Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1998


Department of Political Science


Many critics of the concept of human rights argue that it undermines indigenous cultures, especially in the underdeveloped world. I agree that the concept of human rights often undermines cultures. Culture rapture is often a necessary aspect of the entrenchment of respect for human rights. Culture is not of absolute ethical value; if certain aspects of particular cultures change because citizens prefer to focus on human rights, then that is a perfectly acceptable price to pay. Human rights are rights held by the individual, without regard to status or position, merely because she or he is human. In principle, all human beings hold human rights equally. These rights are claims against the state that do not depend on duties to the state. They are also claims that the individual can make against society as a whole. Society, however, may have cultural preconceptions that certain types of individuals ought not to be entitled to such rights. Thus, culture and human rights come into conflict. The concept of cultural relativism recognizes this but does not consider the possibility that, in such instances, perhaps the better path to choose is to change the culture in order to promote human rights.


This article was originally published in Update on Law-Related Education, 22(3), 29–32. Reproduced with kind permission from the American Bar Association.