Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation
The Guardian newspaper has today launched a campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). This coincides with evidence that, despite being illegal, a significant number of young women from the UK undergo the practice. Globally, more than 125 million living women have had some form of FGM performed.
Female genital mutilation is a classic example of a practice that is proscribed in some cultures, but permitted in others. The historian Herodotus described the contrasting practices of two cultures towards their dead. The ancient Greeks cremated their dead, while the Callatian Indians would eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. Members of both cultures were horrified when they learned of the other’s apparently barbaric way of treating their dead.
Contrasting world views, like those of the Callatians and the Greeks, are sometimes thought to support a particular view about morality – that of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism notes that cultures vary in what they regard as right and wrong, standards vary from place to place and over time, there is no universal standard, and consequently it is mistaken to criticize the practices of another culture. According to cultural relativism, FGM is neither right nor wrong. It is wrong according to western standards, but may be permissible according to the values of other societies.
There are a number of arguments against cultural relativism. As powerfully and persuasively argued by philosopher James Rachels, the basic argument in favour of cultural relativism is logically flawed. The conclusions do not follow from the premises. Furthermore, relativism would give us no ability to criticism anti-semitism in Nazi Germany, nor any reason to think that society had made any moral progress over time (for example in banning slavery). That is utterly implausible.
However, there is another form of cultural relativism that is relevant to debates about FGM. One question that arises when FGM (or other controversial socially variable practices) are discussed is how much weight we should give to the “cultural value” of a particular practice. In some cultures FGM is an important rite of passage for young women. Similar arguments are sometimes given in favour of fox-hunting, the killing of seals by the Inuit, or Metzizah B’Peh (a variant of male circumcision involving oral suction and imposing a risk of herpes), or the inclusion of hereditary peers in a parliamentary democracy. The idea is that certain practices have value by virtue of their practice over a long period of time, their inclusion in historic texts and art forms, their association with cultural identity. If we were to ban FGM or fox hunting or Metzizah B’Peh something of cultural value would be lost.
How important a factor should cultural value be in ethical debates? According to cultural relativism we should give cultural value just as much weight as other factors. It would justify allowing FGM, if that is important to a culture. It is just a question of how much weight a culture puts on tradition compared with the rights of women, for example. However, I have already suggested that cultural relativism is mistaken. A second, more credible, view is that we should give some weight to cultural value. On this view it may depend how important to a culture a particular practice is. Sometimes, the cultural value will outweigh other ethical considerations (as it seems to in Canadian law on seal hunting), sometimes it won’t. Yet, there is a third possibility. I believe that we should give no weight to cultural value in ethical debate. When we are weighing up the moral reasons in favour or against fox-hunting or FGM, seal hunting or the Lords, cultural value has no place at all. Why should we take this view? Although morality is not relative, culture is relative. Cultural value does change from place to place, and over time. It is not immutable. It is entirely contingent whether or not something is valued, or how it is valued. Moreover, it is entirely possible to deliberately change the rituals. We can keep parts of rituals that connect us with our forebears, while rejecting others. In the Guardian, Sarah Tenoi describes an alternate rite of passage that she and other Maasai women have developed that involves all of the traditional ceremonial elements, but without genital cutting. Similarly, it is possible to adjust cultural practices to avoid risk of herpes for male infants.
Accepting this point does not put an end to debate. There could be other persuasive reasons to allow fox-hunting or FGM or hereditary peerage (though I doubt it). However, when we are considering the morality of a particular practice, culture value is of no significance.