Glendale Community College A Defense of Ethical Relativism Summary
This is an article by Ruth Benedict called A Defense of Ethical Relativism. Read it and write a two or three paragraph summary of it, Clearly state what you take to be the main point (the thesis) of the article. Then describe the evidence and/or reasoning that Benedict offers in favor of her view.
A Defense of Ethical Relativism
From Benedict, Ruth “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” Journal of General Psychology, 10, 1934.
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), a foremost American anthropologist, taught at
Columbia University, and she is best known for her book Pattern of Culture
(1935). Benedict views social systems as communities with common beliefs
and practices, which have become integrated patterns of ideas and practices.
Like a work of art, a culture chooses which theme from its repertoire of
basic tendencies to emphasize and then produces a grand design, favoring
those tendencies. The final systems differ from one another in striking ways,
but we have no reason to say that one system is better than another. Once a
society has made the choice, normalcy will look different, depending on the
idea-practice pattern of the culture.
Benedict views morality as dependent on the varying histories and
environments of different cultures. In this essay she assembles an
impressive amount of data from her anthropological research of tribal
behavior on an island in northwest Melanesia from which she draws her
conclusion that moral relativism is the correct view of moral principles.
MODERN SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY has become more and more a study of
the varieties and common elements of cultural environment and the consequences
of these in human behavior. For such a surly of diverse social orders primitive
peoples fortunately provide a laboratory not yet entirely vitiated by the spread of a
standardized worldwide civilization. Dyaks and Hopis, Fijians and Yakuts arc
significant for psychological and sociological study because only among these
simpler peoples has there been sufficient isolation to give opportunity for the
development of localized social forms. In the higher cultures the standardization of
custom and belief over a couple of continents has given a false sense of the
inevitability of the particular forms at have gained currency, and we need to turn to
a wider survey in order to check the conclusions we hastily base upon this nearuniversality of familiar customs. Most of the simpler cultures did not gain the wide
currency of the one which, out of our experience, we identify with human nature,
but this was for various historical reasons, and certainly not for any that gives us as
its carriers a monopoly of social good or of social sanity. Modern civilization, from
this point of view, becomes not a necessary pinnacle of human achievement but
one entry in a long series of possible adjustments.
These adjustments, whether they are in mannerisms like the ways of showing
anger, or joy, or grief in any society, or in major human drives like those of sex,
prove to be far more variable than experience in any one culture would suggest. In
certain fields, such as that of religion or of formal marriage arrangements, these
wide limits of variability are well known and can be fairly described. In others it is
not yet possible to give a generalized account, but that does not absolve us of the
task of indicating the significance of the work that has been done and of die
problems that have arisen.
One of these problems relates to the customary modern normal-abnormal
categories and our conclusions regarding them. In how far are such categories
culturally determined, or in how far can we with assurance regard them as absolute?
In how far can we regard inability to function socially as abnormality, or in how far
is it necessary to regard this as a function of the culture?
As a matter of fact, one of the most striking facts that emerge front a stud of
widely varying cultures is the ease with which our abnormals function in other
cultures. It does not matter what kind of “abnormality” we choose for illustration,
those which indicate extreme instability, or those which are more in the nature of
character traits like sadism or delusions grandeur or of persecution, there are welldescribed cultures in which these abnormals function at ease and with honor, and
apparently without danger or difficulty to the society.
The most notorious of these is trance and catalepsy. Even a very mild mystic is
aberrant in our culture. But most peoples have regarded even extreme psychic
manifestations not only as normal and desirable, but even as characteristic of
highly valued and gifted individuals. This was true even in our own cultural
background in that period when Catholicism made the ecstatic experience the mark
of sainthood. It is hard for its, 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
Cataleptic and trance phenomena are, of course, only one illustration of the fact
that those whom we regard as abnornials may function adequately in other cultures.
Many of our culturally discarded traits are selected for elaboration in different
societies. Homosexuality is an excellent example, for in this case our attention is
not constantly diverted, as in the consideration of trance, to the interruption of
routine activity which it implies. Homosexuality poses problem very simply. A
tendency toward this trait in our culture exposes an individual to all the conflicts to
which all aberrants are always exposed, and we tend to identify the consequences
of this conflict with homosexuality. But these consequences are obviously local
and cultural. Homosexuals in many societies are not incompetent, but they may be
such if the culture asks adjustments of them that would strain any man’s vitality.
Wherever homosexuality has been given an honorable place in any society, those
to whom it is congenial have filled adequately the honorable roles society assigns
to them. Plato’s Republic is, of course, the most convincing statement of such a
reading of homosexuality. It is presented as one of the major means to the good life,
and it was generally so regarded in Greece at that time.
The cultural attitude toward homosexuals has not always been on such a high
ethical plane, but it has been very varied. Among many American Indian tribes
there exists the institution of the berdache, as the French called them. These menwomen were men who at puberty or thereafter took the dress and the occupations
of women. Sometimes they married other men and lived with them. Sometimes
they were men with no inversion, persons of weak sexual endowment who chose
this role to avoid the jeers of the women. The berdaches were never regarded as of
first-rate supernatural power, as similar men-women were in Siberia, but rather as
leaders in women’s occupations, good healers in certain diseases, or, among certain
tribes, as the genial organizers of social affairs. In any case, they were socially
placed. They were not left exposed to the conflicts that visit the deviant who is
excluded from participation in the recognized patterns of his society.
The most spectacular illustrations of the extent to which normality may be
culturally defined are those cultures where an abnormality of our culture is the
cornerstone of their social structure. It is not possible to do justice to these
possibilities in a short discussion. A recent study of an island of northwest
Melanesia by Fortune describes a society built upon traits which we regard as
beyond the border of paranoia. In this tribe the exogamic groups look upon each
other as prime manipulators of black magic, so that one marries always into an
enemy group which remains for life one’s deadly and unappeasable foes. They look
upon a good garden crop as a confession of theft, for everyone is engaged in
making magic to induce into his garden the productiveness of his neighbors’;
therefore no secrecy in the island is so rigidly insisted upon as the secrecy of a
man’s harvesting of his yams. Their polite phrase at the acceptance of a gift is,
“And if you now poison me, how shall I repay you this present?” Their
preoccupation with poisoning is constant; no woman ever leaves her cooking pot
for a moment unattended. Even the great affinal economic exchanges that are
characteristic of this Melanesian culture area are quite altered in Dobu since they
are incompatible with this fear and distrust that pervades the culture. They go
farther and people the whole world outside their own quarters with such malignant
spirits that all-night feasts and ceremonials simply do not occur here. They have
even rigorous religiously enforced customs that forbid the sharing of seed even in
one family group. Anyone else’s food is deadly poison to you, so that communality
of’ stores is out of the question. For some months before harvest the whole society
is on the verge of starvation, but if one falls to the temptation and eat up one’s seed
yams, one is an outcast and a beachcomber for life. There is no corning back. It
involves, as a matter of course, divorce and the breaking of all social ties.
Now in this society where no one may work with another and no one may share
with another, Fortune describes the individual who was regarded by all his fellows
as crazy. He was not one of those who periodically ran amok and, beside himself
and frothing at the mouth, fell with a knife upon anyone lie could reach. Such
behavior they did not regard as putting anyone outside the pale. They did not even
put the individuals who were known to be liable to these attacks under any kind of
control. They merely fled when they saw the attack coming oil and kept out of the
way. “He would be all right tomorrow.” Brit there was one man of sunny, kindly
disposition who liked work and liked to be helpful. The compulsion was too strong
for him to repress it in favor of the opposite tendencies of his culture. Men and
women never spoke of him without laughing; he was silly and simple and
definitely crazy. Nevertheless, to the ethnologist used to a culture that has, in
Christianity, made his type the model of all virtue, he seemed a pleasant fellow….
… Among the Kwakiutl it did not matter whether a relative had died in bed of
disease, or by the hand of an enemy, in either case death was an affront to he wiped
out by the death of another person. The fact that one had been caused to mourn was
proof that one had been put upon. A chief’s sister and her daughter had gone up to
Victoria, and either because they drank bad whiskey or because their boat capsized
they never came back. The chief called together his warriors, “Now I ask you,
tribes, who shall wail? Shall I do it or shall another?” The spokesman answered, of
course, “Not you, Chief. Let some other of the tribes.” Immediately they set up the
war pole to announce their intention of wiping out the injury, and gather a war
party. They set out, and found seven men and two children asleep and killed them.
“Then they felt good when they arrived at Sebaa in the evening.”
The point which is of interest to us is that in our society those who on that
occasion would feel good when they arrived at Sebaa that evening would be the
definitely abnormal. There would be some, even in our society, but it is not a
recognized and approved mood under the circumstance. On the Northwest Coast
those are favored and fortunate to whom that mood under those circumstances is
congenial, and those to whom it is repugnant are unlucky. This latter minority can
register ill their own culture only by doing violence to their congenial responses
and acquiring other that are difficult for them. The person, for instance, who, like a
Plains Indian whose wife has been taken from him, is too proud to fight, can deal
with the Northwest Coast civilization only by ignoring its strongest bents. If he
cannot achieve it, lie is the deviant in that culture, their instance of abnormality.
This head-hunting that takes place on the Northwest Coast after a death is no
matter of blood revenge or of organized vengeance. There is no effort to tie tip the
subsequent killing with any responsibility on the part of the victim for the death of
the person who is being mourned. A chief whose son has died goes visiting
wherever his fancy dictates, and he says to his host, “My prince has died today, and
you go with him.” Then lie kills him. In this, according to their interpretation, he
acts nobly because he has not been downed. He has thrust back in return. The
whole procedure is meaningless without the fundamental paranoid reading of bereavement. Death, like all the other untoward accidents of existence, confounds
man’s pride and can only be handled in the category of insults.
The behavior honored upon the Northwest Coast is one which is recognized as
abnormal in our civilization, and yet it is sufficiently close to the attitudes of our
own culture to be intelligible to its and to have a definite vocabulary with which we
may discuss it. The megalomaniac paranoid trend is a definite danger in our society.
It is encouraged by some of our major preoccupations, and it confronts us with a
choice of two possible attitudes. One is to brand it as abnormal and reprehensible,
and is the attitude we have chosen in our civilization. The other is to make it an
essential attribute of ideal man, and this is the solution in the culture of the
These illustrations, which it has been possible to indicate only in the briefest
manner, force upon us the fact that normality is culturally defined. An adult shaped
to the drives and standards of either of these cultures, if lie were transported into
our civilization, would fall into our categories of abnormality. He would be faced
with the psychic dilemmas of the socially unavailable. In his own culture, however,
he is the pillar of society, the end result of socially inculcated mores, and the
problem of personal instability in his case simply does not arise.
No one civilization can possibly utilize in its mores the whole potential range of
human behavior. Just as there are great numbers of possible phonetic articulations,
and the possibility of language depends on a selection and standardization of a few
of these in order that speech communication may be possible at all, so the
possibility of organized behavior of every sort, from the fashions of local dress and
houses to the dicta of a people’s ethics and religion, depends upon a similar
selection among the possible behavior traits. In the field of recognized economic
obligations or sex tabus this selection is as nonrational and subconscious a process
as it is in the field of phonetics. It is a process which goes on in the group for long
periods of time and is historically conditioned by innumerable accidents of
isolation or of contact of peoples. In any comprehensive study of psychology, the
selection that different cultures have made in the course of history within the great
circumference of potential behavior is of great significance.
Every society, beginning with some slight inclination in one direction or
another, carries its preference farther and farther, integrating itself more and mole
completely upon its chosen basis, and discarding those type of behavior that are
uncongenial. Most of those organizations of personality that seem to us most
uncontrovertibly abnormal have been used by different civilizations in the very
foundations of their institutional life. Conversely the most valued traits of our
normal individuals have been looked on in differently organized cultures as
aberrant. Normality, in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined. It is
primarily a term for the socially elaborated segment of human behavior in any
culture; and abnormality, a term for the segment that particular civilization does
not use. The very eyes with which we see the problem are conditioned by the long
traditional habits of our own society.
It is a point that has been made more often in relation to ethics than in relation
to psychiatry. We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of
our locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature.
We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality
differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.
Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is a morally good,” rather than “It is
habitual,” and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of
ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.
The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of the good. It is
that which society has approved. A normal action is one which falls well within the
limits of expected behavior for a particular society. Its variability among different
peoples is essentially a function of the variability of the behavior patterns that
different societies have created for themselves, and can never be wholly divorced
from a consideration of culturally institutionalized types of behavior.
Each culture is a more or less elaborate working-out of the potentialities of the
segment it has chosen. In so far as a civilization is well integrated and consistent
within itself, it will tend to carry farther and farther, according to its nature, its
initial impulse toward a particular type of action, and from the point of view of any
other culture those elaborations will include more and more extreme and aberrant
Each of these traits, in proportion as it reinforces the chosen behavior patterns
of that culture, is for that culture normal. Those individuals to whom it is congenial
either congenitally, or as the result of childhood sets, are accorded prestige in that
culture, and are not visited with the social contempt or disapproval which their
traits would call clown upon them in a society that was differently organized. On
the other hand, those individuals whose characteristics are not congenial to the
selected type of human behavior in that community are the deviants, no matter how
valued their personality traits may be in a contrasted civilization.
The Dohuan who is not easily susceptible to fear of treachery, who enjoys work
and likes to be helpful, is their neurotic and regarded as silly. On the Northwest
Coast the person who finds it difficult to read life in terms of an insult contest will
be the person upon whom fall all the difficulties of the culturally unprovided for.
The person who does not find it easy to humiliate a neighbor, nor to see
humiliation in his own experience, who is genial and loving, may, of course, find
some unstandardized way of achieving satisfactions in his society, but not in the
major patterned responses that his culture requires of him. If he is born to play an
important role in a family with many hereditary privileges, he can succeed only by
doing violence to his whole personality. If he does not succeed, he has betrayed his
culture; that is, he is abnormal.
I have spoken of individuals as having sets toward certain types of behavior,
and of these sets as running sometimes counter to the types of behavior which are
institutionalized in the culture to which they belong. From all that we know of
contrasting cultures it seems clear that differences of temperament occur in every
society. The matter has never been made the subject of investigation, but from the
available material it would appeal that these temperament types are very likely of
universal recurrence. That is, there is an ascertainable range of human behavior
that is found wherever a sufficiently large series of individuals is observed. But the
proportion in which behavior types stand to one another in different societies is not
universal. The vast majority of individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion
of that culture. In other words, most individuals are plastic to the moulding force of
the society into which they are born. In a society that values trance, as in India,
they will have supernormal experience. In a society that institutionalizes
homosexuality, they will be homosexual. In a society that sets the gathering of
possessions as the chief human objective, they will amass property. The deviants,
whatever the type of behavior the culture has institutionalized, will remain few in
number, and there seems no more difficulty in moulding the vast malleable majority to the “normality” of what we consider an aberrant trait, such as delusions of
reference, than to the normality of such accepted behavior patterns as
acquisitiveness. The small proportion of the number of the deviants in any culture
is not a function of the sure instinct with which that society has built itself upon the
fundamental sanities, but of the universal fact that, happily, the majority of
mankind quite readily take any shape that is presented to them.