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Against Relativism

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The nature of ethics as described within the branch of ethics known as meta-ethics is incredibly important to philosophers and non-philosophers during this present age. There is much discussion as to whether cultural relativism is true or not. Cultural relativism is the view that rightness is based solely on the ideals of a culture and not objective in nature and that one culture cannot criticize another culture’s morality. Ethical objectivism says that opposite – that at least some morals are universal and unchanging and do not depend on human opinion. This dilemma as to whether ethics are culturally relative or objective can be demonstrated through the test case of female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is a practice most commonly found in parts of Africa and involves either amputation of the clitoris or both the clitoris and the inner lips of a woman’s vagina. “The World Health Organization estimates that overall, in today’s world between 85 and 115 million women have had such operations” (Nussbaum). This practice leads to much infection, pain during intercourse, and other severe problems in the future for the woman. It is also usually done on children as young as four years old. Now the question is: is this practice just culturally relative and can we even judge a culture different from ours? This will be the main focus of this essay.


Female genital mutilation (referred to FGM from here on) cannot just be a culturally relative practice but one that is objectively wrong. It is true that there are relative mores and norms from society to society. It is even true that some laws are completely arbitrary and relative – for instance, speed limit laws. But in the case of FGM, this practice is objectively unethical. Before I can prove this assertion, I would like to begin by showing that criticism of other cultures ethical practices is at the very least possible if not necessary and worthwhile.


Generally critics of objectivism will say that one cannot reasonably criticize another culture unless that person is part of the culture. This criticism seems to stem from the idea of tolerance. Criticism against another culture can appear to be very intolerant. It seems that if one believes that ethics are objective then ethics are culturally blind and universal. Thus, they criticize rightly because their view demands it. For example, murder is always wrong regardless of what a culture might think about it. If a culture were to consider murder right, well they would still be wrong because morals are objective. The objectivist can point this out by showing that their behavior does not fit with the way moral values are. Also, humans use reasoning and logic which are not confined by culture. It seems reasonable to think that one can criticize another culture by reasoning out the arguments for and against any position. Logic transcends any localization and Immanuel Kant would think that it is good to reason out ethics. It seems possible to be able to criticize cultures to at least some extent.


Now that it has been shown that criticism of other cultures is possible, the proposition “FGM is unethical” can be proved. At face value FGM seems unethical because it causes harm to the woman. The woman has much pain and infection throughout her life. Intuitively this seems wrong unless one is a sadist. It seems objectively wrong to cause unnecessary pain. It does not matter as to what the culture thinks or not. Under the objectivist view an entire culture could be wrong about some ethical position. Another problem for FGM would be the age at which it is generally performed. Since the child is so young there is no consent from the child. Thus, it is unethical to force a child to do something which she did not even freely choose to decide when it comes to an issue regarding the destruction of genitalia. Not only does FGM cause pain to a woman but it also deprives them of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure in the correct circumstances seems to be a good thing since it promotes human flourishing and growth with societies. This promotes population size and offspring. FGM takes this pleasure away from the woman. They will never experience any type of sexual pleasure but the male will. This also seems to promote a type of male domination within societies that practice FGM.


The strongest argument for FGM is that it promotes cultural continuity (Nussbaum). According to the FGM proponent, the very fact that it keeps these societies together shows that it must be in some way an ethical practice. But this seems to be a non-sequitur – it does not follow from the premises that the conclusion is true. Just because a practice is widely accepted within a culture does not make it right for that culture. That doesn’t seem to even logically follow. It seems to be employing a logical fallacy known as an appeal to common practice. This faulty reasoning seeks to prove a practice because it is common or widely accepted. This type of reasoning is wrong. It seems that even the supposed strongest argument for FGM falls flat.


Cultural relativism is seems to be false and also ethical objectivism true. It seems right that different cultures can criticize each other. And it also seems right that there are some objective moral truths that are universal and not culturally localized.


Note: This essay was written on November 30, 2011. The works cited page has been lost.


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