Case Consultation today.

If there is time, I’d really like for us to do the hypothetical consult.  The major difference between normative ethics (e.g. as in case consultation) and non-normative ethics (e.g. descriptive ethics) is having to make a decision and then commit to a decision that will impact someone.

Selections from Lambek’s “Ethical Condition”

There’s a lot to cover here….I will try to hit the high points below. I apologize again for missing class tomorrow and also for the tardiness of this posting. My daughter had shots and several trips to the lab which has taken most of my attention over the past few days…

Chapter 1:

“This is what I mean when I say we are fundamentally ethical beings. This is not the same as to say we always do what is good, right, or just; if anything, it is to say how difficult it is to know how to do what is good, right or just in the circumstances. Doing good is, in effect, as matter of trying to do good. Rules may be offered to help, but they don’t always work well in practice, and following the rule is often an expression of bad or inadequate judgment. My view does not discount acts that are, or are judged to be, unethical in the sense of not right, good, or just; I am not saying that anything goes.” (p.14-15; emphasis original).


Here Lambek takes a relativist and pluralist account into his viewpoint. He is claiming that being ethical is innate (but also later states that it can be transcendent on p.38). He bemoans that humans cannot live up to their ethical criteria but also endorses the cultivation of that ethical nature through praxis as per Aristotle. This is somewhat reminiscent of the problem of sin and hope/goal of sanctification in Christianity.


He seems to also refute the intelligibility of Kant’s ethical reasoning in debunking the rule-follower; however, it is unclear if he would endorse the rule follower who has thoughtfully evaluated the rules and judged them to be ethical or just those who legalistically follow the rules. While he states that he is not saying that anything goes, it does seem that he endorses that everything goes with these statements. It then begs the question, what does Lambek claim to be unethical or not allowable as he does not elaborate on this topic. He rather discusses that actions are not neutral and could be evaluated on further bases. The question then arises if participating or practicing the law and/or ritual is ethical. He supports Rappaport’s vision of ritual as a “social contract and certainty.” (p.22) Is then a particular culture ethical in their practice because they have deemed it to be, using a relativist perspective? Or, does it become unethical when someone within that culture believes it to be unethical rather than if someone outside the culture calls it unethical? While participating in the law or ritual reveals, at least on the surface, that someone condones the law or ritual. Thus, those who do not participate are either ineligible and/or do not condone the ritual. If someone is both ineligible and does not condone the ritual, no one would know that person’s stance unless he/she made it known; otherwise, people would assume the lack of participation is because that person in ineligible. He also notes that, “Indeed, ritual naturalizes certain forms of inequality and injustice, so that ethical criteria will be attributed differentially” (p.25). Thus, ritual can validate unethical practices or enforce an ethical practice. The ritual of everyday practice, of a schedule or “habitus,” is not the same as the illocutionary ritual that he presents. He separates ordinary ethics from ethical debate. Through, his “framework of ‘ordinary ethics’…suggests that action is best [or first] understood in terms of the performative criteria which authorize it rather than in terms of an external body of thought which legitimates it” (p.26).


Lambek mentions in passing with competing virtues and obligations as well in this chapter. He does not fully grapple with these tensions or discuss their relief. Instead, he discusses how peoples’ intentions, judgments and responsibilities are evaluated in their actions. In evaluating one’s judgment, reflection and feelings are brought forth as a practice of ethical acknowledgement, where one acknowledges what one is about to do, is doing, or has done” (p.16). Based on the readings thus far in class, I believe that Cheryl Mattingly has best described this process in everyday circumstances.


Chapter 4

-In this chapter, Lambek describes the moral commitments and obligations that memories keep alive, not only in humans but also in spirits. He deconstructs the idea that if memory is inaccurate (not consistent with history), then it is false. He states, “We tend to view knowledge as objective fact, true or false, whose accuracy can be judged in a court of law or a psychological experiment. But much of experience is not like that” (p.101). He “take(s) memory to be an intrinsic part of selfhood (such that memory and identity serve to mutually validate each other, but [also takes] these to be culturally somewhat variable” (p. 96). People translate these memories to their life narratives (p. 96). He claims that construction of historical memory is a symbolic and moral practice (p.99), which he implies is for both individuals and the collective groups.


Chapter 5

In discussing ethics and morality, he states that “Tambiah describes the pathology of pervasive rationalization as follows: ‘science invades the economy, the economy invades politics, and now politics is alleged to inform us on morality, choice and the values to live by. And there’s the rub.”’ (p. 109). I agree with this statement, not only for Western nations, but seems to be a global transition.


In this chapter he defines the tension of the idea of ritual a discrete performance versus an ongoing activity (esp. p. 115). I think that the tension is an important feature to acknowledge given that the definition of ritual has a large role in anthropological discourse. Participation in the ritual, whether it is a daily ritual, versus an important, discrete, defining event has differing moral valences.


He discusses the views of many people, but focuses on Aristotle, Rappaport along with Bourdieu at length in relation to ritual, religion/spirituality, and moral in cultures. In covering a vast amount of material, he concludes on p. 124 that “religion at its best attempts to provide space and direction for moral practice, to enlarge opportunity and access; at its most limited, it aims to make a virtue out of the constraints. All this may be mystifying, but it is generally hopeful, and at least it moves people, or rather, gets people moving in some direction off the couch of habit and beyond the official discourses and competitive search for symbolic and material capital.” I would ask him if the virtue of constraints placed by religion lead to the daily ritual/habitus that he believes causes people to move out of habit. In my mind, the requirements of some religious rituals are certainly not habit but discrete, defining events.


Chapter 10

In this chapter he claims that “Virtue ethics asks not how we can acquire objects of value nor how we can do what is absolutely right, but how we should live and what kind of persons we want to be (emphasis original)” (p. 215). He argues that value relies on virtue and vice versa, with value being not only ethical, but also economical (both incommensurable). He also attempts to avoid moral relativism, but rather he argues that one can observe that moral practice is ongoing without agreeing on the (I think degree of) moral value of the practice. He then goes on to discuss obligation (Kant), choice (Utilitarian), and judgment (Aristotelian) in their interactions in placing value and discriminating moral actions. He later incorporates religious traditions and their viewpoints as well in what is valuable (especially end values) and moral as part of a focus on metavalues. I would ask him how are metavalues different from world views both in interaction with what is valuable and how that defines what is moral. He summarizes well his view that “ethical and market value are incommensurable with one another precisely because economics chooses between commensurable values operative under a single metavalue, while ethics judges among incommensurable values or metavalues” (p. 231-2).

Chapter 12:

I think this chapter most closely resembles a reflection on ethics as discussed in the masters of bioethics, perhaps because of the discussion of professionalization, the application of ethical research, or the methods of analyzing an ethical situation. He briefly mentions the anthropology of ethics and the interplay with the ethics of anthropology. He talks about the anxieties people have in the field of anthropology around ethics, both in the practice of research and in researching the ethics of others. There is a balance of actions that are based on prescription and consequences that drives these anxieties. On page 271, fieldworkers are told, “expect ethics to be challenging.” He debunks the idea that there is always a single, right answer, but rather emphasizes the ambiguity in many situations. Additionally, the researcher must cultivate character and ethical judgment as per Aristotelian thought on ethical formation. The ethics of observation leads to a thin ethnographic account as opposed to the ethics of participation where there is a thick ethnographic account. There is a chance of betrayal of the peoples by the ethnographer, or of being misunderstood by the peoples, which further complicates the ethics of the research. However, the limiting factors of ethical dilemmas in fieldwork are time and space per Lambek.


Why is it important for him to distinguish fieldwork as supra and infra-ethical (p. 279) instead of just ethical?

Chapter Reviews-Faubion’s “The Ethics of Kinship”

Class, I apologize that I have another interview this Wednesday. It will be at Emory. I thought it was Thursday and they alerted me last week that it was Wednesday. I really do hate missing class! Because I was supposed to talk about chapters from Faubion’s “The Ethics of Kinship: Ethnography Inquiries,” this week, I have a summary of them below.

James D. Faubion, “Towards an Anthropology of the Ethics of Kinship.” In James D. Faubion, The Ethics of Kinship: Ethnographic Inquiries (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), 1-28.


In this chapter, Faubion first delineates the value of kinship and it’s anthropological history. He advances from the instinctual approaches of Malinowski, with a psychobiological need to reproduce, to sociological functionalism in order for humans to be sustained, to systems of kinship. Claude Levi Strauss’s “Elementary Structures of Kinship,” is foundational to kinship systems of production, reproduction and descent. Subsequent anthropological kinship research has focused on the pragmatics rather than the semantics of kinship. For instance, how a people within a kinship system relate to one another based on rules, practices, and processes of forging and ending of relationships. He aims to focus on a “Derridian supplement” and analyze if kinship in the original scholarship still remains.

Faubion states that, “kinship is in fact illustrative of the constitution of intersubjectivity, of organized alterity” (2) as it is unique and linking of individuals. He goes on to name several guises of the paradox of kinship, such as the tension between “natural” and “invented” systems. He elaborates that beneath the guises is a

“protean presence: a mode of organizing alterity that appears to rest on a biologically definite ground from which it nevertheless tends to float free; or to put it inversely: a framework of ostensibly conventional relationships, prohibitions, and obligations at least some of which are in fact so widespread, so profoundly compelling, and so little variable that they seem direct expressions of ‘human nature.’”

The section, “After Naturalism, After Schneider,” expounds on the taboo of incest. Strauss follows a naturalistic approach and utilizes a Maussian view of reciprocal exchange in analyzing the presumed universal taboo of incest. Others, like Leach and Goody, attempted to debunk the universal claim against the taboo, referencing Egypt and Rome. Meanwhile, Gayle Rubin raised the possibility of the heteroerotic playing a role in the taboo of incest, but also raises the taboo against homoerotic practices. David Schneider wrote “A Critique of the Study of Kinship,” in which he claims kinship systems are symbolic and must be interpreted by those within the kinship (the native’s not the analyst’s viewpoint). He also points out that anthropologists who claimed kinship was not natural but sociocultural often fall back to naturalism, especially given European (Western) biological terminology and thought. He challenged anthropologists to learn the symbols and meanings of a culture prior to studying and analyzing that culture. Albeit, he takes a positivist approach to defining kinship per the Doctrine of the Genealogical Unity of Mankind, whereby “genealogical relations are the same in every culture. If they were not, cross-cultural comparison would not be possible” (p.6).

Francoise Heritier expounds upon Levi-Strauss’s account but also departs. The taboo against incest lies not in consanguinity but rather the abstract prohibition against the excessive cumulation of same substances (humors, fluids, etc.) or rather the identical. She uses an intersection of three “universal preoccupations”: 1) identity and difference, 2) chemistry of combinations, of the “cumulation of the identical” and conjunction of the different, 3) anatomical and physiological differences between sexes.

In, “Interpreting Kinship,” Faubion provides examples of anthropologists engaging with kinship hermeneutically, which Borneman is one. None of the listed anthropologists define kinship. Borneman explores the kinship of care and belonging rather than of biological substance (blood, milk, etc).

Then, Faubion expounds further upon kinship as being normatively permanent, including who is kin and if someone is a “good” or “bad” kin (being and doing). He then discusses Foucault’s system of kinship based on subjectivation and ethics, whereby subjects relate to one another with a certain degree for reflexive practices of freedom and have the possibility of self-transformation. He later discusses the kinship of collective “bodies” for which he believes the Biblical “elect” to be an example. He then discusses how kinship though simple delimits a “safety net” and provides self-validation; however, this limits the relations with others (unless of course someone breaks the cybernetic control of the kinship relations).

Finally, Faubion expounds upon the ethics teachings of Foucoult further and relates Foucoult’s teaching to Aristotle’s work on ethics. Foucoult has a complex view of subjectivation where one orients toward the environment of norms and ethical ends (“of actual and possible kinds of ethical being,” p. 18). He discusses the debate of innate ethical behavior versus freedom of choice. Finally, Faubion proposes “that tropology might in fact constitute the framework for a comparative hermeneutics of ethical modes of subjectivation…[which] is but a short step to life narrative, and from that, another short step to the life-narratives of those distinctive modalities of being-in-relation that are kinship” (p.21). He states that the book explores many of these tropes, narratives, ethics, etc. He concludes with “this to be sure, is not to say that kinship, any more than the rest of life, is art; only that it would be ethically much diminished without it.” (p.22).

The content of the book came mostly from a course he taught at Rice University in 1996 on anthropological thought since WWII. Some of the chapters come from students’ representation of their own kinship systems. Borneman’s article was published previously. He was invited to speak at a subsequent conference called “Kinship and Cosmopolitanism,” along with Susan Ossman. I imagine that the previously published article was included in the aforementioned course didactics prior to the student presentations.


John Borneman, “Caring and Being Cared For: Displacing Marriage, Kinship, Gender and Sexuality.” In Faubion, The Ethics of Kinship, pp. 29-46.

Borneman attempts to debunk traditional views of kinship from his outlier, extreme examples of affiliated people through care. He seeks to define kinship through care rather than through descent or alliance. Through the examples he gives, he not only displaces marriage, kinship, gender and sexuality, but also devalues the ethical notions of truth telling and abiding by the law by supporting perjury; however, he supports the unethical behavior by alluding to the idea that society has set up road blocks that prevent people from acting in any other way. He suggests that the norms and mores are inappropriate.

The first section, “Unmaking Affiliation,” he traces the history of how anthropology and ethnography studied human affiliation. It began with a focus on sexuality that was followed by descent or alliance kinship, to gender, and then power and prestige. He discusses that a variety of intimate relationships were outside of the norms defined by heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family. He suggests that there are alternatives that need to be evaluated for human affiliation and identity. He also discusses how his paradigm of kinship through care and being cared for is non-coercive and voluntary affiliation rather than from power and prestige. He provides two cases for his point.

In “Case 1: Affiliation Through Adoption: Descent Revisited,” he describes how a upper middle aged gentleman wants to adopt a younger middle-aged gentleman but that would be impossible if there was a sexual relationship between the two at that time in Germany. The suggestion by the mother to the court that she was supportive of the adoption but that they live not as father and son but as a marriage unravels this possibility. However, the younger gentleman claims that he has interest in younger men, not older, as per prior jail time that he has served. The older gentleman was dying and was hoping to give his name and possessions to this younger man. However, Borneman alludes to the fact that the gentlemen would probably rather be in a marriage but that the adoption was worth the fight they put up in court. He concludes, though, that their relationship was best described through the lens of care, not sexuality, power, legality, etc. In this edition of this paper (as the first was published in 1997), he has a section called “Affiliation and Death,” where he gives tribute to the names of these men and the death of the older gentleman.

In “Case 2: Affiliation Through Marriage: Affinity Revisited,” Borneman presents a complex situation during the time where East and West Germany were divided. While there are more details than I will describe here, essentially a man was living with his ex-wife and mother, with the key being that his ex-wife and mother were lesbian lovers. There were a series of marriages and divorces along with intricate moves in order for these women to live together on the same side of the wall that divided Germany. Borneman argues the significance of these relationships of care was that “it radically rearranged social structure so as to invent alternative possibilities of affiliation. It did this not only by subverting categories of kinship and citizenship but by creating hardly imaginable possibilities of affiliation within a world structured as ‘dual organization’” (p. 40).

He concludes with “Making Affiliation,” whereby he declares that caring for and being cared for are normalizing practices that can define affiliation of humans and redefine kinship. He cites Carol Gilligan in the “ethic of care” in passing. To expound briefly a little more, she’s a feminist seeking to show that women can be ethical, but may use less logic but rather relationships to drive ethical decisions. Tzvetan Todorov also explored dignity, care, and the life of the mind, with caring being the morally superior act. Borneman here uses these claims to further support his paradigm that has reciprocity. With the possibility of reversal of roles, there is less of a power dynamic than in other relationships. He ends with the claim that people can choose who they enter these reciprocal caring roles with rather than being prescriptively defined by others.

Michael Jackson’s “As Wide as the World is Wise”

Hi Class! I apologize that I won’t be there tomorrow. I’m on the road for interviews for a palliative care fellowship that would start this summer. Today I had an interview at NIH and tomorrow will be at Harvard. My final interview will be at Emory next week. In lieu of my absence tomorrow, I wanted to provide some thoughts on the readings and some reflections of application during my time of travel.

I know this is a scholar blog and not a “mommy blog,” but I have thought about Zigon’s article in a new manner today.  While the article is entitled, “An Ethics of dwelling and a politics of world-building: a critical response to ordinary ethics” I would like to call it the “War on Drugs Article,” or to continue Zigon’s ethnography on prohibition as a prior article we read on Russia’s attempt to help those fighting a battle against substance/alcohol use.  I believe he articulated well that prohibition attitudes can breed unhealthy neighborhoods/living areas.  He also talks about making some areas safer for the drug users and perhaps curtail the social implications for the users.  What would be interesting thought would be to do the reverse and look to see if legalizing marijuana increases social and medical problems rather than relieves them.  Another interesting vein of exploration would be the investigation of celebrities overdosing, or better yet, the use and abuse of prescription drugs in the community.  With the rise of deaths due to overdose, not just prescription drugs but more commonly combinations of substances, the war on drugs has now expanded to prescribed medications.  It will be interesting to describe the current situation of the war on drugs and the impact on dwelling spaces.

I briefly want to reflect on my security encounter today.  I’m traveling with all of my paraphernalia to pump breast milk along with breast milk neatly stored in individual labeled bags within a cooler.  After reading up on TSA’s guidelines, I expected that the breastmilk would be inspected using an “x-ray machine.” I think that they additionally used a spectrometer and said that my breast milk had “unidentified substances in it.” I’m guessing that meant that it didn’t have know substances that are approvable and no approvable.  While I didn’t ever take the prescribed oxycodone/percocet, I wonder what would have happened if I did and if my breastmilk had detectable oxycodone on a spectrometer.  Would I have had to go through worse security humiliation that I endured today? Because my breast milk had unidentified substances in it, all of my belongings, or should I say my “property,” as they called it had to be cleared by the upper security echelons.  Though my bags had already been x-rayed, everything was taken out and inspected piece by piece.  I had a pat down more than once.  The men initially doing the inspection often made ignorant, yet hurtful remarks about my breast feeding paraphernalia.  The female who gave me the pat down then came to my rescue.  She intervened on these men who had no idea they were insulting me and about to ruin my “liquid gold.” They were going to open all of the bags and test them.  While I would be receiving equitable search and not profiling by testing all of the bags, clearly they were going to ruin all of my hard earned work in between interviews.  It is quite hard being away from a newborn, much less seeing all of the sweat and tears go down the drain….anyway, the war on drugs did not prevail. They did not open my storage bags as the a priori substance was my unique breast milk.

On to Jackson’s book….Overall I think he is brilliant and accomplished in reading philosophy, anthropology, religion, literature and poetry.  The intersection of the many disciplines throughout his work at times led to my understanding of his described epiphanies and other times led to my confusion.  He weaves many modalities of writing and stories of people he has encounters through fieldwork or his reading.  These enrich the experience of reading his book, but at the same time can be the detriment of the ignorant reader as myself.  He changes subjects so frequently with free verse with a flight of ideas and does not signify the change with headers.  I often had to recenter myself and re-read sections to understand what he was saying.  By the end of the book, I realized he was really telling his story and how he has encountered so many different peoples.  In those phenomenological interactions with different peoples, empirical research, and discourse on philosophical, ethical, and social implications of agency, freedom, determinism, evil, good, identity, sameness/difference, community, coming of age, rituals, rites/rights, and beliefs, he is edified (a word he uses throughout the book).  He has essentially come of age outside of his home where he grew up in New Zealand by traveling to different villages/bushes and learning not only about himself and others but also about the world and life.

One of the discourses that resonated with me was the idea that people are quite complex.  They are not consistent through and through.  They have often discrepant ideas and behaviors.  On page 66, he almost sounds like the Urapim from Robbins:  “There is, moreover, always a discrepancy between subjective realities and objective appearances that makes it difficult to infer inner feelings from outward appearances that makes it difficult to infer inner feelings from outward behavior or to know what is going on in the minds of others. Indeed, it is hard enough to know one’s own mind.”  Though, he then goes on to say that we cannot understand but we can interpret and infer from our interactions with others in the next paragraph but also validates that “we are aware that there is always more to a person than meets the eye or finds expression in what he or she says and does.”  On page 74, he states that “Our capacity for becoming other in relation to other selves is the basis for mutual recognition and empathy…..Our capacity for becoming other in relation to other selves also explains the persistence with which human beings, from time immemorial, have moved, migrated, and mutated, adjusting to radically new circumstances despite the risks involved, the losses incurred, and the suffering undergone” (original emphasis).

He references several people who were dying from cancer and their perspectives as they fought their battles and faced death.  This of course resonated with some of my experiences and reflections I have had while working in my field of pediatric hematology oncology.  Contrasting this Westernized view of active resistance with other cultures where passive (or even active) submissiveness was well written.  While we have a post-modern, individual respecting culture, there is still a social push to fight the good fight against illness.  For someone to submit to suffering, that often means still undergoing radical treatment and rarely “comfort care” with palliative care.

He claims on page 124 that “What people choose to ‘believe’ is conditioned by immediate existential needs rather than some abstract interest in the nature of the world.” I wonder if he would also agree that people can have abstract interest in the nature of the world, develop beliefs and then have them validated through life experience.

He relays much of life to literature, quotes story tellers from his fieldwork, quotes poets and shares his own poetry. I most enjoyed the quote from Byron on page 166: “But grief should be the instructor of the wise;/ Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most/Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,/The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”  In sharing quotes like this, he also discusses the existential thoughts of people groups that ground these philosophical, religious and ethical beliefs.  To obtain these thoughts, he also had to obtain not only a bird eye’s view of the people but more importantly had to live among the peoples where he was less of an other to them and vice versa.  He ends with “A deeper and more prolonged immersion in some alien environment would be needed for this metamorphosis (for himself) to occur–and it was not until I discovered ethnography that I found the means by which philosophy could achieve a deep engagement with the world rather than remain isolated on some Olympian Height or Ivory Tower, far from the madding crowd” (214).  While I agree, I will go see an Ivory Tower tomorrow, a place where I’m the other and not an insider.

But like… does Micheal Jackson make you feel wise or kinda dumb or both? Emmy on Michael Jackson, the Anthropologist

Sorry this is late, team. I had trouble sifting through and organizing these complex arguments!  Also, it’s important to know that Cara and I are wondering if this is Micheal Jackson’s celebrity twin:

I’ve been picking apples in the autumn since before it was cool to post about it on Instagram.


Now for my actual post: 

If you find yourself wondering how you might weave Lisa Simpson, West African philosophy, and Jean Paul Sartre into an academic argument, look no further than Michael Jackson’s As Wide as the World is Wise.  Admittedly, Jackson’s stream of consciousness prose provides more of a series of explorations rather than an “argument,” per se.  But, the disparate images he puts into conversation with one another establish a dialectical tension that does not provide definitive answers. Rather, these explorations introduce more complex layers to both anthropology and philosophy “in ways that enable us to see ourselves and the world from new vantage points, transforming our understanding without promulgating yet another paradigm” (15).  Jackson’s project is not so much about establishing a new, once and for all way of doing ethnography or philosophy.   Instead, it is about digging deeper into the space between the two. 

Jackson’s navigation of the field between anthropology and philosophy is perhaps best examined through his understanding of relationship.  After watching a girl on the plane carefully trace a picture of Lisa Simpson for her sister, Jackson realizes that both his and her work are not altogether different.  Jackson writes:

If there was any comparison to be drawn between these modes of ‘mentalization,’ all of which operate in a subjunctive or ‘pretend mode,’ it would have to be based not on the moral character of a single person but on the relationship between an intentional agent and a suffering moral patient.  In this intersubjective perspective, morality is not simply a question of one’s good intentions; it is a matter of at least two people’s moral responsiveness to each other and of the good or harmful repercussions of any action for both oneself and other (3, emphasis mine).

The concept of relationship is perhaps what has been missing from the bulk of our authors this semester.  While all of our thinkers thus far have acknowledged the palpable influence of relationships on moral life, Jackson goes a step further to examine how individuals and communities navigate relationships not just between selves and others, but between thoughts and beliefs, actions and consequences.  For Jackson, relationship provides a sort of methodology that he hopes will yield the realization that while human difference is real, it is not incommensurable.

Local explorations can be bridged.  As Jackson puts it, “Rather than lay down moral laws for how people ought to think and behave, we must describe the existential imperatives at play in any social context” (16).  Those existential imperatives do not exist in one community alone, but in all communities.  They may not appear in the same way nor are they experienced in the same way, but they speak to commonalities in human existence that can (and arguably should) be in conversation with one another.

In each chapter, Jackson centers his work around a binary.  By exploring the relationship between the binaries through both philosophy and ethnography, Jackson suggests that these polarities are fleeting and fragile, not meant to be a permanent depiction of any one person or community’s experience. The first three chapters of As Wide as the World is Wise focus on the relationship between philosophy and ethnography.  In the first chapter, Analogy and Polarity, Jackson suggests that Western philosophy has a history of dividing societies into “modern” and “pre-modern.”  Not only is this a false dichotomy for Jackson, it obscures the ways in which different lifeworlds (to use his own language) experience life through analogy.  A helpful example from Jackson’s own fieldwork is the use of “perspective.”  Jackson climbs atop a hill to get “perspective” on the village of Firawa only to realize that a view from above offers no real insight into the village.  Firawa is lived space, Jackson argues.  This ethnographic realization prompts Jackson to consider the ways in which Western concepts of visualization suggest a particular way of experiencing the world.  In order to understand the world, one moves away from it, objectifies it in order to articulate it.  Jackson elevates this ethnographic moment not to reify Firawa concepts of space and denigrate Western optics, but to suggest that both are philosophical claims about visualization.  “Seeing” in Western philosophy means distancing, while “seeing” is experiencing in Firawa.  But at the same time, neither claim is permanent.  After all, Jackson point out, markets crash and walls talk in the Western world. Objects are still integral to experience.

Jackson’s next two chapters build on the dissonance between relativism and universalism through ethnography and philosophy.  While philosophy often seeks to make universal claims about the human condition, ethnography often makes particular claims about individuals and communities, suggesting that universality is not possible. Focusing on when and why we claim unity or diversity helps us understand the way both poles can isolate individuals, communities and ourselves. However, difference is not just found among individuals. It is also found within them.  Jackson uses the work of William James to suggest that selves are multiple and unstable.  The reality that human beings are constantly changing does not imply any sort of moral failing. Rather, exploration of why and how we might suppress one part of ourselves in favor of another provides deeper insight into what is at stake in our moral worlds.

Self-understanding and collective identity take on a different tenor in moments of exile or cultural devastation. When the words, concepts, and memories that shape communities break down, societies find new ways of building life from the fragments of what was lost.  This transitional space cultivates new and different relationships with loss and death.  How communities remember and experience these moments becomes a salient ethnographic category in chapters 4-7.  Experiences of exile are not just about physically remembering a homeland (though that can be important).  They are also about associating and disassociating from moments of loss.  By exploring human-animal relationships in different societies, Jackson suggest that “myths and rites are informed by an urge to redistribute life itself, which always tend s to be perceived as scared and unequally distributed” (103).  Animals help navigate a moral balance between excess and scarcity, permanence and vulnerability.  Jackson points to the ways that different societies place importance on various forms of life at different times. Deer can be hunted for their meat or praised for their sacrifice. Dogs can represent the only semblance of humanity in a Nazi death camp or they can be treated with indifference in an Aboriginal community.   As Jackson puts it, “Through sameness and difference are potentialities of all these relationships, we must be careful to describe the contexts and interests that determine which one of these potentialities is realized” (113).  The ambiguity between persons and animals is not unlike the space between beliefs and experiences.  Human beings give language to experience by espousing beliefs. But rarely are beliefs and experience neatly aligned.  In fact, we often go to great lengths to articulate beliefs that distance us from our experiences of others (and the ways we treat them). Recognition of the relationship we have to others is perhaps best found in remembering whose lives “were the precondition of our own” (133).  Re-membering relationships exposes painful truths about history and the complex moral lives of the actors in it.

In some ways, the final chapters of Jackson’s work take on this task of remembrance. His chapter on fate and freewill show that human beings consistently transgress what is culturall determined for us.  We play between the polarities determinism and freewill, finding ourselves able to create something new in one moment while upholding social and structural “fate” in other moments.   Storytelling becomes a way for negotiating the borders and boundaries by narrative the “ethical and social life that lies at the margins of the state, a space outside domestication” (181).  As Jackson points out, only by transgressing customs, borders, and boundaries is newness created. Movement becomes the crucial way of exploring relationships between different lifeworlds, signaling moments of transformation for the traveler through association and disassociation.  Societies, even the ones that never physically move, are still moving between polarities through imagination, creative play, storytelling, myths and rituals.

Jackson’s writing certainly keeps the reader moving as well. Admittedly, this traveling often came at such a fast pace it was hard to keep up! As Wide as the World is Wise certainly provides a way to explore the relationships between polarities. But, there is a moment at the end of the book that leave me wondering if these existential comparisons might risk undermining important components of human difference.  Jackson writes of aboriginal fisherman who pay careful attention to the sea, the weather, and seasons:

In this sense their participation in the place they called their own was no more ‘mystical’ than the participation of a mechanic, say in an assemblage of machine parts on which he is working, or a scholar in an engrossing text, or a sculptor in the object she is shaping.  All, so to speak, put themselves into what they do, creating thereby the conditions under which they may experience the sense of fusion between body-self and object that we tend to talk about in terms of naturalness, sympathy and attunement…states of consciousness, as Karl Marx repeatedly observed are tied to our modes of interaction with the world in which we live (208).


While I agree with Jackson that some lines of similarity (or even universality) can be drawn, I have to wonder what these relationships have to say about social power.  A scholar and a mechanic might have similar relationships to their work, but the scholar arguably has more power to determine the social world in which we live than the mechanic does.  The two crafts are not valued in the same way.  While I think Jackson would agree that this difference is important, I suppose I frequently find myself in spaces where harmful things can be done in the name of “universality.”  Like Jackson, I move back and forth between universalism and relativism every day.  But I have to wonder, if the goal is existential commonality (and I honestly can’t quite figure out if it is), then who is this goal important to? The ethnographer or the communities he writes about?  On the other hand, if there is an intractable ontological difference between communities, what’s the point of ethnography in the first place?

I have some other questions too. Here they are:

  • I was really struck by chapter 3 because of the previous writings we’ve read that use MacIntyre. MacIntrye emphasizes the “narrative unity of a human life.”  I couldn’t quite parse Jackson’s own claims about multiple, fragmented selves and narrative. So I would like to spend more time on his arguments.  Relatedly, I’m wondering what James (and Jackson’s) understanding of the self provides for Laidlaw’s (I think it was Laidlaw) discussion of ethics as a deliberative standing back?
  • The last three chapters provide a lot of fodder for our ongoing discussions about freedom and autonomy. But, Jackson’s not really citing the “usual suspects,” we’ve read about. There’s no Zigon, no Robbins, no Keane. Who is the audience for this book? And is this work an example of anthropology of ethics/morality?
  • Did the writers that praise the book on the back read the book? The praise seems to come from an appreciation of Jackson’s use of philosophy. But I’m curious about what philosophy is doing in his arguments and how it bolsters (or doesn’t) his ethnography?
  • I loved Jackson’s emphasis on memory and remembrance. I’d be ok if we spent some time talking about it.


Webb Keane’s Ethical Life

Hi, friends. I realized that I volunteered for this week. Sorry for the late upload. Here is part of my thoughts that I felt as I read through the book. Coming from a disciplinary background where the naturalistic approach to human morality is more common, I primarily focused on how Keane tried (and somewhat fails) to bring some of the psychological findings to support his overall argument on ethical affordance.  In general, I liked the book a lot and saw many parallels in his argument and contemporary moral psychology, just as I did when we completed our first reading. I attached a short annotated reference for those who are interested in recent advances in the field of moral psychology and decision-making neuroscience.

Again I’m sorry for the late upload.

It has only been less than a century since the nature of human morality began to attract empirical minds across disciplines. Yet, the study of morality through the lens of science is now expanding at unprecedented rate: a dramatic illustration of this trend comes from recent publication records of Cognition, a prominent interdisciplinary journal, which showed that the number of original research articles in the field of moral psychology and moral neuroscience has gone through almost an eightfold increase in slightly over a decade (Cushman, 2017).

It is also important to note that such an exponential growth is not merely a reiteration of a conventional body of works based on rather a narrow subset of philosophical traditions (e.g. Deontology vs. consequentialism debate) and cognitive-developmental theories in psychology (e.g. Piaget and Kohlberg’s account of moral development) (Haidt, 2008). Rather, it is now characterized better by a collective endeavor from various research areas such as cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, primatology and evolutionary biology each of which has made some unique methodological and theoretical contributions to the field (Haidt, 2007).

Such a “new synthesis” in moral psychology (Haidt, 2007) has surely pointed to a novel, fascinating research venue for how morality works in our minds. By the same token, however, it has also posed us a daunting conceptual challenge: how should we incorporate those newly-produced knowledges into our previous world-views that have been largely shaped in the absence of the ideas, for example, that moral decision making is a joint function of emotional- and cognitive valuations in the brain (Greene et al., 2001; Shenhav and Greene, 2014); that our brain relies on domain-general neutral representations that do not necessarily distinguish moral values from orange juice or monetary rewards (Levy and Glimcher, 2012); and that altruistic vs. egoistic behaviors might be fundamentally similar in that they are both learned via a common sets of learning algorithms (Peysakhovitch and Rand, 2015)? What would be the ideal relationship, if it is ever possible to define, between morality as depicted in empirical- vs. interpretive traditions?

Webb Keane’s book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, lies at the center of those questions. It sets out to reconcile two seemingly-opposing intellectual discourses of “naturalistic” vs. “historical” approaches to ethics so as to achieve more an integrative understanding of what has long been believed as a uniquely human faculty: ethical life. His main goal is to show that what we might call “ethical” does not have a “single unifying basis in organic structure, cognitive functions, or cultural content.”

One of the points that set Keane apart from other authors we have read so far is the fact that he draws extensively on findings in developmental psychology and cognitive science. He specifically shows how some of the central facets of human morality, such as an ability to share and infer internal experiences of others (i.e., empathy and mind reading, respectively) and to distinguish others as discrete entities outside oneself (i.e., self/other distinction) could arise early in childhood, and therefore relatively independent of environmental inputs. In the similar vein, he also visits Jonathan Haidt’s “social intuitionist model (Haidt, 2001)” that highlighted the impacts of fast-acting emotional feedbacks vs. conscious reasoning on moral decision making (e.g. moral dumbfounding).

However, while emphasizing the role of potentially universal and innate mechanisms, Keane seems to distance himself from more an extreme form of naturalistic argument that morality is for the most part biologically constructed within an individual. Such a departure that Keane takes is well captured in the notion of “ethical affordance,” which essentially encompasses both a weak form of nativism as well as underdetermined nature of ethical behaviors. That is, our innate propensity for other-regarding behaviors, empathic social engagement and emotion-centeredness in moral cognition are not sufficient to capture complex layers of ethical life in humans. Ethical affordance instead permits a possibility that even a pan-human psychological process (e.g. mindreading and empathy) could give be associated with varying sets of behaviors and values depending on individuals’ experience in a certain sociocultural and historical arrangement. Keane elaborates this point repeatedly in following chapters, with an aid of ethnographic examples, that day-to-day social interactions with other individuals are required to fully actualize individuals’ ethical potentials and to reveal various contextual dimensions of ethical life that cannot be properly captured by psychological models of morality alone. Finally, throughout the later chapters of the book, Keane describes how the very existence of other people in the social environment and their more overt expressions of political and religious values could instigate more an objective (or ‘God’s eyes’), and reflective mode of ethical pursuit, with the case of evaluation apprehension and feminism’s contribution to birth of new language (e.g. problematizing) being two of the key examples.

Again, it is worth noting that Keane holds a unique position in our class that he is one of the few, if not only, authors who explicitly pay attention to some of the “innate” psychological properties as legitimate, fundamental building blocks for people’s moral experience. In addition, while acknowledging the utility of naturalistic realism in understanding humans’ ethical capacity, he touches on the topics that covered in our previous discussions (e.g. moral breakdown, virtue ethics and everyday ethics) yet from a different angle, with relatively firm-grounded discussions derived from some of the important empirical findings on human moral capacity. This could give us insights into what’s often missed out in anthropological literatures of morality and ethics that tends to focus more on describing people’s subjective experience and meaning-making process rather than physiological underpinnings that not only subserve those experiences, but also provide an additional contextual layer (e.g. functional/evolutionary account) for the interpretation of moral values. The book, overall, felt like an interesting addition to our much-needed endeavors to find ways to cross disciplinary boundaries in ethics.

However, it should be pointed out that his citing numerous psychological studies as a basis for his claim on ethical affordance, even though it sets Keane’s work apart from other anthropological writings, could potentially undermine the strength of his own argument all at the same time. This is especially so when empirical findings that he brought into the discussion fall short to properly represent the full array of the naturalistic approach to ethics. In fact, Keane’s view on psychological and neuroscientific account of human morality seems to be based on a limited line of research in the field. For example, even though it is true that the social intuitionist model (as well as the dual process model of morality by Joshua Greene; Greene et al., 2001) emphasizes the role of emotions in moral decision making, it is only so in comparison to more rationality-centered models that had been proposed by developmental psychologists and persisted up until late 20th century. In other words, the model does not downplay deliberative ethical reasoning as much as Keane would argue it does. Haidt himself was clearly aware of such a criticism (See, for example, Haidt, 2004), and has thus written several times to do away with such a “misunderstanding,” that his model is marginalizing the role of reasoning as opposed to that of emotional processes (Haidt, 2001; Haidt, 2004). Importantly, unlike Keane’s description of individual-centered nature of naturalistic models of morality, the social intuitionist model does include “social interaction” component as one of the six possible mechanisms that shape people’s moral experiences (Haidt, 2001).

More importantly, there has been a substantial shift in the trend in moral psychology and neuroscience (Cushman, 2010; Crockett, 2013; Greene and Shenhav, 2014; Gesiarz and Crockett, 2015) approximately from 2010. Particularly notable is the emergence of value-based decision making and reinforcement learning framework as unifying conceptual apparatus for human behaviors (For excellent reviews: Rangel et al., 2008; Ruff and Fehr, 2014; Gesiarz and Crockett, 2015). It is beyond the scope of this essay to go over theoretical details of those alternative models, but they share a common thesis that morality is essentially mediated by the continuous dialogue between biological predisposition and (both natural and social) environmental inputs that either consolidate or renew individuals’ ethical lives. It specifically poses that moral values and behaviors are the product of evolutionarily inherited predispositions (e.g. empathy), habitual process (e.g. behaviors that have become stable as a result of routine social interaction and norm enforcement in a given environment), and deliberate process (e.g. activated in the face of reputation concern and new environmental inputs that go beyond an organism’s behavioral repertoire acquired from past experience).

Of course, Keane’s central argument on the interaction between what’s innate and what’s “above” will still hold regardless of those headways in the field. However, part of his argument relies on the idea that the social intuitionist model (which is often framed as a shared assertion in naturalistic approach to morality in the text) and its alleged focus on emotional process fail to capture a full breadth of ethical life, especially given the role of social interactions in promoting third-person perspectives. Therefore, I think that Keane’s strategy to show readers how a description of ethical life becomes more complete by adding social interaction and cultural system to ethical propensities would have been considered misplaced under the novel framework in moral psychology that readily embraces the existence of moment-to-moment interaction as well as the impacts of a specific cultural environment on shaping people’s moral values.

It would be unfair to talk too much about the recent advances in moral psychology so as to reveal what might be missing out in Keane’s ambitious take on ethical life. Yet, focusing on a point of departure of his project led me to a series of questions that I think would be meaningful to share in class. First of all, given that an appreciation of social interaction and environmental susceptibility is gaining supports even within psychological and neuroscientific literature, would a distinction between innate-universal vs. constructive-particular still be the best way to formulate the relationship between the naturalistic vs. historical approach to ethics? What would be still missing in the naturalistic approach to ethical life, if we suppose that it does not necessarily claim human universals or an extreme form of cognitivism any longer? I would particularly love to hear more about his opinion on what can  and cannot be effectively addressed using either empirical vs. interpretive approach to ethics (Here, I instead felt that he focused more on introducing various research outcomes and ethnographic examples to formulate his thesis, other than comparing the mode of knowledge production  per se.)



Crockett, M. J. (2013). Models of morality. Trends in cognitive sciences17(8), 363-366.

Cushman, F. (2013). Action, outcome, and value: A dual-system framework for morality. Personality and social psychology review17(3), 273-292.

Cushman, F., Kumar, V., & Railton, P. (2017). Moral learning: Psychological and philosophical perspectives. Cognition167, 1.

**This is a fascinating article by Fiery Cushman, one of the leading figures in moral psychology. In this article, Fiery Cushman provides a nice summary of some of the recent advances in the field and their implications for philosophy and education.

Levy, D. J., & Glimcher, P. W. (2012). The root of all value: a neural common currency for choice. Current opinion in neurobiology22(6), 1027-1038.

** This is a nice review paper on how the brain uses “common currency” to computes “value” of behaviors and ideas.  

Gęsiarz, F., & Crockett, M. J. (2015). Goal-directed, habitual and Pavlovian prosocial behavior. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience9.

** My personal favorite. In fact,  this article is arguably one of the best works that systematically combines reinforcement learning frameworks in cognitive neuroscience with a wide variety of prosocial behaviors. Note that the phenomena described in each section ( goal-directed, habitual, and Pavlovian etc) are really similar to some of the key concepts we dealt during the class (e.g. everyday ethics, ethical deliberation, ethical predisposition and how people go back and forth between everyday ethics and conscious moral reasoning.). 

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science293(5537), 2105-2108.

** Now-classic study by Joshua Greene. The first neural evidence that (evolutionarily shaped, Pavlovian) emotion plays a crucial role in moral judgment. One of the early works that opened the era of moral neuroscience.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological review108(4), 814.

** A seminal work by Jonathan Haidt. This is the first article, published roughly the same time as Greene et al (2001), where the idea of social intuitionist model was fleshed out. This article actually led to a heated debate among scholars on the relationship between emotion and cognition. Figure 2 is particularly helpful.

Haidt, J. (2004). The Emotional Dog Gets Mistaken for a Possum.

Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. science316(5827), 998-1002.

Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on psychological science3(1), 65-72.

Peysakhovich, A., & Rand, D. G. (2015). Habits of virtue: Creating norms of cooperation and defection in the laboratory. Management Science62(3), 631-647.

Rangel, A., Camerer, C., & Montague, P. R. (2008). A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making. Nature Reviews Neuroscience9(7), 545-556.

** A nice review on value-based decision making. This article provides more a general framework for different modes of decision making that are very much relevant to how moral judgments are made..

Ruff, C. C., & Fehr, E. (2014). The neurobiology of rewards and values in social decision making. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience15(8), 549.

Shenhav, A., & Greene, J. D. (2014). Integrative moral judgment: dissociating the roles of the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience34(13), 4741-4749.


ethical life – Webb Keane

**Sorry for the late submission, everybody. I was out of town for the break and wasn’t able to post until I got home to internet service**

ethical life

Web Keane, in her argument for the situation of ethics in the dynamics of everyday interaction in order to link the social and natural explanations that are so often pitted against one another, suggests “ethical affordances” as a way of understanding ethics as both a “universal feature of human existence as an animal species and something that has a variable social history.” She defines ethical affordances as resources as “the opportunities that any experiences might offer as people evaluate themselves, other persons, and their circumstances” specified as “those features of human psychology, face-to-face interaction and social institutions.”

Child development studies demonstrate that all human children possess cognitive capacities and propensities for the development of ethics such as a “strong orientation toward other persons for their own sake,” key feature of ethics as identified by Haidt, “the ability to displace one’s attention and feelings away from the self, helping and cooperative behavior…motivation to engage in [such] activities without instrumental goals , the propensity to evaluate persons and acts on other-than-utilitarian grounds, conformism and norm seeking.” Helping and other empathetic behaviors require some extent of self awareness, distinction between one’s self and others, theory of mind, the ability to differentiate between one’s own feelings, thoughts, and knowledge and those of others, and self-distancing, transitioning to the perspective of another, second person. Keane carefully emphasizes that these innate and universal cognitive capacities and propensities are not deterministic. Infant behaviors are designed to elicit responses from others, prompting the social interaction needed for psychological maturation.. This convergence of naturalistic explanations with the social realm illustrates Keane’s main argument that insight to the ethical life is to be found in the integration not isolation of naturalistic and social histories and brings us to her second category of ethical affordances: interactions, namely face-to-face.

While these naturalistic explanations of unconscious mechanisms of ethics appear to leave little room for the concepts of ethical awareness and rationality that are central to many social perspectives, Keane suggests that awareness comes into play in interactions. Interactions consist of alternations between the first and second person perspectives and generate self-understanding through an intersubjective process in which one comes to define themselves as they perceive to be perceived by others. Keane posits that “people’s self-understanding as ethical beings is most often instigated by the dynamics of interaction, that they give rise to and demand explicit ethical accounts.” Social interactions that require individuals to account for themselves to others in the form of explanations, justifications, excuses, etc. explicate the ethical implications of quotidian interactions. Interactions also supply one with a set of resources, namely conversational techniques which one can use in an ethical project.

Finally Keane turns her focus to social movements outlines three storylines of ethical progress: the growth of knowledge, the shift from rules to principles (which involves the linkage of ethics with choice, agency, and awareness) and the expansion of the ethical circle. Through the example of feminist consciousness raising, Keanne traces the development of personal experiences into analytic categories and public knowledge that informs people’s’ understanding of what is ethical. The exchange of experiences between women revealed commonalities that could be made into abstract categories with explicit verbal formulations rendering those concepts cognitively available as ethical affordances to be used in the shift from habitus to awareness for ethical reformation.

I enjoy and appreciate when scholarly explorations strike a balance between social and natural explanations. I agree with Keane that neither discipline provides a sufficient explanation for ethics on its own, but I feel like her explanation undermines more than reinforced concepts of agency. The intersubjective interaction she offers as a counter doesn’t seem to involve any more agency than the naturalistic explanations which she criticized as too deterministic.

LaidLaw: “The Subject of Virtue” (WRS Review)

Review and Comments on

“The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom” (James Laidlaw)

By WR Sexson – September 2017


Hi folks,  I did not know this went un-published.  Thanks for showing me how to do the publishing.   Bill


This relatively concise text (224 pages) is a strikingly in-depth review of the recent history of anthropology’s interest in ethics and the place of “the ethical in human life.” (p1) In order to address the ethical landscape of the current anthropologic-ethics approach, Laidlaw clearly–and with a power based on an in-depth knowledge of multiple areas of study—develops a cogent and clear discussion on the complex interactions of culture, virtue ethics, individual attitudes versus cultural institutions and the very different approaches of philosophers and anthropologists.  The initial idea discussed by Laidlaw is that ethnography can contribute to the knowledge social issues not just using grouped empirical data, but also by analysis of individual decisions and the resulting conduct.  Virtuous contemplation, personal responsibility and freedom all play a part in an individual’s moral life.  Reflections on these topics are the approach Laidlaw uses to discuss key chapter-specific topics.



In the first chapter, Laidlaw sets the stage by discussing the four “recurrent weaknesses” of the anthropologic approach to the discussion of ethics (p16).  These include: 1) Morality as a social construct (as discussed by Durkheim as a secularized body of sacred law); 2) the mirage of relativism; 3) the “us and them” approach where other cultures are assumed to have the same ethical drivers as are present in western cultures; 4) shallow interactions between anthropology and philosophy.  Worthy of note is the concept (p35) of the “lacuna.”  Psychologically this lacuna is a potentially unrecognized or at least ignored “hole” through which reflection on actions (or inactions) go unrecognized because of an absence of an internalized morality ( ) Laidlaw, almost proudly, notes that one of the key purposes of this current book is to expand the “circle of philosophical approaches” in anthropological ethics (p41).

Chapter two discusses the evolution of virtue ethics from Aristotle to a “thicker” form of moral reflection and life. Laidlaw notes that “good ethnographic description is ‘thick.’” (p47) The discussion of virtue ethics starts with a discussion of character formation, a key concept—and then moves on to (in my view) a disappointing dismissal of deontological and consequentialist approaches to ethical contemplation.  It is my thought that real-world ethical decision making is rarely straightforward enough to rely on a single philosophical/ethical approach but an array of approaches must be available for consideration.  In this chapter, Laidlaw relies heavily on works by MacIntyre.  MacIntyre discusses (p61) the logical development of the concept of virtue as: “1) excellence internal to a complex social practice; 2) the narrative character of human life; and 3) tradition.” A concise summation of this, from Aristotle’s perspective, is noted on p72 by Julia Annas, as “the virtuous person is not just the person who does in fact do the morally right thing…She is the person who understands the principles on which she acts….”

Chapter three deals with the work of Michele Foucault, one of the late 20th Century’s more assertive thinkers as well as a political activist for individual freedom.  On p93 Laidlaw notes that Foucault felt that “power is a system of domination that controls everything and leaves no room for freedom.”  The question of how to conceive freedom is raised (p97) and is defined as the “juridical model (power as an integral aspect of social relationships) and as the social model (which per Foucault is noted to be the exercise of power in social relations in order to facilitate the orchestration—and thus limitation—of the conduct of others.  In a key portion of the book, Laidlaw (p108) goes on to discuss Foucault’s views of the characteristics and varieties of freedom.

Chapter four addresses how one might deal with the question of freedom as a dimension of anthropological analysis.  Laidlaw notes on p 142 the “there is no single liberal conception of freedom,” as he goes on to discuss Mahmood’s conceptions.   Unfortunately, there is no note of what might constitute a conservative conception of freedom.  The topic of moral and cultivated incapacity, as a mechanism for exerting social control and removing individual freedom (pp150-153) provides an interesting insight into the issue of independence (p155).  He ends the chapter with an interesting discussion of freedom/autonomy as consistency versus independence versus dependency versus self-regulation versus spontaneity.

Chapter Five takes on the topic of taking responsibility (for freedom and an ethical life) seriously. (p180) Here Laidlaw returns to the topic of agency.  On p 180 he discusses the fact that an agent is someone who “does something on behalf of someone else.”   In contrast, (p183) he notes that an agent may be any “entity” (i.e. non-human or even inanimate) “that plays a causal role in bringing about change.”  Thus, one might conceive a falling rock, that starts a landslide, that covers a road, that thus delays a medical convoy destined to bring supplies to suffering people, that thus causes the death of one of those people—as an agent.  Non-sentient, indirect, not temporally related—but an agent none-the-less. One particularly relevant notion (p204) is that of creating “responsibility in statistical reasoning.”  Here Laidlaw points out that statistics of compilation of group actions might point to the inadvertent, but none-the-less causal relationship between action (or inaction) and adverse consequences (p204).  Such analysis is responsible for the allegations of hundreds of thousands of hospital-related deaths in the US from failure of individuals to (on occasion) fail to wash their hands.

Summary and Reflection

Laidlaw’s book is excellent.  It is clearly written and well organized.  It provides many foundational insights into the relationship (or lack of relationship) between philosophy and anthropology.  I am personally sorry that we could not take several weeks to look at the materiel in this book in more depth.  It seems to me that this detailed study would help any student of ethics or anthropology.

I am troubled by the relatively terse dismissal of other ethical approaches (e.g. deontology and consequentialism) for virtue ethics.  While anthropologists may like a simpler approach to analysis, individuals may use a variety of decision making approaches depending on the decision, their stress level and the acuity and consequences of their decisions.  (i.e. the moral decision of how to approach aggressive end-of-life care for a critically ill neonate may vary significantly from the also morally involved decision of how to allocate one’s assets in their Last Will and Testament.)  Feminist and Care ethics, fast growing areas of ethical and social inquiry and investigation, are not even mentioned in the book. I am similarly concerned that there is literature to support the fact that men (as moral agents) make ethical decisions in different ways from women in similarly situations and that these differences become more marked in the face of stress and distress.

Finally, I am concerned that while most scientific investigation involves looking at Gaussian distributions of cluster around the mean, societal ethical influences may be markedly influenced by the “tails” (e.g. the 2.3% of the population outside of 2 standard deviations from the mean).  One could conceive of an issue where the large majority of a society were ethically distributed around a common “average” understanding.  However, on either side of this society, a very small but very vocal minority existed, then the larger group might be subject to “tyranny of the minority” as the competing outliers orchestrated public and vocal protests.  Additionally, the concepts involved with where the operational mean is placed in terms of systems-related “minimal adequacy” versus nominal adequacy is an ongoing challenge for orchestrating good outcome as opposed to least expensive product/care.

Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and The Feminist Subject

I have a mountain of things I could focus on with this book, so I’m choosing to focus on it’s thesis and ultimate call to action, as those threads are common to the book’s entirety and, in my opinion, are one of its most significant contributions to the various fields it seeks to inform. Within her ethnography, Mahmood frequently cites examples of Islam’s female teachers carefully choosing not to label various stances as “right,” “wrong,” or lacking merit, but instead opting to highlight various scholarly arguments underpinning their chosen position, and giving other women methods for evaluating the subject matter for themselves and deciding what will best help them fulfill their particular duty to God within their own lives. Perhaps by knowing that there is already considerable examination of their work, women leaders in the da’wa movement feel they must be particularly conscientious and competent in analyzing what has historically been considered somewhat beyond them, both intellectually and socially. In the same way, Mahmood herself begins by acknowledging the value and validity of the common views and goals we in the West hold regarding the middle east, Islam, women, and even broad concepts like religion and power in general. Like her subjects, Mahmood knows her material likely holds great power to polarize and instigate, particularly when she opts to not take any of the most widely held positions in her analysis. She makes it clear that her aim is not to outright contest deeply entrenched Western values regarding freedom and agency, but to perhaps broaden our intellectual horizons and indirectly serve those same aims through scholarly consideration of the issues in a completely different context. There are various other arenas in the academy where such scrutiny comes more readily, such as History. We are far more comfortable with criticizing historians for both glossing over and lambasting various events without fairly considering their cultural or temporal contexts, the work of Howard Zinn being a commonly cited example. Why then are we so intolerant of such scrutiny when looking at affairs of present-day life?

The assumptions Mahmood criticizes in Politics and Piety may have a great deal to offer present day American sociopolitics, as within our own culture there are women who choose lifestyles that seem counterintuitive to western values and feminist ethics. I recall my high school years. I was enrolled in a program with a particularly diverse student base; many of my classmates came from Muslim families of various levels of religiosity. Despite being in a Western educational setting that stressed liberal values and developing critical thinking skills, over four years, most of my female Muslim friends freely began wearing the veil, if they hadn’t entered high school already wearing it. When it became the topic of conversation, many of our classmates admitted that they had assumed that if a girl wasn’t already wearing the veil, she was exercising her western liberal right to simply not be veiled ever, why wouldn’t she? This wasn’t Oman or Pakistan, not even all our classmates Muslim mothers wore the veil. The girls themselves spoke happily about the change, their religion and what it meant to their daily lives, and it certainly did affect their daily lives, even at our secular public school. They joked about bad hijab days in the same way non-muslim girls lamented bad hair days, one or two kept small prayer rugs rolled in their lockers, when one Sunni girl abruptly broke up with her first boyfriend after discovering he was Shi’ite, a total dealbreaker, there was interclass uproar and debate. There was also quite a lot of peer-to-peer education, not entirely unlike the kind in Mahmood’s book, since most of us didn’t see what the difference could possibly be: they were both Muslim, right? Not to the girl in question. In a different case, a Shi’ite girl deliberately and passionately rebelled against her parents by secretly accepting a Sunni boy’s invite to prom, yet admitted there was absolutely no way shed ever consider going to such an event with a non-Muslim. Still another had her marriage arranged two years before we all graduated (she was ecstatic, but her parents insisted she had to wait until she was 18); most of the rest of these girls were married well before we finished undergrad. Meanwhile nearly all my male Muslim friends, even those who were brothers of some of these girls, had lives that were at least outwardly completely indistinguishable from any other boy in our classes.

As a brief side note, Mahmood references Gilligan, a critical figure of the care ethics movement that notably suffuses much of the Cairene ethical climate in politics and piety. Gilligan, a psychologist of moral development, made a key contribution to both psychology and ethics in demonstrating that the fundamental structures of morality in women are different from those of men. Women develop much of their capacity for moral reasoning via their understanding of various social orders and relationships within their lives; in short, we are very other-regarding when we consider our understanding of right and wrong. Men, by contrast, have a morality based largely in understanding values related to individual rights. Religion is in many ways another personal relationship, particularly in the West as Mahmood reminds us, and it is also in many ways a social order, particularly in a religion such as Islam. Perhaps it is partly this difference in moral understand that leads my female classmates to take such an intense interest in their religious culpability while their male counterparts largely expressed the cultural norms and expectations of their present culture. It may also have some bearing on Mahmood’s subjects, so many of whom were specifically seeking advice regarding the conflict between best fulfilling duty to god while also fulfilling duties to others in their lives and effectively navigating society at large.

While parental guidance certainly played a strong role in all my Muslim friends’ lives, none of these women were coerced into daily Muslim living. Though most certainly have a strong Americanized slant to them at times, each girl interpreted what her own best practice of Islam should be, attempting to balance long-ordained duty and present-cultural reality in the same way many of Mahmood’s subjects do, but perhaps with broader possibility than what Muslim Cairo typically offers. I don’t think it can rightly be said that these women weren’t or aren’t clever, enfranchised, critical thinkers, even as teenagers. Indeed, in Politics and Piety, college and teenage women often ask their religious instructors the more complex questions and offer some of the most robust and well-supported debate, while still maintaining their personal commitment to and interest in religious duty. In the west, there is limited assumption that their Christian or Jewish counterparts are culturally or cognitively trapped within their belief system, or that conversely, they couldn’t be free and happy choosers of a religious life; we often take this bias for granted. In my equally diverse middle school for instance, we didn’t react to the string of Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs with any of the same surprise or cognitive dissonance with which we would soon after question our young Muslim friends’ decisions to become veiled. Only by observing and sharing in these young women’s lives did I become sufficiently ambivalent and subsequently critical of many Western arguments against various conservative forms of living. It was gratifying to see an author so well-versed in her material ask the same questions I’ve often been too intimidated to: despite so much obvious human diversity at every level of humanity, why do we assume no person would freely choose a particular life? Why do we assume that there isn’t a native muslim feminism? Couldn’t feminism and good feminist ethics simply look radically different in a radically different setting? With so much interest in examining unique worldviews, why is the voice of the foreign, Muslim, happily-fulfilled female notably absent? I was particularly interested in her question regarding what our particular conception of the Muslim female as obviously oppressed victim might say about various currents of power in our own culture. We seem to privilege our most common liberal stances, viewing them almost as a priori logic rather than questioning whether “moral truth” might be largely shaped, if not outright dictated, by whatever context we happen to be in while becoming independent thinkers, and that such truths therefore maybe ultimately arbitrary.

Aside from the obvious value this line of questioning holds for examining Mahmood’s subject matter, the west itself, and the United States in particular, often struggle to accept or accommodate even Western conservative stances, particularly from those whom we view as marginalized victims, such as conservative women, minorities, and the conservative poor. Despite these groups often passionately advocating for themselves, the neo-liberal regime of truth often refuses to accept their claims as valid, or responds in a manner that suggests that our various viewpoints cannot, and possibly should not, coexist in real life, an idea that seems counterintuitive to many of our most cherished values, such as autonomy, self-determination, and cooperation. It also seems particularly problematic for feminism, as it implies that only men, and likely White men of means, are allowed to, or worse still able to, freely choose conservative life and philosophy. Going forward, works like Mahmood’s ethnography of a disparate culture, as well as her politely provocative calls for a balanced internal analysis of the reader’s response to it, can help us explore the unique problem of preserving and expanding social liberties without removing or stigmatizing individual rights and ability to make emancipated choices, including freely choosing a life of subordination. This is especially true in the case of those lifestyles and their supporters whom we frankly may know relatively little about, and the tertiary benefits of Mahmood’s book include the wealth of detailed information her western readers learn about Islam itself by learning about Islamic daily life, particularly from the viewpoint of those who are not directly involved in Islam’s actions on the world stage.

Our bodies of knowledge, be they ethical, ethnographic, or political, as well as our command of these bodies and their practical application in matters such as legislation or diplomacy, would likely be richer and stronger if we were as willing to scrutinize our cultural reality and its power to color what we view as truth, particularly in the moral realm, as we are other cultural realities, such as Mahmood’s pre-revolutionary Cairo. If we in the liberal arts academy really do value things such as freedom, equity, truth, critical thought, and rationalism, then we should have no objection to having our views of morality and sociopolitical issues challenged. To do so and evaluate the validity of our convictions is the very essence of critical thinking; without this, we are trapped within an echo-chamber and failing to fulfill our own duty to further good ethical discourse. Yet it is relatively uncommon that we collectively welcome such challenges regarding fundamental or deeply entrenched collective views. It is perhaps less common still that we approach such debates with truly dispassionate grace and evenhandedness, such that we are willing to actively criticize and empirically support our own views rather than merely responding to the criticism of others. In multiple academic arenas, including that of moral and ethical debate, Politics and Piety is both a sharply relevant challenge and a much needed empathetic reflection on what seems familiar, but is often most alien to us in the West. But perhaps my favorite thing about the book is simply the often missing and critically valuable slice of data that Mahmood adds to our perhaps narrow Western conceptions of “feminist” and even “woman” itself.

Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories: Grappling with the Fullness of Lives

Wow. I haven’t been so moved—or maybe, made to feel so human?—by a book in a long time. Especially an academic book. There is so much to consider in Moral Laboratories, some pieces that resonate at a philosophical/theoretical level and others that grabbed me, at least, at a much more core place in my (emotional) being—though I think the two are self-consciously in conversation throughout the book. I’m going to start off by going through some of the more theoretical pieces and let that lead into what seemed to be the more weighted material, which more or less parallels the emotional arc of the book. (I’ll also try to weave in Zigon a little throughout.) One note before starting: I think it’s important to keep track of how the arguments “feel” to us—when do ideas go from being intriguing intellectual proposals to morally and emotionally weighted imperatives? Do they ever move in the opposite direction? Can these two projects overlap; do we see evidence of this in the book?

Mattingly’s theoretical project in Moral Laboratories—and the book’s main explicitly stated goal—is to make an intervention in anthropologists’ conception of the self. We could say it is to respond with just a little bit of irritation to this tweet:

The point here is that social scientists are in pretty much unequivocal agreement, often in self-conscious opposition to narratives offered by politicians like Paul Ryan, that a person’s social environment is highly deterministic of the path of his or her life. I don’t think Mattingly would disagree here, either in the sense that all social scientists agree on this (it’s this uniformity she is trying to crack open a little) or to say that social determinism isn’t highly impactful (she’s not denying that). Rather, she might say something like, “yes, and we can’t ever seem to wrap our minds around the fact that individuals might actually have some control over or within their lives.” In fact, perhaps it is partly the political stakes, of which this tweet is a reminder, that keep people hewn so closely to this narrative.

But Mattingly’s project is to challenge this, even if it is risky. She does this by using a “first-person” neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics as a provocative counter-framework to challenge the Foucualdian tradition as it has been received in the anthropological literature. What is the problem with Foucault? Mattingly worries that his work’s analytic power is also its vulnerability: his position “readily lends itself to recognizing how easily moral practices of self-cultivation can be no more (or less) than practices of normalization within a particular regime of truth” (43). We’re just reproducing the norms and actions that serve power; freedom isn’t really a thing. While this may be true and important to name in many situations, she worries that the hegemony of this perspective has led to a kind of “systematic undertheorizing of first person moral perspectives in anthropology, especially as they illuminate the complexities of moral judgment and action in everyday life” (55). Humans do actually assert moments of freedom and agency in their lives, and anthropology has been systematically ignoring this fact for both theoretical and political reasons.

For Mattingly, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics has the theoretical capacity to help us pay attention to individuals in ways that existing frameworks do not. She introduces the metaphor of “moral laboratories,” small experiments and fragile beginnings in which individuals “test out” new possibilities for their lives, as an alternative to three dominant theoretical metaphors for moral formation: the artisan’s workshop (techniques of the self), the courtroom (the self as subject to the judgment of normative moral codes), and the “limit experience” (where some kind of crisis engenders moral reflection). By paying attention to the ways that individuals set up and move through their moral laboratories, this metaphor claims, we can also better understand their cultivation of virtues and overall (moral) formation as people. (In some ways, the Zigon article could be seen as an example of what Mattingly is opposing, situated as it is within a “techniques of the self”/artisan’s workshop framework—although I think he presents his evidence that this is an “indigenous” category pretty convincingly.)

Mattingly repeatedly states that the test of this theoretical proposal will be whether it is convincingly borne out in her ethnographic chapters, and I think there is evidence that in many ways it is. In Chapters 3 and 4 in particular, we see moral agents who cultivate themselves over time and come to act differently in the world as the result of that self-cultivation. Marcy and Delores, Mattingly shows, gingerly experiment with whether Marcy can recover from addiction and cultivate the virtues necessary for hands-on motherhood—a long but subtle narrative that could easily be missed by shallower dives into their lives. And in one of the more arresting moments in the book, at the end of Chapter 4 we suddenly learn what was ultimately at stake in Willy’s moral formation as a boy quick with words about his family. We know Willy’s history; we on some level understand why he, in particular, was able to give the eulogy he did at his cousin’s funeral. One of the things I appreciated about these and some of the other chapters (especially Chapter 6, “The Flight of the Blue Balloons”) was that I really did not feel like I was reading an ethnography of “inner-city black single mothers.” I felt like I got to know the characters as people and not as ideal-types of social contexts or political problems, which, frankly, can be rare in anthropology. (And not to throw shade at Zigon again—I did actually like his article—but you do not get that intimacy in any way in that piece.)

So this is all well and good. We have a theoretical proposal, and we have some interesting and moving ethnographic illustrations of it. But then, somewhere around halfway through the book, the mood shifts. We get Chapter 5, which introduces the concept of “moral tragedy” and the idea, via Martha Nussbaum, that perhaps the role of onlookers to such tragedies is to debate whether anything could have been done to prevent them (120). And then we get the devastating Chapter 6, the narration of Belinda’s illness and death and the terrible suffering undergone by her mother Andrena—one of Mattingly’s closest confidants. In this chapter, I began to wonder whether there was another major undertaking happening in this book besides the forwarding of her theoretical framework—whether Mattingly’s emotional “ground project,” the term she takes from Bernard Williams, was largely about making sense out of the tragedies that had befallen people who had become her close friends.

Yes, her friends. “Friend” is such a loaded term in anthropology, and many ethnographers try to use it to discursively obscure the power differential between themselves and their informants (I love Michael Jackson but he is guilty of this). Mattingly does not do this in general, but she does put forward (with stated awareness of how tricky this can be – 123-4) the idea that she did develop some real friendships with a few close informants, including Andrena. This hint, as well as the emotional weight that follows in the last several chapters of the book, led me to think more seriously about whether “anthropologist as friend” in the Aristotelian/Cavellian sense of knowing and caring for another (90) might be a legitimate category in at least some cases. Even just this case. Mattingly quotes Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “She is a friend of mine. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order” (89). She shows how Delores does this for Marcy, gently guiding her toward a new way of seeing Willy after the burn. I wonder, though, if this book itself is not also an attempt at act of friendship as Mattingly sifts through the pieces of the lives she has witnessed and tries to place them in some kind of morally relevant order—not directly for Andrena, who has died, but to her readers, the onlookers to moral tragedy.

This feels qualitatively different to me than the “call to action” of many ethnographies of violence and deprivation. The “moral tragedy” question Mattingly is asking is not so much “what can be done to better women’s lives in urban Los Angelos (or Rio de Janeiro, or Basra),” as it so often seems to be in activist anthropology, but rather, “what could have been done for my friend?”. It is a question that seems to be asked out of real grief and even guilt (I take Mattingly at her word when she says it has been too painful to aggressively pursue answers about Andrena’s death). Is it legitimate that I’m finding such an ethical difference here? Is it naïve to think that anthropology can at least sometimes be about showing one’s audience a genuine, human friendship that has managed to develop across gulfs of power? Is it even ethical to think that these friendships can be real in such circumstances—on the other hand, is it ethical to foreclose this possibility? How do we still account for power if we undertake this kind of project? And do we think that the philosophical resources Mattingly offers help get us closer to a way to consider individual lives in their fullness while also dealing with social context? I definitely don’t have answers for these questions, but Mattingly’s work is moving me to ask them in new and more serious ways.


A few additional questions:

  • Mattingly lists characteristics of the Superstrong Black Mother that, she says, “may not all appear to be virtues”—but in fact many of them are. What makes a virtue in a particular context? How does an ethnographer decide? (7)
  • She writes: “I suggest that anthropologists [should?] work on the problem not only of actualities but of possibilities and their ethical implications” (28) – What exactly does this mean and how would one try to do it? Mattingly shows us Andrena living out multiple possible futures in Chapter 6—but how do you first come to sense something that isn’t in fact there yet to document?
  • How does one decide, as an anthropologist, which metaphor/frame for moral deliberation best fits the situation? Mattingly and Zigon both present evidence that their dominant metaphor “works” for the context they are describing – but how do you get there? How do you check yourself (as perhaps Zigon did, or should have done) to make sure you, yourself, are not simply reproducing a discourse you have been trained to see–i.e. that a key way people engage in moral deliberation is through “technologies of the self”?
  • My biggest critique of Mattingly’s book is the relatively flat engagement with African American literature and scholarship. It’s there in fragments in her epigraphs, and in her attempts to lift up “the black church” (which in reality is a complex and conflictual entity in and of itself) as a site of moral knowledge. But a more thorough engagement could have done so much to help along her point about moral reasoning thriving in non-academic spaces–Womanist and black feminist literature is rich with examples of people making this kind of argument (e.g. scholars like Emilie Townes, authors like Octavia Butler). Flowing from this, two questions:
    1. How can the literature (both creative and academic) of groups being studied be put robustly into conversation with ethnography, for productive ends?
    2. What are the ethics of using what Mattingly acknowledges is the “Anglo-American” virtue ethics tradition to study African American women—when there are indigenous philosophical knowledges available? Don’t get me wrong, there are ways that I think it really works. But could there be room for a combined approach? What practices can scholars with dominant identities (e.g. white, male, Christian, etc) use to avoid this kind of systematic overlooking of under-represented knowledges in our work?