Ethics ≠ mc²?

Relativity. Seems like it’s been a hot topic ever since good ol’ Al put the concept into Johnny Commonsense’s vernacular. And I kinda get how it works, at least in the equation sense, with energy and mass and whatnot.

But what about the world of ethics? Does/should/has/can relativity permeate this facet of our existence? I just read an excerpt by Ruth Benedict on the topic.

Her studies of primitive cultures turned up significant differences from our Western “morality.” The theory is that many of our standards simply have not been adopted yet. According to Benedict, we don’t have a monopoly on social good or moral sanity. “Modern civilization, from this point of view, becomes not a necessary pinnacle of human achievment but one entry in a long series of possible adjustments.” Ok. I’ll buy into that sentiment. More advanced isn’t inherently better. And I like the ongoing narrative mindset.

From here though, Benedict goes on to make some points that seem like a little bit of a stretch. I’ll trust her assertion that she found instances where things we deem abnormal (extreme instability, sadism, illusions of grandeur, etc.) function with ease in other cultures. The example she elaborates on is trance. “Even a very mild mystic is aberrant in our culture.” True. But furthermore, “it is hard for us, born and brought up in a culture that makes no use of the experience, to realize how important a role it may play and how many individuals are capable of it, once it has been given an honorable place in any society.” So, many of our discarded traits are selected for elaboration in different societies.

It is on these cultural differences that Benedict’s builds her thesis. Because normality is culturally defined, she asserts, morality is relative. But I just don’t see the bridge between Benedict’s facts and her thesis.

It seems that many of her examples point toward a basic universal morality. Let’s look at a few of them, and I’ll give my two cents.

There was a male social class in many American Indian tribes that took on the dress and role of women at puberty. Sometimes they married other men and lived with them. They were “persons of weak sexual endowment who chose this role to avoid the jeers of the women.” Do not the jeers of the women imply the abnormality of the situation? Does not the desire to avoid the jeers point to some standard of universal gut-level male and female roles?

Note: I’m eager to get this one up. I will insert a couple more examples soon.

For you bibliography nerds, the excerpt came from Benedict’s essay “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” in the Journal of General Psychology, Volume X (1934).


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