Mon, 25 Apr 1994 13:48:00 PDT

In reply to Silveman:

" Thus, my request, he implies, is silly."

I did not say it was "silly"--far from it. I disputed the assumptions
necessary for the question. I took the question as thoughtful and

"I find Read's claim to be intellectually lazy. it is a
complex issue."

The relationship between scientici discourse and moral discourse is a complex
one; e.g., to what extent can or should results obtained from scientific
discourse be used to challenge morally held positions? However, the
question that Silverman posed had to do with wanting concordance between
cultural relativism and moral decisions, which is another matter entirely. I
claim no expertise on moral issues, so my silence on that topic stems not
from being "intellectually lazy" but defering to others who are better
situated to discusss moral issues.

" To write, furthermore, that "morality is a cultural invention and, for the
purpose of scientific discourse, has no extrinsic reality" is also a bit too
quick and slippery. What, may I ask, in the human experience is _not_ a
"cultural invention." "

Let's see. At night you get tired and you go to sleep. Is that not a part
of human experience--but is it a "cultural invention?"
Unquestionably science is a cultural invention. But that has nothing to do
with a scientific discourse which rejects out of hand that
which is KNOWN solely to be a cultural construction as a basis for its
discourse. I am of the persuasion that morality only exists as a human
construction; obviously there others of a different persuasion. I cannot
"prove" my position, but if one accepts that morality IS solely a human
"invention" then it is not part of scientific discourse (in the sense of
using it as the basis of explanatory arguments--certainly the fact that we
believe there is something called morality can be the subject of scientific
discourse. And we can include the fact that folks BELIEVE there are moral
laws as part of an explanatory argument used to account for the actions of
these folks, but we cannot use claims regarding moral laws as phenomena
existing extrinsic to the specific folks in question).

"Indeed, any claim that morality is unrelated to science....."

Does science have a bearing on morality? If you believe that it does, the
answer is yes. If you do not believe that, the answer is no. There is no
necessary connection, only a contingent one. Those folks who are convinced
that creation is correct use a morality that is not affected by scientific
discourse on the same topic. Others may use the results of science to make
claims about what is or is not moral; e.g. a claim such as: Discriminating
against homosexuals is unlawful (= immoral) since homosexuality is (may be)
genetically determined. The results of science can be used in arguments
about what is or is not moral, but scientific discourse is silent on
the topic of morality.

" Am I to tell a student that, for the purposes of the intro course (the
space of science) he must adhere to cultural reltivism, but that outside the
course he can simply disregard relativism and assert that his religion is
superior to all others and that, furthermore, he can advocate the
missionization of the world? I think not."

You want to use the scientific side of anthropology to argue against the
student's moral position. This opens a huge pandora's box. You would use
anthropology to argue, for example, that the Jewish persuasion that they are
the "chosen people" is invalid because of cultural relativism? If you are a
Jew, it is valid; if you are not a Jew it is not valid (at least I assume
most non-Jews do not accept that claim). That is, the validity rests upon
agreeing or disagreeing with the assumptions upon which the moral position is
predicated. It may be that some individuals are persuaded that such
assumptions are untenble by virtue of what anthropology has informed us about
the nature of human societies, but I hardly think scientific anthropology can
be taken as an arbiter of which belief systems are legitimate and which ones
are not. To say that cultural relativism and moral issues are different
domains does not imply that the former cannot be used to challenge the
latter. But what Silverman expressed in his question was something
different, namely wanting concordance between cultural relativism and moral
decisions; i.e., that somehow cultural relativism (scientific sense) provides
an inside track to moral decisions. The hypothetical student can certainly
claim that his/her religion is superior to all others; the question is
whether he/she can similarly persuade others who do NOT so believe and
certainly cultural relativism has provided powerful arguents for those who
reject the claim that religion X is superior to all others to maintain that
position when challenged. As a "true believer" you can cite your cultural
relativism until you are blue in the face and I will still reject your
arguments out of hand. Witness the debate over abortion in this country.

"Morality and science/knowledge are constitutive of the world to the same
degree as any so-called "extrinsic reality." Isn't that the point of our

I hope NOT. If it is, I'm in the wrong discipline. Even if I assume that by
"world" is meant something like "human societies and their culture" (whatever
that may mean), I thought that anthropology was concerned with HOW they are
constituted, not with ASSUMING they are constituted in some particular manner
such as co-equality between morality and scientific knowledge. (I doubt that
the latter has much to do with how any society is constituted.) If we take
morality as part of culture, and culture as a mental construct, then it is
something separate from external reality.

"My request still stands: any good intro-level sources on the
relationship between relativism as a scientific tool and moral decisions?"

This is NOT the original question and the difference between this
wording and the original is not trivial. Let me advance a simple-minded stab
at this question by posing what I think is a serious dilemna. If we take a
moral position that is in contradiction to the conclusions reached via
cultural relativism, and enforce our moral decision, then surely we are going
to change the trajectory of the society we are so affecting. What gives us
the legitimacy to do so? We argue against what we see as the destructive
actions of missionaries vis-a-vis those they try to missionize on the grounds
that the assumptions underlying the missionary actions are untenable in a
scientific framework. But how is our taking of a moral action any different
than what is done by the missionaries except that we believe in the legitimcy
of our action? If we say, for example, all peoples everywhere should have
human rights (assuming we have some agreement on what is meant by human
rights) and we take action to ensure that all peoples have human rights, we
are necessarily destroying/changing those societies where such rights
currently do not exist. Clearly, whatever legitimization we may invoke for
such an action does not come from scientific discourse (though it might be
pharsed in the lanaguage of that discourse)--can anyone seriously claim that
all people everywhere will somehow be better off if everyone has human rights
as the west defines human rights? In a religious context it is evident where
the legitimization comes from. Outside of a religious context we have the
dilemna of using cultural relativism to attack moral positions with which we
disagree, yet having no grounds to fend off challenges of this kind to moral
positions with which we do agree.

D. Read

(In my discussions/presentations next semester, I will however use Read's
claims, so consider this to be a criticism rather than a flame).

-Eric Silverman, Soc/Anthro, DePauw Univ.