Anthropology of Ethics and Morality: Understanding the Complexity of Everyday Religious Practices 

By: Mufdil Tuhri

In his 2002 article titled “For Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom,” James Laidlaw introduced the idea of a new subdiscipline within anthropology dedicated to exploring issues related to ethics and freedom. Laidlaw’s proposition marked a departure from his criticism of existing moral frameworks that did not sufficiently emphasize the concept of human freedom. Specifically, he critiqued both the Kantian moral law, which stressed the obligation to adhere to moral principles, and Durkheim’s perspective, which highlighted the role of society in shaping moral norms. Laidlaw proceeded to develop a novel viewpoint that places greater importance on human freedom in ethnographic analyses of ethics. He argued that ethical freedom revolves around the capacity to choose one’s own self-fashioning, setting it apart from agency, which he contended constrains human freedom (315). Drawing from Foucault’s concept of the “technique of self,” Laidlaw further elaborated on the moral significance of ethical freedom in enabling individuals to select and shape their own identities (324). He proposed that achieving this understanding required a thorough ethnographic approach that explores how individuals enact their ethical projects and employ techniques of self-fashioning (327). 

While Laidlaw advocated for anthropology to delve deeply into the complexity and diversity of ethical practices across various cultures and historical contexts, Webb Keane’s 2014 article examined two empirical studies on ethics by Joel Robbins (2006) titled “Becoming Sinners” and Charles Hirschkind (2006) titled “Ethical Soundscape,”. He highlighted the complexity of the relationship between deontology and virtue ethics in an ethnographic context. Keane demonstrated that in practice, the separation between moral and ethical concepts is not as simple as in theory (224). Keane also illustrated that ethics becomes separated from everyday habits due to the process of objectivization, as he showed that there is always contestation between religious doctrine and religious practice (230). While distinguishing between ethics within the context of religious beliefs and ethics in everyday routines, Keane underscored that the conflict between religious values and daily practices is key to understanding ethics in religious societies. This persistent tension appears to be a major source of urgency for the piety movement, which equates ethics with piety. 

During debates about ethics and morality within the framework of anthropology, there is a tendency for anthropology, which makes it too easy to see the complexity and difference of human lives, and it often ignores the aspect of theology or transcendence in people’s daily experiences. Here, Joel Robbins (2006) seems to want to bridge the anthropological approach, which requires interaction with theology to gain a deep understanding of various aspects of human life. In Robbins’ terms, “we should take on the challenge to find real otherness” (292). Anthropology must ground us in the efforts made by ordinary people in their search for real otherness and describe how they achieve that. Robbins considered that the emphasis on values and ideals encoded and consciously articulated within religious communities is an important part of ethical life, and the rejection of such domains can be inadequate to understanding ethics. 

Laidlaw, Keane, and Robbins have collectively offered a theoretical foundation in the field of the anthropology of ethics and morals. It appears that they concur on the necessity for any ethical framework to accommodate conscious reflection regarding social and ethical norms. Their contribution holds significant value in uncovering ethics within human experience, particularly concerning the ongoing debate concerning the role of ordinary or everyday phenomena in shaping ethical life. To me, this will serve as a tool for analyzing various instances of everyday ethics within the broader societal context. Nevertheless, I also acknowledge the anthropological challenges that I may encounter during fieldwork. For instance, for those who argue that ethical life is common and ordinary, how important is it to explain how ethics can be reflective?  What if ethics isn’t always fully conscious, for example, in cases where people practice religion as a routine or take it for granted? And what about moral relativism itself? 

Since Laidlaw’s complaint in 2002, I believe that there have certainly been significant developments in the study of ethics and morality in anthropology. The various anthropological concepts offered, such as the anthropology of ethics, morality, and freedom, can help enrich our understanding of human complexity in various cultural and religious contexts. Finally, I am also intrigued to think about the various anthropological approaches to religion that have been developed so far. For instance, does the anthropology of morals and ethics aim to broaden the perspective of analyzing the practices of religious communities to a wider extent? So, how do we understand “religion” today if there is already an anthropology of ethics and morality that might be considered more universal? 

7 Replies to “Anthropology of Ethics and Morality: Understanding the Complexity of Everyday Religious Practices ”

  1. Taha Firdous Shah

    Thank you, Mufdil for the crisp précis on this week’s readings and for raising some interesting questions. I would like to point out a few things I feel could be discussed in the class tomorrow:

    Laidlaw’s commentary on intertwining questions on Ethics and Freedom by using his personal expertise in Jainism was very thought provoking. I found the concise manner in which his work incorporated several forms of a priori knowledge, drawing from the philosophies of Kant, Durkheim, Nietzsche, Foucault and Bernard Williams, in order to elucidate empirical phenomena, to be particularly captivating. The discussion on ‘guilt’ stood out to me, as has been the case of discussion in our seminars associated with fear (320). This divine union that we think of and aspire for as believers and worshippers is a constant thread that we weave into to get salvation. However, this as Laidlaw also argues limits the ideas of self-realization and excellence, which is something Nietzsche strongly proposed in his corpus. The continuous use of ‘self’, in my understanding, can also be limiting. When thinking about individual aspirations within the boundaries of ethics and freedom, is Laidlaw missing on to account both ends – self and collective (could be that he just wanted to focus more or the self but just wondering)? Ethics or freedom as much as they are informed by our personal choices can be exercised only when in relation to others. How do we think of freedom vis-à-vis within and outside the boundary of ‘self’?

  2. Evgeniia Muzychenko

    Mufdil, thank you for the deep engagement with the week’s texts. You ask great questions, especially the last one that concerns the category of religion in relation to the anthropology of ethics. I am not entirely sure if religion as practice can be treated as a project for “rationalizing ethics,” as Keane puts it (229). While we can certainly recall many historical instances where religions, especially with a firm textual ground, emerge as a universal form of social regulation, there is still, as you mention, a distinction between the religious beliefs per se and the daily practices. You also posit a great query about the contexts in which humans are not fully conscious of acting ‘ethically’ – for example, when a certain religious practice becomes routinized or simply becomes stripped off of its religious core (how many people in the U.S., for example, celebrate Christmas or Easter while not being practicing Christians?) Speaking of the ‘routinization’ of religious traditions, I am reminded of another important query in anthropology, namely, how the scholars distinguish between ‘religious’ and ‘cultural.’

  3. Brittany Lynn Fiscus-van Rossum

    Mufdil, thanks for your great reflections on these readings!

    I agree with you that these readings were valuable in considering how one might study the intentional and more routine practices that compose an ethical life. James Laidlaw’s suggestion that any of the conduct that humans employ to shape themselves to be a certain kind of person is “ethical and free conduct,” expands what we might consider in the study of ethics too (Laidlaw 327). Several of our readings in this class thus far would challenge the assumption that ethical life is shaped by doctrine or agreed upon understanding alone. Religious beliefs and their moral components are embodied in humans situated in broader societal contexts. Ethical convictions are lived out in the messy, routine, and sometimes paradoxical practices of humans. I also appreciated your question on reflexivity. I do think there are instances when practices are a result of active reflection and other times when they are more subconscious or routine. There are also those practices that, while reflective, become more “practiced” or routine over time.

    On another note, I was also intrigued by Joel Robbins’ suggestion that anthropology has something to learn from “theologians’ ability to deploy effectively an idea anthropologists should care very much about: otherness” (Robbins 287). Robbins sees one task of the theologian as finding hope or the image of “something better” through encounters with otherness. This reminded me of several conversations we have had this semester about the aims of our own writing and whether thick description of a community and its practices can be employed to make an ethical or theological argument. I think Robbins makes a compelling case for an openness to learning something new or valuable about life in encounters with radical otherness, including lessons that may prove to offer hope or inspiration.

    I look forward to talking with you all tomorrow!

    -Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

    • Yaa Baker

      I believe that Laidlaw answers your latter question subtly. He says, “Only actions contributing towards what the analyst sees
      as structurally significant count as instances of agency. Put most crudely, we only mark them down as agency when people’s choices seem to us to be the right ones,” (p. 315). In the current discorse there is a sense that everyone is a slave to their culture, which reproduces itself. Which is why Trobiader’s thoughts are so notable, “… the ‘savage’ in general is not an unthinking slave of custom but a free agent exercising his own judgement…” (p. 311). My understanding is that through theology and studying collective notions of individuality, we can observe agency as a core part of various civilizations and therefore acknowledge the individual people participating in them. He goes on to discuss your question of morality employing Neitzsche, an author frequently cited in religious studies but not so frequently in anthropological studies, which I think is a way of him giving a nod to religion for, ‘doing it right’ so to speak. Neitzsche explicitly challenges the notions of morality and, in my reading, considers socialization as an merely acts of self-preservation. He uses the example of a revolution of enslaved people and explains that “Ressentiment ‘turns creative’ and gives rise to new values” (p.319). In this way morality is not a fixed thing, it is fluid and ever-changing based on people acting in their own best interest given the pressures of society which is different from the notion that the pressures from society force people to behave in specific ways.

  4. Prakash Raju

    Thank you Mufdil for a detailed overview of the three essays and intriguing questions

    Keane webb in his essay argues about how concepts and practices of ethics are identified with religion and how religion reproduces ethics. He further talks about the difference between totalising perspective of the monotheistic moral code (scripture) and everyday habits. Both his illustrations are on monotheistic religion. I was wondering what would change in a polytheistic religion or even communities who follow multiple religions. Can the idea of scriptural guidance, submission, and respect be perceived differently? Similarly, Laidlaw in his essay talks about the Jain community in India, in the recent past the Jain community are drawn toward Hindu gods.
    In relation to human freedom, Laidlaw talks about the concept of agency within the context of social regularity and social control. He argues that the concept of agency is believed to give solution to nearly every problem, which is problematic. Agency describes the world as we would like it to be, rather describing as it is. He further says that agency is not the only good thing and it is not similar to freedom. How and why does agency become utopian? How different is agency from freedom? Is total absence of constraint is utopian as well?

  5. Laura Montoya Cifuentes

    Thank you, Mufdil, for your questions on ethics, morals, and freedom.

    To respond to your question, “What if ethics isn’t always fully conscious, for example, in cases where people practice religion as a routine or take it for granted?” I think both Keane and Laidlaw provide interesting perspectives. On the one hand, Keane’s work shows that ethical habits and practices in communities don’t need an explicit set of rules or “instrumental rationality.” For instance, the gift contract shows the various implicit patterns of conduct and social norms functioning without a list of rules; the practices are “just there” due to the specific context but have several ethical implications (226). What is interesting from Keane’s work, and addressing your question, is that in the religious contexts emerges a process of materialization-dematerialization depending on the religious evolvement. For instance, many of those practices take the form of words, what he calls entextualization. In contrast, other practices dematerialize (Uprapmin’s observance and sacrifice) to respond to the explicit set of rules they adopted (purification, iconoclasm) (230). Keane shows this interesting tension between what is explicit (or not), resulting in a dichotomy of conscious-unconscious.

    On the other hand, from Laidlaw’s work comes to mind his reading of Nietzsche and Foucault’s work. Related to your question, Nietzsche’s genealogy responds to an evolution of ideas of morality-nonmorality that vary from culture to culture. What is “taken for granted” depends on historical events and humans’ definitions of “good/bad – godly/human as in the case of heroic Greeks implications of “goodness” for different social segments. (317) From Foucault’s perspective, the “routines and take it for granted” are part of the historical context in which the individual exercises freedom. The religious practices would be practices of the self that “he finds in his culture and are proposed, suggested, imposed upon him by his culture, his society, his social group” (323) The question for me would be, are these practices really ethical from Foucault’s perspective if they don’t go through the process of réfléchie? I think it resembles your question: for those who argue that ethical life is common and ordinary, how important is it to explain how ethics can be reflective?
    I look forward to discussing these questions tomorrow.

  6. Peter Cariaga

    [I’m posting so late in the spirit of wanting to have engaged my colleagues’ thought, even if it’s not a full contribution.]

    Thank you for your post, Mufdil. Regarding your final question about the place of religion is if there is already a more generalizable anthropology of ethics and morality (and hopefully I’ve understood you correctly), I think religion still very much has a place in that it overlaps with but is not co-equal with ethics or morality. Keane illustrates this helpfully.

    On the one hand, ethics “embedded in the habitual life of a community [. . .] does not require any particular set of beliefs for its authority” (233). Even if one understands religion to be about more than only beliefs, one could still make the case that a person does not need to be rooted in religious authority in order to be ethical. This scenario assumes, of course, ethical goods in this instance are recognized by the community as such. Thus the ethnographer needs to know what matters to that community, not necessarily the religious beliefs.

    On the other hand, for religions with a high degree of what Keane calls “entextualization” (231-32), such as Christianity and Islam, religious beliefs—yes, even theology—will always have at least some bearing on the ethics of adherents because of how authoritative the texts are. As Keane puts it, highly entextualized religions “represent ethics in words,” which allows ethics to be removed “from particular contexts in order to circulate among a potentially indefinite range of other contexts, where they have the potential to be recontextualized” (231). Thus the ethnographer MUST know something about religious beliefs (and yes, even theology) because what matters to the community will, in this instance, only tell part of the story.


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