Relativism Social Justice and Human Rights

There is an inherent tension between the universalizing discourse of bioethics and the historical celebration of cultural relativism among anthropologists. These two approaches to understanding moral practices in relation to social justice and human rights appear to be antithetical, at least in their most extreme formulations. However, in recent years, scholars in anthropology and bioethics have begun to explore, once again, the possibility of identifying transcultu-ral or universal dimensions of the social behaviors of human groups. For example, in his attempt to develop a qualified version of ethical relativism, Shweder identifies aspects of moral behavior that are universal and culturally prescribed. Profound differences may exist between the moral codes of different people, but according to Shweder, there is more than one moral code that can be rationally defended. Universal dimensions of morality—justice and fairness, for example—are relatively expressed through discretionary variables such as who is designated as the moral agent, or what behavior and beliefs are judged to be morally relevant.

Renteln characterizes relativism as a metaethical theory about the nature of moral perceptions. Renteln suggests that relativism is compatible with cross-cultural universals, which could indicate support for particular human rights. It is precisely in the arena of human rights that anthropologists and bioethicists share a common concern for fundamental abuses inflicted upon individuals and communities. What is especially troubling for proponents of human rights agendas is the reliance on relativism to justify social and political practices that condone and perpetuate the systematic oppression of individuals and groups based on their gender, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. Macklin's (1999) treatise Against Relativism provides a good example of the philosophical arguments against a strong form of ethical relativism. Macklin repeatedly calls attention to the dangers of moving from empirical claims about cultural variability to moral justifications in the normative sphere. Baker offers a model for negotiating value differences relevant to science and health in a multicultural world. In his discussion of bioethics and notions of the "common good" as a foundation for international human rights, Thomasma brings us closer to a conception of human rights that acknowledges fundamental human values and, simultaneously, the importance of local context and cultural difference.

Anthropologists studying human rights abuses and structural inequalities clearly differentiate between the documentation of cultural patterns and normative judgments about them. Scheper-Hughes's recent work on the global trade in human organs, for example, strongly condemns the organ trade and the dehumanizing practices surrounding it. A culturally informed bioethics must take into account the impact of globalization on social justice, human rights, and public health disparities internationally (Kleinman, Das, and Lock; Das). Anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, who has addressed a broad range of human rights issues in international health, is especially critical when the "culture argument" is employed to rationalize, excuse or vindicate suffering and structural violence:

Concepts of cultural relativism, and even arguments to reinstate the dignity of different cultures and 'races,' have been easily assimilated by some of the very agencies that perpetuate extreme suffering. Abuses of cultural concepts are particularly insidious in discussions of suffering in general and of human rights more specifically: cultural difference is one of several forms of essentialism used to explain away assaults on dignity and suffering. (1997, p. 278)

In his work combating the HIV epidemic, Farmer has criticized the widely held notion that only AIDS prevention strategies—but not treatment—should be used in resource-poor countries. His successful use of anti-AIDS drugs in Haiti destroyed the rationalization that therapy would not be cost effective in certain cultural groups.

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