Anthro Mini-Lecture: Moral Relativity versus Cultural Relativity

Recently, I was reading the comments section on an article by the Washington Post about the practice of chhaupadi in Nepal. To offer a brief bit of background, chhaupadi is the practice of sequestering menstruating women in makeshift outdoor sheds, cattle barns, or huts beyond the main courtyard in the belief that their monthly blood is offensive and polluting to men and to the household deities. But while chhaupadi has been outlawed in Nepal for the better part of a decade, it is still practiced largely in the Western parts of the country and has been in the news as of late due to a spate of deaths caused by exposure, illness, smoke inhalation, and most recently, snakebite. But I’m not here to talk specifically about the problems of chhaupadi, I’m here to talk about a specific comment in relation to an article about chhaupadi. It read as follows:


“Women’s rights have so far to go. But they keep letting them get away with it because “religion” and “culture.””


Setting aside the ambiguous “they/them” here for a moment, this comment reveals one of the most pervasive ongoing misconceptions about understanding cultural practices and advancing the causes of gender equality globally: The notion that just because a practice is rooted in history or tradition, intellectuals and social scientists will justify it on the grounds that “it is their practice therefore it is OK.” (See Also: July 7th, 2017 – “The Other Side of Altruism”) While I acknowledge a history here of the privileged West standing in judgment of the “primitive” and “backwards” East, I feel it is incumbent upon me to point out another fallacy at work. Because unfortunately, what this viewpoint does is to continuously confuse cultural relativity (the bedrock of anthropological practice) with moral relativity (a long-standing philosophical question).

In short, cultural relativity calls upon us to understand particular cultural practices from the perspectives of those who actually engage in the practice. For example, it is important to understand that female circumcision is rooted in larger social systems of purity and marriage and that its ongoing use is embedded in local understandings of sex, reproduction, and gendered biology. Or, perhaps more saliently in this case, that chhaupadi continues because of broader views on ritual participation, domestic spaces, the relationship between humans and gods and spirits, and the value placed on female labor. In other words, it is essential to view a given practice in the context within which it is produced or more bluntly, what do the people who do the thing think about the things they do. This does not mean, however, that these practices cannot be judged on the harm they cause, the lives they end, and the systems of oppression they support.

Moral relativism is the position that individual or social moral and ethical ideals are not reflective of universal moral facts. For this reason, moral relativism focuses on claims of good and evil relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal circumstances. In other words, moral relativism accepts the legitimacy of moral frameworks which are dependent on the people who have them. In recent years, however, moral relativism has been used to presume that anything can be justified so long as it can be explained relatively (which was not the point, but I digress). Furthermore, with the confusion between cultural relativism and moral relativism becoming more common, we are then left with more and more like the short comment above that gives us a “they,” a “them,” a brutal practice of exclusion that habitually kills women, and no foreseeable recourse.

Ultimately, there is a sense of blame which goes around and comes around every time another article like the Washington Post’s pops up on our screens. Do we blame the husbands, fathers, and mothers who maintain an outmoded and illegal practice that resulted in the death of their wife or daughter? Do we blame a culture that perpetuates these beliefs and practices through collective pressures? Do we blame an unstable government for not doing enough to force the practice to end? Do we blame ourselves for looking down our own noses and indignantly sniffing about “imbecilic religion” or “feeble-minded bumpkins” even though we have little understanding of the day to day lives of poor rural Nepalis? The problem here is that, in each case, finding fault is uncritically taken to be the best way of fixing an untenable situation. If we could just “name and punish the guilty,” (whomever or whatever that might be) everything would be fine. Morals are relative but blame is universal apparently.

But, unfortunately, nothing is that simple. Another young woman is dead but there are no villains here. At every step, from chhaupadi to menstruation, from menstruation to the gods, from the gods to men and women, from men and women to marriage, from marriage to domestic labor, and from domestic labor to ritual obligation; there are faults at every level. There is a system at work, each turn relying on the one before it and contingent on the one that follows it. Chhaupadi is just one piece of a ceaseless and enduring process of lived lives, community survival, and cultural identity. This means, of course, that fixing one part of the process means fixing them all. And I don’t have to be the one to tell you that this is a far more daunting task than just laying a bit of blame and wringing your hands. Change is slow and difficult and what we need to do is to cooperate on solutions rather than trying to exorcise the Devil, and burn the witches. It’s about time we came to terms with the fact that we are the cause of our own misery.

This doesn’t mean that we should be discouraged. Just because a problem is difficult and complicated doesn’t mean it can’t be solved but we need to start seeing these situations as more complicated than the eternal, reductionist, contest between Good and Evil. Let’s not look down upon chhaupadi (or any of the many other viscerally oppressive practices out there) as the inevitable product of a stupid, backwards, and uneducated peoples; but rather, let’s look at it as a very good place to start. No belief system exists outside of the people who practice it. What too many of them are lacking is opportunity, knowledge, and possibility; not integrity. Afford people the capacity to change and they will likely surprise you.



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