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How Refusing To Judge Any Culture Completely Undermines Human Rights


Quite a few years ago, when I was enrolled in an English doctoral program, I decided to branch out and take electives in the philosophy department.

One day during a seminar on the philosophy of language, the professor interrupted his lecture to offer an aside. This was rather unusual for this teacher, who seemed to define his job rather strictly as delivering the content on the syllabus, plain and simple. He never seemed interested in the self-indulgent personal and political asides that seem to be standard fare for humanities teachers. It was the subject, and nothing but the subject—at least until that particular day, when he casually lobbed a grenade of an observation into our midst.

He casually tossed out the claim that when one embraces cultural relativism, human rights abuses become very difficult to identify. I think that most people reading this right now can see the obvious truth of that assertion.  It’s a rather simple if-then scenario: if we regard all cultures and their corresponding practices as having equal value, then we cannot judge any aspect of a culture except by its own standards.  Judging by external standards implies a hierarchy—that someone else is doing things “better” or has got it “right” somehow.

So Long, Universal Standards?

After all, the relativist argues, there are no universal standards hovering above us like Plato’s Theory of Forms. Standards for personal and civic behavior derive from a particular time and place; they grow out of a culture—its religion, tradition, history, etc.

In contrast, the western concern for “man’s inhumanity to man” and the idea that this miserable fact of the human condition requires not merely reflection on, but ameliorating human rights abuses—globally, if possible—necessitates a belief in the existence of some set of all-encompassing standards that dictate what humane behavior is or isn’t.

But so thoroughly had the university been imbued with the values of cultural relativism that, for those of us in that class, the professor’s utterance was puzzling and sounded maybe even heretical. Naturally, common sense couldn’t even begin to penetrate the fog of academic thinking. What could he possibly mean?

Well, the point he was trying to convey, of course, was that for a relativist, if a given practice is acceptable in any particular culture, it gets a pass no matter what. There is no legitimate objection except what is derived from within the framework of that culture. After all, what would it be founded upon? Some universal concept of right and wrong? But relativism had dispensed with universals, its proponents deftly crafting a binary opposition that branded the critics of relativism “absolutists.” And no one wanted to be labeled that.

This intellectual moment marked the end of the general notion of “man’s inhumanity to man.” Man could now only be inhumane if the customs of his country averred that it was so. In other words, the threat of Napier’s gallows could no longer be made. Allow me to explain.

Napier and the Funeral Pyres

In the middle of the 19th century, when Gen. Sir Charles Napier of the British army had the morally dubious responsibility of quelling the restless Amirs of Sindh (now Pakistan), the Hindu practice of immolating widows on their husband’s burning funeral pyre was already en route to becoming illegal in most of the region. But instances of suttee, or sati, still occurred, and when Napier became aware of preparations for one, he declared his stance in a now famous argument to the local priests who insisted on its rectitude precisely because it was part of their culture:

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them . . . [m]y carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

Interestingly enough, by setting the mores of the two cultures side-by-side, this threat presages the terms of the coming zeitgeist but with a fundamental difference: for Napier there was a moral imperative for one custom to triumph over another. In the ethos of his culture, burning widows alive was fundamentally wrong. Napier was confident that his culture had, indeed, gotten it right. While not the complete end of suttee in India, his declaration is probably its most famous condemnation.

The important lesson from this anecdote is the fact that it takes an unabashed confidence in the superiority of one’s own cultural values to assume a moral high ground—and act on it. Otherwise, we have no other choice but to look away, which is exactly what the U.S. military desired of its servicemen who complained about child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.

American soldiers attempting to train former warlords to become part of the Afghan police force discovered that large numbers of these men pursued bacha bazi, boys who are often depicted in Afghan culture as dancers, but who in reality serve as underage concubines, or more truthfully, sex slaves. (The term bacha bazi translates as “boy play”; the bacha bazi as a cultural norm is underscored by a centuries-old Afghan saying: “Women are for duty; boys are for pleasure.”)

I referred to these youths as “slaves” because most of the time these boys were forced into their situation by men with sufficient power to have their pick of the locals as well as the ability to enforce their desires. They were even brought onto American bases to “service” these men while their abusers were being trained in law enforcement––the sad irony! American servicemen describe nights where they had to listen to the screams of boys being raped.

In one instance, in 2011, a particularly odious Afghan commander kept a boy chained to his bed. After the youth escaped and told others, the commander was confronted by two outraged servicemen, Sgt. First Class Charles Martland and his commanding officer, Capt. Dan Quinn. The Afghan police officer’s unapologetic admission of guilt––while laughing the incident off––provoked Quinn and Martland to beat him up. (Both soldiers were initially relieved of command, although Martland was later reinstated.)

Now that’s one illustration of the difference between Napier’s world and ours, which is beginning to resemble a world we thought we had left behind long ago, in which the interests of those in power are completely at odds with those of the governed.  The servicemen were horrified by the plight of these youths, but their complaints met indifference. What interests dictated that apathy? Certainly not adherence to general principles governing humane behavior. Rather, political people were concerned with creating allies.

The irony, of course, is that this position of non-interference made enemies of the locals, who were preyed upon by their newly appointed “police.” A number of villages whose youth were suddenly at the mercy of these men resented the U.S. military for appearing to support this sort of domination. (In fact, that resentment led to one serviceman, Lance Corp. Gregory Buckley, being killed by a bacha bazi despite Buckley having himself complained about the horrors of the widespread child abuse. But the boy wouldn’t have known that. All the bacha bazi knew was that Americans had put these tyrants in power.)

Questions For Relativists

Ultimately this scenario begs a question for the relativist: Do the cries of children being raped constitute a legitimate human rights objection from within a culture? Or are they simply the expression of growing pains as the young adjust to the values into which they were arbitrarily born?

The aforementioned western anxiety concerning man’s inhumanity to man is not centered exclusively on the myriad ways people can be cruel to one another, but on mankind’s eternal desire for justice, and the hope that it might be available for all. The invention of the idea of fundamental human rights was a step forward.

But relativism, wearing a mantle of progressive virtue through its message of benevolent inclusivity, has reversed that progress by preventing us from asserting our principles. Doing so requires speaking in absolutes and acknowledging a hierarchy of values. As writer and editor Rudolph Bush said in the Dallas Morning News, “Child sexual abuse is not ‘culture.’ It’s barbarity.”

Unless we are merely going to pretend that human rights universally matter, we need to re-animate a healthy disdain for barbarism along with the courage to confidently discriminate between humane and inhumane practices using, yes, universal standards as our benchmark.