At the very root of modern Western thought, both in the physical and social sciences, there is a problem, and it concerns the limits of reason. We believe that we live in an age in which logic and rationality are accepted as superior to blind faith, and consequently that reason not faith guides our actions. We reason our arguments, our scientists build their theories upon careful logic, while attendance at religious establishments is, for the most part, in great decline.

So then, what if I were to tell you, that even mathematics has its articles of faith, its gospel? Things that, like God once was, are held to be “self-evident”, but unprovable? You can check for yourself: mathematics is built upon a set of axioms, whose definition the OED provides as “a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”. And no matter how careful the logic, if the axiom from which it is derived is false, all subsequent reasoning may also be false.

While mathematicians are well aware of this (it is a whole field of research) in the social sciences it is often forgotten. In many ways a different culture is like a different set of axioms in mathematics – if you start with different “self-evident” beliefs, you arrive at different conclusions as to how a society should be run. Yet Western thinking in the social sciences is predicated around a set of “universal” human rights, the Enlightenment belief that one set of values, or axioms if you will, could be applied to everyone, everywhere.

It is interesting to trace the origin of this particular piece of Enlightenment thinking. If we are to look at society before this revolution in thought, we notice two things: the Church as a source of most of society’s values in Europe, and an acceptance that different people organised themselves in different ways. If today we have the Right to Life written into the European Charter for Human Rights as a fundamental axiom of society, the medieval source of this right was the Bible, and the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. And, when the Bible was not too clear on something, custom and tradition filled its place. Given the local nature of custom, and that is operated differently across the various levels of society, justice was based on who you were, and where you came from. And it was not only medieval Europe that was so organised – in the early Ottoman Empire you would be tried according to your beliefs – if you were a Christian and the dispute was within this community, then you would go to a specific court where a Christian would sit as judge.

With the Enlightenment, the organisation of society, and of justice, changed dramatically. From now on, one system of courts was applied to all. Those leading the movement wished to do away with the church as an integral part of the State, yet given how intertwined it was with justice and values, a replacement was needed. The solution was the creation of a source of values: the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789. Its wording leaves no doubt as to its universal nature, and this is no coincidence: the Church was held to be universal, thus the Déclaration was held to be equally so.

The problem though, and it was apparent to philosophers at the time, is that it was all a bit of a fudge – the values they used were not universal, they were those of Christian Europe’s intelligentsia. Neither did they have any greater objective legitimacy – if the Gospel and Church were held to be an authority based on their connection to God, Human Rights as penned by a philosopher claim their authority from a similarly nebulous source, society’s (and a small slice of it at that) perception of what is “self-evident”.

And so, the application of such rights to other societies, no matter how well intentioned, is a very tricky matter. Is it not an imposition of a set of beliefs, a sort of secular religion? Is it much different to the forced conversions of pagan societies long practised by European invaders?

And so the question: by what standards do we judge Russia, and its leaders? And should the West, when its values come into conflict with Russian ones, push for change in the latter’s? Because if the West is to do so, its only justification is that it find its values superior –  the same attitude that Kipling mocked in The White Man’s Burden (below article).

For now, the task is not to answer the questions, but to admit they exist. At some point Western thinking must confront the contradiction between the universality it claims for human rights, and its proclaimed embrace of cultural diversity and the implicit acceptance of other cultures’ beliefs and values that this entails. For it is a contradiction which globalisation, and the increasing contact between cultures, brings into ever greater relief.

Can we really apply Western Human Rights to Russia? And should we?