Relativism and Rights (fwd)

Thu, 5 May 1994 21:21:00 PDT

Scupin writes:

"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."

I read these examples to mean: Women in traditional societies, unlike
ourselves, are backward and unable to see that they are the victims of
repression. Consider. Jews at the time of Jesus believed that female
adulters should be stoned to death. Some males today in the U.S. believe
that treason is grounds for capital punishment. Others agree that old people
should be sent away to homes for the aged--a practise that shocks many from
cultures that place a high value on old people. Which of these is the more

Scupin continues:

"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. "

Perhaps I have not been reading the posts very carefully, but I do not recall
anyone advocating or supporting ethical relativism.

Scupin continutes:

"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."

Scupin seems to find offensive only that which occurs in other cultures. Are
women in our society who undergo breast augmentation (note that the term
used in our society is "augmentation" not "mutilation") and who also may lose
sensitivity of the breasts for sexual stimulation not equally the victims of
"false consciousness" when they view it as a positive addition to their
beauty? Did the realization that breast implants may cause severe problems
to women lead to an immediate, complete and total rejection by ALL American
women of breast implants? Or did many women want to continue with breast
implants? What about hysterectomies, as someone mentioned in another post?
My understanding is that this is one of the most abused surgical procedures
in this country. Does the fact that it is done in hospitals under cleaner
conditions make it somehow more legitimate? Have you ever seen a woman who
has had her face lifted? Is this legitimate beautification but removal of
the labial skin somehow not legitimate beautification?

Scupin continues:

"Of course the fact that dental work or surgery causes pain does
not lead to them being labelled as horrific practices."

Precisely. So pain is NOT the criteria that gives the moral judgement its
absolute character.

Scupin continues:

"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 individuals."

And there's the rub. WHOSE "utilitarian calculus" and by WHAT criterion?

Scupin continues:

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

Aha! Ghandi, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses,...... they all missed the point that
the goal of human existence is to avoid pain and be comfortable.

Scupin ends:

". . . we as "humans," not as "anthropologists," should strive
toward idealistic goals."

With that I find much to agree as it is a rough paraphrase of what I stated
early on.

D. Read