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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 7: Multiculturalism, Universalism and the Claims of Democracy

10 Jul 2002

  • Author(s): Anne Phillips

Does democracy have a role in resolving the tensions between universalism and cultural relativism? In addressing this question, this new UNRISD programme paper argues that cultural relativism does not serve the cause of women.

It is accepted that cultural practices are best understood by those who engage in them. However, the social construction of preferences and aspirations can mean that those most oppressed by a particular practice become less able to recognize its inegalitarian character. Hence, a “hands-off” approach to cultural difference can end up capitulating to unjust social power. Principles of justice and equality are formed in particular historical contexts and often reflect the preoccupations of more powerful groups. They must be open to contestation, reformulation and change.

All must be involved in formulating principles and policies. In establishing which rights are inalienable and which practices are inimical to equality between women and men, the paper argues that it is not possible to rely on simple deduction from universal principles. Dialogue is necessary to counter the “substitutionism” that has allowed certain groups to act as spokespersons for the rest. But under-representation of women in forums in which these issues are addressed is alarming.

Ensuring more inclusive participation is therefore a major element in addressing the tensions between universalism and cultural relativism. However, the paper cautions against utopian expectations of achieving a fully inclusive democracy. It argues that “if societies were to recognize as legitimate only those conclusions that emerged from the full and equal participation of men and women, young and old, more and less powerful across the globe, they would be unable to recognize the legitimacy of any rights, for there would always be issues about whether those included in the discussion were genuinely representative.”

In conclusion, the paper argues for a “good enough democracy”, and concludes with a number of guiding principles that can help identify which practices are most indefensible or run counter to sexual equality concerns.

Anne Phillips is Professor of Gender Theory and Director of The Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, United Kingdom.

Order PPDGHR 7 from UNRISD (USD 8.00 for readers in industrialized countries and half price for developing and transition countries).