Relativism, Once More

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Wed, 11 May 1994 09:29:55 -0500

Dear Colleagues:

As I post this we are in the midst of the solar eclipse in the St.
Louis area. Hopefully, the cosmic rays will not effect the outcome of my
attempted reasoning on the issue of cultural and ethical relativism. As I
believe that I started this discourse with a recommendation of Hatch's
work on the distinction between cultural and ethical relativism, I thought
that I would provide my reaction to some of the postings.

First, I found the discussion very profitable. I learned so much
from so many colleagues, both from the posts to the list, and from direct
e-mail. I added many titles to my list of books for summer reading. The
discussion has also help me question and hopefully clarify some of my own
thoughts on this important issue. The discussion on topics such as female
infibulation provided some substantive ethnographic data and informed me
greatly. I wish I had known about this list earlier.

This issue of ethical relativism has bothered me for some time as an
anthropologist. I recall reading a comment by Saul Bellow, who apparently
was thinking about being an anthro major at Chicago during the 40s, but was
appalled when he learned that anthropologists were teaching that all
cultural values and beliefs were considered equally valid. In other words,
he had absorbed the discourse that was ongoing within anthropological circles
at that time suggesting that practices such as human sacrifice, warfare,
and other such harmful cultural traditions had to be tolerated by
anthropologists. Many anthropologists were teaching the view that no one
could make a value judgment about the practices or values of another
society. Herskovits, R. Benedict and others tried to maintain this view.
This view is what is known as ethical relativism. This ethical relativism
had strong appeal for Americans because it emphasized tolerance for other
cultures and societies, and dovetailed in so many ways with other American

As Danny Yee and others have correctly pointed out ethical relativism
is a view that maintains that there are no ontological grounds for judging
the practices in other societies. However, this view has a normative
basis and suggests that no one from a different culture can ever judge the
practices of another society. In other words, descriptive cultural
relativism---the fact other societies have different beliefs and practices
is used to support normative ethical relativism--no one can judge the
beliefs and practices of other societies.

As I say, Bellow was morally outraged by this, and he went into
literature and I believe that we have all benefitted by his moral insights.
We know, however, that Bellow was ethnocentric. In other words, he was
judging the cultural beliefs and practices of other societies by his own
moral headlights. He made this clear in his introduction to Alan Bloom's
*The Closing of the American Mind*. Both Bellow and Bloom were expressing
their concern regarding the plight of American education, and the fact
that relativism was so rampant that U.S. students couldn't make moral
judgments about any issues. Bloom argued that the German philosophers
such as Nietzche, Heidegger, and the sociologist Weber had infected
American thought and education so much that students were "open" to any
and all cultural values. Of course, Bloom offered an antidote to this
contemporary relativism, a reading of the Western canon, especially Plato
and his concepts of ideal forms and absolutes (based on Bloom's acceptance
of Leo Strauss' interpretations of Plato). Obviously, Bloom was
suggesting that the "West is best," and he went on to characterize
non-Western traditions as not quite up to par when it comes to developing
"rationality." His Orientalist characterizations and other assumptions
about non-Western societies were definitely ethnocentric. Bloom suggested
that there are moral absolutes and that Western philosophers have
identified them, and that we can readily make ethical judgments about other
society's practices. We don't have to be "open" to all cultural practices,
we can distinguish the ethical good from the bad. (Some of Bloom's views are
carried on today by many including the recent best seller by Bill Bennett
on virtues).

{There were some perceptive comments on Bloom in Rorty's review and
others, however the most insightful one I found was Sidney Hook's review
in the American Scholar (which I believe was the last piece of writing before
his death)}, in which he unpack's Bloom's assumptions regarding the
acceptance of relativism among students}.

In my posts to the list I was not advocating an absolutist
position, or some sort of universal morality as does Bloom. I do not think
there are any ontological grounds for a position of universal morality.
As I concurred with Yee's point, Hume's dictum appears cannot
derive an ought from an "is." All I am suggesting is that we can
recognize human suffering when we see it because of the fact that have
some "common" grounds as biological humans, and despite cultural
differences we can detect such things as violence and pain to another human
being. From this common ground we can a judgment that is not
culture-bound regarding certain harmful practices. In some cases it may
be difficult to do so, and we must be very cautious in doing so,
nevertheless we as human beings cannot stand by and just passively accept
a harmful practice. The fact that we have harmful practices in our own
society does not provide the grounds for ethical relativism, or accepting
them elsewhere.

The dilemma of course as Dwight Read notes is that other people
may not accept our notion of what is painful or harmful. It would appear
from the state of the world that people have no qualms about inflicting
pain on others, however, I would maintain that most of us want to avoid
pain. Of course, there are altruistic peoples such as Gandhi, Christ,
Mother Theresa, et al. who were/are willing to accept pain and harm in order
to help reduce pain and harmful practices in the world. That, of course
is the reason that these types of individuals stand out historically and
represent models for the rest of us. (I would like to
help encourage anthropologists to join with these ethical teachers, and
help eliminate harmful practices through the study of these practices,
and perhaps suggesting alternative practices in place of harmful ones.
However, we have a different role than the missionary. There are many
cultural beliefs and traits such as harmless religious, social, and
political norms and practices that we can tolerate and not make judgments
about. Much of life in any society consists of non-harmful practices that
fall outside of painful situations).

Of course, there are those among us who appear to enjoy pain.
However, I would maintain that most humans, as biological creatures,
desire a certain amount of well being, and we want to avoid pain being
inflicted on us. If an individual put a knife to any our throats and
threatened to do us pain, I submit that all of us would tend to be
frightened and would want to avoid that type of pain.

The question that arises is why do some people in some societies
appear to accept harmful practices. One argument that I saw expressed on
the list is that women may accept practices such as female infibulation
because it gives them a higher status, and makes them more effective in
dealing with their male counterparts. This is a version of the
functionalist argument for the maintenance of harmful practices. Warfare
and other harmful practices provide functions for either individuals or
societies. This functionalist argument is then used as the ontological
grounds for normative ethical relativism....we can't judge other
societie's practices, because these practices hold their society together
or provides benefits to individuals. In other words, when the Aztecs or
Mayans were sacrificing victims, they were doing so to
provide the functional requisites for their society. I don't believe that
this is a good argument for ethical relativism. I suppose that the
Mesoamerican holocaust provided some benefits for these societies, but
ultimately there were as many dysfunctional and maladaptive harmful
consequences of these practices as benefits. Even if they were
beneficial, I don't believe that that provides an ontology for normative
ethical relativism.

I suggested that some harmful practices in other societies, as
well as our own, derive from cultural hegemony and false consciousness.
Certainly people can become enthused by many types of ideologies and
involve themselves in accepting some very harmful practices. To some
extent, the distribution of power and reproduction of authority goes a
long way in explaining this. However, as Tracy Brown and others have
noted and as Garfinkel would put it, we are not just cultural dopes, and
consciousness and choice does come into play in the acceptance of these
harmful practices. But in many cases, it is the powerless---children,
women, and less powerful individuals in a society who become the victims
of these practices. When the Dani were, up until recently, slicing off
the fingers of young girls to placate ghosts, I would suggest that these
practices were imposed in a hegemonic manner. Likewise, for the children
who were sent to war by the Ayatollah in his war against Iraq, promising
them eternal life in heaven as a reward if they die as holy warriors. Did
these children really have choices??? (And of course, any society,
including our own that sends their young men and women off as cannon fodder is
indulging in harmful practices).

No, I don't believe that we are just cultural dopes responding to
our cultural webs of significance. On the other hand, the imposition of
power and authority does have its consequences. It is up to us as
ethnographers to do the systematic research to identify whether or not
hegemony and coercion versus choice is operating or not. Anthropologists have
found that people do resist hegemony under certain conditions.

As far as the ontological grounds for making value judgments about
other than one's own cultural values, I am the first to admit that I
cannot define the "good" in an absolute manner. G.E. Moore deals with
this issue in the early twentieth century in his reference to strawberries. One
can describe the qualities of a strawberry as "red," "plump," etc., but
none of these qualities can lead us to defining the strawberry as "good."
Thus, describing the traits of a society cannot lead us to the ideal "good."
Hume's dictum again. However, the connectionists and other critics of
traditional artificial intelligence models are beginning to suggest that
ethical norms are not only rule governed by semantics, but rather some
ethical norms are like perceptions... In a recent conference in which the
Churchlands, Andy Clark et al. were addressing ethics there was a
movement away from a Chomskyian linguistic-semantical model towards a
model that involved basic non-linguistic perceptions. Maurice Bloch's
last major essay in MAN, addressed some of these issues. I don't think
that they will provide the solid ontological grounding that we are looking
for in this area, nevertheless it may provide us with another way of
perceiving harmful practices.

By the way, as a point of clarification, as an ethnographer I
never confronted any harmful practices that I could not condone. I am
only suggesting that as moral beings we ought to strive to help eliminate
them when we can, and not just blithely accept them as the ethical norms
of another society. Moffatt suggests that it may just boil down to a
First World ethnographer asserting that a practice is harmful and working
through connections to help eliminate them. I believe that the
hierarchical intellectual division of labor is dissolving at this juncture
in the (dare I say it) postmodern world, and that all of us as humans need to
cooperate in reducing these harmful practices.

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