Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion

By Sen, Amartya | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion


Sen, Amartya, Harvard International Review


AMARTYA SEN is Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University and former Lamont University Professor at Harvard.

This article is a revised version of the Commencement Address given at Bard College on May 24, 1997. Related arguments were presented in Professor Sen's Morgenthau Memorial Lecture ("Human Rights and Asian Values") at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs on May 1, 1997, and published by the Carnegie Council.

My students seem to be very concerned--and also very divided--on how to approach the difficult subject of human rights in non-Western societies. Is it right, the question is often asked, that non-Western societies should be encouraged and pressed to conform to "Western values of liberty and freedom?" Is this not cultural imperialism? The notion of human rights builds on the idea of a shared humanity. These rights are not derived from citizenship of any country, or membership of any nation, but taken as entitlements of every human being. The concept of universal human rights is, in this sense, a uniting idea. Yet the subject of human rights has ended up being a veri-table battleground of political debates and ethical disputes, particularly in their application to non-Western societies. Why so?

A Clash of Cultures?

The explanation for this is sometimes sought in the cultural differences that allegedly divide the world, a theory referred to as the "clash of civilizations" or a "battle between cultures." It is often asserted that Western countries recognize many human rights, related for example to political liberty, that have no great appeal in Asian countries. Many people see a big divide here. The temptation to think in these regional and cultural terms is extremely strong in the contemporary world.

Are there really such firm differences on this subject in terms of traditions and cultures across the world? It is certainly true that governmental spokesmen in several Asian countries have not only disputed the relevance and cogency of universal human rights, they have frequently done this disputing in the name of "Asian values," as a contrast with Western values. The claim is that in the system of so-called Asian values, for example in the Confucian system, there is greater emphasis on order and discipline, and less on rights and freedoms.

Many Asian spokesmen have gone on to argue that the call for universal acceptance of human rights reflects the imposition of Western values on other cultures. For example, the censorship of the press may be more acceptable, it is argued, in Asian society because of its greater emphasis on discipline and order. This position was powerfully articulated by a number of governmental spokesmen from Asia at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Some positive things happened at that conference, including the general acceptance of the importance of eliminating economic deprivation and some recognition of social responsibility in this area. But on the subject of political and civil rights the conference split through the middle, largely on regional lines, with several Asian governments rejecting the recognition of basic political and civil rights. In this argument, the rhetoric of "Asian values" and their differences from Western priorities played an important part.

If one influence in separating out human rights as specifically "Western" comes from the pleading of governmental spokesmen from Asia, another influence relates to the way this issue is perceived in the West itself. There is a tendency in Europe and the United States to assume, if only implicitly, that it is in the West--and only in the West--that human rights have been valued from ancient times. This allegedly unique feature of Western civilization has been, it is assumed, an alien concept elsewhere. By stressing regional and cultural specificities, these Western theories of the origin of human rights tend to reinforce, rather inadvertently, the disputation of universal human rights in non-Western societies.

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