of the reasons for this is that the press was invented by Guttenberg sometime around the middle of the 15th century. Only after the technology of the printing press was discovered and after a consensus developed about the benefits and drawbacks of a free press was the resulting right established by agreement.

@ArturoS That right is American though, not universal. It was agreed upon within the political context of nation formation.

@Geoffrey51 It follows from my consensus theory that that there are no universal rights. And the same follows from your critique of my consensus theory because if rights were truly universal then they must be rights regardless of their nationality, just like a person is a person.


Tough one, but I will still argue that certain basic rights are fundamental to all human beings. Others are more culturally aligned, and specific to the development of a given society and its unique evolutionary pressures.


When people use the rights word, what they usually mean is that certain values are thought by them to be beyond debate, since I do not believe that anything is ever beyond debate, I find it hard to take that without at least a qualification or two.

If there is a universal discovered morality then it has to be based on the golden rule, which is fairly universal; and from that, the rights are no more than a set of derived laws, developed as pragmatic solutions to common problems of morality, they are therefore likely to vary, fail sometimes, and be in need of the occasional nuance. ( I do not think that they are purely western ideas, though they may vary much. For example, many cultures have recognized the so called right of rulers, kings etc. to rule, though we would not generally do so today. )

Given that, the question is really, whose view of rights serves best under any circumstance, and if you accept that, then they are debatable. Therefore it is open to debate if western rights are better or worse than any others, though the pragmatic view says they are fairly good. And since there are no universal rights, then there can be no right to have freedom from cultural imperialism, but to justify that you have to prove that western rights or any others you wish to enforce are best under each individual circumstance. Debate.

In the end the rights you get are those of the strongest cultures anyway, might may not be right, but it does get to decide what is right. So that the best rights are those which make winning cultures.

Would you say that "human rights" are currently universal because they are linked to the quasi-universal dominance of the (winning) western culture?
BUt what if the "West" declines and, say, 50 years from now the world will be dominated by China and India and their values? Will the "human rights" cease to be universal because they will only be held in high esteem in an aging Europe and the liberal tribe of the US?

@Matias No it will just be a different set of "rights" perhaps by some other name, such as the freedoms from capitalist oppression or whatever they choose to call them. But the idea of objective morality however fake, and of the state as the provider of such is too useful as propaganda to be abandoned ever.


I think it's the product of the Judeo-Christian culture.


There is at least a partial answer here: []
I also don't see that it is necessary to say that the West has either invented or discovered it, if the moral code is universal in any sense, it may be more accurate to say that the West has arrived (or is still arriving) at a political phase where it can be legally expressed, rather than informally, particularly as our governments and legal structures constantly back-track on it for their own citizens, and for other countries it's honoured only in the breech.


I would be surprised if individualistic cultures and collective cultures didn't converge on certain point of morality....such as prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying.....perhaps what you are looking for lies in the convergence of thought between these cultures...

cava Level 7 Apr 13, 2019

That is a nice idea, but currently there is less convergence than divergence. The "two tribes" find it more and more difficult to find any common ground.

@Matias can you provide a reference?

I think that "I"s evolve out of "We".

I found this:
"aspects of individualism and collectivism can coexist within the same culture (Jansz, 1991). Individualism implies an independent model of self and relationships, whereas collectivism implies an interdependent model of self and relationships. Independence and interdependence have been defined as distinctive sets of psychological tendencies to view oneself and one's social relationships (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). Cultural differences in independence and interdependence are conceptualized as relative, rather than absolute. In other words, the two models of self and relationships are not mutually exclusive. This means that individuals can endorse both cultural models as it is often the case with bicultural ethnic minorities (e.g., Latino as in the United States or Moroccan-Dutch in the Netherlands), or individuals who have been raised in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures." []

So the value of individual freedom in an ideal collectivist culture is conferred on the group or tribe, which can be free or not, instead of being free the individual in the collectivist culture plays a role (tribal or by merit) in that culture. I think the individualistic cultures evolved out of collective cultures. Both culture's value freedom, but in different senses, freedom's manifestation in both cultures is that of power. Maybe 'might makes right' is the basic human value regardless of culture 😉


Rights are what all parties agree... especially those parties in power.

I agree with you that the idea of human rights implies that there is a freely reached general consensus. Power is different from the notion of a freely reached consensus. It implies coercion. For instance, our society reached a consensus that slavery is a violation of human rights. While the Civil War was fought to impose the power of the federal government and the abolition of slavery over the Confederacy, it’s hard to make the case that the Union fought to stuff the views of a powerful elite down the the throats of everyone else. And it’s equally hard to make the case that the Confederacy fought back just to uphold the views of a powerful elite.


The concept of "human rights" is a product of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, which sought to legitimize the rise of Capitalism, and the concept of 'laissez faire, that came with it.

There is more to "human rights" than economic liberty and the right of private property. Slavery or child labor was not (officially) abolished (in the West) because of capitalism

@Matias You are quite right. But with every new mode of production, there come new Philosophes to attempt to lend to, or enhance its credibility.

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