When Morality Should Not Be an Issue

There is an interesting dialogue going on within the field of cultural anthropology that addresses whether or not anthropologists have a moral responsibility to defend human rights. This discussion is a result of

anthropologists making philosophical claims about the nature of morality, an activity anthropologists should not be focusing on. The main purpose of cultural anthropology is to observe and analyze the differences in structures of society around the world and not to make value judgments because making value judgments while attempting to objectively record and observe cultural practices hinders the anthropologist’s ability to remain completely neutral to the subject matter. This neutrality is necessary so that other fields such as philosophy can appropriately evaluate the human condition and its role in the nature of reality.
Anthropology is a holistic science that observes, analyzes, and compares the past, present, and future of the human experience. Within this definition, there are four subcategories of anthropology: biological, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists study the diversity of culture. They attempt to explain differences and similarities between cultures by developing theories for how societies operate. They attempt to find the underlying meaning behind the behaviors and norms of a given society (Robbins 12).

A major problem found by most anthropologists is how an anthropology should approach and understand cultural differences. Europeans were exposed to “primitive” peoples during a period of discovery and exploration in the 1800’s. It was a lot like a close encounter of a third kind for these explorers because the masses were not aware of other beings living on Earth. Questions arose about the human species. Were humans everywhere essentially the same or was cultural and biological diversity so great that the unity of human kind did not exist? Are these “primitives” human? Do they have a soul or a religion? Anthropology was a field developed to help answer these questions by observing the different cultures.

The relationship between the fieldworker and the native was asymmetrical, however. The natives did not have a choice or a voice against anthologists studying their culture because the anthropologists had more power both in numbers and in weaponry. Anthropologists could, without question, intrude into the lives of non-Europeans and put them under a microscope as if they were specimens. The judgments of these anthropologists were not value free because bias, especially then, was always present. Power was given to the researcher, and the researcher believed what he or she saw and recorded was “the God’s truth.” Ethnocentrism is the concept of believing that your own society’s norms are better than other’s because they are true. Your reality is the only reality. Anthropologists do not rely on their own culture to understand other cultures because to do so would contaminate their research.

This power relationship discloses the true imperialistic nature of anthropology in the 1800’s. Intellectual movements such as the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859 also caused elitist attitudes to dominate the majority’s mind. Darwin suggested that human instincts, including morality, only existed because these instincts at one point in human evolution allowed for humans to survive. The idea of survival of the fittest and progress through evolution heavily influenced people such as Thomas H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer to apply progressive evolution to entire societies, termed Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists believed that wealth and power in a society was a sign of a highly developed culture, and the more developed a culture was, the higher their moral superiority was (Boss 108-110).

This outlook allowed for anthropologists and the nations they were working for to look down on any different, primitive culture and regard them as morally inferior. This, in turn, served as a justification for the colonization of these people. Anthropologists then used these “savage” cultures to illustrate human ancestry as if these “primitive” cultures were so far behind in development that they were a historical window in to the past of the dominate culture.

As anthropology continued o develop at the turn of the twentieth century, new anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Franz Boaz began to speak out against viewing the native as “primitive.” In 1934, Ruth Benedict published “Patterns of Culture,” in which she debunked social Darwinism and puts in its place cultural relativism in order to prevent the imperialistic tendencies that resulted from Social Darwinism. She claimed that although cultures differ, the civilized society does not necessarily have a higher developed sense of morality. All cultures, Benedict asserted, have the same amount of history behind them and the dominate culture has no right to judge the morality of another culture as wrong (111).

By dismissing altogether the notion of a universal moral code by which any community of people can use as a standard for judging the morality of another community, Benedict claimed what is right and wrong is dictated by the community and is relative to that community alone. Right is what the community approves of and morality is equivalent with custom alone as she mentioned in her article, “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” This is cultural relativism.

At first glance, this theory seems very plausible and useful. When it gained popularity, the theory prevented the dominate society from justifying the exploitation of other, less powerful cultures and ethnocentric ideas of superiority. No longer could one society look at another and judge their actions because according to cultural relativism, morality is contingent on the context of the society. It also is very useful today. The observation that what I deem as right is only so because my society approves of it almost leads me to question my cultures norms and creates in me this need to explore other cultures way of life (Rachels 30).

Despite these benefits, however, there are numerous problems with cultural relativism. First, imagine if cultural relativism were true. Initially, it seems like a good idea to not judge the moral practices of another culture, but what about the Nazi regime in Germany. If everyone adhered to cultural relativism, then no one could justify going to war against Germany to stop the elimination of the Jewish people. Slavery in America would be morally acceptable. With the ability to label certain activities of a culture morally wrong, we would be unable to criticize any culture for the obstruction of human rights.

Also, it is very easy for you or I to imagine how our society could be better; we can think of things that might improve our society. Cultural relativism, however, states that this is impossible. If a society things slavery is right, then it is right without objection and to suggest otherwise would be to go against society’s moral code. This notion erases any concept of cultural progress. Most would say the abolishment of slavery was a form of progress for the United States of America, but according to cultural relativism, progress would never occur. Progress suggests the society improved, and to improve is to be better. “Better” is a value judgment and value judgments are not allowed in the realm of cultural relativism.

Aside from this, cultural relativism is not logical. Benedict observed that differences were present in what cultures believed to be right and wrong. She then applied this observation to what is. So, there is no absolute morally right or wrong because people disagree about what that absolute would be? Simply because two different cultures disagree about what they believe to be right and wrong fails to prove that there is no transcending moral code. It is possible for one culture to be mistaken in their beliefs.

Is it even acceptable to suggest that societies differ on what they think is morally right and wrong? There are numerous examples of universal values (Rachels 25). Perhaps cultures express these similar values differently though custom, but they are similar nonetheless. Take for example infanticide. Initially, this practice seems barbaric and one could assert that this custom shows that the Inuit have no love for their children. But what is the purpose of infanticide? Inuits lived in harsh conditions, and sometimes it was necessary to kill a child if that child’s survival would cause the instability of the community’s future. If the Inuit hated their children, there would be no community because there would be no children to populate the future generations. By reflecting on the purpose of a custom, we are able to recognize similarities between our values and those of another culture.

For these reasons and perhaps others, some anthropologists today abandon cultural relativism. Because of cultural relativism’s inclination to ignore violations of human rights, some anthropologists even feel that it should be the anthropologist’s responsibility not only to observe cultures, but also to attempt to reform them. In her article, “Ethical Considerations in Anthropology and Archaeology, or Relativism and Justice for All,” anthropologist Merrilee H. Salmon attempts to motivate her colleagues to group together in effort to abolish female circumcision (Welch and Endicott 342).

By making value judgments concerning morality, anthropologists take a step into the realm of philosophy and this is precisely what should be avoided. Personally, I do not think it is the anthropologist’s responsibility to defend human rights. Anthropologists observe the human condition and do not have “make this condition more pleasant” in their job description. Regardless of whether or not a custom may appear to violate human rights, it is not the anthropologists job to reform the culture or make value judgments. This is not to say that action should not be taken to defend human rights, however. The point is that anthropologists should remain neutral and objective when conducting their research. Leave it to the philosophers to determine or question the morality of a given action.

There are several reasons why anthropologist should avoid this blending of philosophical thought into their fieldwork. If an anthropologist spends all of his or her time analyzing the wrongness of a custom, how much effort is not geared towards actually observing the culture in question? In addition, the main goal in anthropology is to be objective, to give a non-biased interpretation of other culture’s societal structure. The observations that come from anthropology are very useful if thorough and objective enough for allowing others to reflect on morality like human right activists and philosophers. By making value judgments, anthropologist take the risk of being ethnocentric and contaminating their research.

It is true that philosophy and anthropology have some things in common, however. Philosophy studies and theorizes into the nature of reality by using rationality. To understand the nature of reality, it is important to recognize societal influences and ultimately to understand the function of these influences within one’s own society. This way, it becomes easy for the philosopher to question societal norms and place them in the context of this ultimate reality. Anthropologist and sociologists alike also participate in this realization. It is crucial, as Ruth Benedict pointed out, not to immediately regard one’s own culture as the only right and true reality. Ethnocentrism hinders the anthropologist because when the anthropologist (who is ethnocentric in this example) views another culture, he or she is seeing the other culture through his or her own culture’s lens, and this prevents the anthropologist from being able to interpret the structure of the given society.

If only Ruth Benedict could have stopped her observations here. It is true that other cultures have different beliefs and customs. It is also true that every culture has an equal length of history behind it. These claims alone should suggest that no culture is necessary better than another because of civilization, and this was all that was necessary to ignite an opposition to Social Darwinism. Her additional claim, that there were no objective, universal moral truths was not needed. The introduction of making philosophical claims about humanity in relation to morality simply confused the anthropological world. Today, following Benedict’s lead, anthropologists think it is their duty to make philosophical claims, without philosophical training. In school, philosophers learn how to analyze arguments like the one Ruth Benedict introduced. They learn how to find error in lines of thought and learn how to avoid making these errors when creating their own arguments.

Nowhere in anthropology is there a focus on this type of training. Anthropologists learn how to shed their own cultural biases in order to objectively observe other cultures, but this is the extent of their philosophical training. The purpose of this training is to prepare the anthropologist for making observations and analyzing these observations so that the anthropologist can understand the structure of a culture. The training is not intended to prepare anthropologists to make deductions concerning the reality of nature.

Making philosophically oriented moral judgments will also lead to a lack of trust between the culture that is being studied and anthropology as a whole. Anthropologists have a trust with other cultures because the other cultures understand that anthropologists are there to simply observe, not indoctrinate. Once anthropologists attempt to reform the cultures they observe, the host culture will no longer allow the anthropologists to study them.

The efforts of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict to develop philosophical theories about morality are well intended but these efforts to saturate anthropology with philosophical discussion dilutes anthropology by creating a field that is not only lacking focus and direction, but also effectiveness. The observations made in anthropology are needed for the understanding of the human condition and will be put in jeopardy if anthropologists attempt to step outside of their field of study.


Barrett, Richard A. Culture and Conduct: An Excursion in Anthropology, Second Edition. Belmost, California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

Boss, Judith A. Ethics for life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. pgs 100-132

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. New York: MeGraw-Hill, 2002.

Endicott, Kirk M., Welsch, Robert L. Taking Sides . Guilford, Connecticut: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2003.

Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Forth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. pgs 16-31

Robbins, Richard H. Cultural Anthropology: A Problem Based Approach. Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc., 2001.