256. "Cross-Cultural Judgements: The Next Steps," Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, (Winter 1997), pp. 5-15.


The debate between those who argue that we should not pass judgment on the conduct of other people and those who champion universal human rights or other global values is making significant progress. It has achieved several points of broadly based, albeit not universal, cross-cultural consensus. Reviewing these points of near-agreement may enable future deliberations to treat these points as their base line, seeking for convergence on issues about which the various sides are still far apart.

Thinkers increasingly agree that relativism is a position that has played an important historical role but is difficult now to sustain. Historically there was good reason to be troubled by the tendency of Western people to view other societies as "primitive," "barbarian," or inferior and to seek to impose their values on other cultures and people. Much of anthropology was in effect dedicated to challenging this Western view and helping members of Western societies understand and appreciate other cultures. While the need for such didactic work is far from obviated, the danger of a strong bias in the opposite direction has come into evidence during the last decades. I refer to the great reluctance of Western intellectuals to pass judgments on behavior in other cultures such as genital mutilation, child labor, detention without trial, caning, and amputating the limbs of thieves. While such refusals to lay moral claims take many forms, and are deeply anchored in classical liberalism, the most relevant to the discussion of international relations is cultural relativism, according to which each community should set its own values, and needs not make any account to others about the legitimacy of such choices.

If one considers the early Western sense of general superiority (as distinct from having merit in some areas but not in others) as a "thesis," and the rise of cross-cultural relativism as the "antithesis," we seem to be moving into a period of synthesis. There is growing agreement, even in non-Western countries, that some forms of cross-cultural judgments are appropriate. For instance, Bilahari Kausikan of Singapore (whose intellectuals have been strong players in this debate(2)), flatly states, "Human rights have become a legitimate issue in interstate relations. How a country treats its citizens is no longer a matter for its own exclusive determination."(3) He even recognizes, "Others can and do legitimately claim a concern."(4) Onuma Yasuaki, Japan's leading human rights expert, reports that there is increasing recognition that "states can no longer conveniently deny the universality of human rights. Nor can they claim that human rights are exclusively domestic questions . . . [T]he seemingly irreconcilable conflict between universalists and relativists is more theoretical than real. There is actually a wide range of consensus that most of the alleged human rights must be universally protected."(5)

Consensus on the need to protect the environment is a strong example of growing international consensus(6)--allowing of course for great differences in emphasis and willingness to implement policies.

I am not suggesting that the controversy between relativists and universalists is dying or that all agree to some universal notion of the need to respect human dignity (the term "rights" is often avoided by non-Westerners) but only that there is now a mainstream agreement, and those who do not participate in it rapidly are becoming outliers.(7)

Second, there is a growing recognition that flow of moral claims does not run only in one direction. While the West increasingly is gaining a following in other countries for its concerns with political freedoms, Asian claims that the West allowed social harmony and moral virtues to deteriorate are not falling on deaf ears. And the claims of many non-Westerners that socio-economic rights also are important are supported by quite a few Western intellectuals and ideologues for various reasons (They also are included in the German constitution).

Third, there is a school of thought that argues that moral claims a society lays on others often can be justified in the other society's tradition, albeit drawing on different conceptions and narratives. For instance, Daniel A. Bell argues that Islam does not allow hudud--the amputation of a thief's hand--under most circumstances. Hence members of non-Islamic cultures can speak up against it by drawing on intra-Islamic rationales rather than on Westerners' conceptions of human rights;(8) they may suggest that Chinese may come to freedom of inquiry and press because they serve the community rather because they see them as rights in their own right.(9) And Westerners have many sources in their own cultures that lead them to be concerned about socio-economic rights. There is no reason, on the other side of the cultural divide, to object to such intra-cultural accounting of moral claims, so long as they are far-reaching and well-grounded. (For instance, subscribing to human rights because they are "useful" for community purposes may provide sound but insufficient grounding).

Fourth, there is some consensus that different societies need not adopt exactly the same regime to be democratic. Thus, just as there are differences among various Western societies (for instance the United States and the United Kingdom: the latter has no First Amendment, has a state secret act, and a prohibition on hate speech) so there may be differences among various non-Western societies that are achieving democratic status, say between India and the Philippines.

Finally, there is a growing agreement that there is a connection between socio-economic and political development. At least it is agreed that countries whose GNP per capita is very low, state of public health is poor, and education level is very low, will tend to have much greater difficulties in introducing democratic regimes than more fully-developed countries.(10) Where may the debate move from here?


1. The End of Economic Deferral

The argument that underdeveloped countries must defer the introduction of human rights and democratic regimes until they are economically developed, or that saving people from starvation and disease must take priority over political development, must be put to rest because it does not withstand elementary empirical observations and moral criticism. While socio-economic difficulties can hinder political development, these do not make them of less ethical standing than economic achievements. Note that countries like China and Singapore are deferring not only so-called "soft" democratic rights such as the right of free expression and assembly, but also protection against detention without trial, curbs on press freedoms, seizures of property,(11) and other elementary human rights. Is it better to be tortured and hanged than to face food shortages and possibly even plagues?

The choice posited is a false one, presented in stark terms that favor those opposed to political development. The fact is that Singapore already has achieved a very high standard of living--a per capita annual income of $12,000 in 1990, the same level that the United States reached only ten years before(12)--and yet still feels that it is not sufficiently developed to make room for political freedoms. While there are occasional pockets of food shortages in some parts of China, millions of Chinese now are encouraged to gain optional consumer goods such as gourmet coffee, designer blue jeans, and name-brand makeup and perfumes. These hardly have a higher moral standing than elementary freedoms.

The argument that economic development will not be possible unless political development is deferred is belied both by the experience of India and of course by the history of the West, in which political and economic development took place simultaneously. Indeed, the opposite may be more accurate--that economic development follows political freedoms and not vice versa. Aryeh Neier notes, "Open societies around the world are flourishing economically to a far greater extent than closed societies or societies that were closed until recently."(13)

Notions that political development "must" or "should" (on moral grounds) be deferred until economic development is advanced or achieved should be laid to rest.

2. The "Need" to Maintain Social Order

Asian political leaders and intellectuals have looked with condescension at the deterioration of the social order in the West and argued that restrictions of political freedoms are needed to sustain social harmony. In a public address, Singapore's Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, said,

Western liberals, foreign media, and human rights groups want Singapore to be like their societies, and some Singaporeans mindlessly dance to their tune . . . We must think for ourselves and decide what is good for Singapore, what will make Singapore stable and successful. Above all else, stay away from policies which have brought a plague of social and economic problems to the United States and Britain.(14)

Kevin Y.L. Tan echoes the prime minister when he writes, "The problem as Asians see it is this: How can the West--especially America--preach democracy and human rights as fundamental values when the West can't even get its own house in order."(15)

It should be noted first of all that this argument does not comport with the previous, economic one. The economic perspective argues for delaying political freedoms; the social argument suggests that they are inherently incompatible with an orderly and virtuous society.

These arguments are not sustainable. First, the deterioration of social order in the West has been a recent development. The American society of the 1950's, for instance, is held up as a model of social order. While it was less democratic than contemporary America (especially in its treatment of minorities and women), it maintained extensive human rights and political freedoms. Other societies in Western Europe had a high level of social order in the 1960's and beyond.

Second, the Asian societies that rely heavily on the state to maintain order act in a rather different way than they imply when they refer to themselves as "communitarian."(16) In contrast Japan, which is much more democratic, has a strong social order that is based more on family and community, national bonds and loyalties than on state coercion, comes much closer to a model of a society whose members truly are involved and committed to social harmony and moral values. Coercion is only necessary when people do not voluntarily do what is expected of them. The much lower level of policing in Japan compared to Singapore, without a loss in social order, highlights the difference.

Third, it should be noted that even Japan may put too much weight on social conformity and loyalties. A true communitarian society combines the quest for social order, based largely on voluntary commitment of the members, with socially constructed opportunities for individual and sub-group expressions, and with secure political freedoms. Aside from being right in their own right, such social formations serve to enhance creativity and innovation, and to satisfy deep-seated human needs.

And yet the Asians make a major valid point, which if restated highlights a Western failing. Given the communitarian ideal of balance between social order and individual and subgroup autonomy, the West, especially American society, has veered off in the opposite direction. We have allowed self-interest, self-indulgence, permissiveness, and a sense of entitlement to grow excessively while neglecting the foundations of social and moral order. Hence, a strong case can be made that both kinds of societies are converging on a societal model that combines a higher level of social order than the West recently experienced with a higher level of individual and subgroup autonomy than even Japan currently allows.

Note that in this context it is not helpful to refer to a convergence of East and West, as one may do as a very rough first approximation. Neither "East" nor "West" is of one kind, certainly from the viewpoint of the issues addressed here. The level of policing, social order, and political development of India and Singapore, Japan and China, Philippines and Burma hardly are the same. And the state of the American society and that of Scandinavia are rather different. Moreover, few would wish to combine the social order deficiencies of several Western societies with the lack of protection of women's rights, treatment of minorities, and excessive pressure to conform of several Eastern societies. The cross-cultural dialogue will be best served when the discussion focuses on those virtues and social formations that are legitimate and worth extolling and advancing.

3. Human Rights: Not an Instrument of Western Oppression

One of the critics of human rights and democratic regimes' most repeated refrains is that human rights are Western ideas, that they have been used as legitimation for Western interventions in the lives of other societies. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab famously refer to human rights as "a Western construct with limited applicability," arguing that "human rights as a twentieth-century concept and as embedded in the United Nations can be traced to the particular experiences of England, France, and the United States."(17) Marnia Lazreg further claims that "the current U.S.-sponsored drive for human rights necessarily reveals itself as a moralistic ideology that satisfies extra-moral needs."(18) These arguments must be unpacked and dealt with separately. They mix points that hinder the needed cross-cultural dialogues with those that contribute to the suggested convergence between East and West.

The argument that human rights are Western in origin and hence not suitable to other cultures is a particularly unfortunate one. Virtues either should be considered valid or rejected; the source of an ideal and its legitimacy should not be confused. Westerners should not and do not reject "Asian" notions of the beauty and peace that harmony entails; and human rights should not be rejected by other cultures if they are justifiable, even if they were first formulated in the West. The point can be tested by the following mental experiment. Assume for a moment that recent claims by some African American historians that Western notions of political freedom and democracy actually originated in Africa, in Egypt specially, turn out to be valid. Would that enhance the legitimacy of the democratic ideals? And if yes, only for Africans? Only for North Africans? Clearly, historical accounting has very little to do with the legitimacy of a given virtue.

The second, and more powerful, version of the argument contends that some Western countries have used others' lack of human rights to legitimate their intervention in other countries. These interventions range from early colonization to the recent landing of Marines in Haiti and economic sanctions imposed on Cuba. A considerable literature on the subject asks under what conditions such interventions are justified (against a new Hitler?) versus inappropriate (to advance American corporate interests?).(19) One need not address these questions here, however, because they do not deal with the legitimacy of the claim of human rights any more than they deal with the virtue of social order. They concern the means and conditions under which stronger powers may interfere in the affairs of weaker powers. To push the point, one can be radically opposed to any and all economic sanctions, not to mention blockades and invasions, against countries that violate human rights or are disorderly, and still hold liberty and social rules as core virtues.

In short, one needs to separate the legitimacy of certain moral claims across cultures from the ways and means by which they may be advanced. If a society considers it illegitimate to underwrite its moral claims by use of force or economic means, what force do they have? The answer is the force of moral claims.

4. The Cross-Societal Moral Voice

As the notions of the moral voice and moral dialogues are central to my argument but are not widely recognized, they deserve additional elaboration here. The moral voice is a peculiar form of motivation that encourages people to adhere to values to which they already subscribe. The term "moral voice" is particularly appropriate because people "hear" it. Thus, when a person who affirms a value is tempted to ignore it, he or she hears a voice urging him or her to do what is right. Hearing the voice does not mean that one will always or even regularly heed it, but it will often affect behavior. For example, a person who at first ignores the voice may later repent and engage in compensatory behavior. As with individuals, communities too may hear their own moral voices.(20)

Moral dialogues occur when a group of people engage in a process of sorting the values that will guide their lives. Should the sanctity of the unborn child or women's right to choose guide our abortion policy? Should the virtue of a color-blind (non-discriminating) society or that of reverse discrimination (to correct for past and current injustices) guide our employment policies? Built into this concept are tenets that not all members of the society share, to put it carefully. These tenets should hence be stated explicitly. Moral dialogues assume that societies need shared formulations of the good, and cannot function only on the basis of negotiated settlements of differences between individual and subgroup formations of the good. Moreover, moral dialogues require that the processes that lead to such shared formulations entail dialogues that concern values and not merely deliberations over empirical facts or logically derived notions.(21) Moral dialogues are not merely a matter of reasonable people coming to terms, but of people of divergent convictions finding a common normative ground.(22)

It is relatively easy to demonstrate that such dialogues take place constantly in well-formed societies, which most democracies are, and that frequently they result (albeit sometimes only after prolonged dialogues) in a new affirmed direction for the respective societies. But can moral dialogues take place internationally and to what effect?

Moral dialogues occurring across national lines are much more limited in scope, intensity, conclusion and effect than intra-national ones. Nevertheless they point to the processes that, if further advanced, can provide a thicker global moral base than the one to which minimalists point. For example, there is a world-wide dialogue about the extent to which "we" (that is, all nations, and in this sense the people of the world) ought to respect the environment. Of course, the dialogue is affected by numerous non-normative considerations, often dressed up in normative claims. However, the dialogue affects what people consider morally appropriate. Thus, one reason most countries try to avoid being perceived as environmentally irresponsible is that they do not wish to be considered acting illegitimately in the eyes of nations other than their own. Among the examples frequently given of rising world-wide consensus on specific environmental matters, reflecting the general rising shared commitment to the protection of the environment are the limitations on whaling, on trade in African elephant ivory, on trade in hazardous waste, and on adding to acid rain and ozone layer damage, among others.(23)

Moral voices are applied to superpowers and not merely by them to less powerful countries. (Indeed, some have argued that relying on moral claims is the special province of less powerful nations.(24) A case in point was the world-wide condemnation of the United States following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Here the United States forced a watering-down of the climate control treaty, and refused to sign the biodiversity treaty. These acts drew heavy criticism from all over the world.)

5. A Communitarian Call for Cross-Cultural Moral Dialogues

To help nourish cross-national moral dialogues, communitarians should favor a step opposite that which cultural relativists have taken: Namely, that moral voices, especially when they truly reflect the people of a society that is raising them, be expressed cross-culturally.

It is necessary to raise moral voices across societal lines, to seek to identify and articulate a core of globally shared values. The need for, and legitimacy of, laying moral claims on societies other than one's own, to appreciate the drives of other societies when they advance individual rights and shoulder social responsibilities as well as to censor them when they do not, must be recognized. I deliberately refer to laying moral claims. It is a rather different matter when a nation sees itself as called upon to impose values by sending in the Marines, Special Forces or the Foreign Legion, by erecting blockades, or otherwise applying military or economic force to promote its values. Such coercive measures do not build a moral community and are justified only under extreme conditions (the next Nazi regime) discussed in the literature on just wars. While only powerful nations can employ military or economic power to push values, even the smallest of nations can exercise the moral voice, as demonstrated at various points by Costa Rica, Mexico, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and Israel.

To call on all people to respect the same set of core values does not entail arguing that all have to follow the same path of economic development, enjoy the same music, or exercise the same table manners. At issue are core values such as respecting human dignity by not warring or tolerating genocide, being responsive to all the members of the respective communities rather than serving small elites,(25) and upholding some other select values rather than following a pervasive agenda. Indeed, it is a sociological mistake when international bodies do meet to discuss normative issues for each of the participants to add all that is on their normative wish list to the pile of cross-national moral claims. The long road to a world of shared values will be shortened somewhat if the focus is kept on a limited set of core values.

The cross-cultural moral voice cannot avoid addressing political development for countries that do not respect autonomy or that provide order coercively rather than based on moral grounds. True, just as there are differences among communitarian societies, so there may be different pathways to a democratic polity. Because of the close connection between the democratic form of government and the communitarian core virtues, however, fostering democratic forms of government (broadly conceived, not merely comprising regular voting) is a pivotal and necessary part of a cross-national moral dialogue.

Rather than muting the cross-cultural moral voice, as the cultural relativists do, all societies should respect the right of others to lay moral claims on them just as they are entitled to do the same. Thus, the West should realize that it is well with in its legitimate, world community-building role when it criticizes China for its violation of human rights. And China should be viewed as equally legitimate when it criticizes American society for its neglect of filial duties. To reiterate, as long as moral claims are laid as moral claims, rather than as justification for coercive measures, they help lay the groundwork for needed moral dialogues.

To form cross-cultural judgments requires another layer of accountability: substantive global values, in the sense that they lay a claim on all and are not particular to any one community or society. Thus, as I see it, individual rights do not reflect a Western value (even if historically they arose in the West) but a global value that lays claims on all people. Far from being deterred or chastened when the Chinese government, or some Asian intellectuals, protest the West's application of this value to Asian cultures and regimes, I see in the furor that such claims generate a recognition of the validity of these claims. And for that same reason, I find their call on the West--for example, to enhance our respect of the elderly--also fully legitimate and compelling.

Cross-cultural moral claims are effective because they resonate with values we share, but have neglected. This is a major reason Asians become distressed when they are criticized for not sufficiently respecting individual rights. If one instead chastised them for using chop sticks instead of forks, they would hardly be perturbed. Similarly, Asians make telling points when they criticize the West about its neglect of social order. Compare the effect of such claims to a call by Muslims on the West to embrace their divorce laws. Nobody would respond in a guilty furor, rather people would ignore such normative appeals or laugh them out of court. Not all cross-cultural moral claims are heard, though it is rather evident which are.

Aside from defensive reactions, there are other signs that the international moral voice does not fall on completely deaf ears. For example, it is reported that, after having ignored human rights issues for years, in Asian countries "human rights [are] no longer dismissed as a tool of foreign oppression but were promoted as a means of asserting Asian distinctiveness."(26) China seems to have reformed some of its most grievous orphanages and labor camps under pressure from Amnesty International and other moral voices.(27) Even in countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar, one now hears voices opposing authoritarian rule in the name of human rights and democracy that come from within and not from Western critics. Thus an opposition leader recently argued in Cambodia that "no human being should be asked to choose between bread and freedom."(28)

Recognizing the need to raise moral voices globally does not legitimize berating other people cross-culturally, any more than it legitimizes berating other members of one's own community. The moral voice is most compelling when it is firm but not screeching; judging but not judgmental; critical but not self-righteous.

We can acknowledge quite readily that those who champion global values themselves do not always heed their call; but this observation does not invalidate the standing of these values. And one might recognize that universal values other than those for which a given party speaks, other values those societies that are being chastised follow quite admirably, may even provide a shining example for the rest of the world to follow. But none of these observations argues that bringing strong substantive values to the nascent worldwide dialogue is to be denied; on the contrary, is a reflection of commitment to these values. At the same time, one must take into account that until the world dialogue of convictions is much more advanced, and a much stronger worldwide core of values is evolved, worldwide shared values cannot serve as a satisfactory frame for societal values. One can inquire whether even if a truly democratic global parliament, after properly constructed worldwide megalogues, could formulate public policies, or moral assessments, which would still need to be judged by some other moral criteria than that on which worldwide consensus has been reached. The crowning test may well need to be found elsewhere.

1. 1. This article draws on my book, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

2. 2. See for example the work of Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, "Asia's Cultural Fusion," Foreign Affairs 74, no.1 (January/February 1995), 100-110, and "The Dangers of Decadence: What the Rest Can Teach the West," Foreign Affairs 72, no. 4 (September/October 1993), 10-14. See also the remarks of Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, reported by Erik Kuhonta, "On Social and Economic Rights," Human Rights Dialogue 2, (September 1995), 3. For a detailed review of exchanges between Singaporeans and Americans, see Donald K. Emmerson, "Singapore and the 'Asian Values' Debate," Journal of Democracy 6, no. 4 (October 1995), 95-104.

3. 3. Bilahari Kausikan, "Asia's Different Standard," Foreign Policy, n. 92 (Fall 1993), 24.

4. 4. Ibid.

5. 5. Yasuaki Onuma, "In Quest of Intercivilizational Human Rights: 'Universal' vs. 'Relative' Human Rights Viewed from an Asian Perspective. Center for Asian Pacific Affairs, The Asia Foundation, Occasional Paper No. 2 (March 1996), 8.

6. 6. See Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 230-231.

7. 7.. Aryeh Neier, The Responsive Community 7, no. 3 (Summer 1997), 25-26

8. 8. Daniel A. Bell, "The East Asian Challenge to Human Rights: Reflections on an East West Dialogue," Human Rights Quarterly 18 (Johns Hopkins University Press: August 1996), 664.

9. 9. Ibid., 658.

10. 10. Seymor Martin Lipset, et al. "A comparative analysis of the social requisites of democracy," Comparative Political Sociology, no. 136, May 1993, 155-156.

11. 11. Kausikan openly states as much... Op cit, 38.

12. 12. Compare numbers in George Thomas Kurian, Datapoedia of the United States 1790-2000 (Bernan Press, 1994), 90; and The 1993 Britannica Book of the Year (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993), 796.

13. 13. Aryeh Neier, "Asia's Unacceptable Standard," Foreign Policy, no. 92 (Fall 1993), 42-43.

14. 14. Goh Chok Tong, "Social Values, Singapore Style," Current History, December 1994, 422.

15. 15. Kevin Y.L. Tan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, "What Asians Think About the West's Response to the Human Rights Debate," Human Rights Dialogue 4 (March 1996), 4.

16. 16. [fn] [[quote Bell re lack of commitment etc]].

17. 17. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab, eds. Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979), 1, 4.

18. 18. Marnia Lazreg, "Human Rights, State and Ideology: An Historical Perspective," Ibid, 41.

19. 19. See, for example, Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: BasicBooks, 1977).

20. 20. For more discussion, see Etzioni, op cit., "The Moral Voice," 119-126.

21. 21. For a justification of this point, see Etzioni, op cit., 102-104, 227-31.

22. 22. Cf., Amy Gutmann, "The Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics," Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (Summer 1993), 197ff.

23. 23. Gareth Porter and Janet Welsh Brown, Global Environmental Politics (Westview Press: 1996), 69-105.

24. 24. See Minivera Etzioni, The Majority of One: Towards a Theory of Regional Compatibility (Sage Publications, 1970).

25. 25. See Etzioni, "The Responsive Community: A Communitarian Perspective," American Sociological Review 61 (February 1996), 1-11; and The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes (New York: Free Press, 1968), part four.

26. 26. Joanne Bauer, "International Human Rights and Asian Commitment," Human Rights Dialogue, December 1995, pg. 1.

27. 27.. [[FL cite Carnge news letter]].

28. 28. Cited in "Who Speaks for the People?" The Economist, January 17, 1996, pg. 31.

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