Relativism and universals

carter pate (CPATE@UTCVM.BITNET)
Fri, 6 May 1994 16:41:14 EDT

categories, there is no reason why cultural relativity and the possibilities of
some minimal cultural universals can not be compatible within a broader system
. We have been told that funeral rites (as a preferred obligation, though not
possible of suitable in every occassion, are universal. Yet look at the of
ritual practices documented in the cultural record! We are told that
marriages are universally recognized as "nice" if not obligatory, although
wedding ceremonies may not be quite as common, and there are many rules of the
"proper" mariage within varying societies.

My suspicion is that when look for moral universals, we try to get too
specific and frame them as detailed prescriptions or taboos. There the
ideological moralist tends to project one's own ethnocentric prejudices, and
the more critical relativist finds it easy to reject such propositions.
Can we conceive of pressures which are not omnipotent but nevertheless
powerful, which enter into interaction and balance with many other pressures a
nd influence underlying principles of human culture?
Is or is not the principle of the octave, based on an underlying physical
harmony, noted in musical practices around the world, despite the variety of
ways it may be subdivided in differenct ethnicities? Not all universals need
be so obviously based on physics, but those based on physics and biology are
more readily observed. Are there not high and low limits to what human ears
can hear, and do not all cultures operate somewhere within those limits for
music and vocal expression? Perhaps marriage rests on biology, though some of
us supect it rests also on something social as well, but has anyone documented
a human society with a culture (lasting a generation or more) with the same pro
portion of husbands to wives as exists in a beehive or anthill?
Obviously there are limits to relativity. But these are very broad, and
due to the nature of culture, rather loose. That "something there is that
doesn't like . . ." seldom operates through legislative prohibitions, or even
violent cataclisms of nature; its result (don't personify "it" please) might n
evetheless be discerned in careful analysis of the cultural record.
I too, would be suspicious of any proposed "universl morality," but
perhaps some broad principles which have generally been adaptive and
favorable to survival and the continuity of culture in various human
situations? Why not?