Relativism and Rights (fwd)

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Thu, 5 May 1994 13:18:02 -0500

Dear Colleagues:

I'm so glad to see so many wheels spinning on the net regarding
the issue of ethical relativism. I believe that we need to continue
thinking and rethinking this issue. Again, I recommend Hatch's book
Culture and Morality for a broad historical overview of this in our field.

I concur with comments from Moffatt and others regarding the
difficulties of comparing female genital mutiliation with circumcision.
I understand that some women in these societies may accept these
practices, just as some women in traditional China may have thought
foot-binding that crippled them produced beautiful feet. Some women in
Saudi Arabia may support the belief that female adultery ought to be
punished by stoning the woman to death. The question that I want to raise
is whether we should adopt a position of ethical relativism, that is,
abandoning one's ability to make an ethical judgment about other cultural
practices. Of course, the logical problem of ethical relativism pointed
out by many philosophers is that it is an inconsistent absolutist
position. As an ethical relativist one adopts an absolutist position that all
cultural values, beliefs, and practices ought to be tolerated.

Read notes that Fadwa El Guindi describes women who accept the
practice of female genital mutilation and think it is beautiful. This may
be a result of cultural hegemony and false consciousness---one would have
to do some very careful ethnographic work to discover if there was any
resistance at all to this practice. However, the question I raise is
whether Fadwa El Guindi herself adopted the ethical relativist position
and completely tolerated these practices? I will have to read her work
this summer.

Again I would recommend the work of Van Willigen and Channa on the
dowry deaths in India. Of course, there are some women who believe that
if their daughters in law don't bring enough dowry into the family, they
should be doused with kerosene and burned to death, a practice that is on
the increase in India. Van Willigen and Channa are working together as
anthropologists to study the issue, humanistically and scientifically. A
male American anthropologist and a woman Indian anthropologist who have
provided details on the practices of the dowry and have worked for reform
in India on this issue. They have not adopted an ethically relativist
stand on the issue.

Of course the fact that dental work or surgery causes pain does
not lead to them being labelled as horrific practices. One must use some
utilitarian calculus to determine whether the pain outweighed the
reduction of harm. However, I do not see how female genital mutilation,
subincision, or extreme forms of bodily mutilation can lead to benefits for

Yes, I would posit a universal here---as humans we strive to avoid
pain and make our lives as comfortable as possible.

Now, for the more problematic areas of this issue. What about
extensive fasting? The Sun Dance, which has been renewed recently? I
admit we have difficulties in making judgments regarding tatooing and
cosmetic surgery, body-piercing, etc. I would like to hear from
anthropologists who have studied these practices, and what they think
about them.

By the way, Dwight I did not intend to classify two types of
anthropologists---we Westerners vs the indigenous others---. If we are
doing research in our own society then we are the indigenous types. I
don't see any explicit or implicit hierarchy between the two types.
(Although there was a hierarchy in the past). I welcome anthropologists
from all over the world to do research here on U.S. society to help us
better understand our harmful practices--we certainly have plenty to work
on here.

I would agree with Yee that Hume's dictum that one cannot derive an
ought from an "is," is valid...the sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson
have been attempting to do this through evolutionary biology. Stephen Jay
Gould et al. have noted the weaknesses in this attempt. However, I don't
think we can simply become ethical relativists and tolerate all cultural
beliefs and practices. Perhaps there is not a foundationalist position
here, nevertheless, we as "humans," not as "anthropologists," should strive
toward idealistic goals.

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