Are there moral absolutes when it comes to human rights?

I just read this beautiful article on Xu Wenli, imprisoned for 16 of the past 22 years because he believed it was his responsibility to fight for human rights in China.

Wenli’s crime was advocating for democracy in China.

He was jailed in 1981 and served 12 years in prison, most in solitary confinement, for publishing a newsletter and organizing a pro-democracy movement. After his release, he continued his political activity. In 1998, he was sentenced to 13 more years in prison for organizing a political party.

Last Christmas, Wenli was granted medical parole and given asylum in the United States. He and his wife came to Rhode Island to live with their daughter.

“It’s like going from hell to heaven,” Wenli, 60, said in Pawtucket, days after his release from prison.

On the one hand, Wenli’s release is celebrated as a victory in the struggle for human rights in China — a country that continues to punish political expression while ignoring the world community’s calls for reform.

But his release also exposes the cynical reality of the human-rights situation in China.

Wenli was released, many people believe, because the Chinese government wants to improve relations with the United States at a time when its economy continues to boom and the country readies to host the 2008 Olympics.

Wenli’s is an amazing story, involving self-sacrifice and a sense of justice that few of us could ever contemplate. And it makes me think about an argument I’ve been trying to come to grips with lately: that human rights in China should not be expected to mirror those of other nations, like the US. Even though they are improving (according to the argument, at least), it’s unrealistic to ever hold them to our own standards.

Is this argument a fair one? Are there no moral absolutes when it comes to human rights?

This is an intriguing argument I want to elaborate on in an upcoming article for another site. The main aspect of the argument I’m hearing is that what constitutes human rights to the people of China is different than what it would be to the people of the US.

And yet, here we have stories of Chinese people who know little of life outside China demanding certain standards of decency. And these are standards that, I believe, are all but universal. Just as man knows he should not kill, he knows he should not repress and imprison without just cause. To contend that it is otherwise in China is, I believe, insulting to the Chinese. And it lets the oppressors off the hook.

More on this later. It is just starting to incubate. (Anyone who can direct me to more source material on this argument, please let me know!)

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Try …

J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.

Roger Griffin’s Fascism.


Slavery by S. Engerman, S. Drescher and R. Paquette. (Truthfully, I’ve yet to find this copy in Taiwan. But it’s out of the Oxford Press so it should be as good as Griffin’s Fascism.)

Have a nice trip.

October 12, 2003 @ 8:18 pm | Comment

Books I had to read (or, uh, skim) in a comparative ethics class in 2001:

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre

Explorations in Global Ethics, Sumner Twiss and Bruce Grelle, eds.

Prospects for a Common Morality, Gene Outka and John Reeder, eds.

The Twiss/Grelle book is my favorite.

My personal belief is that there aren’t absolutes, but it’s equally silly to go the hardcore postmodernist route and argue that, therefore, all there is is relativism.

My own essay on the subject of right and wrong is here. The link might misbehave; in that case, DON’T hit the “back” button and try again; instead, find the link to the piece on my left margin under the title “Right and Wrong: A Nondualist Perspective.” Hit the link and you’ll zap directly to the essay.

Good luck, and as Michael said, have a nice trip.


October 13, 2003 @ 3:10 pm | Comment

Randall Peerenboom, law professor at UCLA, has recently published Beyond Universalism and Relativism: The Evolving Debates about ‘Values in Asia’ points, a 70 page discussion paper which covers the academic discourse of whether and what kind of human rights is applicable in “Asia”. His criticisms on various arguments are eloquent. In the end, he argues that the principles of human rights are universal. It is the specific implementations (i.e. privacy protection, etc.) that needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

October 13, 2003 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

Andrea, thanks for letting me know about this paper. It is just what I was looking for.

October 14, 2003 @ 9:49 am | Comment

My favourite counterargument for this piece of cultural relativism is you never hear Asian people exclaim, “We are Confucians! We respect authority! We don’t want no stinkin’ human rights!” Only their leaders (and Western businessmen who take on the burden of interpreting the cultures of the countries in which they invest) say that.

October 16, 2003 @ 10:06 am | Comment

But you know, David, some of the cheerleaders for China really seem to believe it. They really believe China can be excused for whatever brutalities it inflicts on its own people — brutalities which, if perpetrated by the US, they would be far more vocal about. The same people who can get worked into a veritable frenzy over the Plame-Wilson scandal (which upsets me as well) are willing to pass an oddly blind eye over China and dismiss it with the blithe excuse, “Oh, that’s their culture.” Go figure.

October 16, 2003 @ 12:24 pm | Comment

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