A Human Rights Doctrine in
the Age of Cultural Relativism

Edward J. Dodson

[First written in 1993. Revised February 2005]

There is a widely-held view that common principles of justice cannot be applied to diverse societies. While standards of morality do change over time and from place to place, all this tells us is that the social mores and laws operating within given societies protect or thwart fundamental human rights. Consistency requires those who adhere to relativistic values to also accept the idea that even though we are all members of the same species we do not share the same human rights.

One of the specific applications of principle that confuses the underlying issue is the use of positive law to enforce a code of morality. On the one hand, government should not try to legislate morality, if by morality one means decisions of conscience that do not infringe on the rights of others to exercise their liberty. Conversely, in order to protect us from actions of others that encroach on our liberty (i.e., our human rights), government must be empowered by the nation to enforce laws put into place to keep the peace and promote a cooperative society. To our great misfortune, there is not a society existing today that has not, in large measure, compromised key principles of human rights and defended doing so on the basis of custom and habit.

At the same time, I would be surprised if most individuals do not recognize in themselves the possession of a moral sense of what is right and wrong. To what extent this is the result of nurturing as opposed to an inherited quality of our humanness is a question for the biologist, sociologist and psychologist. The application of reason and the practice of debate over many centuries have, however, affirmed our moral sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, reason is too frequently thwarted by institutional power that discourages open debate.

Truth is, as history reveals, a powerful threat to those who gain and hold power over others. As a consequence, we have ended up with societal structures that sanction gross inequities and injustices. Within the United States and other social-democracies, we champion freedom when we should really defend liberty. We give lip service to equality of opportunity, yet hand out privileges and subsidies in the form of quasi-monopolistic licenses and titledeeds to nature -- and do so without demanding just compensation for the nation. When transnationals argued on principles of justice for a new Law of the Sea, for example, vested interests manipulated public officials in the United States to oppose sharing the mineral bounty of the earth, denying in effect the principle that the earth is our common heritage. When we do invoke principle in the United States, we tend to look no deeper than the ideas of the framers of our constitution, the majority of whom were more than willing to compromise on principle in order to form a Federal government with powers adequate to subordinate the claims of state sovereignty. The writings of Charles Beard, Jackson Turner Main and other historians suggest that protecting their own property interests played a powerful role as well.

Progress toward the adoption of more equitable socio-political arrangements and institutions depends on a citizenry empowered by understanding. We are experiencing the consequences of generations of people reaching adulthood without their moral sense being nurtured by continuous dialogue about values, human rights and the responsibilities of citizenship. Advocates of a classical liberal education such as Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler warned, without success, against the trend of our schools abandoning the liberal arts in favor of skill development and vocational training. The result is that despite longer years of schooling, the majority of people emerge nearly ignorant of the long history of debate and struggle over human rights, the proper role of government, or the responsibilities of citizenship. Young and old adults alike are in desperate need of remedial education to reinforce what many failed to acquire earlier in their lives.

The teaching of values can be accomplished without sacrificing sensitivity to ethnic, religious and cultural differences people bring to the classroom. However, the need for sensitivity is fundamentally distinct from adopting cultural relativism as a basis for challenging a human rights doctrine. Human rights are universal and are attached to all individuals, everywhere. Great confusion is caused when we repeatedly hear the term natural law (i.e., what is) used when what we are really talking about are natural rights (i.e., what ought to be).

References to natural law should be made acknowledging an independence from moral judgment. The operations of the material universe identified by physics, chemistry and astronomy as natural laws are, as far as we know, absolute across time and space. In question is whether this can be said with regard to human behavior. One American scientist, Henry George, confidently concluded that our behavior is generally consistent within the constraints of free will. He wrote not as a sociologist but as a political economist and, after studying history and observing individuals acting within societies, he identified as a common denominator that we seek to satisfy our desires with the least exertion possible. Repeatedly, and across time and space, this characteristic presents itself in monopolistic and aggressive behavior. Over thousands of years, mankind has suffered the result: an endless struggle against oppressors, empire-builders, kings, aristocracies, oligarchies, and ruthless criminals who gain and attempt to utilize power to their advantage and against others. These things occur within the operation of natural law, but outside the moral constraints of justice and our natural rights. Empowered with an understanding of our natural rights, the responsibility and challenge for those of us who seek justice is to unite to make sure our laws protect our natural rights.

Mortimer Adler once wrote that the twentieth century would be evaluated by the progress made in bringing about just socio-political systems. For nearly all of recorded history, he wrote, the great mass of people were oppressed by small minorities. In the twentieth century, for the first time, there were societies where privileged majorities oppressed minorities. As a benchmark, a reduction in oppression is certainly welcomed, which this change is, at the same time, a sad commentary on the degree of justice in operation. In our own time, in our own society, the size of the minority being left behind is expanding. The operation of natural law is at work, but our failure to purge our written laws and institutions of privilege has and will continue to prevent a large segment of our population from enjoying the basic necessities of a decent human life; that is, from the realization of their natural rights.