Ethics Are Relative
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Ruth Benedict, from "Anthropology and the Abnormal"
Kem Stone - 10 September 2007
When I first studied ethics at the beginning of my undergraduate work in philosophy, I was quick to consider
myself a relativist, believing that because morals and values change from time to time and culture to culture, there
can be no solid basis for praising anything as “right” and another “wrong”, seeing as how the same action will be
viewed differently when considered from different points of view. This is the argument put forward by Ruth
Benedict, who adopts the relativistic position from anthropological grounds. However, returning to this argument
after five years, I was surprised to find it considerably weak and vulnerable to objection.
I still agree with Benedict’s primary assertion, that the values championed by modern civilization are not
necessarily superior to those found in primitive cultures, but are merely the values we happen to have developed
over time. Benedict condemns the idea that our values are the right ones—the ones that reflect the true human
nature—and that after thousands of years we have finally arrived at the one true moral code. “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” (134). Our morality is not the correct
morality, but merely one possible code of values among an infinite list of possibilities.
Benedict frames her argument in terms of the question of the distinction in society between the normal and
abnormal, and whether these categories are absolute or culturally determined. She devotes most of her article to
examples from anthropology which show that what one culture considers normal another may consider aberrant
or barbaric, and that this indicates that these categories are in fact determined culturally.
According to Benedict, the best example is that of trance and catalepsy. Mystics who claim psychic abilities or
spiritual powers are present in every culture, and in most cultures are highly valued and respected for their
abilities. Yet in our culture, such people are considered insane, and are often placed in psychiatric institutions.
Yet this was not the case even a few centuries ago, when Catholicism considered such qualities a mark of
sainthood. Homosexuality is another perfect example, as “a tendency toward this trait in our culture exposes an
individual to all the conflicts to which all aberrants are always exposed” (135), while in other cultures in which
homosexuality is not seen as a vice, such as ancient Greece, individuals with such tendencies are perfectly capable
of functioning in society, even in positions of honour.
Benedict also gives examples of cultures in which our idea of normality is completely turned on its head. For
instance, in an island of northwest Melanesia, a society exists in which paranoia and mistrust of one’s neighbours is
the norm. “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” (135). It is a
strictly enforced custom to forbid the sharing of food, as they are so mistrustful that they receive any gift with
suspicion, believing it to be poisoned. In this society, nobody works with or shares with one another, “but there
was one man of sunny, kindly disposition who liked work and to be helpful…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 of his type the model of all virtue, he seemed a pleasant fellow” (136).
These examples all serve to show that normality is culturally defined. An individual shaped by the cultural attitudes
of a primitive society, suddenly transplanted into our own would be considered abnormal, whereas in his own
country he would be considered a model citizen. There is no objective standpoint from which to judge his values
as inferior or superior—the culturally selected values of both have simply evolved along different lines, starting
with an initial preference for certain types of behaviour over others. “Every society, beginning with some slight
inclination in one direction or another, carries it preference farther and farther, integrating itself more and more
completely upon its chosen basis, and discarding those types of behaviour that are uncongenial” (137). Normality
is therefore a term for the typical behaviour of the majority in any society, and abnormality a term for the
behaviours that are uncommon.
Benedict finally links her discussion of normality to the concept of morality. “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 behaviour for a particular society. Its variability among different
peoples is essentially a function of the variability of the behaviour patterns that different societies have created for
themselves, and can never be wholly divorced from a consideration of culturally institutionalized types of
behaviour” (138). Benedict goes on to say that while there may be a universal recurrent of temperament types
(that wherever a sufficient number of individuals exist the entire range of human behaviour will be present), the
proportion of the distribution of these types varies from society to society. The fact that there are so few deviants
in each culture merely indicates that the morality of the majority is easily malleable to whatever societal conditions
Here is my formulation of Benedict’s argument for moral relativism:
1. A ‘normal’ action is one which falls within expected behaviour for a particular society.
2. The ‘normal’ varies among different societies.
3. The ‘normal’ is a variant of the concept of the ‘good.’
4. Therefore the ‘good’ varies among different societies.
5. Therefore ethics are relative—morality is merely socially approved habits.
The problem lies in the third premise, which states only that the ‘normal’ is a variant of the concept of the ‘good’
and not considered synonymous. What is normal in any society, though it may in fact be what is considered right,
is not necessarily right. There is nothing whatsoever in this argument to counter the claim that there may be an
actual objective basis from which to judge whether the normal is in fact the good, and as long as a schism exists
between normal and good, we need not accept the claim of moral relativism.
In many societies, racial bigotry and the persecution of the minority by the majority is the normal behaviour. One
group may consider the values of another group to be wrong or inferior, and it will chastise or even do physical
harm to the “inferior” group. Moral relativism, though by its very nature is a philosophy of tolerance, has no basis
upon which to condemn this intolerance. If bigotry and intolerance are the normal, and therefore the good in a
certain society, the moral relativist has naught to say but that we can not impose our own values on the members
of this society, albeit that this is an expression of the very same value which this society rejects.
However, it is important to consider that although moral relativism is such a weak position, there are no strong
alternatives. On what basis can we judge anything right or wrong? Most appeal to their religion, but for the
atheist or agnostic this is not an option. Utilitarianism offers a promising framework but upon scrutiny often
prescribes one moral horror in place of a greater moral horror, and we may not believe that the ends always
justify the means. Any ethical system it seems is fraught with problems and difficulties, and though we are quick to
use the term “ought” in our arguments, we must never neglect to make clear the basis upon which we form our
value judgments. The previous sentence is itself a value judgment, presupposing the justification of an ethical claim
as something to be desired.
In the end, whether one accepts or rejects any ethical argument depends on whether he or she agrees with the
presupposed values of the person framing the argument. If one believes tolerance to be of ultimate value, he or
she will be quick to accept the argument for moral relativism. However, if one believes truth to be of ultimate
value, he or she may not wish to concede that the ‘good’ is whatever any given society has established as good,
and will continue to seek an objective basis from which to form the value judgments we inevitably form. The
alternative is to withhold judgment entirely on all ethical matters, but to the philosophically inclined this is about as
impossible as writing an argument without using the word “of.”