Relativism and Rights

Sat, 23 Apr 1994 00:32:13 -0400

>Hello Colleagues:
> I would like to recommend a book that relates to the discussion of
>Singaporean justice, human rights, and relativism. See Elvin Hatch's
>*Culture and Morality: The Relativity of Values in Anthropology*. Columbia
>U. Press. 1983. After summarizing the history of relativism of all types
>within anthropology, Hatch makes a useful distinction between "cultural
>relativism," the recognition that different societies have different
>values, norms, etc., and "ethical relativism," the belief that one cannot
>evaluate another society's value system and impose one's own value

Well, I hate to be a relativist and suggest that, on occasion, even ethical
relativism is appropriate. Especially when the alternative to it is
self-righteous moral fanaticism. Ethical relativism might have been a good
alternative to the Spanish Inquisition, determined to immolate people for a
wide range of (perceived) moral violations, including the rejection of
It's not necessarily a bad idea to stop and consider, as Nietzsche
did, that morals and ethics have a geneaology. Like anything else in a
society, they are historically grounded. While I believe in the project of
creating universal human rights, I strongly doubt that any society has the
right to take their particular notions of these things at a particular
moment in time and then say that these universally apply to all other
societies and cultures. (By and large, this has been how the process of
drafting international standards in the UN has happened.)

> As anthropologists I believe that we need to be careful to distinguish the
>two types of relativism and make the public aware of this
>distinction. In many cases the public conflates cultural relativism with
>ethical relativism and accuses anthropologists of ethical permissiveness
>and with the slogan that "everything goes." Alan Bloom reinforced this
>notion in his book *The Closing of the American Mind*.

Agreed. The Allan Blooms of this world need to know that anthroplogy is not
intrinsically ethically relativist. The public needs to understand cultural
relativism, which is a heuristic choice, is not the same thing as ethical
relativism, which is a moral choice. On the other hand, they need a swift
kick to the gluteus maximus to remind them, ethical relativism is not
always and everywhere a bad thing. Bloom is wrong; the worst holocausts of
our planet have always happened when people have come up with inflexible
moral codes and then decided that those who will not abide by those codes
should be wiped out.

> There are probably some ethical relativists within our field, but
>I think that they represent a minority. By the way, Hatch also discusses
>how difficult it is to make ethical judgements regarding cultural
>practices and norms. I think that his book lays some groundwork for
>thinking carefully about this issue. The theme of the Atlanta meetings is
>Human Rights. Hopefully, we'll see some thoughtful presentations on this
>important issue. Is anyone organizing a session on relativism? A
>session dealing with Hatch's work, along with Retseln, et al. would be a
>treat for Jimmy Carter in Atlanta...

I hope to see discussion about these things!

>Ray Scupin
>Sociology/Anthropology Dept.
>Lindenwood College
>209 S. Kingshighway
>St. Charles, MO 63301
>314-949-4730 (Office)
>314-949-9244 (Home)
>314-949-4910 (Fax)
>Not chaos-like, together crushed and bruised,
>But, as the world harmoniously confused:
>Where order in variety we see,
>And where, though all things differ, all agree
>Alexander Pope

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