Re: Human Rights and Relativism

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Mon, 25 Apr 1994 15:19:37 -0500

> R. Scupin has brought up Hatch's distinction between cultural
> relativism and ethical relativism. I, along with most anthropologists,
> reject ethical relativism, since to embrace it would seem to make one
> amoral. But I take this position not as an anthropologist but as a
> human being. My question is, Is there anything specifically
> anthropological about the decision to make ethical judgments? Note that
> there clearly is something specifically anthropological about
> temporarily *suspending* ethical judgments--namely, as an aid to
> understanding and analyzing human culture as a natural phenomenon.
> --Bob Graber

Bob: Why in the world would we want to suspend ethical judgments?
If I were Napoleon Chagnon and saw a Yanomamo male attacking a female
with an axe....would I simply stand there and let it happen? I do not
think so! As moral beings we would have to try to intervene, just as we
would intervene if we saw someone being attacked on our city streets.

I would suggest that we ought to make ethical judgments---and try
to eliminate harmful practices, whenever possible, when we can determine
that we can do so....not as absolutists, not as Westerners or U.S.
citizens, not as if we were taking up the White Man's Burden, not as
capitalists, not as Jews or Christians, not as neo-colonialists...but as moral
beings, who recognize pain when we see it. Despite varying concepts of the
person from society to society a la Schweder and Bourne, we are all part of
the human family with similar biological characteristics---we can recognize
homicide, genocide, torture, mutilation, etc. People throughout
the world can recognize these harmful practices.

We should strive to make universally-based ethical judgements regarding
harmful cultural practices. It is difficult, and we must be cautious
making sure that we understand the practices, realizing that we may not be
able to intervene or change the practices without severe consequences.
Nevertheless, we ought to attempt to a dialogue to help reduce harmful

I would recommend research and an approach at reducing harmful
practices such as that by John Van Willigen and V.C. Channa on "Law,
Custom, and Crimes Against Women: The Problem of Dowry Death in India."
*Human Organization* 50(4), 1991, pp. 369-377. Their research
demonstrates how a Western anthropologist and an Indian woman
anthropologist have combined their efforts in research on a harmful
practice as a means of helping reduce it in India.

I fully realize that these are "idealistic goals," and that they
often clash with on-the-ground cultural practices, but as moral beings qua
anthropologists we have a role to play in helping improve social

Ray Scupin