The recent discussion on the GAlist initiated by Yue-hong Zhang concerning Fauziya Kasinga, a young Togolese woman who came to the US illegally to avoid FGM (female genital mutilation or “female circumcision”) suggests that GA can be of use to professionals of anthropos as well as those of humanitas.

This case holds a double-edged lesson for those who think about the human, that is, for all of us. By revealing the limits of victimary thinking, it lends plausibility to a generative model of the relationship of morality to cultural otherness.

There have been two reactions to the practice of FGM. Sensitized by feminism to the unequal treatment of women, we condemn it as barbarous and inhuman. But there lurks in the Western mind, particularly in that of the ethnologist who has devoted years to tribal cultures, a guilty feeling that even with the best intentions and the clearest justification, the imposition of Western standards on these cultures is imperialistic and destructive.

The two attitudes, which I will call simply the moral and the ethical, are necessary components of a valid understanding of social phenomena. They can never be altogether reconciled; their interplay defines the ethical evolution of human society. We have become used to hearing that there is no such evolution, that things get worse rather than better, and that any moral progress the West may have realized is more than made up for by its depredations in the Third World and in the world of nature. Such victimary thinking is unhelpful.

 Let us rather examine the relevance of both these models to our understanding of human societies in general. In the first case, this means judging all societies by the same standard, considering our moral intuition to be universal rather than Western. This young woman’s appearance on our shores dramatizes the fact that we live in one world, that people choose every day with their feet which societies they find the most livable. However respectful we may be of foreign customs, Kasinga’s case for refugee status forces us to enter into dialogue with these customs concerning their moral significance. That she finds it in her interest to adopt our standards rather than those of “her own” culture makes clear that the relativistic model of cultures as the equivalent of Leibniz‘s windowless monads is no longer viable.

What then is the relevance of the second reaction–articulated on our list by Kieran Shanahan–that warns us to beware of condemning even the apparently barbarous customs of other societies lest we destroy these societies altogether? This is indeed a valuable attitude–but one that should be applied to societies we identify with as well as those we see as our victims, to the winners as well as the losers in the contests of history. No society fully incarnates the originary model of moral reciprocity, and no society ever will. The greatest civilizations engaged in practices we find repugnant: slaveryhuman sacrifice, not to speak of those specifically directed at women such as foot-binding in China, suttee in India… But cultural relativism, rightly understood, obliges us to view all these practices in their socio-historical context. In order to progress to a time when slavery would be abolished and women would be given the vote and an equal chance in the job market, world civilization had to pass through certain stages.

Economics explains these stages in terms of the extraction and preservation of a surplus. Originary ethics explains them more profoundly in terms of mimetic relations. Practices like female circumcision that inscribe social restrictions on a woman’s body have a biological basis in woman’s reproductive capacity, but only insofar as it enters into the context of social interaction. Bodily mutilation, as Ms. Shanahan points out, occurs in both sexes for different cultural reasons; men are symbolically liberated from the material limits of their bodies, women confined within these limits. But however much women’s bodies may be treated as objects, their minds remain gifted with the universal human capacity to participate in their own cultural dialogue. That it is women who generally initiate the practice of female circumcision for their younger relatives demonstrates their espousal of the norms of their society. If we feel obliged to respect their right to this espousal, we should be willing to show the same respect for the members of earlier phases of our own society.

Cultural relativism is a structuralist move, a form of bracketing that allows us to understand cultures as totalities by mentally cutting them off from moral dialogue with ourselves. It should not become a pretext for the abdication of moral responsibility in cases where dialogue is necessary, nor a means of defending historical losers against winners regardless of their relative merits.

An extreme example of cultural relativism misapplied is the contrast between our good will toward the Aztecs and our condemnatory attitude toward the Spanish conquistadors.  Montezuma is a tragic hero, Cortez a bloodthirsty scoundrel. From an authentically cultural-relativistic viewpoint, it is no doubt useful to understand why the Aztecs carried out human sacrifice on so vast a scale.  Martin Harris explains that in the absence of large edible animals in Central America, the value of humans as concentrated sources of protein became an important social fact: noblesse oblige required the socially important to offer tasty morsels to their clientele.

We need not approve human sacrifice to understand its structural utility. But we must take another step. Once we have understood why the Aztecs “needed” to sacrifice 10,000 human beings per year, we should bite the bullet and agree that, whatever the defects of Cortez’s brand of Christianity, it represented a higher level of morality than the society he defeated–something he could only have done with the collaboration of the Aztecs’ neighbors, who had good reason to forgo ethnic solidarity with their butchers.


The moral and the ethical attitudes can never be altogether reconciled, but they may be usefully articulated. Insofar as we wish to understand societies in themselves as functioning entities, we must consider their sacrificial practices as factors of stability. At the same time, that both we and the members of these societies share the same fundamental moral model is demonstrated by the fact that over time, these practices are increasingly abandoned as morally repugnant–which is why we consider the Nazis worse than the Aztecs, and slavery worse in 19th-century America than in ancient Athens. Over the long haul, there is indeed morality in history; in the short term, the moral must make its peace with the ethical order. For we recall that the originary source of our moral intuition, the scene of the reciprocal exchange of language that defines us as human, was in the first place a means to prevent us–and by “us” I mean especially males–from killing each other. The sublimity of our moral ideals and the worst horrors of our ethical organizations are bound together by this common origin.

To the extent that we are not merely students of society but participants in it, we cannot deny the validity of our moral intuition. Once Kasinga’s case places us in dialogue with societies that practice FGM, we cannot shy away from judging those societies by the moral standards we apply to our own–not without noting the irony of a young woman fleeing genital mutilation to a country where young people of both sexes pay good money to have holes pierced and pieces of metal inserted into these same organs. (See Chronicle VII.)

My proposal is to replace victimary thinking not by Western triumphalism, but by an understanding of the common originary source of all our moral intuitions. The case of Fauziya Kasinga, a harbinger of more to come, suggests that this faith will increasingly be a prerequisite for constructive engagement in the intercultural and interpersonal dialogues of our era.