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Ruth Benedict's studies on moral relativism produced intriguing information regarding cultures, how they behave, and how customs are essential in determining an individual's perception of right and wrong. Among her most notable works is the book Patterns of Culture, which provides readers with a thorough explanation of the diversity put across by various cultures and of how it is wrong to judge one relating to principles that are not present in his or her culture. Speaking about Dobu Islanders and Kwakiutls Benedict proves that the people in these two groups should not be condemned because of the way they perceive life. The main point stressed by Benedict is that morals are not the same for every culture and that one cannot consider that all people have the same outlook on notions like right and wrong.
Not only were Dobu Islanders considered by white people to be abnormally savage for the territories they inhabited, but they were also harshly criticized by the tribes neighboring them, which were to some extent equally unsophisticated. In point of fact, during the early twentieth century white people recognized Dobu Islanders primarily for their poverty and because they were willing to work for low wages. In contrast to white people, the communities neighboring the Dobuans feared them because of their extreme way of living, which sometimes involved performing acts of cannibalism (Benedict 131).
"The Dobuans amply deserve the character they are given by their neighbors. They are lawless and treacherous" (Benedict 131). Surely, this is most people would think when seeing things from what they perceive as being a general point of view, one that strictly distinguishes between concepts like right and wrong. Benedict however goes on to relate to moral relativism and to how the general public is wrong in believing that they can be impartial in defining principles relating to right and wrong. These two concepts are actually very subjective, since almost every culture perceives them differently.
Dobuans are different from the rest of the world because of a series of reason, most of them being rather normal for the general public. Curiously, the Dobu society functions unlike other communities, given that it does not respect an exact hierarchy and does not follow any rules other than those involving treachery and hostility. The general rule applied in the Dobu community is that referring to how "every man's hand is against every other man" (Bendict 131). Still, as Benedict describes, Dobuans manage to get through the day without producing chaos and anarchy is among the last concepts that should be related to this culture (Benedict 131).
In spite of the fact that Dobuans respect little to no rules that are highly praised in the so-called civilized world, they are nonetheless certain that what they do is perfectly right. In addition to living in an apparent state of lawlessness, Dobuans have rules that are based on aggression and that thoroughly relate to what is and what is not permitted when concerning unfriendliness. The Dobu Islanders believe that it is perfectly natural if they perform acts of betrayal and violence as long as they do so in what they perceive as being an organized environment.
The very union that unites most communities - that of marriage between individual coming from two enemy groups - is not considered by Dobuans to bring any change in their lives, as they continue to hate each-other as they did before. Witchcraft is an essential element in Dobuan culture, since it is the reason for which most individuals perform a particular mission. With the intervention of white individuals, more and more Dobuans have expressed their desire to escape their community in exchange of what the general public sees as being hard labor. This desire to work in inhumane conditions for low wages is the result of the work they would otherwise be forced to do in their own villages. The Dobuan community sees nothing wrong with the fact that a man who was caught overnight in the residence of a woman should be forced to work for the woman's father and for his own family for a year, until he is considered free to join the community as a member with full rights. Eating together is yet another example that assists the couple uniting under the ceremony of marriage.
Although most of the Western World would be inclined to believe that there is nothing abnormal about the fact that Dobuans organize marriages in accordance to the general way in which a wedding takes place, matters are actually different. Indeed, Dobuans allow husbands and wives to stay together under the same roof and to provide food for their children. However, because mothers and motherline in general are especially important for Dobuans, couples are required to reside alternately in the groom's tribe and in the bride's tribe for one year at a time, resolving the predicament easily but beyond the understanding of most of the civilized world (Bendict 139).
Dobuans typically believe that one can only achieve success through cheating others into giving him what is rightfully theirs. The Dobuan culture provides individuals with complex information relating to how they can perform acts of treachery. Dobuans thus consider morality to relate only to their conception of society and to concepts such as right and wrong. The general public already has an understanding of right and wrong and considers Dobuans to act immorally, even with the fact that Dobu Islanders are merely doing what they were taught to do and are respecting the values imposed on them by their community (Bendict 142).
Bendict's view on moral relativism relates to cultural relativism, since it involves the theory that an individual's behavior and convictions should be analyzed from the standpoint of the respective individual's culture. Morality is essentially relative and even with the fact that Western philosophers have produced complex theories related to ethical behavior, the information they generated is mostly useful, since it can only be applied to a limited number of cultures and even in these cultures the concepts of right and wrong can be considered to be unbalanced.
To some extent, the presently extinct Kwakiutl population that once resided on the northwest coast of the American continent is similar to the Dobu Islanders. They too praised the supernatural and went through great efforts to attain it, even resorting to committing acts of cannibalism. Violence was a foremost element in the lives of Kwakiutls, as they did not hesitate to use aggression every time they had the opportunity to do so. Acts of aggression were actually part of ceremonies related to the community's economy and the fighting abilities it possessed. It was essential for one to demonstrate his or her superiority in front of their opponents through making use of violence. According to Benedict, "the object of all Kwakiutl enterprise was to show oneself superior to one's rivals" (Bendict 190).
In spite of their anomalous behavior, Kwakiutls simply did what their society taught them. Performing mostly every act that was not in accordance to their instinct provided Kwakiutls with enlightenment and they were determined to use every means possible with the purpose of reaching this state (Benedict 79).
The concepts promoted by the Kwakiutl society are extremely unclear and complex, given that Kwakiutls were extremely devoted to serving their purpose and did not hesitate to perform inexplicable acts that they saw as being right. Not only were the Kwakiutl's certain that they had to perform abnormal acts in order to become one with the supernatural, but they believed that these nonstandard performances were by and large obligatory to be associated to pain and torment. The most explanatory paragraph in Benedict's book relating to how Kwakiutls were certain that violence was the answer to virtually everything is the one speaking about the fact that these individuals believed that all of their gods were evil, since they could not comprehend a god that performs good deeds. "They did not suppose that supernatural beings were beneficent. They knew that hurricanes and avalanches were not, and they attributed to the Gods the characteristics of the natural world" (Benedict 221). It would be unlikely for a Kwakiutl to be influenced in believing that the divine can also put across kindness, given that one cannot explain how gods can be good and produce hurricanes and avalanches for no actual reason at the same time.
As demonstrated by Benedict in her description of the Dobuan and Kwakiutl cultures, it is illogical to attempt to determine if a particular act is right or wrong, considering that it can be understood as good from the standpoint of a particular culture whereas another can perceive it as being totally immoral. Just as each individual from a community can express subjective convictions regarding a topic in particular, a community as a whole can put across subjective ideas regarding what qualifies as being acceptable and what can be identified as being intolerable.