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Fathali M. Moghaddam “Towards a Cultural Theory of Human Rights”

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Moghaddam, Fathali M. 2000. Toward a Cultural Theory of Human Rights. Theory & Psychology 10(3): 291-312.

In the present discussion I focus specifically on what I shall refer to as ’normative rights’, defined as rights that are informal and unwritten, but legitimized by norms, rules, roles, and other aspects of the normative system of a culture. (292)

The most compelling explanation of the evolution of cooperative behavior in humans, I believe, is cultural. We need to account for at least two things. First, we must explain how cultures that encouraged cooperation survived, but those that encouraged non-cooperative behavior did not survive. Second, we must describe the mechanisms by which cooperative behavior is transmitted from generation to generation. (295)

Instead of reducing the unit of analysis from the individual organism to the gene, we make the unit of analysis the collectivity and concern ourselves with the normative system that allows social interactions to take place smoothly. (295)

Such ’primitive’ social relationships, defined as social relations that have to be present in order for even a rudimentary human society to exist, became integral to everyday practices of social life, as people in groups tackled the enormous practical challenges of caring for the young and esuring the survival of the community. (296-7)

Thus, certain primitive social relations became integral to all forms of life we recognize as human. However, the survival of given primitive social relations does not signify their representing ’progress’; only superior ability to survive and perpetuate themselves under given environmental conditions. (298)

My contention, then, is that over the course of hundreds of thousands of years certain social relations became integral to human social life and were interpreted as rights and/or duties according to local cultures. (299)

The attribution of meaning to social relations then allowed people to talk about ’rights’ and ’duties’ in the abstract, and to generalize to other domains of social life where such ideas might apply. (299)

At the start of the 21st century cultural transmission relies heavily on mass communications systems that do not require direct face-to-face interactions between sources and targets of messages (Thompson 1990). Cultural transmission can take place over enormous distances and through indirect means […] (304)

My contention here is not that small groups are more democratic or that rights were upheld to a greater degree in pre-modern communities. Of course even those who have face-to-face contact can mistreat one another, as evidenced in cases of husbands mistreating wives, parents mistreating children, slave owners mistreating slaves, and so on. Rather, I am postulating that with modernization there emerged new means by which the rights of very large numbers of people could be systematically violated by relatively small numbers of elites. This became possible particularly because of the more sophisticated and effective apparatus for centralizing power in modern societies. (308)

Elites could also organize society, particularly through the legitimization provided by scientists and experts, so that some groups of people came to be defined as not having rights. Slaves, the insane, women, ethnic groups and other minorities have at one time or other been in this situation. (308)

Thus, the articulation of rights in the form of black-letter law arose out of social relations in modern industrial societies, and was particularly influenced by the centralization of power in the hands of elites. The gulf between elites and non-elites and the enormous concentration of power in elite hands has been to some extent counter-balanced by the emergence of formal legal systems which act as protective mechanisms, just as rules of politeness and the like protect normative rights. (309)

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