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Relativism Vs. Universal Taboos

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Relativism Versus Universal Taboo

            In America, nobody cares how you cross your legs when speaking to another person, but in the Middle East, it is a sign of great disrespect to point the sole of your shoe towards another.  This is a tame example of relativism, the idea that each culture is different, and what may be “wrong” or unacceptable in one culture is not considered to be so in another. Lenn Goodman believes that despite relativism, there are certain acts that are, in fact, “wrong” no matter which culture looks at them.  He puts his views forward in “Some Moral Minima,” stating that genocide, terrorism, and rape, to name a few, are specific examples of immoral acts.  In this way, what he is talking about are human universals (Goodman, 2010).  Universals are common traits in all humanity, such as kinship systems, myths, wariness or fear of snakes, and incest (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  In this context, relativism still exists, but these are constant through all human cultures.  In regard to Goodman’s specific claims, each of the examples would need to be looked at to determine if they truly are universals, or if relativism and ethnocentrism color his views.  Specifically, are genocide, terrorism, polygamy, and clitoridectomy ever “right” in any culture?  If they can be shown in any culture to be moral, the issue is subject to relativism, whereas if it cannot, it may be said to be a universal taboo.

First to be discussed is genocide, the act of mass murdering people based on a specific trait, whether race, religion, or lifestyle.  Initial emotivist response to genocide is definitely negative for most, but if it was negative for all, it would not exist.  Take, for example, the tiny island of Tikopia.  The Tikopia have continuously inhabited their tiny island for over three thousand years (Diamond, 2011).  During that time, to prevent overpopulation and famine, they have had to resort to methods of population control that, as Americans, we would find distasteful.  In one example, after a particularly strong storm, one tribe of the Tikopia destroyed another tribe and forced the other into the sea, effectively killing everyone on the island that was not part of their tribe (Diamond, 2011).  In this case, the tribes that were destroyed may think their genocide was immoral, but the tribesmen that then had enough food to continue their society would have thought they were acceptable losses to sustain their kingdom for another millennium.

Another example Professor Goodman cites is terrorism.  What culture could possibly think terrorism is a morally acceptable method of warfare?  Depending on how you define terrorism, a surprising number of cultures.  A broad method of definition could include the guerilla tactics the colonists used against the British in the American Revolution.  Those pesky traitors to the crown would not stand up and fight like true gentlemen, instead hiding in bushes to take pot shots.  The underdog frequently has to resort to unconventional methods of warfare to make their point.  After all, the true purpose of war is to break the enemy’s will to fight, whether by causing unsustainable losses to their soldiers, destroying the economy or war production facilities, or through propaganda.  What better way to break the enemy’s will than by making them make decisions to do immoral acts, like shooting human shields to prevent further loss of life?  When a small group, say Al Qaeda, wants to pick a fight with the most powerful country in the world, like America, they do not go toe to toe in a brawl, but choose more unconventional methods.  We may see killing civilians as immoral, but to those who see America itself as immoral, terrorism is the most effective tool they have at their disposal.

Next on this abbreviated list is polygamy.  Goodman argues that polygamy reduces women to a show of wealth, and makes their happiness and lives completely dependent on whether their husband is fair or not.  Many cultures in this world are polygamous, but the one that is most familiar to Americans is that of the Fundamentalist Mormon religion.  The world has recently been introduced further into this lifestyle through TLC’s hit show “Sister Wives.”  It is not hard to see that while their life may have just as much drama and intrigue as the average monogamous marriage, their problems often seem tame compared to the family problems on other TV shows.  People who believe in polygamy are not likely to think it is immoral, so it is also not a universal truth to humanity.

Finally, we have clitoridectomy, female circumcision, or as many in the West call it, female genital mutilation.  Many criticize this procedure, which prevents female sexual pleasure as a method of preventing women from being unfaithful to their husbands, as a tool to oppress women (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  Women are the ones who perform the procedure, not because they agree with it, but because they know that men will not marry a girl who is uncircumcised, because they are considered wild, uninhibited, and dirty (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  However, there are some women who, perhaps finding the silver lining, say that the clitoris is a male organ, and unclean, so removing it enhances their femininity, cleanliness, and beauty, empowering them (Nowak & Laird, 2010).

In conclusion, if a practice can be shown to be a moral decision in any culture, it is not a true human universal, so relativism still has some credibility. In these examples, genocide, terrorism, polygamy, and clitoridectomy, we have seen that there is at least one culture, if not more, that values these practices.  Outsiders often find them repugnant, and for good reason, but what is immoral to one is not necessarily immoral to another.


Diamond, Jared (2011). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 5402-5406). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

Goodman, Lenn E.. (2010). Some moral minima. The Good Society 19(1), 87-94. Retrieved January 22, 2011, from Project MUSE database.

Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology (S. Wainwright & D. Moneypenny, Eds.).      Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUANT101.10.2/sections/ch00


06/06/2011 - Posted by | College Papers, Thinking | , , , , , ,

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