Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action

Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action

Edited by Michael Lambek
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 482
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  • Book Info
    Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action
    Book Description:

    What is the place of the ethical in human life? How do we render it visible? How might sustained attention to the ethical transform anthropological theory and enrich our understanding of thought, speech, and social action? This volume offers a significant attempt to address these questions. It is a common experience of most ethnographers that the people we encounter are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right and good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good. Yet anthropological theory has tended to overlook all this in favor of analyses that emphasize structure, power, and interest.Bringing together ethnographic exposition with philosophical concepts and arguments and effectively transcending subdisciplinary boundaries between cultural and linguistic anthropology, the essays collected in this volume explore the ethical entailments of speech and action and demonstrate the centrality of ethical practice, judgment, reasoning, responsibility, cultivation, commitment, and questioning in social life. Rather than focus on codes of conduct or hot-button issues, they make the cumulative argument that ethics is profoundly ordinary,pervasive-and possibly even intrinsic to speech and action. In addition to deepening our understanding of ethics, the volume makes an incisive and necessary intervention in anthropological theory,recasting discussion in ways that force us to rethink such concepts as power, agency, and relativism.Individual chapters consider the place of ethics with respect to conversation and interaction; judgment and responsibility; formality, etiquette, performance, ritual, and law; character and empathy; social boundaries and exclusions; socialization and punishment; and commemoration, history, and living together in peace and war.Together they offer a comprehensive portrait of an approach that is now critical for advancing anthropological theory and ethnographic description, as well as fruitful conversation with philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4875-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    (pp. 1-36)
    Michael Lambek

    Ethnographers commonly find that the people they encounter are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right and good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good. Yet anthropological theory tends to overlook all this in favor of analyses that emphasize structure, power, and interest. The essays collected in this volume demonstrate the centrality of ethical practice, judgment, reasoning, responsibility, cultivation, and questioning in social life. They develop a cumulative argument for attending to the ethical in the anthropological study of social action and, indeed, in...

    • Toward an Ethics of the Act
      (pp. 39-63)
      Michael Lambek

      Where is the ethical located? I shall argue that it is intrinsic to action. I look at action in two related ways—as specific acts (performance) and ongoing judgment (practice)—and show that ethics is a function of each. Criteria for practical judgment are established and acknowledged in per-formative acts, while acts emerge from the stream of practice. Performance draws on previously established criteria, or felicity conditions, in order to produce its effects. These effects can be understood as committing performers to one particular alternative or set of alternatives out of many, and these commitments in turn inform subsequent evaluations...

    • Minds, Surfaces, and Reasons in the Anthropology of Ethics
      (pp. 64-83)
      Webb Keane

      Whether they are trying to understand such things as global religious or political movements, ethnic clashes, state violence, diasporas, or biotechnology, or are faced with calls for social activism and political engagement, anthropologists may find familiar ethnographic habits serve them poorly and discover old questions acquiring new force. Does the specificity of cultural context mark a limit to the claims of universal justice and human rights? Or is the deployment of these very ideas merely the work of power? And if so, must we ultimately understand social relations in purely instrumental terms? But then to what ends? What makes one...

    • From the Ethical to the Themitical (and Back): Groundwork for an Anthropology of Ethics
      (pp. 84-102)
      James D. Faubion

      The ethical domain is very much a part of contemporary anthropological horizons, and not merely because anthropologists continue to worry over their own professional ethics or because a number of them suffuse their own research and writing with the ethical position that they personally hold most dear. Ethical anxiety is a marked feature of the broader intellectual and practical ecumene. Unsurprisingly, the best of recent contributions to an anthropology of ethics tend to acknowledge Michel Foucault as at least one near forerunner. Talal Asad’sGenealogies of Religion(1993) is among these, as are Heather Paxson’s exploration of reproduction and mothering...

    • Ethics, Language, and Human Sociality
      (pp. 105-122)
      Alan Rumsey

      In the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration that has inspired this volume, I will discuss some of the ways in which I think recent work in linguistic anthropology and related fields has shown that elements of the ethical are built into language at its core and how this work can shed new light on the role played by language in ethical thought and action. First, what do we mean by “ethics”? Whatever else the notion may involve, a wide range of philosophers (e.g., Hume 1957 [1751], Smith 1976, Rousseau 1979, B. Williams 1985: 12, Ricoeur 1992: 172, Levinas 1998) agree that...

    • The Ordinary Ethics of Everyday Talk
      (pp. 123-140)
      Jack Sidnell

      The juxtaposition of “ordinary” and “ethics” will, for many readers, bring to mind J. L. Austin’s brilliant exposition of everyday language in “A Plea for Excuses.” In the course of that discussion, Austin writes that excuses provide “a good site for field work in philosophy,” for here, in this “pressingly practical matter,” ordinary language is rich and subtle, having evolved in response to the infinitely varied moral and ethical contingencies of daily life. And here, moreover, according to Austin, we find an area of language that is as free as possible from infection by scientific and philosophical theories. On this...

    • Agency and Responsibility: Perhaps You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
      (pp. 143-164)
      James Laidlaw

      Considerations of the rightness and wrongness of action, of what we owe to each other, of the kinds of persons we aspire to be, and of what we do by way of trying to bring this about—considerations, in short, of the ethical—are pervasive in human life. As Michael Lambek points out in his Introduction to this volume, the ethnographer’s experience confirms this as a general rather than a culture-specific truth, and many of the best works of ethnographical description vividly convey what he calls the ubiquity of ordinary ethics. But as I have suggested elsewhere (Laidlaw 2002 ,...

    • Abu Ghraib and the Problem of Evil
      (pp. 165-184)
      Steven C. Caton

      I want to think about the prison abuses committed in Abu Ghraib during the U.S. military counter-insurgency in the Iraq War of 2003 to 2005 within the framework of ordinary ethics.¹ In some ways this is easier said than done, not least because there was hardly anything “ordinary” about what is alleged to have transpired behind the walls of Abu Ghraib. Yet we must be mindful that those who committed acts we might call evil were, by and large, ordinary men and women in the U.S. armed services who were thrown into extraordinary circumstances. By stressing this, I by no...

    • The Punishment of Ethical Behavior
      (pp. 187-206)
      Charles Stafford

      During my first period of anthropological fieldwork in rural Taiwan, I went through the—literally unfortunate—experience of becoming spiritually polluted through participation in a funeral. Much could be said about this incident, but here I want to focus on some questions it raises about ethicalthinking

      In considering these questions, I will follow the lead of Bernard Williams and others in drawing—at least provisionally—a distinction between ethics and morals. Williams points out: “By origin, the difference between the two terms is that between Latin and Greek, each relating to a word meaning disposition or custom. One difference...

    • Ordinary Ethics and Changing Cosmologies: Exemplification from North Australia
      (pp. 207-224)
      Francesca Merlan

      In this essay, I will be discussing issues of continuity and change in relation to ethics among Aboriginal people I have known over the past three decades in the region of Katherine in the Northern Territory of Australia. The historical baseline for my discussion is a social scene before the Second World War, in which Aboriginal persons and groups experienced an intimate and differentiated attachment to portions of country, performed ritual, and related according to intra-Aboriginal norms of sociality. As elsewhere in Australia, Aboriginal people who grew up under these conditions were given to citing “Law” as the moral basis...

    • Philosophical Comments on Charles Stafford and Francesca Merlan
      (pp. 225-232)
      Judith Baker

      Charles Stafford’s interesting essay “The Punishment of Ethical Behavior” starts from an important insight: it is not just philosophers who engage in thinking about morals. Stafford takes ethics to be the philosophical study of morals by ordinary people, including the behaviors that directly follow on, or precede, this philosophizing. He understands morals to be the rules, norms, or conventions against which human behaviors are judged good or bad. While he voices qualms about his distinction, he believes it helps make salient the role of thinking and judgment in moral life and the fact that ethical thinking can lead us to...

    • Natural Manners: Etiquette, Ethics, and Sincerity in American Conduct Manuals
      (pp. 235-248)
      Shirley Yeung

      What can the rules of etiquette that govern speech reveal about broader models of good conduct? And what is the broader relationship of etiquette to ethics? In a North American context, it might appear that the seemingly arbitrary constraints upon everyday conduct posed by etiquette (in the form of table manners or proper forms of address, leave-taking, apologizing, etc.) stand at a firm arm’s length from enduring ethical inquiry into what is good, what is right, and considerations of the kind of life one ought to live. It is unlikely, after all, that the occasional forgetting of one’s table manners...

    • “They Did It Like A Song”: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Tradition in Hopi Legal Discourse
      (pp. 249-270)
      Justin B. Richland

      In early November 2000, just after I had moved to the Hopi reservation for the year, I found myself confronted with the tumult that can be Hopi tribal politics, and the role that language ideologies and metadiscourse play in it. At the time I was living in the home of a member of the Hopi Tribal Council, the tribe’s legislative body, who had been selected to head a committee investigating the actions of a staff assistant to the vice chairman of the tribe. The council had received complaints that the assistant in question had repeatedly misrepresented himself and the tribe,...

    • People of No Substance: Imposture and the Contingency of Morality in the Colombian Amazon
      (pp. 273-291)
      Carlos David Londoño Sulkin

      This essay addresses the conditions and entailments of strategic imposture among People of the Center (Colombian Amazon). It examines individuals’ accounts and evaluations of moral subjectivity and action, which often cited elements of coherent narratives and nondiscursive practices that bring together their social organization, livelihood practices, perspectival cosmology, and understandings of subjectivity. I will claim that persons are in part constituted by their self-interpretations against a backdrop of distinctions of worth between different kinds of being, action, and subjectivity, and that People of the Center’s accounts of personhood reproduce and reveal just such a background. While arguing that explanations of...

    • Ethics Between Public and Private: Sex Workers’ Relationships in London
      (pp. 292-309)
      Sophie Day

      In the U.K., as in other places, we learn from a young age that love and money do not and should not mix. Love belongs to a sphere that is threatened even by association with money acting as a conduit, a set of practices, habits, and relationships that might contaminate all that love stands for. From the perspective of a denigrated female occupation, love stands paradoxically both for the reproduction of the social world and for its transcendence. Love sustains relationships of mutual care within which children and adults cultivate their human capacities. Love also fuels a quest for perfection,...

    • On the Pragmatics of Empathy in the Neurodiversity Movement
      (pp. 310-327)
      Paul Antze

      Most of us would agree that ethics involves caring about the experience of other people. The Golden Rule points in this direction, and it is implicit in Kant’s injunction to respect the dignity and humanity of persons as distinct from things. And yet there are times when this prescription fails us.

      In an interesting article on Kant’s view of friendship, Rae Langdon elaborates the distinction between persons and things in a way that nicely points up its limits. Drawing on the work of P. F. Strawson, she contrasts the moral or “interactive” standpoint we commonly assume toward our fellow human...

    • Being Sadharana: Talking about the Just Business Person in Sri Lanka
      (pp. 328-348)
      Nireka Weeratunge

      The ethics of business is a very old problem, debated extensively by philosophers, writers, and social scientists, and it underpins current concepts of social justice within a market economic system. In rural societies, where most people engage in agriculture or fishing, disdain for those who make a living by trade has a long history. Sri Lanka is no exception. Current global discourses on business ethics and the profit motive tend to focus on the practices of large corporations rather than on micro, small, and medium businesses, which form the economic fabric of most countries. In this essay, I examine the...

    • Engaging Others: Religious Conviction and Irony in the Holy Lands
      (pp. 351-367)
      Donna Young

      This essay focuses on the ethical practices of a group of pilgrims to the Holy Lands in the summer of 2007. Most of the pilgrims participated in a month-long biblical course created by the Sisters of Zion at Ecce Homo in the Old City of Jerusalem, but there were also guests at Ecce Homo pursuing their own spiritual and political projects. The Sisters considered all of them pilgrims.¹ Collectively they included theologians, nuns, and priests, although most were deeply religious lay people. Whether Roman Catholic or not, the majority had chosen to stay at Ecce Homo because they appreciated the...

    • Between Queer Ethics and Sexual Morality
      (pp. 368-375)
      Naisargi N. Dave

      The story behind this essay begins in January 2003, on the inaugural day of the Asia Social Forum (ASF) in Hyderabad. Queer and allied groups across India had spent months of fervent planning to host events that would highlight the relevance of sexuality rights to the forum’s dominant themes of poverty alleviation and antiglobalization. At one of these sexuality-themed seminars, a panelist introduced himself as a believer that “sex workers’ rights are human rights.” He said this with chest proudly expanded, as if challenging us to counter him; what he received instead was a chorus of intense solidarity. “Sex work...

    • Engaging the Life of the Other: Love and Everyday Life
      (pp. 376-399)
      Veena Das

      I begin this essay with the simple proposition that everyday life is the site in which the life of the other is engaged. I try to work out the implications of such a proposition for the moral striving I observe in low-income neighborhoods in Delhi, where, in collaboration with a group of researchers, I have been engaged in understanding urban transformations for the last ten years. What is at stake for me here is both the idea of the everyday and our picture of what is constitutive of moral striving. Due to the breadth of its semantic meanings, everyday life...

    • The Ghosts of War and the Ethics of Memory
      (pp. 400-414)
      Heonik Kwon

      InThe Ethics of Memory, the philosopher Avishai Margalit proposes two distinct ways to conceive of collective memory, particularly in regard to the tragic mass destruction of human lives and the obligation to remember and commemorate these lives. One is what he calls “thick memory,” the knowledge of a past event kept and transmitted within the milieu of intimate relations such as the family (or the national community, according to Margalit). The beholders of “thick memory,” according to him, constitute a community that shares an ethic of memory. The other type of collective memory takes as its site the horizon...

    (pp. 415-450)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 451-458)