Are Human Rights Universal?
THE current preoccupation with human rights raises very serious political questions, the most serious of which is whether this new emphasis in American foreign policy signals a turning away from the Kissinger strategy of orderly retreat, or, on the contrary, serves as a smokescreen for the continuation (if not actually the acceleration) of that strategy. My purpose in what follows, however, is not to address myself to the political side of the human-rights campaign but to raise a question of a different order. When we make statements about human rights, are we simply giving voice to a specific set of biases of our own? Or is there some universally valid standard of morality to which we can appeal in making judgments about countries with different traditions from ours?
Some Americans are morally outraged by the repression and the bribery practiced by the government of South Korea. Other Americans tend to view these actions more benignly because of the putatively greater atrocities practiced by the regime in North Korea. However one may view the moral condition of the Korean peninsula, it seems to me rather clear that both varieties of American outrage sharply raise the question of ethnocentrism: by what right do we condemn Korean authorities, South or North, for not living up to American standards of political morality? After all, neither bribery nor the harsh treatment of political opponents is a startling innovation of Asian statecraft, and both liberal democracy and Marxism, the two ideologies in whose terms the respective Korean states stand either accused or legitimated, are very recent Western exports to that part of the world.
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