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A reader’s guide to the anthropology of ethics and morality – Part II

This article is part of the following series:

Editor’s note: We asked several scholars which readings they would recommend to students or colleagues interested in familiarizing themselves with the anthropology of ethics and morality. This is the response we received from Webb KeaneGeorge Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Reading lists from other scholars will be forthcoming in this series.


The anthropology of ethics and morality is as old or as new as you’d like to make it. After all, ethics and morality were motivating questions from the very start of the discipline, evident for instance in Tylor’s call for a reformer’s science, Durkheim’s worries about anomie, Weber’s account of the Protestant ethic, Benedict’s patterns of culture, and Mauss’s total social fact. Looking at the field from this angle, one might be tempted to echo the dry remark with which one of my teachers used to greet any new and exciting idea: “But that has been known since Aristotle.” To overemphasize continuity, however, can blind us to emergent possibilities; we shouldn’t let genealogy blind us to the freshness and specificity of what we can call “the ethical turn.” So why an ethical turn now? Here are two factors, among others. First, after a generation, the turn to power critique in anthropology, important though it has been, seems to have reached a certain limit. Once “power” (or, say, “neo-liberalism”) became the answer to all questions, it started to lose both its explanatory and critical force. The turn to ethics opens up new ways of looking at political commitment. If politics is not always a struggle for survival or domination, then what is it about? Much politics involves conflict about harm suffered by others or fighting for ideals that go beyond one’s own well-being. If you yourself have not suffered harm, why should you be concerned to the harm that others suffer? To answer “the political” risks circularity; ethics seems to offer one way out. It brings into view the pervasively evaluative dimension of human actions, to the extent that it is not shaped by instrumental reason and utilitarian goals alone. The second factor is, in a sense, a variation on the first. It’s apparent, for instance, in the later writings of Foucault. Pushing back against the portrayal of “power/knowledge” in totalizing, deterministic, and constraining terms, the turn to ethics provides a way to bring into focus the productive dimensions of power. For some (but not all) participants in the ethical turn, this focus militates against any assumption that ethical worlds are, or even could be, self-consistent and coherent systems of the sort familiar in the older anthropological traditions I invoked above.

Two definitional problems immediately present themselves. The first, and one of the sources of dispute within the ethical turn, concerns the boundedness of the field. Some of our authors worry that the definition of ethics threatens to expand to the point that it encompasses everything. If ethics is everywhere, then, goes the criticism, the concept fails to offer us any explanatory purchase. On the other hand, if it’s defined too narrowly, then it becomes hard to account for the compelling nature of ethics, its pervasive and subliminal influence, and the wide range of ethnographic situations that the ethical turn might illuminate. The second problem concerns the difference between “ethics” and “morality.” When I was writing my own book in the subject, I looked over the field to see how these terms had been used. It became clear that virtually every anthropologist who has written on the subject assumes there is a distinction between the two, but almost no one actually defines them, and when they do, there is no consensus: in fact, I found that when authors wanted to place the two terms in opposition to one another, one would define as “ethics” precisely what another would dub “morality,” and vice versa. In response to this confusion, several of us have found useful the distinction laid out by the philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams was critical of the abstractness, rationalism, and ahistorical nature of mainstream moral philosophy since Kant. What he criticized under the name “the morality system” had a juridical quality to it, often involving explicit prohibitions, obligations, and sanctions, applied regardless of person or context. Typically discussions of the morality system took the central problem to be decisions about right and wrong, understood as constraining one’s actions, viewed sub specie aeternitatis. As an alternative, Williams looked to virtue ethics. Viewed in this light, ethics invites us to see people as oriented toward historically specific visions of human flourishing—of what a life should and could be, something that is less constraining than enabling, not abstract but embodied and concrete. It emphasizes growth, practical disciplines, and active self-cultivation, the role of guides and exemplars, and variability over space and time: there is more than one way to flourish. If morality systems often propose general principles available to any rational individual, ethics is embedded in the specificity of social life within communities, where people have claims on one another and support, or undermine, one another’s efforts. Now, as I argue in Ethical Life, this view of ethics shouldn’t eliminate our interest in morality systems. Rather, it should put them in context: for participants in many religious and political reform movements, adherence to a morality system is what human flourishing consists of. But viewed comparatively, such systems (which include professional ethics, a topic that has loomed large in anthropology more widely) are special categories within the more encompassing sphere of ethics, historical phenomena whose existence shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So what’s new about the current ethical turn? For many of the authors I list below, at least three things are at issue (although in any given case, these authors may disagree vehemently with one another). First is the relative absence of any totalizing model of “culture” from the discussion; where it exists, it must at least be defended. If the Durkheimians risked identifying ethics with society, and the Boasians with culture, most contemporary ethnographers of ethics are wary of doing either. Moreover, many of them also tend to assume that any given ethical world is not going to be self-consistent and coherent—when we do encounter something like a morality system empirically, for instance in a religious piety movement or revolutionary cell, it calls out for explanation. Second is the emphasis that at least some anthropologists have placed on freedom. This is a controversial move within the field, but it follows from the previous point: if your values or your sense of right and wrong turn out to be determined by cultural norms, cognitive proclivities, or fear of punishment, then (in this view) they don’t really amount to “ethics.” As some philosophers might say, either you haven’t had a choice in the matter, or if you chose but only under compulsion, in either case you aren’t adhering to them for ethical reasons (no doubt there are ethnographic challenges to this position but this is where the current discussions have tended to work). A third follows from this, that ethics entails notions of responsibility that are predicated on local concepts of action, agency, and their ontological preconditions. To understand these, however, is not simply to reconstruct some pre-existing normative system or script that people are playing out, nor does it require we unearth a fixed ontological model. Rather it takes us into the nature of social interaction and the kinds of reflexivity that involves. The ethical turn invites the ethnographer to tease out the ways in which people, finding themselves accountable to one another, come—in ways that are ongoing and likely to be inconsistent—to understand what they are up to, and why.


Das, Veena. 2010. Moral and spiritual striving in the everyday: To be a Muslim in contemporary India. In Ethical life in South Asia, edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dave, Naisargi N. 2012. Queer activism in India: A story in the anthropology of ethics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fassin, Didier, editor. 2012. A companion to moral anthropology. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian reason: A moral history of the present. Berkeley: California.

Faubion, James. 2001. Toward an anthropology of ethics: Foucault and the pedagogies of autopoiesis. Representations 74: 83-104.

Foucault, Michel. 1985. The use of pleasure: The history of sexuality, volume 2. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

__________. 1997. Ethics, subjectivity, and truth: Essential works of Michel Foucault 1954-1980. Volume 1. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: New Press.

Hirschkind, Charles. 2006. The ethical soundscape: Cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Humphrey, Caroline. 1997. Exemplars and rules: Aspects of the discourse of moralities in Mongolia. In The ethnography of moralities, edited by Signe Howell. London: Routledge

Keane, Webb. 2008. Market, materiality, and moral metalanguage. Anthropological Theory, 8 (1): 27-42.

__________. Rotting bodies: The clash of stances toward materiality and its ethical affordances. Current Anthropology, 55: S312-S321.

__________. 2016. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

__________. 2016. Book Symposium. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories (Webb Keane). Hau: Journal of ethnographic theory 6 (1): 433-492.

Laidlaw, James. 2010. For an anthropology of ethics and freedom. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 8: 311-332.

__________. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

__________. 2014. Book symposium. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom (James Laidlaw). Hau: Journal of ethnographic theory 4 (1): 429-506.

Lambek, Michael, editor. 2010. Ordinary ethics: Anthropology, language, and action. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lambek, Michael, Veena Das, Didier Fassin, and Webb Keane. 2015. Four lectures on ethics: Anthropological perspectives. HAU Books/University of Chicago Press

Lambek, Michael. 2015. The ethical condition: Essays on action, person, and value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lempert, Michael. 2013. No ordinary ethics. Anthropological Theory 13(4): 370-393.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2012. Two virtue ethics and the anthropology of morality. Anthropological Theory 12(2): 161-184.

__________. 2016. Moral laboratories: Family peril and the struggle for a good life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2009. Crooked stalks: Cultivating virtue in South India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rogers, Douglas. 2009. The old faith and the Russian land: A historical ethnography of ethics in the Urals. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society. California.

__________. 2007. Between reproduction and freedom: Morality, value, and radical cultural change. Ethnos 72(3): 293-314

Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Harvard.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2007. Moral breakdown and the ethical demand: A theoretical framework for an anthropology of moralities. Anthropological Theory 7(2): 131-150.


Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton 2016), Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish on the Mission Frontier (2007), and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society (1997), and co-editor of the Handbook of Material Culture (Sage 2006).

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