Relativism case study: Kyrgyz bride kidnapping
The Krygyz custom of bride kidnapping vividly illustrates the shortcomings of both cultural and individual relativism as meta-ethical theories.
Abduction, Often Violent, a Kyrgyz Wedding Rite [NYT permalink]
More than half of Kyrgyzstan's married women were snatched from the street by their husbands in a custom known as "ala kachuu," which translates roughly as "grab and run." In its most benign form, it is a kind of elopement, in which a man whisks away a willing girlfriend. But often it is something more violent.
Recent surveys suggest that the rate of abductions has steadily grown in the last 50 years and that at least a third of Kyrgyzstan's brides are now taken against their will.
I maintain that kidnapping is barbaric and inexcusable. However, most culturally nuanced defenses of the practice aren't relativistic.
For example, it wouldn't be relativist to excuse kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan on the grounds that Krygyz women don't mind being kidnapped as much as Brooklyn women. Nor would it be relativist to argue that kidnapping is okay in Kyrgyzstan because it has unique social and economic benefits, or because ending the practice would be very socially disruptive. Such arguments appeal to general moral principles, e.g., "it's bad to cause suffering to innocents" and "actions should be judged by their their effects."Nor is it relativist to argue that ala kachuu is okay because it isn't really kidnapping. In fact, we already know that not everything called "ala kachuu" is kidnapping because the term refers to both consensual elopements and violent abductions. However, it's equally clear that the violent abductions qualify as kidnappings in our usual sense of the term. Someone could still argue that even the violent ala kachuu abductions aren't true kidnappings because the intentions and expectations of the participants are relevantly unlike those of kidnappers and victims.
Again, even if this anthropological claim about motives and their significance were true, it wouldn't necessarily be a relativistic defense of bride kidnapping. Consent makes S&M fundamentally morally different than assault, even if the observable behavior identical. Analogously, an anthropologist might argue that Kyrgyz women who are abducted actually consent to the system of abduction, if not to their own abductions. I find this claim extremely dubious--but if it were established, it would be a non-relativistic reason to think that ala kachuu is morally different from ordinary kidnapping.
One distinctively relativist claim is that bride kidnapping is right in Kyrgyzstan because the culture approves of it. Another common relativist thesis is that "right" just means "approved of by the culture in which the act occurs." On that account, the statement "Bride kidnapping is right." is true in Kyrgyzstan but false in Brooklyn.
An individualist relativist maintains that it is right for anyone to kidnap anyone else if the kidnapper sincerely believes that he or she is doing the right thing. Conclusions like these explain why strong individualist relativism is so unpopular.
Remember that relativists don't want to slip into moral skepticism any more than absolutists do. Most cultural relativists don't want their position to collapse into individualist relativism, either.
Like absolutists, relativists can always fall back on moral skepticism about ala kachuu, or any other practice in isolation--but each admission is a blow to the explanatory power of the theory. If your meta-ethical theory can't even tell you whether violent kidnappings are okay, it's not a very powerful theory.
One of the fundamental problems with cultural relativism is that it's not clear what it means for a culture to approve of something. If we take cultural approval to mean universal and unqualified assent, then cultural relativism never settles anything. If it means something less than that, then the relativist has to give us a non-arbitrary definition of approval that we can actually use for real cultures. Without that such a standard, cultural relativism collapses into moral skepticism. It's easier for individual relativism to supply an approval criterion, as long as we assume that everyone knows his or her own values.
Bride kidnapping is an ancient tradition. It is already extremely widespread, and it's getting more common all the time. Even so, Kyrgyz people disagree about the ethics of bride kidnapping. To further complicate the matter, the practice is technically illegal but almost never sanctioned. Anthropological evidence suggests that there is a a spectrum of opinion:
The Youth Development staff conducted a survey among the citizens of the Jalalabad region to find out what they think about bride kidnapping.
Overall, 300 respondents, aged 16-60, were surveyed, including students, teachers, and ordinary villagers.
Why do young men start a family by kidnapping brides? Here 27% of all respondents mentioned economic reasons. They said it helps reduce marriage expenses. More than 34% of the respondents think that young men steal those girls who do not agree to get married. And about 25% of the respondents said it is very convenient when you have to marry urgently.
The next question was, “How often do you hear about bride kidnapping?” About 50% of the respondents said it happens “very often,” 25% said it happens just “sometimes,” and the rest found it difficult to answer this question.
35% of all respondents evinced their positive attitude toward this tradition. The majority (52.3%) said they disapproved of it.
If cultural approval makes moral claims true, the relativist needs a non-arbitrary definition of culture in order to escape skepticism.
If you agree that there are several equally good definitions of "culture" each of which gives a different (but equally plausible) verdict about what's right for a particular person at a particular time, you've arrived at a meta-relativism equivalent to moral skepticism.
On average, Kyrgyzs city dwellers are less likely to support the practice than rural people. Do the urbane city-dwellers belong to the same culture as the mountain villagers? By most anthropological standards, the answer is yes. A large percentage of the city-dwellers grew up in villages and maintain contact with their relatives. Should relativists therefore say that bride kidnapping is "right-in-rural-Kyrgyzstan" but only "sort-of-wrong-in-urban-Kyrgyzstan", and yet "absolutely-wrong-in-Brooklyn"?Even with a working definition of culture in hand, cultural relativist still needs to supply some metaphysical argument about why any culture norms should dictate what a person ought to do. Culture influences behavior, and knowledge of culture is useful for predicting the behavior of others. But it doesn't seem to follow that anyone is obliged to do their culture tells them just because it happens to be the done thing. If the relativist says it's just a brute fact that culture generates normative standards, then the absolutist can ask why it's any more scientifically or logically defensible to suppose that culture, rather than reason, generates normative facts.
Some people reject absolutism in favor of relativism because they think that relativism is more scientifically respectable. An "is" doesn't imply an "ought," they say. Relativism doesn't do any better than naturalist absolutism when it comes to deriving an "ought" from an "is." The relativist is just pointing to a different kind of "is"--anthropological facts or psychological facts. As we discussed, anthropological "facts" about what's permissible are very difficult to define precisely or to measure rigorously. If there are any moral facts, it seems more likely that they should be based on logical principles supplemented by empirical data rather than on cultural norms.
Tune in next time for a guided tour of objectivist/absolutist answers to the moral skeptic.