Human Rights, Relativism, Morals

Susan Love Brown (SL_BROWN@ACC.FAU.EDU)
Fri, 22 Apr 1994 11:20:00 EDT

To Graber and Others:

I regard cultural relativism as a professional tool of anthropology
that helps us to screen out as much ethnocentrism as possible and to
see things from the point of view of others. I tell my students that
if a situation arises in which cultural relativism cannot be employed,
then they cannot do anthropology. This assumes, of course, that in
one's hierarchy of values the work of anthropology is not one's
highest value.

I would say that ethical or moral judgments are an essential part of
life, which is why we find an attempt to generalize them in every
society in some form or other. This arises simply from the fact that
we have to make decisions on a daily basis. However, I notice that
both students and some anthropologists tend to treat cultural
relativism as if it were an ethical/moral principle rather than a
professional tool, thus elevating all cultural imperatives to the
level of general human rights, which I think is a major error in
thinking. Since cultural principles arise partly in response to the
environment (which varies among human groups) and human rights arise
out of the recognition of some common human nature, it seems that
human rights must take precedence over cultural principles. Of
course, that doesn't mean that figuring out what these human rights
are is an easy or self-evident proposition, and that's where the
confusion comes in, because our cultural understandings tend to get
confused with our ideas about human rights in general. But this
confusion should not lead to the conclusion that it is not possible to
define human rights.

These human rights will cut across all cultural considerations and
constitute a common bond among all peoples. I think with some hard
work we can probably find these basic rights hinted at in the
ethical/moral precepts of all societies, at all levels of human
organization. And we must be sure not to confuse sophistication in
the delineation of these ideas with their rightness.

Just a few thoughts to ponder.

Susan Love Brown