Re: Human Rights and Relativism

Fri, 29 Apr 1994 00:50:00 PDT

Sloan writes:
"Ray Scupin's posting raises an issue that Dwight Read seems to ignore. We
are not talking about something like religious conversion, or covering
women's bare breasts, or even some of the more egregious abuses of the
past. His posting calls into question the limits of relativism, the point
at which a laissez-faire stance becomes itself untenable. Isn't death or
enslavement a bit more serious than abstract moral judgements (as in
missionary hubris)? Wouldn't sexual slavery fall into a different
category, one that demands that we abandon neutrality? "

I don't recall seeing Ray Scupin's posting, so I'm flying a bit in the dark
here. What I said (or at least what I think I said) was: Cultural relativism
(as Graber noted) involves temporary suspension of moral judgement for the
purpose of scientific discourse. From this it follows that there will
likely be (and perhaps most would say there surely will be) conflict
between a dispassionate study and our personal, moral reaction to what is
being dispassionately studied. Cultural relativism does not, in and of
itself, provide a moral basis for action; but neither does cultural
relativism deny acting on moral grounds. To take a moral stance vis a vis
those we study (ourselves included) is based on a set of assumptions that are
not part of scientific discourse; hence scientific discourse should not serve
as the rationalization for a moral stance and scientific discourse cannot
serve as a arbiter for moral stances. Scientific discourse can, however, be
used to justify why I reject your moral stance.

Sloan refers to "sexual slavery" as a practise that "demands" we abandon
neutrality. I take it that what Sloan is saying, in effect, is that when
group X practises behavior that I find morally repugnant then I should
attempt to stop group X from that behavior regardless of how I might analyse
that behavior under cultural relativism. From a moral viewpoint, my acting to
stop the behaviour would be justified--but note that the justification
is meaningful ONLY to those who take the SAME moral stance. The problem with
viewing moral stances as COMPELLING or DEMANDING behavior is that since they
are arbitrary (in the sense of being cultural constructions, not having
external reality) they are not defensible in terms of scientific discourse.
You either accept the premises upon which a particular moral position is
based or you don't (I am not suggesting that people do not change moral
positions, only that there is a qualitative difference between convincing
someone, using scientfic discourse, that a subatomic particle called a top
boson exists versus convincing someone that such and such an action is
morally wrong). The problem, as I see it, lies not in whether or not we
should or should not take a moral stance, but in wanting congruence between
moral stances and what we understand through a scientific discourse about

We are a product of natural selection and our history clearly
documents that we are a species that is capable of enormous violence (in
every sense of the word) against other members of our species. Morality,
even when couched in universal terms, is taken in fact as only applying to
those we consider humans and those we consider humans are not the species
Homo sapiens. As many hunting and gathering groups express it: self referall
is to "we, the people" which means that those not part of your society are
not fully people--they are strangers and to be feared as there is no reason
to expect them to act in a moral manner. If I personally consider humanity
and Homo sapiens to be one and the same, then I will find morally repugnant
actions which others find acceptable, for there are those who do not consider
all members of Homo sapiens to be humans (with humans taken to be those
included under the protecting umbrella of moral behavior). We are therefore
going to find all manner of situations where we will find discord between our
personal sense of morality and the behaviors of those we study (ourselves
included) engage in. We may feel compelled to act on our moral outrage--but
our justification for so acting should stem from our defense of our moral
position as a moral position, not from a superficial veneer that
anthropological scientific discourse somehow gives us a higher ground for
taking moral stances.

D. Read