“Female Circumcision/ Genital Mutilation and Ethical Relativism” by Loretta M. Kopelman


What is this practice?

Female circumcision/ genital mutilation (FGM) refers to the practice of removing parts of the female genitals to “promote chastity, religion, group identity, cleanliness, health, family values, and marriage goals” (Kopelman 307). These surgeries are performed primarily in Muslim cultures in countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Southern Yemen, and so on. Although this practice is viewed as wrong, girls and women part of this practice say that it is not a form of oppression. FGM has no health benefits and a vast array of medical consequences, including pain, infection, and death.

  • Are these women fully aware of the practice’s implications and fatality rate? Does their consent count as informed consent given the medical consequences? If the women are not exposed to another culture, does their consent still count as informed?

Main Question

Are we able to deem this practice as wrong when we are not a part of that culture?

Yes. Kopelman states that arguments can have moral authority “…we share many methods of discovery, evaluation, and explanation. These enable us sometimes correctly to judge other cultures, and they us”.

Ethical and Cultural Relativism

Ethical relativism concludes that “an action is right if it is approved in a person’s culture and wrong if it is disapproved” (Kopelman 312). Ethical relativism in turn prohibits the judgment of another culture because one does not have moral authority over that culture. Kopelman argues against ethical relativism, by explaining sometimes one can make a judgment with moral authority, instead of never being able to.

Main argument

Why can we sometimes have judgments that have moral authority?

“… we seem to share methods of discovery, evaluation, negotiation, and explanation that can be used to help assess moral judgments” (Kopelman 313).

Arguments that have logistical consistency and similar collected data across cultures allow for moral judgments to be made. Female genital mutilation can therefore be judged because studies of the were done by investigators of that culture and because of the consistent negative medical findings.

Reasons FOR Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation still exists for a few reasons. What are they?

The ritual surgery:

  1. Meets a religious requirement
  2. Preserves the group identity to be clean and pure
  3. Helps to maintain hygiene and health in general
  4. Immorality decreases
  5. Increase in sexual pleasure for men which boosts marriage goals

Kopelman’s arguments against aforementioned reasons

  1. FGM is mainly practiced by Muslims, but the practice is not mentioned by the Qur’an.
  2. Although the surgery is part of a group identity, people are not aware of the health consequences like infertility and death.
  3. FGM cannot maintain health from the stable data collected, which shows the practice leads to constant infection, bleeding, and sexual pain.
  4. Morality here is used to describe one’s virginity, family honor, and a controlled sexual desire. It was proved that there is NO way to stop one from having sexual intercourse and promiscuity. FGM does not get rid of the internal desire for sex, only parts of the external sex organ.
  5. Women must marry in these cultures for economic purposes. FGM increases infertility, difficult labor, and mortality. It was studied that men prefer women who have not had the surgery (Koso-Thomas 1987).

Can ethical relativism be helpful?


Although one can easily argue against FGM because of medical reasons, the associated cultural beliefs are much harder to debate. Some cultures believe that women are more beautiful after the surgery. How can one debate FGM when beauty is subjective?

“To say that something is right when it has cultural approval is useless if we cannot identify the relevant culture” (Kopelman 318). Ethical relativism is hard to use as an argument for keeping these ritual surgeries when it is hard to determine who is part of what culture. Are educated people in the same culture as those who are not? When, and if, a specific culture is defined, how do we know when that culture is able to be recognized as a society whose morality is “self-contained and self-justifying”?

  • Do you agree with Kopelman’s argument against ethical relativism? What is your opinion about the definition of culture?

Shared Goals

People cross-culturally have the same common goals: good health, happiness, opportunities, cooperation, and the stopping of war, pollution, oppression, torture, and exploitation. Because of these shared goals and methods of evaluation, cross-culture judgments with moral authority can be made. “We can use these shared goals to assess whether female circumcision/ genital mutilation is more like respect or oppression, more like enhancement or diminishment of opportunity, or more like pleasure or torture.” (Kopelman 319).

  • Do you agree with these common goals? Can you think of any others that should be included or any of the above that should not be included?

Routes of Relativists

Kopelman argues that relativists have two paths for defending sound moral judgments cross-culturally:

  1. Some cross-cultural norms have moral authority so cultural judgments against FGM can have moral authority
  2. Relativists can stay with the definition of ethical relativism described above, be against FGM and the importance of values in different cultures, but have an unreliable argument

Relativists sometimes change their beliefs, which make them unable to effectively argue the point that we cannot judge moral development across cultures. “Thus it is not consistent for defenders of this version of ethical relativism to make intercultural moral judgments about tolerance, group benefit, intersocietal respect, or cultural diversity” (Kopelman 320).

Objections to ethical and cultural relativism

Can cross-cultural moral judgments lead to absolutism, dogmatism, or cultural imperialism?

Ethical relativism prevents outsider cultural judgments from imposing on values of another culture. Kopelman argues against this, by explaining how being able to sometimes judge another culture does NOT lead to cultural imperialism and the imposition of outsider values and morals.

Ethical relativism itself does not diminish cultural imperialism. “On this view, the disapproval of other cultures is irrelevant in determining whether these acts are right or wrong; accordingly the disapproval of people in other cultures… does not count in deciding what is right or wrong except in their own culture” (Kopelman 321).

Can we judge another culture if we cannot truly understand it?

To argue this point means to imply that we cannot understand another culture enough to understand what promotes the above shared goals.

If we eliminate FGM, will we be destroying those societies?

If we look in the past (slavery, for instance), we can see how “important” practices at the time were removed and how the culture survived and improved. Group benefit cannot be understood to be the leading value.

4 thoughts on “

  1. Zanjiang Wang

    “That is, even if some moral … judgments express unique cultural norms, they may still be morally evaluated by another culture on the basis of their logical consistency and their coherence with stable and cross-culturally accepted empirical information.” (Kopelman 313-4)

    Argument reconstruction:
    P1. If there is cross-culturally accepted empirical information for a matter, the matter is cross-culturally assessable.
    P2. There is cross-cuturally accepted information for moral judgments.
    C1. Hence, moral judgments are cross-culturally assessable. (FROM P1 & P2)

    Does the presence of cross-culturally accepted empirical information guarantee cross-cutural assessability?

  2. Jack Friedman

    “I would begin by observing that we seem to share methods of discovery, evaluation, negotiation, and explanation that can e used to help assess moral judgments. For example, we agree how to evaluate methods of research in science, engineering, and medicine, and on how to translate, debate, deliberate, criticize, negotiate, and use technology. To do these things, however, we must first have agreed to some extent on how to distinguish good and bad methods and research in science, engineering, and medicine, and what constitutes a good or bad translation, debate, deliberation, criticism, negotiation, or use of technology. These shared methods can be used to help evaluate moral judgments from one culture to another in a way that sometimes has moral authority. An example of a belief that could be evaluated by stable medical evidence is the assertion by people in some regions that the infant’s “death could result if, during delivery, the baby’s head touches the clitoris” (Koso-Thomas 1987:10). In addition, some moral claims can be evaluated in terms of their coherence. It seems incompatible to promote maternal-fetal health as a good and also to advocate avoidable practices known to cause serious perinatal and neonatal infections. (Kopelman 313)

    1. Moral judgments can be assessed cross-culturally using shared methods of discovery, evaluation, etc. (313)
    2. Societies share some methods of discovery, evaluation, etc. (313)
    Therefore, some moral judgments can be assessed cross-culturally. (from 1, 2)

    In Fear of Knowledge chapter 5, Boghossian defends epistemic relativism. He gives evidence that groups may differ in methods of discovery, evaluation, etc. How can one distinguish between a “legitimate” cross-cultural judgement, and a cross cultural judgement that isn’t supported by shared methods of discovery, evaluation, etc.

  3. Shahmeer Chaudhary

    “Most women in cultures practicing female circumcision/ genital mutilation,
    when interviewed by investigators from their culture, state that they do
    not believe that such practices deprive them of anything important (KosoThomas
    1987). They do not think that women can have orgasms or that sex
    can be directly pleasing to women but assume that their pleasure comes only
    from knowing they contribute to their husbands’ enjoyment (El Dareer 1982;
    Abdalla 1982). Some critics argue that women who hold such beliefs cannot
    be understood to be making an informed choice; they thus condemn this custom
    as a form of oppression (Sherwin 1992; Walker 1992). ” (308)

    1. Women within the FGM culture do not see a problem with it
    2. They do not have enough knowledge to be considered informed enough to make that decision
    3. .˙. They are being oppressed into FGM


    Who can claim to be the moral authority in this case? Is it the right of any culture to judge members of another as uninformed? What right does another culture have to liberate those who do not feel oppressed?

  4. Zeinab Thiam

    The version of ethical relativism we have been considering, however, does not avoid cultural imperialism. To say that an act is right, on this view, means that it has cultural approval, including acts of war, oppression, enslavement, aggression, exploitation, racism, or torture. On this view, the disapproval of other cultures is irrelevant in determining whether these acts are right or wrong; accordingly, the disapproval of people in other cultures, even victims of war, oppression, enslavement, aggression, exploitation, racism, or torture, does not count in deciding what is right or wrong except in their own culture. This view thus leads to abhorrent conclusions. It entails not only the affirmation that female circumcision/genital mutilation is right in cultures where it is approved but the affirmation that anything with wide social approval is right, including slavery, war, discrimination, oppression, racism, and torture. If defenders of the version of ethical relativism criticized herein are consistent, they will dismiss any objections by people in other cultures as merely an expression of their own cultural preferences, having no moral standing whatsoever in the society that is engaging in the acts in question (Kopelman, 320-1).

    Argument Reconstruction:
    1. “To say an act is right… means it has cultural approval, including acts of war, oppression, enslavement,… (Kopelman, 321)” according to ethical relativism
    2. Outside culture’s opinion (including the victims of said warm oppression, enslavement) of right and wrong is irrelevant
    3. FGM is right in it’s culture where it is approved
    4. ∴ FGM cannot be criticized by its victims or by other disapproving cultures

    As we become more globalized and culturally ambiguous, will we start to consolidate a universal moral structure?

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