The article written by Robert Worth focuses on such form of capital punishment which is currently practiced in such countries as Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia. The events described by the author give rise to a very important debate about the relativity of morality. Some people can argue that ethical norms are dependent on culture and that they are accepted by a certain community. Therefore, outsiders should not criticize them even if they appear to be unjust or too harsh.
This paper will show that cultural relativism can be very dangerous because it can be used to justify cruelty, prejudice and unequal treatment of people. Moreover, some ethical norms or rules can be imposed by people whose authority can be questioned. These are the main points that should be discussed. On the whole, the notion of cultural relativism has often attracted the attention of philosophers or scholars.
One of the key arguments is that a certain norm was introduced for specific reasons; moreover, this rule was supposed to benefit the entire community (Rachels and Rachels 25). In other words, it has to promote public and individual welfare in some way. Therefore, one can argue that in the past adultery was punished by stoning in order to protect lineage and family unity (Worth, unpaged). To a great extent, it was supposed to be a deterrent preventing people from marital infidelity. However, these examples do not prove that Ms. Ashtiani who has been convicted of adultery, deserves this punishment. It is possible to make several objections to this argument.
First of all, this norm was introduced in a tribal society in order to minimize the number of illegitimate births (Worth, unpaged). At that time, illegitimate births could be a significant problem because it could be difficult for a family to raise an unplanned child. Nevertheless, the countries in which this form of punishment is practiced are not tribes any more. Adultery will not pose any threat to their existence. Thus, one can say that stoning as a form of punishment for adultery is at best outdated.
Secondly, the notion of cultural relativism implies that members of the community agree on a specific norm. These people have to accept the validity or necessity of a rule or punishment. Without this consent, one cannot argue that an ethical principle is fully justified. The problem is that the practice of stoning is criticized by many Iranian women who believe that this cruel punishment signifies their low status in the society that is dominated by men (Worth, unpaged). Thus, one cannot say that stoning is a completely accepted norm in such countries as Afghanistan or Iran. Moreover, by adhering to the principles of cultural relativism, people can simply condone inequality and injustice that often have nothing to do with culture. This is probably the main danger that people should be aware of. One may also argue that the criticism of ethical norms established in a different community is a sign of intolerance or disrespect for a certain culture.
Judging from this viewpoint, an outsider has no right to condemn the rules of a country, provided that he/she is not affected by them. Yet, scholars point out that the condemnation of a particular practice is not necessarily a sign of disrespect (Rachels and Rachels 25). There is nothing wrong in expressing ones opinion and helping the victims of injustice if it is possible. The objections to the ethical norms of a culture should not be interpreted as disrespect. Provided that other people remain silent people like Ms.
Ashtiani will continue to be victimized. Additionally, it should be taken into account that stoning is not imposed by people whose authority can be questioned. For instance, in Afghanistan the members of Taliban movement are the supporters of this punishment.
The legitimacy of this government can be questioned because they did not receive the consent of all citizens. Brutal force can be the main source of their power; therefore, many people may be afraid of openly criticizing their policies. This is another issue that should be considered by people who believe that ethical norms should be assessed within the context of a culture.
In many cases, the harshness of punishment can be explained by the policies of the state, rather than culture. This is why people have no right to overlook the suffering of people like Ms. Ashtiani.
Various forms of injustice and cruelty that exist in the modern world are not likely to be eradicated provided that people are reluctant to condemn them or resist to the state that imposes these rules. Admittedly, ethical norms may often culturally-determined. Probably, in some cases, there is no need to criticize the moral principles adopted in some countries.
Yet, stoning is not one of these cases. This form of capital punishment shows many modern societies can disregard the rights of individual, especially if one is speaking about privacy or individual freedom. In many cases, these societies can be governed by people whose moral authority is very questionable.
Rachels James, and S. Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011.
Print. Worth, Robert. “Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning)”. The New York Times 21 Aug.