Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Swallowing spin | Main | Steven Colbert, the Anti-Hannity »

May 03, 2005

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.

(If you want to learn more, The Kidnapped Bride is an excellent documentary about ala kachuu. You can read the synopsis, or watch the feature online by clicking here.)

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.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Relativism case study: Kyrgyz bride kidnapping:


Well, basically we're dealing with practices which may or may not be to some degree tolerable in Kyrgystan, but which in some US states would be capital crimes.

I would put any degree at all of tolerance of the practice in the relativism category (since it was clear in the article that in a high proportion of cases it was not a little consensual ritual). I classify this as the relativism of Westphalian internationalism, where you distance yourself from something on geographical grounds.

Faced with the actual reality up close, I would be torn -- I'm assuming that I would like the Kyrgyz men I met generally, but that many of them would not find the practice to be a problem.

I definitely wouldn't recommend that my niece settle there, though I suspect that American women are hands-off.

I'm not a philosopher (not by a long shot), and so I'm likely a bit confused.

However, I'm seeing a conflation of cultural relativism and moral relativism here. It was my understanding they're different --- cultural relativism being both a methodology necessary to fieldwork and a belief that behavior makes sense within its cultural context, and moral relativism the belief that there are no moral absolutes.

Is it that cultural relativism and moral relativism are essentially the same in philosophy?

The approach you're calling cultural relativism is also known as descriptive or methodological relativism. It's quite different from moral or meta-ethical relativism. I accept descriptive relativism, but I reject moral relativism.

I agree that anthropologists should do their best to set aside their own moral preconceptions when they do fieldwork. The anthropologist's job is to learn about other cultures. For an anthropologist, a judgmental attitude impedes understanding. On a practical level, people are less likely to open up if they sense that you're being judgmental. On a conceptual level, it's difficult to understand unfamiliar practices unless you assume that other people have beliefs and desires, and therefore that they act in ways that make sense to them.

Methodological relativism doesn't necessarily imply normative relativism (aka moral relativism). The observation that different people have different moral codes doesn't by itself imply that morality is relative. The alternative is that some people are right and others are wrong. It would be a mistake to assume that other people are wrong just because they disagree with us. It would also be a mistake to assume that a culture's moral beliefs are either all correct or all wrong. It's much more likely that every group and every individual has a mix of true and false beliefs.

We know from our own culture and our own personal experience that there are lots of behaviors and values that are rational and rationalized but not morally defensible. For example, the neocons are absolutely sure that they're pursing the path of righteousness.

The claim that there are no moral absolutes could fit into a lot of different moral theories. Often it's the view no particular category of activity is always prohibited. Kant thought that it was always wrong to lie, even a white lie to save someone's life. Ratzinger thinks it's always wrong to use a condom, even to save yourself from HIV. They are definitely in the minority when it comes to modern ethical thinkers. Some people criticize utilitarians because their ethics recognizes no absolutes whatsoever. The classical utilitarian might argue that it's objectively okay to kill one innocent person in order to redistribute their organs and save ten lives. Most non-relativist moral theories won't go that far in either direction.

"No moral absolutes" might just be the acknowledgment that there are no miraculous revelations or logical proofs for moral principles.

What kind of relative-ism is this:

"He says he had to kidnap me because he heard someone else was trying to kidnap me first," she said. "He's a good man."
Ms. Ainur Tairova, front page cover girl of 4.30.30 NYT at A 7.

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.

Why is it not an adequate response to say that if reason generated normative facts, we would expect a great deal less diversity in moral systems?

However, at the level of evaluation, it's no more scientifically respectable to appeal to anthropological facts than to purely physical or logical facts.

Well, as long as we agree that it's not scientifically respectable to do anything other than to make empirical evidence the final arbiter of a hypothesis, then we're all on the same page.

How do you know how much diversity we ought to expect, though? There is significant convergence on large issues: keep promises, refrain from gratuitous cruelty, reciprocate, etc.

Where there is discrepancy, much of it can be explained by different beliefs about matters of fact. I'm including religious and mystical under the heading of disputed "matters of fact." Large differences in economic and political circumstances also contribute to divergence. Add to that the fact that human moral psychology is biased in ways that oppose convergence, irrespective of facts or logic, e.g., chauvinism, xenophobia.

SD, I think you're equivocating about the nature of moral facts. If by a "moral fact" you just mean an empirical generalization about what's generally considered acceptable in a certain culture, then it's perfectly reasonable to say that those facts are generated by the culture and its history. It's true that most people learn their moral beliefs from their culture.

However, if moral facts are supposed to be normative, then I don't think they can be mere cultural conventions. The fact that culture traditionally upholds a particular standard doesn't say anything about whether it ought to have that standard or whether anyone should pay any attention to that standard unless they think they're going to get caught.

If you want to argue that all there is to morality is cultural convention, then it's hard to see why anyone should take morality seriously. Is telling the truth just a cultural convention, akin to the rules for setting the table? If not, how does culture account for the different status of these two kinds of rules?

Public opinion is useful for predicting what people will in fact do, but it doesn't necessarily shed much light on what's right.

Actually, we know from social psychology that public opinion isn't even always that useful for predicting what people will do.

Lindsay, I think you've nailed the sense in which I meant "moral fact," as descriptive rather than normative.

If you want to argue that all there is to morality is cultural convention, then it's hard to see why anyone should take morality seriously.

Does the idea that it is simply another "brute fact" that people do take morality seriously, regardless of whether we can see why they should, have any roots in moral philosophy?

I mean, not simply that it's an empirical fact that people take morality seriously, but that a moral faculty is an inherent aspect of mind?

"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."

I think this is a confusion of appraiser relativism and agent relativism. I can be an appraiser-relativist and still say its wrong for you to kidnap and marry a groom. Or, if I'm an agent relativist, I might think it's okay for me to kidnap and marry a bride and it's wrong for you to kidnap and marry a groom.

The particular view that a specific moral agent's actions are right iff that same moral agent believes that she is right, requires a fusion of agent and appraiser relativism that, while possible, isn't necessary for either.

What grounds what I have to criticize anyone else's behavior? Well, I might think that criticizing and attempting to stop someone else's immoral behavior is the right thing to do. If changing others' minds is the right thing to do, I should do it.

What reason do I have, if I say "kidnapping is wrong," and he says, "kidnapping is neutral," for believing that I am the one who is right? (if you find that question too easy, substitute another area of real moral disagreement: abortion, animal welfare, death penalty) Well, guess what: practical ethics is hard. It's hard if you're an objectivist too. It's hard for objectivists to get people who disagree to adopt their views. It's hard if you're a relativist, too.

I'm not a moral skeptic, not because I think that moral skepticism is really repugnant: it just happens to be wrong in our world. There could have been a world with no morality, just as there could have been a world without giraffes. We don't live in that world. Morality exists in our world. This is sufficiently apparent that it requires no justification. If we lived in a world without morality, we'd know it.

How do you know how much diversity we ought to expect, though? There is significant convergence on large issues: keep promises, refrain from gratuitous cruelty, reciprocate, etc.

This is an outstanding point.

Add to that the fact that human moral psychology is biased in ways that oppose convergence, irrespective of facts or logic, e.g., chauvinism, xenophobia.

Well, from this comment, I guess I'd have to infer that at least some philosophers do consider moral reasoning to be an inherent aspect of mind.

The relativist needs to supply some metaphysical argument about why public opinion should dictate what a person ought to do.

I'm not quite certain how to unpack this.

It's not enough for the relativist to argue that cultural norms do dictate what a person ought to do.

A relativist also has to explain why this should be true?

Is this a variant on the argument that if people knew that their morals were based just on cultural norms, they wouldn't find those norms compelling anymore?

Sort of in reply to Julian Elson-
"Morality" exists, but it isn't a thing - it's a system, and it has goals, it's a goal-oriented system. This doesn't mean the goals are articulated, or even that they can be.
But some generalizations are possible.
Moral systems are about the preservation of something. Usually the tribe, people, nation, religion, etc. which has codified them.
The problem of refusal to honor the goal of the system - someone within the system's reach not caring about the survival of the particular tribe people nation religion etc, and not willingly participating in the moral system - is often dealt with by outsourcing origin and cause, and by strictly enforcing the code itself early in life.
As a tangent - I'm pretty sure there's a corporal punishment/capital punishment correlation. The moral system being internalized pre-verbally, then projected, and "felt" as "the way the world is", or should be.
There's an assumption underlying a lot of Western moral thinking that superior morality transcends and regulates inferior biology; what I've tried to illustrate here, in a really truncated form, is my opinion that morality serves biology, always, that every moral goal is a biological one.
So that we do live "in a world without morality". In the sense that the struggle of pre-moral biology, the "nature red in tooth and claw" of Darwinian struggle, still exists at the level of moral coding; it's there in the institutions that place themselves above mere biological struggle, even as they dominate biologically and survive successfully.
Morality is a biological survival strategy of human beings.
That doesn't change the context in which moral philosophizing takes place, or its vital importance, unless or until the human species gets near a node of species-divergence - the becoming other of what was familiar.
That's how species evolve; it's our history as animals, as mammals, as primates.
When these nodes of divergence happen moral systems are like the scent markings of ant colonies. That doesn't make them any less vital or important - if anything they're more vital, crucially important. But not universal, not fundamental to anything.

The anthropologist's job is to learn about other cultures.

Given your remarks about the bedrock concept of anthropology ("'culture' is a nebulous abstraction", "...we need a non-arbitrary definition of culture...."), it's unclear to me how you think an anthropologist could ever do her job.

The fact that culture traditionally upholds a particular standard doesn't say anything about whether it ought to have that standard....

Well, except, as you say, in the absolutist account, where empirical is sometimes necessary to adjudicate contradictory claims. For instance, the discovery of the first non-slave society would have implications for moral determinations about slavery.

Re "metaphysical argument"-- Is "tradition" a physical, or metaphysical property of a culture?
Since cultures are dynamic, then the impetus to change has to come from somewhere. So, there will always be some internal tension in any culture roughly measurable by the amount of pressure upon a culture to adapt or respond to stimuli. It seems as if the bride kidnapping practice is becoming less acceptable, despite its traditional place in the Kyrgyz mores, because of changng perceptions among the members of that culture. I can see the point of the anthropologists who argue that women may not disapprove of the practice in general, even though they find it personally distasteful. One might make the same case with regard to pregnancy & childbirth.
It would be interesting to know the origins of this practice, and to see the act of kidnapping in a continuum, rather than as an isolated incident of violence (or an appearance of violence). It may have had a relevance that's no longer meaningful, except as a symbolic gesture.
It seems that, in cases where "Public opinion" is fairly unified and universal on an issue, then that moral force militates an individual towards a particular action; while, where "public opinion" is far less than universal, it becomes less of a paradigm, and more of a force for moral suasion, to be weighed along with other (possibly more fundamental) cultural norms- and perhaps a bit of enlightened self-interest- or not... ^..^

"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.


Individual relativists maintain no such thing.

We assert that the kidnapper is acting in a manner consistant with his own moral code. It does not mean we think it is "right" for him to kidnap. It means we think he is behaving in a cruel manner out of ignorance, not immorality.

A moral man with a moral code that has significant negative impact upon others can be changed to a less destructive member of society if his moral code is changed to one more compatible with others around him. An immoral man can not usually be changed.

When it is said that individual relativists give equal validity to all moral codes, it is deceptive. We do give all moral codes equal validity as moral codes, but we do not assign them all equal desireability. Some moral codes can be so undesirable that they require societal intervention to oppose them.

Bride snatching: It's the old caveman routine, where you club the woman over the head, and drag her into your cave by her hair. Don't you just love tradition?

mudkitty, I believe that bride snatching had more to do with avoiding incest and inbreeding taboos among tribal peoples, thus keeping the group genetically "healthy".

Here's a non-relativist discussion of Kyrgyz ala kachuu:

1. In a significant proportion of cases, ala kachuu is simply kidnapping and rape. These are high up on the lists of felonies and are often regarded as capital crimes.

2. A considerable proportion of married Kyrgyz men apparently got married this way, and are thus criminals.

3. A much larger proportion of Kyrgyz are accessories after the fact. This would include many women (eg. mothers of sons who kidnap and rape their brides). Seemingly, almost every Kyrgyz is complicit in crime.

4. The fact that this is an integral part of the culture makes things worse. If it were a breakdown of order that people were trying to fix, it wouldn't be quite as bad.

5. Most Kyrgyz are criminals, and Kyrgyz society is a criminal society. They should no more be be tolerated than the Mafia or the drug lords should be.

6. If it becomes feasible and can be done relatively bloodlessly, outsiders should step in and force the Kyrgyz to stop this practice.

This kind of universalist thinking is characteristic of any imperial state or universal religion -- Catholic, Muslim, Confucian, Roman, Napoleonic, Macedonian, etc.

Relativism is a way of stepping back from this chain of arguments. I tend to use relativism more broadly than Lindsey does, but I think that my opinion here is relativistic in the stricter sense. Roughly, I think that I don't have standing in Kyrgyz society and my opinion is thus moot.

If I ended up living in Kyrgyz as a Kyrgyz (an impossible mental experiment) I would be in a hard place, and in a harder one if I had daughters. In that case, rather than proclaiming a universal law against ala kachuu, I would try to persuade people that there are other, "better" ways of doing things.

"Better" is an undefined term that doesn't require strict definition -- what's been called a generic term. Everyone agrees that the better is better, they just don't know what the better is.

Do they really call kidnapping I'll-a-catch-you?

Njorl, your definition of "individual relativism" doesn't sound like a meta-ethical theory.

Individual relativism is the thesis that the moral value of actions is relative to the value system of the agent performing them.

If the kidnapper is ignorant, what is he ignorant of? He's not ignorant of his own values, or the value system of his culture. You can say he's ignorant of some general obligation to respect other people's autonomy, or something. But that wouldn't be relativist.

SD, I'm not sure that anthropologists can do a sufficiently precise job for the normative cultural relativist's purposes. Cultures are abstractions.

You don't observe cultures directly, you observe a particular group of people at a particualr time. Your informants have ideas about how their culture is defined (often conflicting, cf. the "culture wars" ongoing in our own society). The anthropologist makes observations about what these people appear to have in common (where they live, how they make a living, what language they speak, what rituals they engage in).

The mere fact that your culture disapproves of something isn't a reason abstain. For example, let's grant there's a precise matter of fact about whether A Culture disapproves of gay sex. Suppose there are gay people in that culture. Are they morally obligated to refrain from gay sex just because the community frowns on it (assuming they can do so without getting caught)?

Juke Moran states: Morality is a biological survival strategy of human beings.

I tend to agree with this. Incest taboos, for examples, are virtually universal and seem to emerge from a naturally born horror. The damage incest causes also appears to be universal. Etc.

There are some other examples --- altruism also appears to emerge from some biological or physiological imperative.

I also tend to think everything else is just icing on the cake, social convention extrapolated from these survival mechanisms.

Not that I'm a sociobiologist. :=D But I do think we operate from the most basic needs for survival first, and elaborate from there. Kind of how liberalism so often arises when our most basic needs are met.

SD, anthropologists have been arguing about culture for years now. As far as I know, they have yet to figure out exactly what it is.

The comments to this entry are closed.