Human rights, Individualism, and tolerance

by | Jan 26, 2023 | 0 comments

                Human rights, Individualism, and tolerance

                                                   Huib Wursten, Author and consultant

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a period of intellectual and cultural movement in Europe that took place in the 18th century. It was characterized by a focus on reason, science, and individualism, and it was marked by a rejection of traditional authority and the embrace of new ideas and perspectives.

Many of the ideas and values promoted by the Enlightenment, such as democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights, continue to be central to contemporary debates about social justice and equality. The Enlightenment helped to lay the foundations for modern liberal democracies and for the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and these ideals are often cited in contemporary debates about social justice and equality.

The steps in the development of Human Rights

In an earlier paper ( Wursten.H.2021), identity was explored in the context of the development of Individualism as one of the four fundamental cultural dimensions discovered by Geert Hofstede: Individualism (Hofstede 2001)

Six defining steps were mentioned.

The first three, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation, are shown to emphasize the individual as a critical autonomous actor. Who, as a result, was encouraged to investigate the world independently and look critically at what worldly and religious authorities were saying.

The fourth step is described as the big turning point that came about during the time of disruptive ideas—roughly between 1850 and 1930. People like Freud showed that the unconscious had an enormous impact on so-called conscious and rational behavior. Einstein made concepts of reality even more questionable by the relativity theory. As a result, people turned their interest from objective realism to the way individuals are subjectively experiencing reality. The 5th step in the development of Individualism is the ‘legalization’ of independent thinking and the legitimate right for all to demand equal treatment. as formulated in the “Universal Declaration of Human rights.” Repressed individuals realized that their condition was associated with the specific minority group they belong to and identified with the identity struggle of (for example) women, people of color, LGBTQ. communities, etc. As “identity groups,” they started to claim their right to be seen and recognized. The 6th step is therefore, the focus on “diversity” and “inclusion” of all repressed minority groups and their right to express themselves. This paper analyzes the consequences of this focus on identity leading to the consequent “identity wars”..

Collectivism, empathy and universal rights

Collectivism is a political and social philosophy that emphasizes the importance of group identity and the collective good over the rights and interests of individual members. In collectivist societies, the needs and goals of the group are often prioritized over the needs and goals of the individual, and the group is expected to work together for the common good.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It is a crucial component of human relationships and is often seen as a key aspect of human morality and compassion. Empathy will be analyzed later in this paper.

Based on a shared competence foe empathy one can say that human Universal rights are rights that are inherent to all human beings and are not dependent on nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to education and employment; and the right to a fair trial, among others.

There can be tensions between collectivist and individualist perspectives on human rights. Some proponents of collectivism argue that the needs of the group should take precedence over the rights of the individual, while others argue that the rights of the individual should be protected even if they may conflict with the goals of the group. Empathy can play a role in mediating these tensions by helping individuals to understand and feel the emotions and experiences of others and to recognize the importance of respecting their rights.

Is the declaration of human rights a Western concept?

The idea of human rights is not unique to the Western world, and the concept has a long history in many different cultures and traditions around the world. The modern concept of human rights as we know it today, however, has largely been shaped by the Western philosophical tradition and the experiences of Western societies.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is often considered the cornerstone of modern human rights law, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR was influenced by a variety of sources, including the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the American Bill of Rights, as well as ideas and principles from other cultures and traditions around the world.

While the UDHR has been widely accepted and adopted as a global standard for human rights, it has also been criticized by some as being a product of Western values and as failing to fully reflect the diversity of cultures and traditions around the world.

Overall, it is important to emphasize that the concept of human rights is not exclusive to any one culture or tradition, and that the universal protection of human rights is an important goal for people of all cultures and backgrounds. At the same time, it is important to continue to dialogue and engage with different cultural and philosophical perspectives on human rights in order to ensure that the concept of human rights evolves and adapts to the changing needs and realities of the world.

Democracy, human rights, and rule of law

Democracy is a form of government in which the power to make and enforce laws is held by the people, either directly or through their elected representatives. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of democracy, which holds that all people are subject to the same laws and that those laws are enforced in a fair and impartial manner.

The rule of law is essential to the functioning of a democratic society, as it ensures that all members of society are treated equally and that the laws are applied fairly and consistently. It also helps to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, as it ensures that the laws are not arbitrary or discriminatory and that they are not used to oppress or exploit certain groups or individuals.

In a democratic society, the rule of law is upheld by an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances that ensure that no one, including the government, is above the law. It is also supported by a culture of respect for the rule of law, which requires all members of society, including individuals, businesses, and governments, to adhere to the laws and to respect the rights and freedoms of others.

Overall, democracy, Human rights and the rule of law are closely interconnected and rely on each other for their effectiveness. The rule of law helps to ensure that democracy is fair and just, while democracy provides a framework for the rule of law to operate effectively and protect the rights and freedoms of all members of society


However, it is also important to recognize that the Enlightenment was a product of its time and that it was shaped by the cultural, social, and political context of 18th century Europe. There have been criticisms of the Enlightenment for its role in the development of white supremacy and colonialism, and these criticisms continue to be relevant in contemporary debates about social justice and equality.

Overall, while the Enlightenment was a significant period in the development of modern Western thought and culture, it is important to recognize its limitations and biases and to consider how its ideas and values can be applied in the context of contemporary debates about social justice and equality.

Overall, open societies are characterized by a commitment to individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and they encourage the free exchange of ideas and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Human rights and tolerance

Jamal Greene, a constitutional law professor at Columbia Law School, argues that our conception of rights as absolutes drives us into all-or-nothing conflicts in which one side necessarily wins and the other loses. In a pluralist society in which rights often conflict, this conception fails to create room for compromise and is to blame for polarization”.

Rights should not be treated as absolute. Instead, rights may be restricted in the name of competing interests.  This approach, often described as “proportionality review,” could acknowledge competing values and strike an appropriate balance between them. or, better yet, call on political institutions to strike one. Greene prefers political to judicial resolutions of rights claims, and compromise to ringing endorsements or resounding rejections.

The central reason for making rights constitutional and assigning their protection to judges is in the first place. that in a democracy, the majority prevails, so leaving disputes over minority interests to politics could mean dooming many such interests altogether. Human rights is about protecting those who cannot protect themselves through the democratic process, such as the criminally accused, dissidents, and members of minority groups.

We should have safeguards when the majority seeks to entrench itself, cut off political avenues for change, or trample on the rights of minority groups.                                                                                                                                         By focusing on fundamental interests that are not well protected through majoritarian processes, we should protect democracy against the intolerant

Examples of safeguards are the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself are absolute, no matter how strong the state’s interests in punishing or investigating a particular crime.                                                But to give a counter example: “Freedom of speech.” is a fundamental right in a democracy. But speech can be prohibited if it is libelous, incites violence, constitutes a threat, or amounts to obscenity or child pornography                                                                                                                         The challenge is to identify and enforce specific categorical rules to govern certain types of situations, while the proportionality approach applies a more generic, all-things-considered balancing test.  Judges should pay attention to the facts of the parties’ dispute.”But without clear, principled guidance as to which facts are material and why, this is hardly an adequate method of adjudicating rights

There should be a commitment to insulate certain rights from the momentary impulses of the majority, and to provide reliable protection. The courts have a particular responsibility to protect minority groups and processes of democracy, largely by applying not an absolutist but a rules-based approach, is critically important to the system of justice. Reducing law to an injunction to pay attention to facts and mediate disputes through compromise risks both freeing judges to impose their own personal value judgments.

Tolerance and Multi-culturalism.

Example France:

France is a rule-based democracy. All citizens are supposed to be free and equal. But France is also a muti-cultural society with minorities that based on their religious value system have a problem with homosexuality and the equal position of women.

This led to a strong societal discussion between so called Universalists and Multi- Culturalists. The latter group wants that the values of the minority cultures should be taken into account even if they don’t accept the equal rights for women and gays. Enforcing human rights is marginalizing and excluding these minority groups, is the argument.

The need for Inclusion is the central dilemma.  A solution cannot take the shape of putting people in prison for not accepting the “Universal” values.

As solution could be to make a distinction between Norms and Values.

Values cannot and should not be enforced. Norms and borderlines for behavior are however in lawbooks. Trespasses can be enforced without theological discussions

A point of criticism is the so-called Receptor Method where the emphasis is on the receiving local cultural and social traditions. Too much attention for the local and culture and traditional social institutions to promote Human Rights can lead to too limited attention for victims of violations of the traditional cultural practices. The advice is to look for balance and measure.

Pressure on the Universalist nature of Human Rights

Several sources are recently waring that the Universalistic nature of human rights is in danger because of attempts to create alternatives.

1.Gandhi said that he learned from his mother that rights are preceded by obligations. Rights without obligations are not worth fighting for.

This attitude is shared by leaders from China and Eastern European countries. The emphasize is on collective values and duties. The criticism of these cultures is that the human rights are too much focusing on the rights of the Individual

2.Under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC; formerly the Organization of Islamic Conference), Muslim states revisited these concepts in the 1980s to draft their own instrument.

The culmination of such efforts was the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which presented a set of rights informed by conservative Islamic values and “Sharia,” or Islamic law. Within the instrument, the OIC laid out many of the rights in the UDHR, however, it neglected gender and non-Muslim rights. Not to mention, the organization co-opted the language of Sharia in the document to empower states and ensure national sovereignty. After its adoption, human rights activists in the West and some in the Muslim world claimed that the Cairo Declaration conflicted with the UDHR.

In the early 2010s, the OIC began revising the instrument and introduced the OIC Declaration on Human Rights (ODHR) almost a decade later. The document was scheduled to be approved at the organization’s Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting in April 2020. However, this was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the ODHR better reflects principles rooted in international human rights law, it falls short on issues related to family values, freedom of speech, and political participation

 3.China, is working on an alternative for the UN Universal Rights based on “the right of Development of States.” Centrally guided progress is given priority over individual rights of citizens

Professor Barbara Oomen says in an interview fort he Dutch paper NRC: We are worried about the development of parallel systems of Human Rights. The Universal Human Rights are meant as a bridge for all countries to keep talking to each other. If everybody is building their own bridge the conversation stops quickly

Tolerance as a universalist concept

Professor Gert Jan Hofstede once remarked that “tolerance” is also a universalist concept.

How universal is Universalist?

About the philosophical justification of Universal Rights is no consensus. Are they based on cultural practices? Or perhaps on Human Nature?

Recent Research has shown that on the level of what is common to all mankind morality predates religion. Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethologist found in his research on animals that this is not even limited to human beings. He found that morality is even shared by primates like Chimpanzees and Bonobos.

He found two basic pillars of morality:

Reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”- This relates to a sense of fairness and a sense of justice.

Empathy: The ability to understand and to share the feelings of others.” –  It is safe to say that, in general, humans everywhere share the ability to be empathetic.

This is important as this enables us all to enjoy music, books, paintings, and dance even from areas that are very remote from where we live and where we were raised.  In short, to understand each other worldwide.

In this sense we can conclude that tolerance is universalistic as it reflects empathy and reciprocity.


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