Toward an ethical practice in the Anthropocene

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Eduardo Kohn. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.028


Toward an ethical practice in the Anthropocene

Eduardo KOHN, McGill University

Comment on LAIDLAW, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In this remarkable book, James Laidlaw calls for renewed attention to the ethical as central to anthropological theory and practice. Since, he argues, there is something “irreducible” about ethical practices, insofar as “everyday conduct” anywhere “is constitutively pervaded by reflective evaluation” (2014: 44–45), and, further, since these common features are unique to a domain that we can call ethical (2014: 23), anthropological attention to such ethical practices can allow anthropology, which is constitutively reflexive in its own right, to be an ethical practice (2014: 45–46, 216, 224). Laidlaw further argues that, for a number of reasons, anthropology, in the ways it has mobilized its own concepts, such as relativism, and in the particular ways it has drawn on philosophy, has not fully been able to develop as an ethical practice. He sees his book as a corrective; he critically engages these concepts and draws on a wide range of ethnographic and philosophical literature to develop an anthropology of ethics that can be a form of ethical practice.

I find such a project tremendously appealing. I particularly appreciate Laidlaw’s efforts to take historical context seriously while also finding ways to say something more general about the ethical dimension of human life. I would further this: learning to say something general while recognizing the constitutive nature of context in human life is the challenge we face in our ethical practice. For it is what would allow anthropologists to say something about something, for some reason, in ways that grow out of a kind of ethnographic attention to forms of life that constantly challenge us to better think our assumptions about what can be said and why.

My own research, concerned with developing what I call an “anthropology beyond the human” by means of ethnographic attention to the relations that the Quichua-speaking Runa from a village in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon have to the many kinds of beings that people a complex rainforest, can, I think, provide a productive, if perhaps unexpected, vantage from which to enter this project. My research focuses on understanding how distinctively human forms of being (characterized uniquely by symbolic thought, which provides us with all the things that we humanistically oriented social scientists study—cultural and historical context, social construction, and even ethical reflection) can relate to forms of being (exemplified primarily by living beings, but also spirits) that do not necessarily share these characteristics. It has been my contention that anthropology and related fields have been largely unsuccessful at finding ways to think the human in ways that link it constitutively to that which lies beyond it.

In How forests think (Kohn 2013), I argue that thinking anthropologically with the ways in which people think with “thinking forests” can help us develop the conceptual tools we need to rethink the ways in which we humans can live in a world that extends beyond us. I leave this highly telegraphed statement as it is for the moment. Suffice it to say that the end for me in developing these kinds of conceptual resources is to develop a kind of ethical practice that is adequate to life in this epoch, our Anthropocene, in which futures, of human and non-human kinds, are increasingly entangled, and interdependent in their mutual uncertainty.

My contention is that neither “the human,” anthropology, nor ethics in our times can be thought from a perspective that restricts itself to the use of conceptual tools that are strictly humanist—tools, that is, that are developed from those properties that are distinctive to us humans in ways that exclude that which lies beyond us. A first step, to my mind, toward developing this sort of ethical practice is to be ontologically precise about what it is that is distinctive to us humans and to find a framework that allows us to see the relationship of those kinds of realities to other kinds of realities that lie beyond us.

In thinking “ontologically” beyond the human as a way to develop an ethical practice in our times, my approach leaves room for ethnographically derived concepts (concepts that bear, for example, on our understanding of the self, person, and relationality—concepts whose alterity Laidlaw views with great suspicion). I do this because these concepts can challenge the foundational assumptions we rely on to practice anthropology and imagine the human as exceptional. And yet, as an ontological endeavor, my thinking is not necessarily bounded by any one human context, including the ethnographic one, from which much of my thinking derives (and this, of course, raises its own ethical challenges).

So, the questions that guide my reflections are: What role might nonhumans play in an ethical life? How can Laidlaw’s book help us address this? And how can this question, which he raises but neither answers nor forecloses (2014: 107), help us get some critical insight on his book?

Thinking ethically beyond the human requires saying something general about ethics, because the challenge here is not just to compare among forms of ethics but to ask where in the universe ethics can be extended. What kinds of beings are ethical? What kinds of beings require some sort of ethical consideration? What is it about our world that makes it possible and perhaps necessary to involve nonhumans in an ethical practice?

So, with this in mind, I ask how is it that Laidlaw can say what ethics is? Let me be clear, I do not necessarily disagree with his general statement about what ethics is. What I disagree with is how he arrives at it. And how he arrives at it is important for understanding what kind of ethical practice anthropology might be.

The main problem, to my mind, is that Laidlaw does not address with sufficient ontological precision what culture is, and this makes it difficult to speak of what lies beyond it. Symptomatic, I think, is his dismissal of the culture concept in American anthropology. Laidlaw wants to argue that we can speak generally of something like an ethics (a form of reflexivity that constitutively guides conduct, a property that implies some sense of a self that has some freedom to imaginatively act for herself in some way) because we are all at bottom more alike than we are different. The way he arrives at this is by a critique of anthropological relativism, especially as he sees its development in the Boasian tradition.

Laidlaw takes relativism to be “structurally self-confuting”—a sort of liar’s paradox: if all truths are relative, then the truth of relativism must also be a relative one (2014: 26). He then goes on to argue that even if there were such a thing as relativism, it could only hold if we could actually think of bounded societies that could be compared in their totality to other such societies. But, as he notes, in this sense relativism is “either too early or too late” (2014: 27). That is, if there is no contact, then there are no grounds for comparison, and if there is contact, then the very fact of contact will dissolve the boundaries separating those supposedly discrete societies that might be compared.

These criticisms of classical American anthropology have some validity and they have been, of course, a mainstay of anthropology for decades. Anthropology certainly has an uncomfortable relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and modernity; it nostalgically mourns the loss of the alterity that these historical forces have destroyed. To recognize this is one thing. It is quite another to say that for this reason there is no longer any conceptual space alter to the logic of those forms of domination. For this would be the final act of colonization, one that would subject the possibility of something else, located in other lived worlds, human and otherwise, to a far more permanent death. There is, then, something violent to the performative proclamation that alterity no longer exists if it ever did.

But why must Laidlaw disavow alterity to speak of generality? To return to my point, I think this stems from a misunderstanding of culture, of which his critique of relativism is symptomatic. Let me suggest another definition of “relativism”— one that is much more in keeping with the central insights of the Boasian tradition. In his classic article “On alternating sounds” (1889), Boas suggests that the sources of philological assumptions about the variable nature of the phonetic systems of Native American languages are not in those systems themselves (supposedly phonetically unstable and hence “primitive”) but in the minds of philologists. Because these philologists did not have at their disposal the phonetic contexts of such languages, they could only apperceive sounds through the phonetic contexts of the languages they already knew. Alternating sounds were not then in the Native American languages themselves. Rather, they emerged as an effect of comparing a series of phonological descriptions, which each depended on the phonetic contexts of the languages known to the philologists through which unfamiliar sounds were “heard” and classified.

Boas’ point is a profound one about context. Recognizing that such sounds “alternate” according to the phonetic contexts through which they are apperceived means that accurately appreciating these sounds requires understanding the contexts of their production and use. That is, such phonetic sounds are the product of the phonological system of which they are a constitutive part. And to correctly apperceive them one has to get something of the totality of that system. This is the fundamental insight about language, as a distinctively human faculty, that the Boasian tradition has developed.

The culture concept is an extension of this. Like phonetic sounds, words, meanings, and institutions are relational. What they are—their logics, their “truths”—are relative to the system that produces them. The source of this is a symbolic form of thinking that is distinctive to humans. Symbolic reference, as opposed to other forms of reference that we humans share with nonhuman life, uniquely involves the ways in which meanings depend on conventional systems that are relational. One could say that any referential dynamic by which relata are produced by the relations among other such relata would be symbolic, or in broader terms cultural. The important thing about this definition of culture is that it situates it ontologically, as a kind of reality that is distinctively human, and it also allows us to understand the ways in which it creates certain kinds of truths that are distinctive to it. This formal definition allows us to see the Durkheimian focus on social facts, the Saussurian focus on arbitrary signs, as well as MacIntyre’s “tradition,” and Foucault’s genealogies, as all drawing on certain fundamental insights about this relational nature of so much of human reality.

The problem, of course, is in theorizing what lies outside this form of relationality. Once one posits that there is no outside to such relational systems, then there is no way out of the sort of “self-confuting” relativism that Laidlaw so rightly critiques. But this illusion of closure is not restricted to cultural anthropology. I think it has been a problem of the humanistic social sciences in their entirety. As social science grasps this sort of relational reality (as something distinctively human, one that seemed to require the institutionalization of a distinctively human science), the connections to that which is not relational tend to be lost. I think this is what leads both to the “sciences of ‘unfreedom’” as well as to certain poststructuralist conceptions of what freedom is and how, given such relational forms of entanglement, it can be obtained.

By avoiding relationality head on, Laidlow’s solution is therefore piecemeal. For anthropology to be an ethical practice, to reflect ethically on the ethics of others, we just can’t be that different. But he can’t tell us why, except to chop away at alterity here and there.

I take a different position. I think there is radical alterity in the world. This is in part because cultures have a kind of relational holism the way languages do. But it is also because these “wholes” are “open” to worlds that lie beyond them. This aperture is possible because symbolic reference is never fully closed; it opens onto the larger nonsymbolic, and hence nonrelational (in the sense that I have given), referential systems in which it is nested (see Kohn 2013: 27–68).

My ethnography helps me see this. The Runa, to hunt successfully, are forced to communicate with the communicative beings of the forest. They are forced to think with forests. But the thinking logic that structures a living forest does not have the same properties that human symbolic thought does, and the Runa, as my ethnography reveals, are forced to open themselves to this. But if the Runa can think with forests, then we can also think with them thinking with forests. And, what is more, we can simply also think with forests. The “holistic” relational logics of “their” culture, and “our” culture, are open to each other and to the larger non-human world that lies beyond either of these.

I want to highlight a few points here. First, the problem of symbolic closure is not just one that is internal to our discipline; it is a human one. How to communicate with nonhumans who don’t speak in the familiar human sense raises ethical questions for the Runa. Second, the Runa, notwithstanding this shared human concern with the limits of the symbolic, and notwithstanding the very real fact that we share with them a history and a future—this is no isolated “tribe”—can be radically alter to “us.”

They can be alter if we take culture to exhibit these sorts of relational properties that have holistic effects. But more profoundly they can be alter insofar as such a culture, like any culture, can open on to very different aspects of the world. And these aspects of the world can have their own ontological properties, which are amplified through the lives of those who engage with them, and can be further amplified through ethnographic engagement and conceptual reflection on that engagement.

Amazonian multinaturalism, for example, the widespread and ethnographically well-documented modality through which many Amazonians recognize the personhood of nonhumans (see Viveiros de Castro 1998), is in part the product of the need to have sustained relations with nonhumans, and this makes its component parts not fully conventional or arbitrary. But it also acquires a kind of relational stability as a symbolic system (pace Viveiros de Castro). As a conceptual system, one that builds concepts out of amplifications of properties of the living world, it can shed critical light on other conceptual systems that have built concepts out of other kinds of engagements with other parts of the world (and, of course, this is a twoway street: our concepts can encourage us to notice or ignore things in the world as well).

I’ll close with the following brief example of the kinds of ethical problems that the Runa face, because I think it highlights the general validity of Laidlaw’s call to see ethics as a self-reflexive approach to conduct at the same time that it emphasizes how different such an ethical practice can be when one begins with very different assumptions about, in this case, personhood—assumptions that can open us to something that lies beyond the human. A young man dreamt one night that he was hunting a collared peccary; as he prepared to shoot it, he realized that the pig was actually his compadre, who then stepped into his house, grabbed a gun, and began to shoot back. Because the Runa recognize the selfhood of the beings they transform into food, hunting, as this example illustrates, poses certain ethical dilemmas. For “[t]he greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls” (the formulation is not from the Amazon but from an Inuit shaman as quoted by Philippe Descola [2013: 16]).

When subsistence activities are charged in this way, the ethical landscape changes. And yet what we learn from this example can exceed any “animist” or “multinaturalist” point of view. It can allow us to begin to appreciate how an ethical practice might include nonhuman selves (who, of course, need not themselves be animists or multinaturalists).1 Such an ethnographic exploration gets at a world we all in some ways share, even if we can’t always access it. It moves beyond difference as cultural, contextual, or, in Descola’s case, the product of cognitive schemas. Focusing on alterity, then, is not about human difference but about how humans differently access, and are made over by, the world. And it is just this kind of anthropological exploration in search of an ethical practice—an exploration that can reflexively orient our conduct toward humans as well as nonhumans by means of the development of ethical concepts that grow in part from our engagements, ethnographic and otherwise, with nonhumans—that our times demand.


Boas, Franz. 1889. “On alternating sounds.” American Anthropologist 2 (1): 47–53.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2012. “The will to be otherwise: The effort of endurance.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (3): 453–75.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 4 (3): 469–88.


Eduardo Kohn
Department of Anthropology
McGill University
Room 718, Leacock Building
855 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada


1. Amplifications of concepts from other kinds of life-worlds can change ethics and politics as well. Witness Elizabeth Povinelli’s treatment of Aboriginal Australian life in the context of what she calls “late liberalism.” Her search for finding ways to “capacitate modes of life currently around us but without an explicit force among us” (2012: 454) owes as much, I would argue, to the particular theoretical veins of “immanent critique” she draws on as it does to what Philippe Descola would call “totemic” modes of thought, which, of course, are analytics in their own right.