on moral relativism


This is Bibi Aisha, an Afgan woman.

Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains.

Radical feminists know that the way Aisha was treated is wrong.

We don’t need a floating deity in the sky to tell us that this is so. We don’t need to be philosophers to know that this is wrong.

We acknowledge that different cultures have different practices. Some cultures bury their dead, and some cremate them. Some cultures communicate through sign language, and others speak Farsi. Some cultural practices are different from others. However, that doesn’t mean that all cultural practices are equally acceptable. Some cultural practices are wrong.

Femicide and violence against women happens on a worldwide scale. In the United States, 17.6% of all women survive a rape or attempted rape (and that’s only counting the 26%-37% of rapes that are reported). Woman-hating pornography in which violence occurs in over 88% of scenes is so mainstream and accepted that “progressive” Dear Abby-types see nothing wrong with it. There are over 50,000 women and children trafficked in the United States, and worldwide, at least 4 million women and girls are trafficked annually. Despite how oppressed women are, men don’t try and change the oppressive system. In fact, they still think rape jokes are funny. Some of them are in such denial that they claim women are actually the perpetrators. The authorities are no better, since 15 of every 16 rapists will go free.

This system is not just broken; it’s actively evil. By reading the above statistics, you can see that not only is violence normalized in “other cultures”– it’s normalized in our own. If right and wrong were merely determined by cultural consensus, then violence against women would be morally correct in our own culture as well as others. Violence against women is *normal* in our culture. Clearly, then, moral relativism cannot be true.

I am not a relativist. I believe that our patriarchal system must be destroyed, because it is objectively harmful. I don’t need a moral theory to tell me that.

*This essay by James Rachels is a good 101-type document on cultural relativism, if you are interested.

About smash
Women's liberationist.

13 Responses to on moral relativism

  1. Mary Sunshine says:

    All cultures are male cultures. If you know of one that isn’t, please tell me and I’ll move there.

  2. What a great post. I remember being in Africa and getting into an argument with my Western, male companion about FGM. He just would not, could not deviate from the party line: “It’s not for us to judge other cultures.”

    Like hell it isn’t. Look at that woman’s face.

    • smash says:

      Thanks phona. I agree. Autonomous human agents must make moral judgments. In this f’kd up world, anything less is at best cowardice and at worst protects the perpetrators.

  3. ibleedpurple says:

    Much of cultural relativism is racism in disguise anways. “Female genital mutilation” is also considered too “judgemental”, as phona obviously discovered. Turns out that African activists with much more experience working with victims & perpetrators where against using the term “female circumcision” because it didn’t reflect the reality of the practice. Didn’t stop and still doesn’t stop legions of post-modernists to decide what is right for African women. It’s simply a much more sophisticated form of Western imperialism.

  4. radfemcrafts says:

    Thanks for the great post, smash.

  5. SheilaG says:

    I’ve never understood what it is about violence against women that is culturally appropriate. Cutting off women’s genitals, throwing acid in their faces, cutting off a nose and ears…. just what is culturally ok about that? Violence against women and exploitation of women is the very backbone of America… from selling products using women’s bodies, to selling rape via porn. And in America they’d argue that rape porn is free speech, but never that the porn industry is raping real women, filming it and selling it as “free speech” to millions of men worldwide.

    Feminists in all countries are fighting against violence against women. Indian women are fighting honro killings, western feminists are fighting sex trafficking, Japanese women have been battling sex tourism for decades, and Saudi women just had a protest against the no woman can drive laws… they rebrelled by driving!

    Any man who argues cultural relativism is simply supporting global violence against women, and if he wants his penis chopped off and his nose cut off as a cultural practice, how would he like that?

    Any time women protest what men do to women and girls, the whole array of patriarchal justification comes into play. And men get awfully defensive when we say they can’t rape, maime or imprison women (marriage) anywhere in the world.

    The challenge is to get all women to see this and object to this, to get all women to say NO MORE.
    And women will do all kinds of things to help the patriarchy along, so the hardest message is not to change men, but to change women and wake up all the women all the time.

    To try to educate or change men is a lost cause… all they want is liberal feminism…. abortion oso they can have sex with women and not have to care for the child, or liberal churches that “ordain” women who then lead worship services to male gods. That’s liberal.

    What we want is for half the world’s population to rise up, and that is what men fear. Because it is the majority, women have tremendous power, and we’re seeing that power all over the world. Feminism is not “western” or “white” it is women everywhere who are sick of men killing, raping and stealing our resources. Cultural relativism is just hiding the crimes of men. I believe a French postmodernist, can’t remember his name, but awhile back, he was actually found out to be a NAZI sympathizer, so he had a vested interest in arguing that there is no right and wrong. Foucault frequented the gay bathhouses of San Francisco in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Obviously he didn’t care about the lives of the men he infected, and he eventually died of AIDS too. That is who these guys really are, so no wonder they don’t want a single standard of women eliminating male supremacy from the earth. Hey, it’s their custom to kill women and girls, and we can’t object to that can we?

  6. Sargasso Sea says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  7. Michiru says:

    I’ve always thought moral & cultural relativism applied to these issues is simply the justification for cowardice. People need to realise this so they aren’t scared and silenced.

  8. Cultural relativism is itself a culturally relative concept (valued in some cultures, especially Western ones and in academia but certainly not a “value” everywhere).

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