Ethical Relativism & Ruth Benedict's Anthropology and the Abnormal

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  • 0:01 Who Is Normal?
  • 1:06 Cultural Norms
  • 3:01 Ethical Relativism
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, examine what you think is normal and what is abnormal when it comes to morality. Learn Ruth Benedict's approach to ethics and her belief in the power of culture to shape our values.

Who Is Normal?

Jack is on the verge of starvation. His brother has a small amount of food in his home and a small crop ready to be harvested. Jack goes to his brother to request a bit of food to keep him fed until his own crop is ready. Jack says he can repay his brother with food as soon as he can. His brother rejects him and sends him away angrily.

As he's about to leave, Jack takes a look at his brother's crops, and since he's dying from being without food, he takes a bite out of a tomato. His brother sees him, chases him away, and tells others in the community. Jack is now a complete outcast, never to set foot in the community again as long as he lives, because of a single bite.

Who is behaving in a normal, moral way in this case? Jack, or his brother and the whole community? This lesson explores how what is normal may differ from culture to culture and how Ruth Benedict described this. You'll learn the definition of ethical relativism and how this relates to our story about a very hungry Jack and his stingy brother.

Cultural Norms

What could possibly justify the reaction of Jack's brother and the community, to treat a starving man as an outcast for requesting some small amount of food from a family member when he even offered to repay him?

In our culture, sharing of resources among family members is often seen as appropriate to a certain degree. While it may not be seen as normal to support an adult family member financially for the long term, a family member who is starving would probably receive a small amount of food from a brother in dire circumstances like Jack's.

But what if your culture had developed to believe that the sharing of food is simply not done, ever? What if even in cases of being near starvation, a person is not justified in taking a bite of even a family member's food?

Does this seem abnormal and wrong? Well, imagine now that the culture is built on a central concept that another person's food may actually be poison to you; that it could be dangerous and other food is not to be trusted. Leaving your pot of food on the stove even for a few minutes is inviting you to the possibility of contamination by another person.

These beliefs are part of a study of an island culture that Ruth Benedict cites in her essay, Anthropology and the Abnormal. She claims that the people in this culture believe that everyone else is using black magic to poison them. As strange as it may sound, she argues, that is what they believe and how they operate. This is not a pathological fear or a temporary panic, according to her, but simply how the culture functions day in and day out.

This philosophy involving the fear of another person's food affects every aspect of human interactions in this culture. Imagine, for instance, that the polite thing to say when you receive a gift is: 'And if you now poison me, how shall I repay you this present?' A bit different than the typical reaction in our culture where we open a gift and say, 'Thanks, I love it!'

Ethical Relativism

Benedict uses this and other examples to demonstrate that cultures have different ethical standards, and that no one outside of a culture can possibly claim to know what is moral and good in that culture. For her, ethical relativism means that a person's morals are completely shaped by culture. In this view, a normal action is one which falls well within the limits of expected behavior for a particular society and is not based on any universal moral code.

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