We often hear of incorporating cultural context in the debate of basic human rights. Let us look at this claim. The claim is that there are some cultural realities that should be respected before equal rights. For instance, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan talks about the family system and its economic and social utility and on the basis of it tries to build an argument against the western outlook of basic human rights.

In order to understand what we call the ‘western outlook of human rights,’ we need to go into its philosophical roots. One of the main notions of human rights particularly attributed to the Western world is liberty. Therefore, the concept is worthy of scrutiny. The main argument is that there are some basic rights associated with every human individual independent from its social context or any social identity such as male, female, Christian etc. This implies that philosophically a person does not derive their rights from society but they are inherently associated with them. 

The argument can be better understood if we familiarise ourselves with the hypothetical social contract of John Locke. The argument being that power stems from the individuals to the state. It is the individuals whose inherent rights are to be protected by the state. The state has no legitimacy if it fails to protect those rights. The question that arises in the corollary is that who would determine those rights. The answer once again is owed to the social contract of John Locke that in anarchy individuals have absolute freedom. The constraints on their freedom are needed because some people might infringe upon the freedom of others. In order to ensure that anyone’s freedom should not let them violate other’s freedom, the state happens to be a mediating force. The role of the state is thus to ensure that everyone enjoys their freedom without tapering down anyone else’s freedom.

This outlook of freedom is philosophically beyond any context like family system or tribe. This outlook gives us a normative perspective to comment on any structure even if it is family. Whilst having this philosophical outlook, a structure can be improved. An objection can be raised that hierarchy is a natural way to organise human beings therefore and how can we shy away from it while advocating individual liberty. 

Hierarchy does not have any inherent sanctity, individual rights have. Hierarchy may be a very important instrumental need of society. Therefore, it has to be justified every time on the basis of individual rights. The formation of hierarchy is to allow for the individuals to prosper in a society. State also brings hierarchy and it has to be justified on the basis of individual human liberties. The family system is another hierarchy that has a very fundamental instrumental function to be performed. Hence, its instrumentality can’t be denied but its functionality has to be based on the fundamentals of individual rights.

Even the strongest advocate of the family system won’t give the father, the traditional head of the family, a right to kill his son. This is mainly because the son has the basic right to life. Therefore, whenever it comes to rights argument would definitely boil down to an individual, be it a son in a family. The instrumentality of family by the strong advocates of the family system is implicitly on the basis of individual prosperity it offers. For example, parents make sure that they raise their children in such a way that they do not get harmed because children, till a certain age, can’t make decisions in their favour. Hence, the right amount of hierarchy and authority is needed for their own benefit.

We have established that rarely anyone can allow absolute rights to parents over their children. If it is commonsensical to define some limits of parental rights then the question that naturally arises is what is it that determines the boundaries of rights parents have over children. The answer lies in the rational choice theory that there are some fundamental needs that are common to every human being. Once again, these needs are universal in nature and a family system can effectively provide for them.

In summary, hierarchies are instrumental whereas individual human rights are inherent and universal. Hierarchies can be suited to context but the social context can’t undermine the fundamental human rights of any individual. The debate that is not fully dealt in this essay is that how does rational choice determine the basic individual rights of an individual. Nonetheless, the issue that has been made clear in this essay is that there are some inherent rights of every individual that precede the instrumentality of every hierarchy. 

Haider teaches Political Philosophy and International Relations at UMT. He is interested in the theoretical roots of oppression and exploring historical and sociological structures in our society. He tweets at @SYEDMUHAMMADHA6.


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