Relativism and Ethical Judgements

Mon, 2 May 1994 14:21:00 PDT

Dear Colleagues:

Let us examine what Scupin writes:

"Both Graber and Read suggest that making ethical judgements interferes with
ethnographic research, and somehow as an anthropologist we ought to suspend
our ethical judgements temporarily..... But, in what sense can we
temporarily suspend our ethical judgements of such a horrific practice???"

I take it that Scupin is saying something like: The moral outrage which
occurs when such a practice [female circumcision] takes place must override
any attempt at scientific discourse about this practise. If not, then I am
not sure what he is saying. What I meant, and I assume what Graber meant, is
that if I were doing an ethnography of female circucision (interestingly,
Scupin uses the phrase "female genital mutilation" which is already a value
judgement), I would make a separation in discourse between when I am taking
on a scientific hat, as it were, and when I am taking on a moral hat. Of
course, it may be the case that one's sense of moral outrage precludes
suspending a moral judgement--if so, state one's biases and proceed from

Scupin, I think, is acting like a good native in his comments. He takes his
culturally constructed sense of moral reality as if it IS reality; e.g. he

"We make the judgements, based on the "universal" recognition of pain, not
our specific standards of morality ..."

I take it that this means: If it causes pain to someone (the universal part?)
then it is a "horrific practise" and " we [should] use our resources as
anthropologists qua anthropologists to help eliminate harmful practices."

Is this a universal and does it constitute a clear basis for action? LEt us
ask: Do we find ALL instances of something that "causes pain to someone" a
"horrific practice?" Dentists cause pain: Should we prevent dentists from
causing pain? Surgeons in Bosnia are operating under primitive conditions
that I imagine cause enormous amounts of pain. Should we curtail their
behavior? THe U.S. caused enormous pain on civilians during and after the
Gulf War as a consequence of U.S. bombing during the war . Is there any
agreement in the anthropological communicty that anthropologists could/should
have acted to eliminate those harmful practices?

I neither dispute that Scupin finds, e.g., female circumsion, repugnant,
horrible, etc., nor his belief that it is a practise that
should be curtailed so long as the basis for so doing
is linked to his view of morality. I dispute the assumption that his view
is somehow "real" or "universal" and the implicit assumption that his
position is without dispute.

And what about the behavior he finds morally repugnant? Does he hold the
same view about other practises that fall under the label of "bodily
mutilation"? What about "breast augmentation"? What about male
circumcision--is this not mutiliation of the penis? What about subincision
practises among the natives of Australia? What about tatooting in this
country--a very painful process, I understand? Body modification via
insertion of rings in various parts of the body which is occurring with more
frequency beyond simply the ear? Why focus on female circumcision?

One anthropologist that I hold in high regard, Dr. Fadwa El Guindi, did
fieldwork in the Sudan a number of years ago and had many discussions with
the women about female circumsion. SHe presents a radically different view
than the one suggested by Scupin who seems to assume that any rational person
would find female circumsion horrific and a practise to be eliminated. She
discusses the women's view of female circumsion who, according to her
informants, saw the removal of labial skin as beautification and did not
speak in terms that would suggest they viewed it as a harmful practise.
Undoubtedly there are Sudanese women who might have a different viewpoint,
just as there is variation in this country on how breast surgery, tummy
tucks, face lifts, etc. are considered and valued.

How different is, say, Scupin's reaction to female circumsion that it is
"mutilation", "horrific", a "harmful practise" that anthropologists should
act to "eliminate" than the reactions of missionaries to e.g., polygyny as a
harmful practise that should be eliminated? Is the difference that Scupin's
position is objectively unassailable and that of the missionaries merely the
imposition of one's own sense of morality? I think his final comments
suggest much about the underlying interest:

"I believe that we could as anthropologists, work with indigenous
anthropologists in the area to understand and explain these practices, and
aim at helping reduce practices such as these."

First, this statement assumes there are two classes of anthropologists--we,
the anthropologists, versus them, the indigenous anthropologists. Second,
while mention is made of working with "indigenous anthropologists" the
assumption is that we are not going to so much learn from then but to use
this interaction to help "reduce practices such as these." In other words,
there is a hierachy between these two classes with "we, the anthropologists"
constituting the higher class that is going to teach not only the "natives"
but the "indigenous anthropologists" about the need to reduce these harmful
practises. Who are those "indigenous anthropologists?" An anthropologist
from a third world country--surely that is not the claim. An anthropologists
who studies her/his own culture? If the latter perhaps Scupin should invited
anthropologists from third world countries to come talk with those
anthropologists in this country who include our own society in our research
so that they (the anthropologists) can help us (the indigenous
anthropologists) remove what they perceive to be harmful practises in our

I am not disputing Scupin's taking a moral position vis-a-vis what he
perceives to be repugnant; I do not dispute that there may be situations
where we might refuse to set aside a moral judgement; I do not dispute that
there are behaviors in our society as well as elsewhere that we may wish to
change. THe problem, is in presuming, as I noted before, that
somehow the discipline of anthropology gives us the justification for
translating our moral position into an imperative for action. As Yee
comments, there is no contradiction in seeing the moral and scientific modes
of discourse as separate; keeping them separate does not require nihilism.

D. Read