The Cultural Perception of Human Rights

I was reading A Different Turning Point for Mankind by G. W. Bowersock in the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, and I had one of those Aha! moments when I read about the history of several different cultural philosophies and ideologies.

For millennia, the major cultures on the planet have been: Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist.

But the concept of human rights that dominates the planet today has its roots from ancient Greece and Rome—not China, Africa, India, or the Middle East.

This Western, Greek-Roman concept of human rights that evolved over a period of centuries to dominate the planet today came about due to the fire and brimstone of the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries where European countries such as Spain, England, France, Germany, Portugal and Italy ruled, often brutally, over most of the planet. Then later the United States joined in building a global empire—again on a Greek-Roman, Christian foundation.

When Western citizens criticize China—or Asia, the Middle East or Africa for that matter—for human rights violations, these cultures are not being judged by their own perception of what human rights might mean. Instead, the West may be forcing its beliefs on those cultures.

In the West, human rights are based on the ideology of the self that emphasizes autonomy, but this is not relevant to a Confucian based society that stresses the primacy of community and the person’s obligation to others. Source: University of Illinois Press

And for the Islamic Middle East, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im says, “Shari’ah, which is the historical foundations of Islamic law, directly affects the millions of Muslims around the world. Because of its moral and religious authority, it has great influence on the status of human rights for Muslim countries.”

For example: Are human rights claims based on status as an individual human being or status as a member of some community or group of people? Because traditional cultures do not always view the individual as an autonomous being possessed of rights above society. Source: Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center

Also, world hunger and poverty influence the concept of human rights—that may be only a momentary luxury because of developed countries where citizens have time to debate human rights instead of worry where the next meal or drink of water will come from. It may be a challenge to want democracy and human rights when you are starving.

“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people, or one in eight people in the world, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing counties.” Source: World

If you were one of the hungry billion suffering from chronic undernourishment, would you be sitting around worrying about freedom of expression/religion, democracy [If you have never tasted democracy, how can you be expected to understand it?] and equal pay for men and women?

Discover Human Rights the Chinese Way


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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2 Responses to The Cultural Perception of Human Rights

  1. Chrystal L. Rutledge says:

    While the full significance of human rights may only be finally dawning on some people, the concept itself has a history spanning over two thousand years. The development of the concept of human rights is punctuated by the emergence and assimilation of various philosophical and moral ideals and appears to culminate, at least to our eyes, in the establishment of a highly complex set of legal and political documents and institutions, whose express purpose is the protection and promotion of the fundamental rights of all human beings everywhere. Few should underestimate the importance of this particular current of human history.

    • What you say is true but I think you missed the point of my post. What comes first in the priority of life?
      1. Food
      2. Water
      3. Security
      4. Shelter
      5. Family
      6. Choice of religion
      7. Protection from government
      8. Freedom of choice

      The concept of human rights that we see today in the world comes from civilizations that first achieved the first four in the list above. Before those can be achieved, the other four are not a priority. The concept of freedom as many in developed nations think of them is a luxury and most of these so-called freedoms are not what political correctness claims they are.

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