Relativism and Rights

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Thu, 5 May 1994 16:00:13 -0500

> would you trust a missionary's account of a "horrific" custom as much as
> an anthropologist's? If not, wouldn't the difference be at least partly
> attributable to the assumption that the anthropologist tried to
> control--ideally, even suspend--judgmental thoughts, and feelings of
> revulsion? --Bob Graber

Bob, Let's take another Napoleon Chagnon example again. He is standing
with a missionary among a group of Yanomamo, and they both see a woman who
is about to be beaten. I assume that both the missionary and Chagnon
would take action, if they could, to try to prevent this. In that case,
both would see this as a horrific practice. However, Chagnon would
probably not intervene in changing the spiritual life of the people,
unless it involved some extremely harmful behavior to individuals. In
that context, the missionary's motives are different. The missionary is
motivated to convert the Yanomamo to a different form of cultural and
spiritual life.

Anthropologists, missionaries, government officials, and most
likely the Yanomamo women themselves recognize harmful practices when they
see them. On this basis we ought not suspend our moral judgments as human
beings. As anthropologists we can study the practices humanistically and
scientifically to help in eliminating these harmful behaviors. The
position of ethical relativism is both logically and morally flawed.

Ray Scupin