A central requirements of any normative political theory is that is defends toleration. However, by setting standards such theories also evaluate the merits of existing polities and cultures. This paper discusses the tensions between universal ethics and cultural diversity on the basis of two concrete policy documents: Our Creative Diversity (UNESCO) and the Bangkok Declaration, signed by a range of Asian governments. Central to the discussion is the debate about “Asian values” and the question of universal rights as contrary to Asian culture. A corollary to this question is whether global ethics draw upon fundamentally Western premises. Section 1 of the paper lays out a conception of Liberal Contractualism that does not regard individuals as fundamentally autonomous. The focus of section 2 is the grounds and scope of protection of culture, accounting for the normative significance of local cultural belonging. Section 3 briefly contrasts this theory with Will Kymlicka's account. Kymlicka's theory appears to rest on a controversial “Western” assumption that gives priority to individuals' interest in autonomy and personal choice of values and commitments. Section 4 considers Onora O'Neill's criticism against theories that focus on rights rather than on obligations.
A later version of this paper was published in C. Hughes and Y. Hudson (eds) Cultural Inregrity and World Community, 2000, Edwin Mellen Press.