Philosophy Issues: Cultural Relativism and Human Rights

Culture, al Relativism is a stance derived from the view that tends to embrace equality among cultures. It is based on a comparison of various cultures on the grounds of politics, morality, and law. It is from these elements of comparison that human rights are derived.

For instance, political, human rights include the freedom and the right of expression. ,Cultural relativism promotes equality of human rights by embracing the diversity of cultures (Richard, 2003).

This philosophical paradigm embraces the differences between individuals with regards to matters of religion, politics, aesthetics, and ethics. The primary belief in cultural relativism is that all cultural elements are essentially valid depending on the environmental context (Ishay, 2004).

Cultural relativism holds the view that ethics, religion, aesthetics, and political convictions are relative to the various groups and individuals within a particular environment (Donnelly 2003). The elements also give different dimensions of the philosophical approaches to human rights.

For instance, cognitive relativism holds the view truth lacks a definite standard, and therefore, individuals have the right to stick to various beliefs since the standard of truth in those beliefs cannot be accurately ascertained. The other aspect is situational relativism, which holds that ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is subject to the situation at hand (Lauren, 2009). Moral relativism holds that ethics is subject to the social construct in a given environment.

However, in its quest to promote diversity and tolerance, cultural relativism tends to interfere with the definition of universal ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Individuals have to promote the equal coexistence of different views and cultures for the respect of human rights.

This, therefore, poses the question of how human rights can exist in an environment of cultural diversity. The variations between human values concerning culture also introduce another aspect of the challenge to the issue of universal human rights (Richard, 2003).

Implications of Cultural Relativism

Based on the above information, the implications of cultural relativism on human rights in contemporary society are largely influenced by the issue of diversity. Contemporary society has become an environment where issues of diversity and equality have dominated the topic of human rights (Ishay, 2004).

Factors such as globalization and the formation of international organizations have increased the level of awareness of diversity and respect for universal human rights. Entities such as the United Nations have established guidelines for recognition and respect of universal law. For instance, the covenant on international human rights has been compelled to embrace diversity in various elements of human culture and economics.

The covenant has also responded by establishing an international covenant on civil and political rights, cultural and social human rights, and covenant on economic, human rights.

Another implication of cultural relativism that is associated with the issue of human rights in contemporary society is the standard of universal human rights by various states and organizations across the world. In this case, different states have to identify the relevant standards of human rights that are based on differences and similarities between cultures (Donnelly 2003). The states have to comply with international charters of human rights.

Promoting human rights in the contemporary society requires groups and individuals in the society to embrace differences in the elements of culture such as language, religion, race, aesthetics, politics, opinion, sex, ethnicity, and nationality (Richard, 2003).

Cultural diversity, as implied in the context of human rights does not compel individuals and groups to adhere to a particular cultural standard. It plays an important role in the identification and establishment of the minimum legal standard for the protection of human rights and freedom (Richard, 2003).

Human rights cannot be inclined or represent the culture of specific individuals and groups to the omission of others in society. All cultures have their objectives and are only relevant to a particular group or individuals in a given environment (Lauren, 2009).

Cultural relativism also promotes flexibility to achieve the issue of universal human rights. Universal rights, which is achieved through established minimum standards, incorporate cultural rights and freedoms of various individuals by embracing flexibility.

Different entities and states have various levels of variation to accommodate cultural flexibilities. The variations can only be valid if they adhere to the minimum standards established by the law on human rights (Ishay, 2004).

Cultural rights are, therefore, limited since they are subject to certain variations and standards in the law. One’s cultural right is only valid if it does not infringe the rights of other people. For instance, no cultural right in contemporary society can promote the act of slavery in any way. Protection of universal human rights in contemporary society tends to override the traditional culture (Donnelly 2003).


Cultural relativism brings into perspective several issues on human rights that are worth discussing in a learning program (Lauren, 2009). One such example that can be discussed in class is the influence of the traditional culture of human rights.

This issue generates interest, especially in contemporary society where traditions have been neglected. For instance, some traditional cultures used to deny the girl child the right to access education. In such cultures, girl child education undervalued. Issues such as cultural relevance are important when dealing with traditional culture.


Donnelly, J. (2003). Universal human rights in theory and practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ishay, M. (2004). The history of human rights: From ancient times to the globalization era. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lauren, P., G. (2009). The evolution of international human rights: Visions seen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Richard, M. (2003). Human Rights: Universalism and Cultural Relativism. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 6(3), 70-103.