‘ O brother, do not behave like this’: Moral Controversies and ‘empirical’ validations in the Himalayas

Abstract : Is it possible to imagine that one may feel morally right to kill and decapitate an old man in the middle of the night who is completely defenceless andwho had been particularly kind to you when you were a child?According to cultural relativism, this a distinct possibilityif you belong to a culture where such behaviour is effectively acceptable and you have been socialised in it and interiorised its values.But if you strongly believe in the universality of moral values, you will no doubt consider that any one who is not perverse would spontaneously find such behaviour completely abhorrent, whatever his or her culture, his or her educationand the sort of legitimacy which may be claimed for such an act.Finally, if you are following some of the recent researches taking place in the anthropology of morality, you will probably judge that both perspectives are not necessarily contradictory; you may consider that much depends, from a methodological point of view, on the level of analysis taken into consideration.One may then consider simultaneously that:-All human beings share spontaneously, perhaps even genetically, an equal repulsion to killing an other human being, especially so if one knows him personally and he is defenceless, as it is often the case in the revenge killings which take place in the sort of Himalayan feuds that I have been studying .-But in spite of such a spontaneous repulsion whose existence may evenhave been proved if you agree with the findings of some experiments by developmental psychologists, it is nonetheless the case that in certain cultures such practices have been not only regularly practiced but have also considered perfectly moral and legitimate, and also accepted as such, in particular by people who practice such feuds. The relevance of the analytical distinction-eventually also the compatibility – between, on the one hand, innate moral dispositions which may well have an universal character and, on the other hand, other moral characteristics which are much more culture-specific – has been highlighted in thepioneering works of Elliot Turiel in the eighties (Turiel 1983). But new research has also developed more recently around this same distinction, both in cognitive anthropology and in cognitive psychology.
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Denis Vidal. ‘ O brother, do not behave like this’: Moral Controversies and ‘empirical’ validations in the Himalayas. 2016. ⟨hal-01299365⟩

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