Re: Relativism and Rights (fwd)

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Fri, 6 May 1994 12:26:00 -0500

On Thu, 5 May 1994, Read, Dwight ANTHRO wrote:

> 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
> offensive?
I'm not making any value judgments regarding whether these people are
"backward" or not. Though it is very possible that cultural hegemony is
producing these forms of consciousness and acceptance of harmful
practices. Of course, some people in our own society have these sorts of
beliefs. And of course these harmful practices existed in the past such
as the stoning of female adulterers. Does that mean that we must
tolerate and accept these practices in other societies? Ethical
relativists believe so. Are you implying that because some people accept
these beliefs in our own society that we ought to tolerate these harmful
practices elsewhere?

> > 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 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?
>Dwight, we have plenty of harmful practices in our own society. The
question I am raising is whether we can use this to justify a position of
ethical relativism. Please do not conflate cultural relativism with
ethical relativism. I am, along with all twentieth century
anthropologists in favor of cultural relativism.

Scupin says,
> "Yes, I would posit a universal here---as humans we strive to avoid
> pain and make our lives as comfortable as possible."
Read responds:
> Aha! Ghandi, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses,...... they all missed the point that
> the goal of human existence is to avoid pain and be comfortable.
Scupin says,
What I am calling for is for anthropologists to join in the projects that
were developed by these ethical teachers.....One does not tolerate and
accept harmful practices that lead to suffering for humans.

Ray Scupin

Dwight I am glad to see that the neurons are crackling at my alma mater
UCLA. When I was an undergrad there in the late 60s we were pondering
whether Carlos Castenada's work was valid and tinkering with the nuances
of ethnomethodology. By the way, Hatch is also an alum from there, he did
his doctorate there in the late 60s.