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Chapter 3 Ethical Relativism by pharmphresh34

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									Chapter 3: Ethical Relativism
This chapter explains the theory of ethical relativism. As an introductory issue the
question of moral differences is discussed, leading up to the lesson taught by
anthropology that morality is a matter of acculturation. The view of relativity is
questioned and contrasted to the approach of soft universalism. Finally, a discussion of
multiculturalism outlines the pros and cons of ethical relativism.

Main Points

How to Deal with Moral Differences
   Four major ways to approach moral differences: (1) moral nihilism and skepticism, (2)
      ethical relativism, (3) soft universalism, and (4) hard universalism (absolutism). The
      theories are evaluated according to their problem-solving capacity.

The Lessons of Anthropology
    A presentation of the theories of cultural and ethical relativism and an analysis of how
      they differ.
    King Darius compares Greek and Callatian funeral practices.
    According to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, the concept of the normal is a variant of
      the concept of the good.
    Discussion of Benedict’s example of the Northwest Coast Indians.

Is Tolerance All We Need?
     The Singapore caning incident.

Problems with Ethical Relativism
    There are circumstances in which the tolerance of ethical relativism seems
      inappropriate, such as in cases of nations committing genocide on their own population
      and nations allowing infanticide and female circumcision.
(1) Relativism precludes learning from other cultures.
(2) Relativism acknowledges only majority rule.
(3) Are we talking about the professed or the actual morality of a culture?

(4) There is a practical problem in deciding what a majority is.
(5) Similarly, it is difficult to determine what a “culture” is.
(6) Tolerance can’t be a universal value according to the logic of ethical relativism.

Refuting Ethical Relativism

The Flat Earth Argument
      The mere fact that there is cultural disagreement doesn’t ascertain that no common
       ground can be found.

The Problem of Induction
    The problem of induction (the fact that no absolute answer can be reached through
      empirical research) precludes relativism’s rejection of a common moral ground.

Soft Universalism
    All cultures have at least some values in common, even if they express them in different
    James Rachels’s three universal values: caring for enough infants to keep society going;
       prohibition of lying; prohibition of murder.
    Descriptive and normative soft universalism.

Ethical Relativism and Multiculturalism
    Monoculturalism and multiculturalism; the “melting pot” and the “tossed salad.”
    Exclusive multiculturalism (particularism) versus inclusive multi-culturalism
    Problem with inclusive multiculturalism: an overwhelming curriculum.
    Problem with exclusive multiculturalism: may lead to a new form of segregation; may
       be hard to administer in a culture of mixed racial and ethnic ancestry.
    Does multiculturalism preclude having an underlying American identity in common?
       Inclusive multiculturalism can work as a form of soft universalism.


We, as Americans, are a diverse group of individuals. Our diversity finds its source in
our country of origin, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Many of our ancestors
came to America because they wanted to, others because they were forced to as slaves or
indentured servants. As our ancestors arrived, they brought with them cultural habits rich
in values, beliefs, language and communication patterns, holiday celebrations, even food,
music and clothing.

As each group of immigrants assimilated into American culture, the American culture
adapted or changed in response to the new population. This process continues today.
America has been referred to as the “melting pot”, a place where each individual loses its
unique identity or character. More recently, America has been referred to as the “salad
bowl,” a place where the dressing binds together the different cultures, yet allows them to
maintain their own identity or character.

How do you view America, as a “melting pot” or as a “salad bowl”?
Primary Readings
    Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal” (1934), excerpt. In this excerpt
      Benedict tells of the Melanesian paranoid society where it is good manners to assume
      that there is danger of being poisoned.
    Bhikhu Parekh, “The Concept of Multicultural Education” (1986), excerpt. Parekh
      outlines the ill effects of a monocultural education for the minority child as well as for
      the child from the dominant culture.
    Dwight Furrow, “Of Cave Dwellers and Spirits: The Problem with Moral Absolutes”
      provides a discussion of moral subjectivism vs. ethical relativism and why our chosen
      behavior is often found in what is “legal” rather than what is “moral”.

    Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, novel (1993), summary. The novel tells of
      Tashi, a woman from the African Olinka tribe, who in her young adulthood decides to
      have the ritual female circumcision done as a gesture of solidarity with her people. In
      the years that follow, she realizes the enormity of what she has had done to her and the
      fact that her older sister dies as a result of the same procedure. She confronts the shaman
      who performed the procedure; as a result of subsequent events, Tashi is now on trial for
      the murder of the shaman. This story is used to illustrate how practices that are
      unacceptable to most Americans present a challenge to the moral tolerance of ethical
    Sheri S. Tepper, Sideshow, novel (1992), excerpt and summary. Tepper provides a direct
      criticism of the noninterference policy of ethical relativism with her satirical science
      fiction novel, in which the planet Elsewhere is a model for strictly enforced cultural
      diversity. The conjoined twins from earth, Nela and Bertran, help local renegade law
      enforcers Fringe and Danivon put an end to the diversity enclaves.
    Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing, film (1989), summary. Do the Right Thing illustrates the
      issue of racial and cultural diversity in a Brooklyn neighborhood. In a predominantly
      black neighborhood, an Italian pizza restaurant is the focus of attention, and later of
      violence. A young black man is killed by the police, and a riot ensues. The story is used
      to discuss the concept of multiculturalism.
    Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, a novel (1998) provides the reader with a
      message of cultural tolerance. Is it an ethical-relativist approach or is it soft

Some additional narratives illustrating the theme of cultural diversity and ethical
      William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, play (1600)
      Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, novel (1947)
      Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing, novel (1950)
      Lawrence of Arabia, film (1962)
      Hester Street, film (1975)
      Bread and Chocolate, film (1976)
   M. M. Kaye, The Far Pavillions, novel (1978). (Has been made into a fairly good
    television miniseries, but I suggest not using the two-hour video version.)
   It is too abbreviated to make any points whatsoever.)
   E. M. Forester, A Passage to India, novel (1924), film (1984)
   Moscow on the Hudson, film (1984)
   My Beautiful Laundrette, film (1985)
   Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, novel (1989), film (1993)
   Jungle Fever, film (1990)
   The Last of the Mohicans, film (1992)
   A Stranger Among Us, film (1992)
   Thunderheart, film (1992)
   Mississippi Masala, film (1992)
   Bopha!, film (1993)
   Heaven and Earth, film (1993)
   Michael Crichton, Rising Sun, novel and film (1993)
   My Family/Mi Familia, film (1995)
   The Perez Family, film (1995)

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