Reconciling international human rights and cultural relativism: the case of female circumcision

Bioethics. 1994 Jan;8(1):1-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.1994.tb00239.x.


How can we reconcile, in a non-ethnocentric fashion, the enforcement of international, universal human rights standards with the protection of cultural diversity? Examining this question, taking the controversy over female circumcision as a case study, this article will try to bridge the gap between the traditional anthropological view that human rights are non-existent -- or completely relativised to particular cultures -- and the view of Western naturalistic philosophers (including Lockeian philosophers in the natural rights tradition, and Aquinas and neo-Thomists in the natural law tradition) that they are universal -- simply derived from a basic human nature we all share. After briefly defending a universalist conception of human rights, the article will provide a critique of female circumcision as a human rights violation by three principal means: by an internal critique of the practice using the condoning cultures' own functionalist criteria; by identifying supra-national norms the cultures subscribe to which conflict with the practice; and by the identification of traditional and novel values in the cultures, conducive to those norms. Through this analysis, it will be seen that cultural survival, diversity and flourishing need not be incompatible with upholding international, universal human rights standards.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Child
  • Circumcision, Male*
  • Coercion
  • Cultural Diversity*
  • Developing Countries
  • Ethical Relativism*
  • Ethics*
  • Female
  • Freedom
  • General Surgery
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • International Cooperation*
  • Internationality*
  • Islam
  • Middle East
  • Morals
  • Pain
  • Parental Consent
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Philosophy
  • Prejudice
  • Professional Misconduct*
  • Sexuality
  • Social Values*
  • Third-Party Consent
  • Torture
  • Women's Health*
  • Women's Rights
  • Women*