Moral Reasoning (PHL 200)
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Cultural Differences and the Case of Fauziya Kassindja: Consider the case of Fauziya Kassindja, discussed by James Rachels (ML5 147-148). Rachels suggests that a cultural relativist would avoid imposing the standards of American culture in this case, and instead take a live and let live approach to this case. First, analyze the case using the lens of cultural relativism. Is Rachels right that a cultural relativist would remain neutral about the cultural practice of female excision? Second, the US government did eventually grant Kassindja’s asylum request. Was this ruling consistent with a cultural relativist’s approach to cultural differences? And do you think the court was right to grant the request? Why or why not? Consider at least one objection to your own viewpoint and give your best response to this objection.
Instructions: Write a 3-4 page essay responding to the question prompt. Be sure to respond to each part of the question prompt and support your answer with clearly stated reasons. You should use the course readings and quote from the readings wherever relevant to show how what you have learned is informing your view on this question.
Length and formatting: 3-4 pages, standard formatting (i.e., double-spaced, Times New Roman font, 1 inch margins). You must cite your sources and provide a bibliography. You should use the citation system employed in your profession/discipline. For health sciences, this is usually APA. If your discipline does not have a preferred citation system or you do not know it, use Chicago Manual of Style, Documentation Style II: Author-Date Reference style.
Style guidelines: Imagine that you are writing for someone who is not part of our class, not for the professor. This person is intelligent and educated, but she does not know anything about what we have learned this semester. See “Addendum A” for advice on using the first-person (“I”).
Peer-review Process: This paper is due in two parts. In the first part, you will submit a complete draft to a partner for peer-review. Reading your partner’s paper and giving them high-quality feedback is worth 10% of your paper grade. In the second part, you will submit the final, revised version of your paper. This will be worth 90% of your paper grade.
Judging a Cultural Practice to be Undesirable
The argument on cultural relativism continues to become more prominent as the world becomes a global village. The issue of immigration continues to be prominent in the world right now as people leave their birth countries for other regions. Currently, America has the most multicultural population with different cultures merging to live the American dream. One way to ensure it remains a stable society is by encouraging cultural relativism. Cultural relativism dictates that we understand people's cultures based on their choices to practice them. We should not judge them based on what our own cultures direct us. However, finding this independent moral ground remains a challenge in the contemporary world where people want to achieve uniformity by assuming their own cultures should reign.
James Rachels gives the story of Fauzia Kassindja as a great dilemma on the concept of cultural relativism. Fauzia escaped female genital mutilation in Togo and sought asylum in the United States. Her community gives numerous reasons to justify female genital mutilation and they include; to reduce unwanted pregnancies, to increase the level of submission of women, and that it is a culture that they seek to perpetuate. Several reasons exist against female genital mutilation which includes; the risk of infection, increased risk in childbirth, reduced sexual pleasure for women and that is plain cruel and unnecessary. However much these reasons make sense, the concept of cultural relativism requires that you make these observations from a rational independent standpoint devoid of your own culture's influence.
The author makes an interesting argument about cultural relativism, which is to find fault in culture by looking it from the perspective of those who practice it. Rachels and Rachels (2014) note that one question one should ask is "whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of those affected by it". In the case of excision, we should look at whether it promotes the welfare of those who practice it from an informed point of view. Opoku et al. (2020) researched sub-Saharan African countries that practice excision and found that these countries still experienced early sexual initiation among girls. Further research revealed that specific communities that practice the culture also record significant levels of early pregnancies.
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From the studies above, it is clear that the practice does not necessarily advance some of its most revered intentions. This casts doubt on the necessity of the practice because clearly, excision does not prevent early initiation into sex and does not also prevent premarital pregnancies. From an independent point of view, supported by evidence, female genital mutilation is merely a culture that continues even when there are no visible benefits of practising it. So far, the only reason that stands is the community's efforts to preserve their culture, which does not make for a strong argument.
The second element of the independent question one asks is “whether the culture hinders the welfare of the people affected by it. Those affected by it are the people that practice it. There are two levels of people affected in the culture of female genital mutilation and the first level is the women who have to go through it. The second level is the men and the community that supposedly benefits from it. Dahre (2017) notes that searching for a middle ground in cultural relativism is not necessarily about integrating universalism rather finding some moral space supports the culture.
Female genital mutilation hinders the first level of victims, who are women, sexual pleasure, freedom from pain and all the risks that come with having the procedure done. These risks include risky childbirth, excessive bleeding and infections (Opuku et al., 2020). The second level of victims is the men and the community. Failure to circumcise a woman does not hinder a man's sexual pleasure, neither does it affect the community in any way. Doing away with the culture benefits the community more, does not erode the benefits accrued before and benefits the main victims who are the women.
Looking at the description above, it is clear that cultural relativism is possible, but it should not be the only alternative when a practice involves the violation of human rights. Dahre (2017) agrees with Rachels and Rachels (2014) by noting that the concept of tolerance does not tie us to blindly accepting cultures even when they perpetuate discrimination. From the readings, it is clear that a certain level of ethnocentricism is necessary for cultural relativism. Rachels and Rachels (2014) explicitly note that the thought that some cultures are better than others creates the foundation for tolerance and change, which is necessary for contemporary society.
In conclusion, James Rachels makes an excellent argument when he notes that morality is not relative. When judging a culture, it is good to avoid bias influenced by your own. However, when there are victims, if the rationale of a person’s argument is not central to their emancipation. The end goal of the argument is chief when judging a culture. This because there is no other way to put it when a culture perpetuates pain than to express it as it is.
- Dahre, U. (2017). Searching For a Middle Ground: Anthropologists and the Debate on the Universalism and the Cultural Relativism of Human Rights, The International Journal of Human Rights Vol. 21(5), 611-628. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2017.1290930
- Opoku, B. et al. (2020). Examining the Association between Female Genital Mutilation and Early Sexual Initiation among Adolescent Girls and Young Women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Retrieved from https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202008.0679/v1
- Rachels, J. and Rachels, S. (2014). The Elements of Moral Philosophy (6th Edition). Pennsylvania: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.