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Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion

Amartya Sen


[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. It originally appeared in the Harvard International Review, Summer 98, Vol. 20 Issue 3.]

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 answer, of course, is that 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 veritable battleground of political debates and ethical disputes, particularly in their application to non-Western societies. Why so?

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.

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. By arguing that the valuing of toleration, personal liberty, and civil rights is a particular contribution of Western civilization, Western advocates of these rights often give ammunition to the non-Western critics of human rights. The advocacy of an allegedly "alien" idea in non-Western societies can indeed look like cultural imperialism sponsored by the West.

How much truth is there in this grand cultural dichotomy between Western and non-Western civilizations on the subject of liberty and rights? I believe there is rather little sense in such a grand dichotomy. Neither the claims in favor of the specialness of "Asian values" by governmental spokesmen from Asia, nor the particular claims for the uniqueness of "Western values" by spokesmen from Europe and America can survive much historical examination and critical scrutiny.

In seeing Western civilization as the natural habitat of individual freedom and political democracy, there is a tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values that the European Enlightenment and other recent developments since the eighteenth century have made common and widespread are often seen, quite arbitrarily, as part of the long- run Western heritage, experienced in the West over millennia. The concept of universal human rights in the broad general sense of entitlements of every human being is really a relatively new idea, not to be much found either in the ancient West or in ancient civilizations elsewhere.

There are, however, other ideas, such as the value of toleration, or the importance of individual freedom, which have been advocated and defended for a long time, often for the selected few. For example, Aristotle's writings on freedom and human flourishing provide good background material for the contemporary ideas of human rights. But there are other Western philosophers (Plato and St. Augustine, for example) whose preference for order and discipline over freedom was no less pronounced than Confucius' priorities. Also, even those in the West who did emphasize the value of freedom did not, typically, see this as a fight of all human beings. Aristotle's exclusion of women and slaves is a good illustration of this non-universality.

Confucius and co.

Do we find similar pronouncements in favor of individual freedom in non- Western traditions, particularly in Asia? The answer is emphatically yes. Confucius is not the only philosopher in Asia, not even in China.

There is much variety in Asian intellectual traditions, and many writers did emphasize the importance of freedom and tolerance, and some even saw this as the entitlement of every human being. The language of freedom is very important, for example, in Buddhism, which originated and first flourished in South Asia and then spread to Southeast Asia and East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. In this context it is important to recognize that Buddhist philosophy not only emphasized freedom as a form of life but also gave it a political content. To give just one example, the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE presented many political inscriptions in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, both as a part of state policy and in the relation of different people to each other. The domain of toleration, Ashoka argued, must include everybody without exception.

Even the portrayal of Confucius as an unmitigated authoritarian is far from convincing. Confucius did believe in order, but he did not recommend blind allegiance to the state. When Zilu asks him how to serve a prince, Confucius replies, "Tell him the truth even if it offends him"- -a policy recommendation that may encounter some difficulty in contemporary Singapore or Beijing. Of course, Confucius was a practical man, and he did not recommend that we foolhardily oppose established power. He did emphasize practical caution and tact, but also insisted on the importance of opposition. "When the [good] Way prevails in the state, speak boldly and act boldly. When the state has lost the Way, act boldly and speak softly," he said.

The main point to note is that both Western and non-Western traditions have much variety within themselves. Both in Asia and in the West, some have emphasized order and discipline, even as others have focused on freedom and tolerance. The idea of human rights as an entitlement of every human being, with an unqualified universal scope and highly articulated structure, is really a recent development. But there are limited and qualified defenses of freedom and tolerance, and general arguments against censorship, that can be found both in ancient traditions in the West and in cultures of non-Western societies.

Islam and tolerance

Special questions are often raised about the Islamic tradition. Because of the experience of contemporary political battles, especially in the Middle East, the Islamic civilization is often portrayed as being fundamentally intolerant and hostile to individual freedom. But the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well. The Turkish emperors were often more tolerant than their European contemporaries. The Mughal emperors in India, with one exception, were not only extremely tolerant, but some even theorized about the need for tolerating diversity. The pronouncements of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in sixteenth century India, on tolerance can count among the classics of political pronouncements, and would have received more attention in the West had Western political historians taken as much interest in Eastern thought as they do in their own intellectual background. For comparison, I should mention that the Inquisitions were still in full bloom in Europe as Akbar was making it a state policy to tolerate and protect all religious groups.

A Jewish scholar like Maimonides in the twelfth century had to run away from an intolerant Europe and from its persecution of Jews for the security offered by a tolerant Cairo and the patronage of Sultan Saladin. Alberuni, the Iranian mathematician, who wrote the first general book on India in the early eleventh century, aside from translating Indian mathematical treatises into Arabic, was among the earliest of anthropological theorists in the world. He noted and protested against the fact that "depreciation of foreigners...is common to all nations towards each other."

Authority and dissidence

The recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely important in the contemporary world, since we are constantly bombarded with oversimplified generalizations about "Western civilization, A AAsian values," "African cultures," and so on. These unfounded readings of history and civilization are not only intellectually shallow, they also add to the divisiveness of the world in which we live. Boorishness begets violence.

The fact is that in any culture people like to argue with each other, and often do. I recollect being amused in my childhood by a well-known poem from nineteenth century Calcutta. The poet is describing the horror of death, the sting of mortality. "Just think," the poem runs, "how terrible it would be on the day you die/Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to respond." The worst sting of death would appear to be, in this view, the inability to argue, and this illustrates how seriously we take our differences and our debates.

Dissidents exist in every society, often at great risk to their own security. Western discussion of non-Western societies is often too respectful of authority--the governor, the Minister, the military leader, the religious leader. This "authoritarian bias" receives support from the fact that Western countries themselves are often represented, in international gatherings, by governmental officials and spokesmen, and they in turn seek the views of their "opposite numbers" from other countries.

The view that Asian values are quintessentially authoritarian has tended to come almost exclusively from spokesmen of those in power and their advocates. But foreign ministers, or government officials, or religious leaders do not have a monopoly in interpreting local culture and values. It is important to listen to the voices of dissent in each society.

National and cultural diversity To conclude, the so-called "Western values of freedom and liberty," sometimes seen as an ancient Western inheritance, are not particularly ancient, nor exclusively Western in their antecedence. Many of these values have taken their full form only over the last few centuries. While we do find some anticipatory components in parts of the ancient Western traditions, there are other such anticipatory components in parts of non-Western ancient traditions as well. On the particular subject of toleration, Plato and Confucius may be on a somewhat similar side, just as Aristotle and Ashoka may be on another side.

The need to acknowledge diversity applies not only between nations and cultures, but also within each nation and culture. In the anxiety to take adequate note of international diversity and cultural divergences, and the so-called differences between "Western civilization," "Asian values," "African culture," and so on, there is often a dramatic neglect of heterogeneity within each country and culture. "Nations" and "cultures" are not particularly good units to understand and analyze intellectual and political differences. Lines of division in commitments and skepticism do not run along national boundaries--they criss-cross at many different levels. The rhetoric of cultures, with each "culture" seen in largely homogenized terms, can confound us politically as well as intellectually.

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