Relativism’s Implications on Universal Human Rights

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If you consider yourself to be a supporter of human rights and all of its technicalities, then you are surely aware of the document that formally brought forth legislation about human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations by a vote of 48-0-8 on December 10, 1948. 

Per its name, the main goal of the Declaration was to universalize human rights and to ensure that every human, no matter where in the world, has the same basic human rights. 

This inherent goal of the Declaration (its aim of universal human rights), has been a source of debate in the philosophical realm for quite some time. This blog will bring forth one particular view relating to the debate, as well as its implications. 

Relativism

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In the realm of philosophy, there exists a concept of relativism. (Or, more specifically, cultural relativism; in this blog, I shall be using these terms synonymously.)

Rather than plainly stating what relativism is, I am going to show you one of the many ways the concept was devised. 

The Earth is big. On our big Earth, there are seven continents. Throughout these seven continents, there are hundreds of states and nations. In these states and nations, billions of people exist. Most of the people within these nations align with a specific cultural identity. Whether it be American, French, Japanese, or Swiss, all humans have a unique cultural identity.  

Moreover, cultures have different forms of expressions. One culture is not necessarily like another (for what is right in one culture could very much be wrong in another). 

Therefore, there is no possible way that an objective set of rules could ever exist. What is correct is relative to the culture and society of where that expression is happening.  

If you followed along and agreed with all of the statements just made, then you are stepping into the realm of relativism. 

More on Relativism

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Relativism is the view that what is “right” and “wrong” is solely dependent on one’s culture. What is correct in the United States could very much be wrong in another nation.

A finite example of this is gratuity, or “tipping,” after a meal in a restaurant.  In the United States, it is acceptable to tip your server after a meal at a restaurant. In Japan, this would be disrespectful. 

In the eyes of relativism, both of these customs are correct. Moreover, they are equally correct—one is not more “right” than the other. 

Additionally, cultural relativism not only says that cultural customs are equally correct but the moral codes of every culture is equally correct also. In other words, no culture is better than another—no culture is more correct. 

However, this characteristic of cultural relativism brings forth another one of its characteristics: there is no such thing as moral progress. 

To say that something has “progressed” is to say that it has become better, meaning that before its progression, it was flawed. This goes against cultural relativism because relativism states that every culture is inherently correct—there is no need to progress. Therefore, rather than saying a culture has “progressed,” relativists say that a culture has simply changed its ways and its moral code. (This is different from progression because it does not imply a culture has advanced for the better due to some arbitrary standard.) 

Cultural relativism, at least at first, might be an appealing outlook on life. After all, who are we to tell different cultures what is right and what is wrong? Every culture and society should be allowed to have their own rules and social norms. It sounds immoral to enforce the United State’s social norms onto other nations.

Relativism’s Implications on Human Rights

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The big implication that follows from relativism (as it relates to human rights) can be broken down as follows: (i) if cultural relativism is correct, every culture is equal and correct; (ii) if every culture is equal and correct, no culture has authority or agency over another; (iii) enforcing universal human rights would not align with all cultures in the world; (iv) if no culture/society has the agency to tell another what to do, and enforcing universal human rights would require telling other cultures what to do, universal human rights cannot exist.

Despite this argument coming to the conclusion that universal human rights cannot exist, we all are very much aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—something that does indeed exist. However, we must note that the argument above does not apply to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

This is due to the fact that the Declaration holds no legal obligation as it is solely a declaration, not a treaty. Nations are not forced to follow it. Instead, they are encouraged to follow it. (However, this is not to say that the Declaration is not followed.)

Therefore, the argument that universal human rights cannot exist still stands. However, the argument’s basis is founded on  the premise that relativism is true and correct—and that might not be the case. 

Universalism

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Before we carry on with our discussion of relativism, I would like to point out another view: universalism. As it relates to politics, universalism, unlike relativism, states that universal human rights can and should exist. 

Universalism is the direct opposite to relativism in the world of politics. It claims that social norms across all cultures are fundamentally similar, hence why it would be possible to universalize (and legislate) human rights. 

Objections to Relativism

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Having now formulated a basic understanding of relativism (as well as its counter: universalism), we can now move on ahead and consider some of the theory’s big objections.

First, let us consider the objection of “no cultural progress”. The lack of cultural progress in relativism, as aforementioned, is formulated from the basis that all cultures are equally correct, with no culture being “better” or “worse.” Due to this, no culture can progress as it would imply it was not “good” in the past. Rather than progressing, a culture merely changed its practices and moral codes.

Therefore, under relativism, one would not be able to say that modern-day Germany is better than Nazi Germany, even though we know it is. Relativism would suggest that moral code of Nazi Germany is just as correct as the moral code of modern Germany; one is not better than the other.

Moreover, under relativism, one could not say that the abolishment of slavery was progress for the United States; we merely changed our ways. 

This, as one would obviously assume, is a big pill to swallow. Most would agree that modern-day Germany and the modern-day USA are better than they were many years ago. However, to say this would be to reject relativism, thereby stating that some cultures and social norms indeed are better than others. 

Another objection to relativism comes from the fact that most people align with multiple different cultures. For example, everyone in the United States lives under the cultural code of the United States. However, we also follow cultural norms that are more local—such as the cultural codes of what city/state we live in. In cases like these, relativism gives no true guidelines on what one should do. 

A famous example of this objection comes from the case Wisconsin vs. Yoder. This case was between the state of Wisconsin and an Amish family that lived in Wisconsin. 

In Wisconsin, legislation requires that every family sends their children to get educated until the age of 16. However, Amish customs say that no child needs education after 8th grade. Thus, a dilemma formulated between one culture and another—the culture of Wisconsin and the culture of the Amish. 

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in favor of the Amish family, citing the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights. 

This however, is just one example of conflicting cultural social norms. What is one supposed to do when their culture does not align with another culture they are a part of? Relativism does not say.

Besides the two mentioned objections to relativism, many more exist. Therefore, it is quite clear that relativism is not a perfect theory nor a perfect view of life. However, despite the objections to the view, many have still aligned with the theory.

Conclusion

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As there are many attractions and objections to relativism, one is, perhaps, able to see why the concept of universal human rights has been a heated source of debate. 

Whether or not there will  ever be a treaty formulated that legally binds nations into following basic human rights is unknown. However, what we do know is that this issue is not one that is as obvious as people might believe at first. 

Perhaps, in the future, if there is diplomatic debate on this topic, a treaty could very well be created. This treaty will ensure that no human ever on this planet gets mistreated. However, until that day, we solely have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a very good starting point for a treaty on human rights. 

Honoring Our Responsibilities to People and Other Animals

by Pamela Zuber

Dog's teeth through a knothole in a fence
Image: Pixabay

On August 19, 2019, nine-year-old Emma Hernandez died in Detroit, Michigan. She died from injuries she sustained after three dogs mauled her.

Hernandez’s death comes after her family and others issued multiple complaints and filed police reports about the dogs roaming free in the neighborhood and their owner’s inability to contain them. Neighbors tried to stop the mauling by attacking the pit bulls, but the girl suffered a fractured cervical spine and several other injuries. Writing in the Detroit News, Sarah Rahal noted that “[t]he attack was so horrific that counseling services were offered to emergency responders.”

While the death of any nine-year-old is a tragedy, Emma Hernandez’s death is especially tragic because it was so violent and so avoidable. We should not allow dangerous and potentially domestic animals to travel freely. Taking the effort to contain such animals with secure fencing and other restraints protects people’s rights to safety and security.

Not possessing such animals in the first place also prevents such tragedies. Training animals to be vicious or adopting particularly vicious animals can create disasters like Hernandez’s death. People may argue that vicious animals are security measures to prevent crime, but actually, they’re like the guns that people buy for personal security. Violent animals and guns may produce more violence than prevent it. “Access to a gun triples the risk of suicide death,” according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

What about the rights of pet owners?

(For the purposes of this article, we refer to pet owners as people who adopt animals.) Authorities have charged Pierre Cleveland, the dogs’ owner, with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and owning dangerous animals that led to Hernandez’s death. People previously filed police about roaming dogs from his house. Detroit Animal Care and Control, part of the city’s health department, visited his house in March, 2018 after receiving reports that two dogs from the house were loose. It is unclear whether the department found the animals dangerous or if they were the same dogs involved in the fatal 2019 mauling.

Clearly, improprieties involving dogs occurred in southwest Detroit in 2018 and 2019. Detroit’s home state of Michigan has clear definitions and determinations about dangerous animals, conditions that determine dangerous animal ownership, guidelines for euthanizing dangerous animals, and penalties for people who possess dangerous animals that cause harm.

Owning a dangerous pet is similar to owning a dangerous weapon. Both may inflict a great deal of harm on innocent people. Guns are inanimate objects. While dangerous animals do have brains, they do not have the reasoning abilities that people have. Dogs cannot build enclosures or make laws to corral themselves physically. It is therefore incumbent on people to control creatures and weapons. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):

In order for dogs to live harmoniously with people and with other companion animals, it is critical to hold guardians responsible for the proper supervision of their dogs and for any actions on their part that either create or encourage aggressive behavior.

Responsibly owning pets is a societal obligation. We have responsibilities to others and expect that others will behave in similar ways. While we are allowed to own pets (within limits), we have to do so responsibly to live with others safely and harmoniously.

What about the rights of others?

Emma Hernandez lived next door to vicious dogs. She probably faced their barking, snarling, and aggression frequently, if not daily, during her young life. They may have been the last things she ever saw. Can you imagine living and dying with such fear?

Living with anxiety, with the constant threat of danger, may be harmful to one’s mental health. It may drive some people to drink too much or use drugs to try to escape their fear and anxiety. It could cause other symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia, stomach problems, uneasiness, and other unpleasant side effects. We don’t know what Emma Hernandez experienced and we can’t ask her.

Safety is a fundamental right. We have entire systems to provide different kinds of safety. We have police departments and legal systems to prevent crime or prosecute it if it occurs. We have health departments that work to prevent or minimizes illnesses or injuries. These entities failed Emma Hernandez and her family.

“Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe” is Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Did Emma feel free and safe? Or, did human negligence lead to an egregious attack on her human rights?

How do we prevent such tragedies?

Mean-looking dog
Image: Pixabay

What happened in August 2019 in Detroit was preventable. If workers from animal control visited the house to investigate the pit bulls involved in the attack, they should have taken steps to reign in the animals and actually practice the animal control that is part of the department’s name.

When authorities are called to homes with potentially violent animals, they should remove the animals until their owners make their homes safer by building or reinforcing fences, gates, or doors or taking other safety precautions. If owners cannot afford such modifications, maybe authorities could pay for the changes and garnish pet owners’ paychecks or other sources of income.

If people do not have the income to secure their animals or repay authorities for providing such safety measures, maybe they shouldn’t own animals at all. Pet ownership is a privilege, not a right.

We could compare adopting a pet to owning a car. Owning a car requires paying for fuel, maintenance, insurance, and other charges. People are required to invest money and be diligent to make sure that their cars run properly and don’t pose hazards to others. To receive driver’s licenses, they must learn how to operate them safely.

Similarly, maybe people need training about how to handle animals. After this training, they could receive licenses to adopt pets. If their pets cause harm, people could have their licenses revoked and face further penalties, such as not being able to adopt additional pets.

Maybe law enforcement agencies and other bodies should institute a two-strike rule as well. If authorities return animals to a home and the animals provoke additional formal complaints, the authorities should remove the animals from the owners. If this provision was in place, authorities could have removed the dogs who caused the 2019 fatal mauling.

Every day, we do things to try to protect our safety and the safety of others. We drive our cars at speed limits, we cannot cross the street at any time at any place, we can only smoke tobacco in designated areas. We are allowed to do things that are potentially dangerous, but within limits.

Owning a pet comes with similar parameters. We can own animals, but not dangerous ones. If we do something that jeopardizes our safety or the safety of others, we should face repercussions. While there are ongoing repercussions to the 2019 mauling, they are unfortunately too late to help Emma Hernandez. Maybe these measures and other proposals will help people in the future before similar tragedies strike.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who writes about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

Noodles and Poverty

Chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi’s defines a noodle as “a universal food, complimentary to many other foods, and adaptable to many cuisines around the world.”

a photo of various types of pasta
Noodles paste colorful. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Role of noodles

Never underestimate the importance of noodles. According to Lin-Liu, a blogger, the oldest mention of noodles she found was in a Chinese dictionary from the third century A.D. Originally, noodles were made from bread dough. Interesting enough, noodles were found in a sealed ceramic bowl at a burial site from 3rd millennium B.C. Ultimately, the exact origin of noodles is difficult to pinpoint. However, noodles may have started in a variety of locations such as China and Italy. Regardless of its origin, noodles are a vital part of numerous cultures worldwide. Noodles are not just a dish, but it also embodies the culture, city, and people that make them.

In different cultures, the name of the noodles can be used to commemorate a historical event. For example, there are several pastas that commemorate Italy’s wars in Africa such as the tripoline pasta, which references the Tripoli province of Libya under Italian rule and the bengasini past, inspired after the Benghazi. There are also references made for the House of Savoy, a royal family in Italy, through a noodle named mafaldine after the Princess Mafalda. Furthermore, noodles have been named after emerging machinery like the ruote (wheels) or eliche (propellers). Noodles could also be used to determine the wealth of the person due to the ingredients that were used. In China, certain types of noodles are eaten at certain occasions such as birthdays, marriages, or moving to a new house. In addition to playing a role in beliefs and customs, noodles also have health benefits and have been included in a variety of diets. Some even say that noodles can reduce the number of those in poverty.

Poverty in China

Poverty exists everywhere, in new and old places. Specifically, in China, there are 252 million people who live on their earning of less than $2/day. In fact, 40% of people in China live on less than $5.50/day. Many of these individuals live in rural areas and make their living from farming, forestry, or fishing. There are numerous reasons that explain the causes poverty in China with rural-urban migration being one of the most prominent. China has a majority urban population, meaning there is an influx of people moving into more urban areas in search of better jobs. However, individuals who cannot afford to leave often times stay in rural areas, struggling to survive.

Another reason for poverty in China is the Hukou system’s effect on migrant workers. The Hukou system is a registration program that identifies certain demographics as either rural or urban residents. This system prevents migrant workers from receiving healthcare, education, or pension through the government because Chinese citizens can only receive benefits from their local government. Thus, when people move, they cannot receive the benefits from their new regional government. In Shanghai there were 170,000 students enrolled in high school; however, there were 570,000 migrant children from 15 to 19 who lived in Shanghai but were not permitted to attend the schools. There are reforms and policies in place to try to reduce the effects of poverty in China, such as President Xi Jinping claiming he wants to “eradicate rural poverty by 2020.”, although, poverty remains a salient issue. 

Right to work. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Noodle Initiative

“Give a man a bowl of noodles and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to make noodles and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Yuhan Xu (NPR)

As mentioned earlier, noodles are a staple food, especially in China. In northwestern China, there is a province by the name of Gansu that has proposed an idea to eliminate poverty by using their specialty dish of hand-pulled noodles in beef broth – a noodle initiative. This dish costs as low as $1.50. Their goal is to train 15,000 individuals from poor areas how to make these noodles from scratch. so they can pursue gainful employment making noodles or even open their own shops. In order to acquire people’s interest, the government is offering financial incentives to both companies and people to meet their goal of opening 1,500 new noodle shops this year. However, noodle initiatives are not a new concept. In 2018, there was a noodle skills training program in Lanzhou and Beijing where more than 12,000 people participated and 90% of them found jobs related to noodles.

In Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, there are approximately 50,000 beef noodle shops and 40,000 noodle-makers; out of those shops, 4,000 of them are in the impoverished areas. The annual noodle shop sales in Gansu makes an estimate of $1.8 billion. In Lanzhou, there is a school named the Vocational and Technical College of Resources and Environment whose goal is to train professionals in making a proper Lanzhou beef noodle. The tradition of the Lanzhou beef noodle is almost 200 years old and does not take a long time to prepare. However, in order to pull the noodles, it takes years of practice, generally a year to learn how to pull noodles but three years to be called a “noodle master”. Furthermore, the school hopes to spread these skills overseas but has been difficult due to visa requirements. Noodle chefs need to fulfill certain educational requirements in order to go overseas. Thus, some schools that have three years of training also award their students with associate college degrees and national vocation qualification certificates. Additionally, in certain countries like Australia or the United Kingdom, there are branches of the Lanzhou beef noodle where students are offered job positions there with a salary of 8,000 to 12,000 yuan and free accommodation.

Everyone has a right not just to work, but to work in a positive environment. In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the work conditions should be “just and favorable”. The noodle initiative aims to offer individuals an increase in skill, employment, and a better future. The implication of poverty, employment, and human rights are intertwined. Poverty affects aspects of one’s life such as housing, food, and healthcare. At the core, poverty is when someone does not have access to their basic rights. Thus, it hinders people’s quality of living and their freedom while also increasing the possibility of discrimination and health disparities.

The History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN Flag
Flag of the United Nations, paixland, Creative Commons

The conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave birth to human rights as they are known today. Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was a response to the atrocities that took place during World War II. As half the globe laid in ruin and millions of lives were taken, a dormant side of humanity seemed to reawaken within the world powers, and an international prioritization of human rights emerged. The UDHR, comprised of 30 Articles defining human rights, was an expression of humanity’s resurgence, as well as an international commitment to never allow such monstrous acts to take place again.

Those tasked with composing the UDHR were members of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady by using her position as a platform for social activism in women’s rights, African-American rights, and Depression-era workers’ rights. After her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945, she was appointed to be the US Delegate to the UN and served in this role for 7 years. It was her experience and passion for social activism that prepared the widow Roosevelt to Chair the commission responsible for creating the UDHR. Roosevelt asserted the Declaration would reflect more than Western ideas; to accomplish this, the Human Rights Commission was made up of members from various cultural and legal backgrounds from all around the world, showing respect for differing cultures and their customs while also ensuring each region had a hand in creating the document. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the diverse commission was able to craft the UDHR in a unique and culturally-competent way.

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Borland, Creative Commons

The UDHR was the first document in history to explicitly define what individual rights are and how they must be protected. The Preamble of the document outlines the rights of all human beings:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Thus, for the first time in history, human rights were assembled and codified into a single document. The Member States, or sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, came together in agreement to protect and promote these rights. As consequence, the rights have shaped constitutional laws and democratic norms around the world, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 in Britain and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Silhouette of a dove holding an olive branch
Dove Silhouette, Creative Commons

The Commission on Human Rights defined human rights with the conception of the UDHR. By fusing dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, the UN defines human rights as:

rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Human rights are the cross-cutting theme within every UN agency. They have inspired the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are goals to “provide peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” These planet-, urbanization-, and group-focused goals substantially contribute to the realization of human rights, as the human rights-based approach to development stipulates development is conducive to the promotion of human rights.  In the ideal sense, human rights are a guiding force toward living in global harmony, and through the promotion of the basic rights bestowed by the UDHR, the world has made strides toward achieving that harmony.