Ethical Relativism

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 near-

universality 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 well-

described 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 men-

women 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 be-

reavement. 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

Northwest Coast.

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 majori-

ty 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.

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