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?