ARENA Working Papers
WP 99/20



Global Ethics and Respect for Culture*

Andreas F�llesdal
ARENA, University of Oslo

Issues and Dilemmas

A plausible normative political theory must both explain the value of existing cultures, and defend toleration within limits set by such standards as human rights. Consider two recent statements highlighting this tension: Our Creative Diversity and the Bangkok Declaration.

Development, addresses how to meet cultural needs in the context of development. The report stands in need of a normative political theory addressing the scope of toleration, evident by considering several norms endorsed in the document: domestic democracy and fight for equal status of women, and respect for existing majority and minority cultures. The report was intended as a contribution to an ongoing debate, and therefore leaves important dilemmas unresolved.

The debate about "Asian values" is about whether universal rights are contrary to Asian culture (Bauer and Bell 1998). The Bangkok Declaration, signed by several Asian governments, holds that human rights do not apply in the same way everywhere, but

... must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Political rights, the protection of minorities' cultures, and concern for the equal status of women, to mention only three important issues, require deep structural changes to social arenas. These documents therefore pose important questions about the normative value of existing cultures and the plausibility of universal rights.

A further central issue is whether such justifications are suitable as a basis for "global ethics", or whether they rely on objectionably "Western" premises. The UNESCO report may be criticized on two counts in this regard. Firstly, it regards development as a process that enhances the effective freedom of the people involved to pursue whatever they have reason to value. However, non-Western philosophies and worldviews may find this basis problematic, since it focuses on individuals' capacities for autonomous choice. A second point of concern is whether the focus on rights rather than duties is incompatible with non-Western conceptions of the relationship between the individual and society.

These challenges are of political relevance both to non-Western states accused of human rights violations, and to Western states seeking appropriate policies in response to multiculturalism.

A normative theory of the cultural rights of minorities should aid in the resolution of such issues. 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. Such an account must be defended against several kinds of criticisms. 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.

If this account is accepted, it provides a normative basis for UNESCO's report. The normative theory suggests how further debates regarding democracy, human rights and culture may fruitfully proceed, without aiming to replace such debates. Nevertheless, three friendly amendments to the report emerge:

- The value of culture need not be based on a conception of persons as autonomous agents.

- Culture and belonging may be valued without insisting that all must value pluralism, or holding that all losses of cultural diversity must be regretted.

- The report's endorsement of corporatist arrangements requires further attention.

1 Liberal Contractualism

The contractualist normative tradition includes the writers John Rawls (1971; 1993), Brian Barry (1995), and T. M. Scanlon (1982; 1998). The account developed here, which I shall refer to as Liberal Contractualism, addresses the conditions under which citizens have reason to accept institutions and cultures as normatively legitimate and hence binding on their conduct..

On this view, institutions are legitimate only if they can be justified by arguments in the form of a social contract of a particular kind. The underlying intuition is a contractualist interpretation of equal respect, which entails that all individuals must be served by the social institutions.

Contractualism thus assumes normative individualism: the ultimate grounds for all arguments are the interests of the individuals affected by the rules under consideration. Every individual's interests must be secured and furthered by the social institutions as a whole (Dworkin 1978). Of course, relevant interests may include individuals' interests in social activities, involving the cooperation of others. Among the interests recognized in this tradition are peace, stable institutions, satisfaction of basic needs, and fair shares of goods and powers.

The Role of Consent

The commitment to equal respect is honed by the notion of possible consent. The reference to hypothetical consent may give rise to the suspicion that individuals are regarded as atomistic, only bound by duties they have voluntarily taken on. This is a mistake.

We have a moral duty to obey the laws of the land, even in the absence of any consent on our part, as long as the laws satisfy the appropriate standards of normative legitimacy. And we have many duties to others that hold in the absence of our consent. Thus actual, tacit or hypothetical consent is not the source of moral obligation to comply. Instead, hypothetical consent is an expression of one important condition for such duties: Obedience is required only when the institutions are in accordance with principles of legitimacy. Our moral obligation to obey the law of the land is justified, then, in part by the claim that this social order could have been the subject of consent among all affected parties. Appeals to consent thus serve to recognize legitimate authority. The role of contractualist theory is partly to delineate the limits to such duties that hold regardless of actual consent. They include what John Rawls' theory of Justice as Fairness calls the 'natural duty of justice', "to support and to comply with just institutions that exist and apply to us" (Rawls 1971: 115).

Acknowledges Pluralism

Most states contain a variety of religious views and cultural minorities. Members of these groups hold partially incompatible views about the good life. Across states, this value pluralism is even more extensive. Such disagreements about conceptions of the good increase the need for political theory, to reduce the fear of illegitimate use of state power. However, the disagreements also reduce the scope of arguments that can be offered and accepted among citizens. The use of force in establishing and maintaining social institutions among individuals with different practices and beliefs requires a justification that does not depend on adopting one particular religious framework or a particular conception of the good life (Nagel 1987).

Many worldviews may regard most other conceptions of humans and the good life as fundamentally mistaken, yet are committed to accepting them as worthy of respect. This attitude may for instance be due to the view that social institutions should not privilege one's own view over these others. However, this mode of toleration does not regard diversity as something positive. Rejoicing in diversity may therefore be more than what is needed for stable institutions -- respect may suffice.

The Interest in Political Control

For the purpose of justifying social practices and institutions, we must consider which interests can reasonably be considered as relevant. Given the pluralism of conceptions of the good, there will be disagreement about the absolute and relative importance of various interests we have. Liberal Contractualism is therefore led to focus on a limited set of interests and goods. They include a) goods required for survival, such as foodstuffs and public health measures -- as well as money, for instance, in societies where all food is sold in markets. b) "Strategic goods" -- that is, all-purpose means necessary for a broad range of life plans: Income and wealth, social positions, and educational opportunities. c) Political power to regulate practices and social institutions. The last of these require particular attention for our purposes. To avoid criticisms of undue "Western" premises, it is necessary to explain how liberal contractualism supports political rights while assuming that the good life for individuals is one of self-legislation or autonomy.

The reason for valuing political power is that social institutions are under political control, and that these institutions are of paramount importance. They shape our options and self-perceptions with pervasive effects on our expectations and our life prospects. For purposes of arguments about the proper allocation of authority over social institutions, it seems correct to hold that individuals have an equal interest in such political control. The concern is not to secure self-governance, but rather to avoid domination by others (see Pettit 1997). Liberal Contractualism acknowledges at least two reasons for democracy. To understand the problems with corporatism, which Our Creative Diversity endorses, it is helpful to consider these reasons.

The equal dignity of all can be best safeguarded when those subject to institutions also have say in how that force is to be used. Democratic arrangements, including majority rule among all affected parties, carefully circumscribed, is the best flawed institutional arrangement for avoiding domination and for securing the equal worth and respect of all affected parties.

Firstly, democratic arrangements allow for interest formation. Through free political discourse in a variety of associations, citizens affirm their common commitment to equal worth and respect. Thereby their sense of justice affects their political agenda, their preferences and conceptions of the good (Macedo 1995, Bohman and Rehg 1997).

Secondly, democracy provides for acceptable interest aggregation. Citizens cast informed votes for representatives, who in turn can set the agenda and decide by majoritarian procedures. This power of citizens to 'throw rascals out' serves as an important check on the abuse of power. For instance, we know of no sudden famines occurring in democracies (Sen and Dreze 1990). These arguments for democracy thus must rest on empirical premises, but they do not rest on views about the good life as one of self-legislation.

A narrow focus on the mechanisms for interest aggregation misses the significance of preference and option formation, the importance of defining the problems, and the role of bargaining within the democratic procedures. These features explain why contractualism is more concerned about the proper limits to corporatism than the UNESCO Commission appears to be.

Corporatism is a system of representation of organized interests, often involving labor unions, capital owners and government. The state grants some of these organized units a privileged role in defining the political agenda and in identifying legislative and policy solutions. Corporatist agreements thus shape the formal parliamentary debate (cf. Dahl 1956, Schmitter 1974; 1979: 13). From the point of view of arguments about the allocation of political power, it is by no means clear that such permanent representation of organized interests is always an improvement. What matters is whether such arrangements secure the interests of all affected parties better than alternative systems. The political agenda is easily skewed to the disadvantage of those whose interests are not represented. Furthermore, the lack of transparency and accountability associated with corporatism pose greater risks than more democratic arrangements.

2 The Interest in Culture 

The UNESCO report recognizes that individualsndividuals have a strong interest in culture and in protecting one's culture against rapid change. Some authors hold that minority rights regarding culture and religious practices should be institutionalized as universal human rights.

Only if collective ethnic minority rights are recognized as such, and specifically as human rights, can such communities survive in environments which are often hostile to their very existence and survival.

Stavenhagen 1996: 142-43.

Yet the presumption in favor of maintaining cultures must sometimes be set aside, for instance to end oppression or secure just development. Responsible resolution of such dilemmas may be guided by a contractualist account of the value of culture, of what is at stake for people who share culture (cf. Follesdal 1996).

Culture as Social Practices

We must get some better sense of what 'culture' means. Our Creative Diversity talks of culture as "ways of living together", as "patterns of daily behaviour". Culture "shapes all our thinking, imagining and behaviour", and "cultural factors shape the way in which societies conceive their own futures and choose the means to attain these futures." Moreover, "culture gives meaning to our existence".

Without seeking more precision than is needed for our purposes, let us consider culture to be practices, that is: rule-regulated patterns of behavior. We may talk of a social practice existing when people conduct themselves in accordance with public rules, be they rules of etiquette or law. These rules are public, and shape our actions. When we decide how to act, the existence of practices enable us to predict the actions of others. This account seems to fit well with the role of culture often recognized by political theorist: of providing a structure “within which individuals form and revise their aims and ambitions” (Kymlicka 1989).

Interest in Forecasting the Future

Intuitively, changes in culture pose a challenge to coherence and continuity. Among the interests individuals have is the ability to forecast correctly about their own future, including likely options, attainments and needs. Changes in values, norms, institutions, history and language cause new opportunities appear, while others disappear. Culture understood as practice plays an important role in facilitating such forecasts about others' behavior. However, awareness of the rules governing social practices aid in prediction only the rules will be followed in the future. If cultures change, forecasts and expectations are thwarted. Cultural changes should therefore not be too abrupt. On this basis, I submit that members of a culture have an interest in having their expectations met, and a claim to be able to revise their plans as options and consequences change.

Claim to Control Cultural Change

Individuals form expectations on the basis of the cultures they are part of. These expectations are prone to influence by social institutions. It does not seem that the interest in having expectations met supports a claim to maintain cultures unchanged. Still, this interest may justify claims to be able to affect the changes that take place in social institutions, perhaps concerning both the speed and mode of changes. Moreover, our interest in forecasting supports claims to be informed about changes, and to participate in the adaptation of one's culture. This is because information and participation reduces the risk of false expectations. These claims are based on our interest in forecasting, and do not rest on the view that individuals value the ability to continually change their plans and values independently of others.

This role of cultural membership grounds claims based on the interest of members to influence the institutional causes of cultural change. Members of traditional ethnic national groups, as well as other minorities, often suffer from lack of resources and authority to develop their culture to cope with and exploit new modes of life. Members of the majority culture, on the other hand, often have the power to cause drastic changes in both majority and minority ways of life. Given these threats to minorities, it seems plausible to insist that they should have the means to affect, if not control, the development of their culture insofar as this is possible. This interest in controlling cultural change supports claims to some institutional powers, namely those that facilitate the maintenance and development of one's culture.

This account may aid in the resolution of some conflicts between culture and fundamental needs. The main concern is to maintain expectations. However, other interests may clearly be of greater weight, particularly the interest in satisfying basic needs. Thus insofar as there are conflicts between maintaining cultural practices and survival, both long term and short term, contractualism will tend to favor the latter. Thus human rights and development needed for securing basic needs may require cultural change. The interest in culture does not prevent such changes, but supports claims about how such changes should be brought about. Participation by those who share the culture seems important to ensure that expectations are adjusted and respected as much as possible. This is consistent with the view that the environment, certain forms of development, and human needs are of paramount importance.

Claims to Cultural Rights

A theory of cultural rights should shed light on claims to rights, and to human rights. This account of the significance of culture supports some rights concerning culture. Such rights may include legal immunities, material means, cultural support, or legal powers of political autonomy. However, it is not obvious that human rights are at stake. We need to understand the appropriate connections between individuals' interests and sound claims to rights, including human rights. The following comments indicate what kind of arguments may be required.

- Rights may provide a necessary threshold of legal protections. Legal immunities may enable members of minority cultures to explore, share and convey their culture to each other.

- Rights may also protect a culture from unacceptable outside interference. For instance, minority representation in political bodies may prevent unforeseen damages and conflicts.

- Transparency regarding the use of government discretion is often important. Valuable legal protections may include a stated policy regarding minority treatment, or impact statements to discover harmful effects of policies on minorities' culture. Such obligations provide domestic minorities with leverage against governmental abuses. International audiences can reduce the risks even further.

Three aspects are relevant for the discussion regarding culture and toleration.

Even though cultural membership is of value, and individuals have an interest in controlling cultural change, it is not clear that institutions must ensure equal cultural contexts for all citizens. Equal capabilities or opportunities of this kind are extremely difficult to measure, and the grounds for such claims are unclear.

Secondly, the argument laid out does not show that these rights protecting minority cultures should be regarded as human rights. Let us provisionally use the concept 'human rights' to include certain legal norms within the UN and regional organizations. Human rights may be regarded as universal conditions on the legitimate allocation and exercise of sovereignty within and across borders (Follesdal 1995). Consider the situation in the Netherlands, where there are minority cultures, but no easily identifiable majority. There, minorities do not face the risk of being assimilated into one dominant culture, while they face other risks under the Dutch consociational mode of government (Lijphart 1995). Thus, it is not clear that the same rights are appropriate everywhere.

Consider the consociational system of government. It is characterized by insulated groups enjoying cultural autonomy for instance in the area of language, religion or education by virtue of certain immunities against majorities at large. Coalitions of elites representing these groups decide by unanimity, in effect granting each of these groups veto power. The groups are also represented in major institutions and the civil service. Such systems of group rights serve to protect the culture of each group.

However, several problems arise, somewhat reminiscent of corporatism. The arrangement embeds the founding minorities, to the possible detriment of later groups that will also need protection of their culture. The system grants the elites of the privileged minorities power of agenda setting and veto, without clear limits concerning the issue areas. There is therefore a real risk that the elites may abuse these powers, intentionally or not.

These comments suggest caution concerning whether minority cultural rights should be regarded as human rights. The need for, and kind of, institutional safeguards may differ drastically among minorities in different states. This is not to deny that such rights may be required by liberal contractualism, but that universal requirements applicable to all states seem inappropriate.

3 Kymlicka: Culture provides Choice Structure

Several authors suggest that we must acknowledge an interest in maintaining one's own culture, most prominently perhaps Will Kymlicka. They are also concerned with the great impact of social institutions on individuals' opportunities to develop and maintain a comprehensive worldview, and on the conditions facing majority and minority cultures regarding survival and change. The following brief discussion of Kymlicka's view is not intended to indicate differences in conclusions. Rather, it seeks to show that Kymlicka's account rests on a conception of individuals which is susceptible to criticism as unduly "Western".

Will Kymlicka argues that cultural membership is valuable as a precondition. Cultural membership provides the necessary structure for individuals' meaningful pursuit of their various conceptions of the good life:

it's only through having a rich and secure cultural structure that people can become aware, in a vivid way, of the options available to them, and intelligently examine their value. (Kymlicka 1989: 165; and see 1995 ch. 5.)

Cultural membership helps the individual identify available options for choice. Membership in a culture make options appear valuable by indicating possible patterns and unity among options, thus making one's plan of life appear worth carrying out and providing grounds for self respect (cf. Tomasi 1995: 584 and Buchanan 1991: 53-54 for friendly developments of this argument). Kymlicka sees this account as compatible with a liberalism "grounded in a commitment to freedom of choice and (one form of) personal autonomy" (Kymlicka 1995: 7). What liberalism has overlooked, he claims, is the need for cultural membership to allow individual choice.

This need for culture may support three different kinds of claims to rights to ensure individuals' ability to regard their lives as meaningful and structured. Some groups may need rights of self-government, other groups may require "Polyethnic rights" to support and immunity, and some groups may require "Special representation rights" granting them guaranteed seats within the central institutions. He argues that national groups should be able to maintain their culture over time, if they so desire. "This ensures that the good of cultural membership is equally protected for the members of all national groups" (1995: 113).

Kymlicka's valuable contributions to these complex issues should not be underestimated. In this context, my concern is only to identify two issues where the two approaches differ.

Kymlicka explicitly grounds the constitutive value of culture on a liberal ideal of the autonomous individual. One might, following Rawls' definition, hold that Kymlicka thus provides another sectarian doctrine, that of "comprehensive liberalism" (Rawls 1987: 6 and 24, cited in Kymlicka 1995: 164). The implications of this observation go beyond the scope of this paper, though Kymlicka's arguments might be reconstructed so as to avoid this premise. For the project pursued by the UNESCO Commission of developing a "Global Ethics", Kymlicka's premise may render that theory less attractive than the contractualist theory sketched above.

The second difference between the two theories is the support offered to groups seeking to maintain their culture unchanged. Recall that contractualism does not justify such claims, instead arguing for the interest in controlling such cultural changes. As mentioned, Kymlicka, on the other hand, argues that national groups should be enabled to maintain their culture if they want. The reasons for this stronger claim are not clear. The interest in participation in a community for the sake of securing a context of choice does not ground a claim to maintaining a particular community, nor a claim to the resources needed to preserve a culture indefinitely without change (cf. Buchanan 1991: 55; Tomasi 1995: 594). The culture may change, and individuals may successfully shift cultural affiliations, without endangering their ability to regard their lives as meaningful and structured. So the character of a culture may change, without threatening extinction neither of the culture nor of the meaning of individuals' life plans (Kymlicka 1989: 167). Indeed, on Kymlicka's view the constitutive interest in culture allows drastic changes in culture brought about by government or others, as long as the individuals face "no danger to their ability to examine the options that their cultural structure had made meaningful to them" (Kymlicka 1989: 167). Thus, the right to maintain national cultures that Kymlicka seeks to justify must be bolstered by other arguments not easily apparent in the texts.

4 O'Neill: Critical of Rights

In several influential books Onora O'Neill has developed an account of justice and other aspects of ethics, with particular attention to issues of global justice (1986 and 1996). She has warned against focussing on rights rather than obligations, and some of her objections would appear to apply to the present defence of rights concerning culture.

By way of introduction, two differences between O'Neill's approach and this version of liberal contractualism seem worth mentioning. Like Kymlicka, O'Neill's account draws on a conception of an autonomous person, whose central characteristic is the "the actual capacities and capabilities for action" (1986: 167). The account of liberal contractualism sketched here, on the other hand, avoids such assumptions. The relevant interests include the satisfaction of basic needs required for survival, regardless of the individual considered as an agent. Interest in democratic control, likewise, is not justified by an ideal of self-governance, but rather based on arguments that alternative allocations of such controls threaten individuals' important interests.

Secondly, O'Neill appears to hold that normative theories are of two kinds: they either regard obligations or rights as fundamental. Her view is that obligation, rather than rights, should be the fundamental notion in moral arguments (1996: 4-5, 127-9, 140). In contrast, liberal contractualism presents a third option, starting neither with rights nor obligations. It focuses on the rules of practices and institutions, which in turn specify both rights and obligations. Arguments regarding such rules are based not on rights or duties, but on appeals to individuals' interests. No appeal is made to natural or self-evident rights. Instead, arguments are of the form that certain institutional allocations of powers and controls are required to secure individuals' interests against threats in a system of states.

These differences notwithstanding, since liberal contractualism as sketched defends certain rights and human rights, it is appropriate to consider whether this approach can stand up to O'Neill's objections to the emphasis on rights.

Rights Ignore Needs

Many rights-theories are said to overlook need, and thus have difficulty determining obligations towards those with unmet needs (O'Neill, 1986: 142, 161). Rights-based theories instead only recognise universal obligations of respecting liberty owed to all others. An obligation to provide food to strangers, for instance, can at best have a subordinate status (1986: 101-03). If this criticism applies to liberal contractualism, social and economic human rights may not stand well defended.

In response, I suggest that while O'Neill's description might hold for some libertarian views, accounts such as liberal contractualism explicitly include certain basic needs as grounds for claims on social institutions. Human rights are safeguards vis-�-vis institutions, to ensure the satisfaction of important interests. These institutional protections may include access to food, which places obligations on governments to ensure fair agricultural and income substitution policies (Alston and Quinn 1987). The content of rights may thus include "positive" obligations, even including obligations of international assistance (see Follesdal 1991). Similarly, rights concerning culture may require transfers and assistance by governments, if minorities must have such support in order to control cultural change.

Rights Ignore Institutions

Contractualist arguments might be criticised because such arguments cannot address institutions (O'Neill 1986: 119). Her argument is complex: Since institutions and collectivities are not rational choosers, arguments based on the outcome of choice -- hypothetical or otherwise -- cannot apply to the actions of organisations and groups.

Again, this criticism does not apply to the liberal contractualism sketched here. The subject of deliberation is precisely the rules of institutions, practices and regimes. Normative theory is relevant for such rules because rules are under some control by agents, and because they have drastic effects on individuals' interests. The role of hypothetical choice within this kind of contractualist argument, as indicated above, is best regarded as a shorthand for appeals to individuals' interests. No assumption is made that institutions per se choose, or that all practices are chosen.

Rights Fail to Place Responsibility

O'Neill seems to hold that the focus on rights leaves obligations dangling in the air (1996: 134). Her main concern is that only liberty rights have clearly specified duty-bearers, while

Without institutions, supposed universal rights to goods or services are radically incomplete. ... Whereas liberty rights and their corresponding universal obligations fall on all if on any, universal rights to goods and services can only be realised by establishing one of many differing possible sets of burdensome special relationships. ... All that could be known in advance is that, should a (just) scheme be devised, somebody or other will need to bear yet-to-be specified obligations (1996: 133-34).

O'Neill laments this lack of specificity on two grounds. Starting with obligations would make one more realistic and honest about burdens. Secondly, the lack of focus inherent in rights-based theories diffuses the motivation to respond to needs, while obligation-bearers will be motivated to construct institutions (1996: 135).

In response, we can agree with O'Neill that unless precise obligations are firmly placed on individuals and institutions, rights talk becomes a sham. If "it is not clear where claims should be lodged, appeals to supposed universal rights to goods and services, including welfare, are mainly rhetoric, which proclaim "manifesto" rights against unspecified others" (1996: 132). However, this lack of precision is neither avoidable nor regrettable, given the limited aspirations of normative political theory. Contractualist moral theory aspires to put some constraints on what kinds of world individuals should acquiesce in, without even seeking to generate a blueprint of the ideal world order. Indeed, this is a view shared by O'Neill (1986: 48 and 1996:182).

The practical aim of normative theory is not to provide a complete description of the best institutional arrangements, but to resolve conflicts among considered judgments, and clarify our views on areas where more determinate answers are needed. We may note that O'Neill's preferred alternative, to focus on obligations, likewise seems to underdetermine the precise content of agents' obligations. Often all that can be done by normative theory is to identify some social worlds as out of bounds, as unjust or immoral. Since the aim of the normative theory is not to provide or fully determine the content of the ideal world, but to settle conflicts and dilemmas, no more specificity may be needed. Several different rules or practices may be equally unobjectionable from the moral point of view, permitted or preferred to a range of alternatives. It seems appropriate to regard the selection and implementation of one such permissible arrangement as an important task of democratic governments.

sRights Fail to Motivate Actual Agents

O'Neill once feared that a focus on rights perpetuates a self-conception of holders of rights as passive claimants rather than active citizens (1986: 117, 131). She now acknowledges that rights can also galvanise the rights-holders (1996: 119, 133). The crucial issue is whether the 'rhetoric of rights' will mobilise those with power to affect institutional change. I submit that even those in power may be reached by a focus on rights abuses. The mobilising effects of human rights in Poland, South Africa and India suggest that rights talk may stimulate organisations and activism by the oppressed. Their protests force those in power to invest more attention and effort to these issues. Protests are sometimes required when those in power are not moved by a diffuse sense of obligation. Likewise, rights to development and to control cultural change can mobilise those whose interests are trampled upon. Such rights provide the oppressed with concepts, arguments and international attention to influence the powers that be (Chayes and Chayes 1995).

5 Conclusions

Liberal contractualism may provide the UNESCO report on Our Creative Diversity with the political theory needed to account for the value of culture without succumbing to unrestrained toleration, while minimizing the dependence on objectionable "Western" values. Contractualism may thus aid the further development and resolution of the issues identified in the report.

Nevertheless, there are at least three issues where liberal contractualism is somewhat at odds with the report, requiring further attention.

The Commission offers conceptions of culture and development that appear to be based on the value of individuals' effective freedom to pursue whatever they have reason to value. The present account would suggest that culture, as well as development, may be justified without appealing to a conception of persons centrally interested in autonomy.

The understanding of why culture is of value appears to require further reflection, possibly along the lines sketched above. For instance, the report gives the impression that all reductions in cultural diversity are to be regretted, including the extinction of languages. But to hold that maintenance of languages is a cultural right on a par with human rights seems unwarranted, at least according to the account of culture offered above. Furthermore, the report holds that one should not only tolerate and respect the plurality of cultures, but also rejoice in it. However, it is unclear that such a positive attitude is required, or needed, for the sake of toleration and stability.

The third point concerns the endorsement of corporatist modes of decision making. The report fails to give due attention to the strengths and weaknesses of such models of governance - which may be regarded as a mode of group representation. This lack of attention to possible, and avoidable, risks may be due to the apparently plausible view that group interests should be given influence. The report lauds the tripartite representation in ILO of governments, management and labor. However, the report does not address the standard concerns about corporatist governance, particularly as it is applied to issues beyond the workplace. Placing political power with organized interests may violate democratic ideals. However, which interests should count, and how they should be secured, remain important issues for further reflection.

Our interest in culture is important, yet it is only one of several interest which sometimes conflict. Rights can be justified on the basis of culture, but such claims require careful attention to the kind of powers and immunities that are appropriate, to ensure that the social institutions secure all important interests of all affected parties.


* This paper was written under the auspices of ARENA - Advanced Research on the Europeanisation of the Nation-State, a program funded by the Research Council of Norway. I am grateful for fruitful comments and incisive criticism from participants at a workshop at the Center for Environment and Development (SUM) at the University of Oslo, from the audience at the Fifteenth International Social Philosophy Conference at North Adams, MA, and from Jonathan Bach.


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[Date of publication in the ARENA Working Paper series: 15.08.1999]