Re: Relativism and Ethical Judgements

Danny Yee (danny@MORIA.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Mon, 2 May 1994 12:45:51 +1000

ray scupin writes:
> Let's say that we are doing research in Africa among a tribal
> group that practices female genital mutilation. This issue has been the
> subject of numerous writings including that of Alice Walker. Surely, as
> an ethnographer we can have a good understanding of this practice through
> the study of its history, its function as a creator of status for females
> within the society, its link to patriarchy and other political values,
> attitudes, and institutions. We can do interviews, oral histories,
> observations, etc. But, in what sense can we temporarily suspend our
> ethical judgements of such a horrific practice??? And if we do make a
> judgement, in what way does that interfere with our humanistic or
> scientific understanding or explanation of the practice???

This is the kind of argument people use to refute (philosophical)
ethical relativism [the belief that there are no objective moral
truths]. "But how can you condemn Hitler?" goes the cry. The answer is
quite simple: a belief about the derivative ontological status of ethics
does not prevent one holding strong ethical beliefs. It is a common
mistake to confuse ethical relativism with what I call "normative
tolerance", or the idea that one should allow everyone to do whatever
they want.

Graber and Read are talking about something different of course, since
they are talking about what I call "methodological relativism".
(Perhaps, more narrowly, "methodological cultural relativism", since
they are concerned with anthropology.) But the same point holds - you can
at the same time make strong ethical judgements, perhaps feeling intense
repugnance at female circumcision (this seems to play the role in
anthropological discourse that Nazi concentration camps play in
philosophy), AND at the same time believe that those judgements have
nothing to do with understanding the culture one is studying (except in
so far as the culture is influenced by you and other people who think
the same way as you do, of course).

Danny Yee.

P.S. Why is everyone down on ethical relativism? I've seen lots of
people saying things like "I'm a cultural relativist but not an ethical
relativist" or "I'm not a relativist but I believe it's useful when
doing ethnogrpahy". I don't want to start a philosophical argument, but
if anyone can demonstrate a violation of Hume's Law (which states that
one can't derive an 'ought' from any number of 'is's) I'd be interested
in seeing it.