A Philosophical Analysis: The Juxtaposition Between Culture and Women’s Rights
“…Tolerance and justice are not abstract concepts but expressions of culture in practice. It follows that each society will express the values of tolerance and justice in a different way: for example, systems of administering justice differ very widely. But that does not mean the values themselves are incompatible from one society to another."
—Dr. Nafis Sadik, former UNFPA Executive Director
Human rights and morality are inseparable. Although the birth of universal human rights only developed relatively recently, global citizens swiftly assembled to create what should be accredited as the most essential global moral agent, the United Nations. Gender equality is an obvious human right that is seemingly undermined. In reality, the equality of women’s rights will secure a path for global peace through elimination of linked political, economic, and social instability. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the chief bureaucratic body within the UN dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women. Each year, culturally diverse representatives of various nations collaborate to document effective measures to advance gender equality. The elimination of discrimination against women and girls—this year’s CSW theme—relies heavily on analyzing cultural traditions. It must be recognized that there are certain fundamental rights that every human must be assured that extend beyond any culture; yet understanding cultural practices is necessary to discovering practical solutions to advancing women’s rights.
When closely examining the universalist and relativist views on women’s rights, it may seem that culture is an underlying problem in many arguments. Do we need to change culture in order to eliminate discrimination, and therefore violence against women? Neither philosophers John Rawls nor Martha Nussbaum would take such an extreme position. They would both concur that culture itself is not immoral and that violence against women isn’t part of cultural tradition, but a brutality that sums up to be a moral crime. Yet, their approach to dealing with culture leads to separate analyses on how violence against women should be treated in comparison to CSW’s agreed conclusions of 2013. While Rawls argues that justice is not situation specific through a liberal contractual argument, Nussbaum offers a more all-encompassing perspective on Rawls’s universalism through thick and thin definitions of grounding experiences as well as a list of capabilities.
Inequality is inevitable in a realistic world model. Therefore, any person or organization should not make it a goal to eliminate things such as gender inequality. Rather, through eliminating violence against women to protect against degradation of women, fairness of opportunity can be attained. John Rawls makes such a dystopian argument in his written piece, A Theory of Justice and emphasizes that to “provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets” (Rawls 562). Parallel, Rawls would agree that women’s rights should be given more attention since such inequality leads to violence against women that deprives them of freely making choices, which in return does not give women equality of opportunity. He would commend the efforts of the CSW agreed conclusions for encouraging the right to education and “effective steps to ensure the equal participation of women and men in all spheres of political life” (United Nations 7). Resembling the CSW statement, the article A Theory of Justice advocates that greater resources should be spent on “education of the less rather than the more intelligent” (Rawls 562). Inequalities, for Rawls, don’t seem to stem out of corrupt cultural traditions but rather from an inherent competition between humans that resemble the Hobbesian state of nature. Therefore, gender equality should be promoted—in Rawls’s perspective—not by creating an equal society, but by women’s ability to gain equal access of resources in order to fairly compete with men.
For Rawls, universality is central for fairness to be upheld fully. If this is the case, the concept of culture as affecting the goal of ending discrimination against women and girls becomes irrelevant to the discussion since the rules of justice would apply to everyone, regardless of social, cultural, or economic background. Since CSW is part of the UN, it is apparent that universal human rights—specifically gender equality— are advocated. Comparably, Rawls describes a fair social contract in which the minimal amounts of rights are distributed to all people. The social contract is meant to provide for its citizens fair access of social primary goods—that resemble the structure of human rights— including liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and bases of self-respect. The agreed conclusions for CSW correspond to Rawls universalist and contractualist views since they believe that the “international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner” and that it is the duty of the States “to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (United Nations 3). Universality of fairness or of human rights is important in advancing gender equality. However, how effective is such a system that does not account of cultural boundaries? How can we account for local ethics without being merely relativist?
To protect political and social global stability, it is critical to understand the moral approaches to women’s rights. Nussbaum is able to indulge in both universal and relativist perspectives on culture that will help in understanding plausible solutions for female equality. In her essay, Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach, Nussbaum pushes Rawls argument farther by prescribing a name to Rawls’s argument on justice as needing to be universally applied; they are what she calls grounding experiences. These grounding experiences are universal and include basic resemblance to human rights. No matter a person’s culture, all humans have choices to make. These experiences are understood differently by each culture and have their own responses to each sphere of activity. Universal experiences get lost in translation by thin and thick definitions therefore causing miscommunication between nations. This can negatively affect the promotion of women’s rights and in understanding violence against women in different countries. The CSW’s agreed conclusions recognizes that “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind” before we can take the next step in developing a common ground based on grounding experiences (United Nations 3). Understanding actions, like violence against women, and acknowledging the tradition and geography of specific reasons can aid the search of solutions for gender equality. However, It must be clear that Nussbaum rejects cultural relativism because people can’t excuse cultural for immoral actions that need to be criticized. Furthermore, this criticism of immoral actions has to be executed though a “Kantian or utilitarian viewpoint, not through the Aristotelian approach” of local standards (Nussbaum 756).
Unlike Rawls potential solution to women’s rights through equality of opportunity, Nussbaum further elaborates on his point by establishing a list of capabilities in another article titled Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach—some include life, bodily health, practical reasoning, and most relevantly bodily integrity. These capabilities establish a “universal moral standard for assessing local ways of life” and contribute to Rawls’s theory of justice because “it identifies the primary goods available for just distribution and sets a threshold that must be reached by all citizens before any society can be considered just” (Jaggar 301). Only when such basic capabilities are distributed evenly each individual can equality of opportunity arise and women can flourish. Additionally, the list of capacities does not blame cultural habits for the inequality of women, but adequately pass the blame unto a lack of moral standards that she tries to repair through the capabilities. Just has Nussbaum creates a formula for moral standards, the CSW hopes to achieve similar goals in order to be a moral agent others can look to for guidance.
Although Rawls establishes a substantive view of justice as universal fairness, Martha- Nussbaum offers an increasingly expansive theory that accounts for culture’s role in promoting women’s rights. Both theories are of great value for advocating for humans rights to be obtained and appreciated. The Commission on the Status of Women combines a mixture of Rawls universalist approach as well as Nussbaum’s semi-relativist view to create an international moral agent that can hopefully aid nations in creating sound moral decisions that will lead to a world of peace.
Jaggar, Alison. “Reasoning About Well-Being: Nussbaum’s Methods of Justifying the Capabilities." Journal of Political Philosophy 14.3 (2006): 301-22. EBSCOhost. Web. 3 Mar. 19.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach.” Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Ed. Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 755-774. Print.
Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Ed. Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 551-572. Print.
United Nations. Economic and Social Council. 57th Sess. Commission on the Status of Women. The Elimination and Prevention of All Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls Agreed conclusions. 4 – 15 March 2013. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/CSW57_agreed_conclusions_advance_unedited_version_18_March_2013