DEFENSE OF MORAL RELATIVISM BY RUTH BENEDICT
Relativism is the notion that there are no moral absolute values at all, and
that all moral values are relative to time, place, person, or situation. In
other words, all these proposes that moral principles are only valid relative
to distinct cultural or individual choices, or to an extend determined within
the context of that distinct situational cultural survival.
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), foremost American anthropologist best known for Patterns of Culture, defends morality as dependent cultural variable and the idea that a universal moral principle cannot be applied to people whose culture does not accept it period.
She derived her research proposition from studying and gathering empirical facts on both primitive and modern cultures, which reveal an extreme variation in customs, manners, taboos, moral values, daily habits and attitude among human kind. The comparison in the final cultural systems differs tremendously from one environment, culture, and society to another throughout histories. A fact that modern social anthropologists had exposed many moral cultural values incongruent to dominate Western standardization's and beliefs has empowered the quest of knowledge.
One striking fact inducted from empirical cultural observation, is the premises that support one customary abnormality function suitable in another culture. For few example out of many, cataleptic trance and delusions of grandeur which are regarded with serious psychic manifestations in Western societies is on the other hand perceived as normal trait or even assumed as a talented gift to an individual in that society. Another example also is the cultural attitude towards homosexuality; in other cultures they are permissible, and honorably assigned an effeminate role, where as in the other Western world they are seldom expose to all kinds jeers and teases.
A recent study of some island tribal group of northwest Melanesia by Fortune, described some societies are bound and built upon traits extremely regarded as abnormal in the Western societies. In the Melanesian customs, for instance, magic and witchcraft are the daily habits of occupation and if one is uncongenial to its social criteria he or she is an outcast or a beachcomber for the rest of her life. Conversely in this tribal group, an individual who is kind loving, hard working and always helpful to others were negatively portrayed as immoral, unsocial and even crazy. One shocking illustration in these pattern of cultural moral skepticism, is legitimacy to murder any bystander if a tribal Chief or any tribe member in a bereaved state over a lost relative. In such custom death is commonly affronted and avenged by another death of a person.
However, behaviors in such tribal groups which are agreed as normal with pride or rather as cornerstone to their well being is gravely abnormal and reprensible in Western moral perspective, nevertheless Benedict argue that these are evident indicators which compel us to admit what is morally normal is indeed culturally bound and defined. She articulates that if a Westerner would be transported to Melanesia, he would fall into a category of abnormality and vice-versa.
According to Benedict, no civilization ought to utilize its mores to whole the potential range of human behavior. And she stressed that every society is obliged to carry its preferences farther or rather persist in its moral values and integrate itself more completely upon its chosen basis, and thus discarding those types of behavior that are uncongenial, to maintain its dignity. However from these point of view, any other cultural preferences in moral values will include more extreme aberrant trait which are cornerstone of well social being in other society, a fact that should not be overlap in the concept of "habitual good" (pg.367).
In conclusion, Benedict said, "Majority of individuals in any cultural group are shaped into the fashion of their own cultural characteristic and not universal trait." And she highlighted the reality that the very eyes with which we see the problems (world) are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our society.
ARGUMENT AGAINST MORAL RELATIVISM
James Rachel, a professor of
philosophy at the University of Alabama and an author of Can Ethics Provide
Answers defied the argument of ethical relativism and infallibly
insisted one moral answer to all situations. He contended that the central
argument of ethical relativism (or cultural relativism) is invalid and
implausible, but credit its doctrine as "cultural difference
For example, first he pointed out the fact that ancient Greeks promote to practice cremation of their decease rather than eat it compare to cannibal tribal elements of India is a mere difference in opinion and belief, not to warrant an adequate objective truth in the funereal practice. Secondly, the horror of infanticide committed by the Eskimos on vicious situation to rescue family members from starvation and other essential needs, is in way similar to American reckless to put up with infant endurance. Needless to say in this situation again, differences in cultural beliefs or tolerance have opposing views and practice to be hold as objectively right or wrong.
Since the argument of cultural relativism challenges the ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral (and ethical) truth. Rachel argues that the argument of Cultural Relativism does not buy any logic, even if their premises are true, their conclusion however still remain false. To make this point much clearer, he considers the belief that the world is flat by other people other than (roughly) spherical or round. He deducted the fact that the world is spherical in shape does not mean it is should be known to all people. And the disagreement about the shape of the world does not mean there is no objective truth in geography. Similarly, there is no reason to imply that if there is moral truth everyone should know it. Thus, cultural difference argument appears to incline on the fundamental mistake that attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject (morality) from the mere fact that people disagree about it (pg. 373).
Moreover, if the difference in cultural argument is valid and true, and supposedly refrained from disparagement and criticism, Rachel argue that, first we would not be able to condemn slavery or anti-Semitism if one society claim it is morally right within their cultural jurisdiction. And secondly, its rigid moral codes would not forbid us to improve our social policies be it apartheid or women status in a society. Thus, our will to decide whether an action is right or wrong, and our incline for social progression and change, will be dictated or denied.
Conversely, Rachel emphasize indeed there is such a small cultural disagreement than it really appears. He says, "The difference in general is in our belief systems, and not our values." He illustrated with a hypothetical category of people, who believe it is wrong to eat a cow because their cultural code stress when human beings die their soul inhabit in it, and that cow might be someone's Grandma. He added in such situation "We simply disagree about whether the cow could be Grandma or not, but yet we share the same value not eat our Grandma." In other instances, he point the practice of infanticide carried out by the Eskimos as a survival and a last resort option forced upon their will by harsh period of life or otherwise they would have wipe out their own existence.
In conclusion, he addresses that all cultures indeed have some common values to hold a society together. For example rules against lying and murder are imperative to social existence and universal moral codes ought to be our answer to all situations.
In the 19th Century Christian Missionaries
from West Europe and North America spread all over the world, in Africa and
Asia they found practices of bodily mutilation they regarded as inhuman, evil
or in a calm psycho-anthropological word abnormal. In China for example, they
founded the Natural Foot Society, to counter the practice of binding the feet
of young girls. In this custom, the practice of foot-binding was done to
prevent Chinese women from straying too far from home. In many parts of Africa,
the missionaries campaigned against the practice of female circumcision they
label as female genital mutilation or FGE found in some cultures, which
led to lasting schisms in the churches. These missionaries tried to influence
colonial governments to enact laws to ban practices like these that they
strongly disapproved. Political imperialism led to cultural imperialism, and
the result is a society in which the dominant group gets to enforce its values
on those who don't share them, (Emmanuel Eze, pg 122).
Many cultures practice bodily mutilations and deformations, and in North Sudan female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely practice. This form of circumcision is widely practiced in the north where majority of the population are Muslims. Mothers are obligated to have their daughters circumcised before puberty. Most families arrange for the circumcision to take place at an early young age of 5 to 11 years old, because the belief is a ritual passage to womanhood. Females are considered girls prior to their circumcision and a woman after undergoing circumcision.
According to a published report by the International Family Planning Perspectives (June 2001), most areas in the Sudan, uncircumcised women are generally viewed as impure, unclean and thus unmarriageable. Given their lack of choice at very early age and with the traditional influence, most women accept circumcision as a necessary, and even natural, part of life, and adopt the rationale given for its existence. Circumcision of a female will raise her status in the community, simply because of the added purity that circumcision brings and the bravery that come with it. It is also conceived as cultural requirement that confers maturity and a positive sense of character, which includes the ability to endure pain and to become a submissive woman. Meanwhile to the Western feminist, it is largely regarded as an act of violence, a form of oppression towards women, and most importantly a violation of human rights.
However female circumcision to North Sudanese, they would insist that a girl will never have her conscience troubled by lustful thoughts or temptations. North Sudanese mother strongly believe that there is no risk of premarital relationships to their daughters and sons, which seldom end in heartbreak as is in the Western world, and social difficulties of illegitimate birth as in Western communities, if a girl is circumcised. They believe by circumcising a woman, the bond between husband and wife will become closer and adultery is unlikely, because there is no physical drive for the woman, only an emotional one. This practice will promote abstinence among the females, thus making marriages secure.
Nevertheless, what is unusual peculiar is that those who denounce the mutilations practice by other cultures as "barbaric" are often to quick to defend liposuction, breast implants, piercing of genital organ and bodily tattoo practiced by their own culture.
Nowadays many Western writers regard those missionaries as practitioners of “cultural genocide" because of their attempt to dissuade people from practices like foot binding. But it seems that there are still plenty of Westerners who are trying to force their own cultural values on the rest of the world.
Cultural relativism among African ideologues insist on individual ability to expand their range of choice, to pick and choose among all the cultures of the world, or to create ways of living which are entirely new or traditional. Culturalism relativity means that the ideas with which we are inculcated are not sacred or immutable. They are ideas which were developed by communities of people, and they are not the final word. This confers upon man the freedom to increase the pace of cultural evolution. There is the risk that valuable knowledge and traditions may be lost, of course, but there is also the potential to bring about enormous benefits, as the best-practices from all around the world are shared.
Pojman, Louis. PHILOSOPHY: The Quest for Truth. Oxford University Press (2002)
Eze, Emmanuel. AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY: An Anthology. Blackwell Publisher Ltd (1998)
Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien
Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. University of
Wisconsin Press (1990).
Islam, Muzharul M and Uddin, Mosleh M. Female Circumcision in Sudan:
Future Prospects and Strategies for Eradication. International Family Planning
Perspectives (June 2001).
Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. The Sexual Experience and Marital Adjustment of Genitally Circumcised and Infibulated Females in the Sudan. The Journal of Sex Research (August 1989).