Uneventful ethics

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Lempert. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.029


Uneventful ethics

Michael LEMPERT, University of Michigan

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

Consider what is old and strangely familiar in the stated aspirations of James Laidlaw’s otherwise path-breaking volume, The subject of virtue. “The argument,” announces Laidlaw, “is simply that the ethical dimension of social life—the fact that everyday conduct is constitutively pervaded by reflective evaluation—is irreducible, and that social theory needs to be formulated to make our analyses of diverse phenomena and states of affairs cognizant of this” (2014: 44−45).

The ethical can be distinct and recognizable without also being pervasive and irreducible, so why this flourish? It’s hard not to hear echoes here of the sui generis-style purification familiar from discipline-building projects of old, as in Durkheim’s “the social,” Saussure’s la langue, Goffman’s “interaction order.” The alleged irreducibility of such objects of knowledge was a kind of bulwark, a way to safeguard fledgling disciplines by securing the perimeter: autonomous object, autonomous field.

This cannot be what Laidlaw wants. (Compare with his apt remarks that liken the study of ethics to that of “gender” or “religion,” which many feel should have no single disciplinary home [2014: 44]; consider, too, his restless movement between philosophy and anthropology that makes it clear he doesn’t want to wall up ethics anywhere in particular.) Perhaps his ground-thumping insistence on ethics’ immanence and irreducibility—as if ethics were solid and always right under our feet—should be heard merely as a complaint against, and cure for, practitioners of the “science of unfreedom” who think it is all just gossamer.

As a corrective, it may be fine rhetorically to speak as if ethics were immanent and irreducible, but let us not take this literally. The subject of virtue comes awfully close to doing this. A “dimension” of social life, ethics is described at times as “pervasive,” “inherent,” even “constitutive.” Claims like these risk drawing us back into a state of complacency comparable to the state from which Laidlaw tried to shake us in his justly celebrated 2002 essay. In that essay, on which The subject of virtue expands so elegantly, Laidlaw pointed out how Durkheim ironically sounded the death knell for the study of morality when he made it an object of knowledge in sociology, for in wresting morality from moral philosophy, he ended up reducing it to “the social.” “Durkheim’s conception of the social,” Laidlaw wrote (2002: 312), “so completely identifies the collective with the good that an independent understanding of ethics appears neither necessary nor possible.” Durkheim, as Joel Robbins (2007: 294) summarizes, “spread morality too thinly over society, making it everywhere present but almost invisible in its role in shaping social life.” A similar risk may exist here, that of once again spreading ethics too thin, though in a different sense. Imagine ethics as immanent and it becomes all too easy to deprocessualize it and take its presence for granted yet again.

Imagine, instead, a self-consciously processual, communicatively eventful construal of ethics qua evaluative reflection.1 I want to suggest that this construal has valuable methodological consequences, while also exacting from the anthropology of ethics a concession: that ethics is fitful, not immanent, not unproblematically present. Its episodic character means that we need to worry more about when and how ethics matters, and what actors do communicatively to make it manifest and keep it so.

A problem with problematization?

Which brings me to Jarrett Zigon. In a characteristically delicate and methodical exercise of conceptual disentanglement, Laidlaw peels back the real Foucault from Zigon’s Foucault (2014: 116−37). He argues that Zigon’s view is not only not Foucault’s but also not terribly helpful. Zigon, writes Laidlaw, sees an alternation between (a) a default mode of “moral” life characterized by unreflective habit, and (b) relatively infrequent events of selfconscious “ethical” reflection in which subjects stand back and problematize this otherwise taken-for-granted moral normativity. Habit need not be strictly unreflective, though, as Laidlaw reminds us by highlighting differences between Aristotle’s hexis and Bourdieu’s habitus. More worrisome to Laidlaw is Zigon’s cryptoteleology. For Zigon, the desired end seems to be for the subject to settle back into an “authentic” state of unreflective morality. For him, the moral exerts a certain gravity from which subjects may take flight, as in spectacular “moral breakdowns” (Zigon 2007) in which subjects get distance on the moral, but they always, quickly return. Ethical reflection is evanescent. It comes and goes. Laidlaw suggests that Zigon also sees such moral breakdowns as occurring “outside the flow of everyday life” (2014: 119) (compare with recent work in “ordinary ethics” which sees ethics as part of everyday life [Lambek 2010; Das 2012]).2 Having highlighted certain peculiarities of Zigon’s argument, Laidlaw proceeds to show that Zigon’s “problematization” isn’t the same as Foucault’s, for Foucault’s problematization isn’t a “moment” or state of being, isn’t teleological, isn’t outside of everyday life. It is easy to nod in agreement as Laidlaw distinguishes the two, but Foucauldian problematization seems to lack one indispensable quality that Zigon’s “problematization” has: eventfulness.

Webb Keane (2010: 69) puts the matter neatly: “Sometimes we are in the midst of action,” and “sometimes we seem to stand apart from it” (see also Keane 2014). Reflective ethicalization of moral life is eventful for Keane (and for others, like Joel Robbins [2007, 2009], mutatis mutandis, and in a different way for Zigon). If we take this view seriously, we can begin to discover variation that may otherwise elude us, variation that can inform theory and add depth and texture to ethnography.

Take the matter of who reflects. “Stepping back,” “standing apart”—these tropes are too restrictive when they are understood to cut a figure of the ethical subject as a monadic human individual. It takes a little rehabilitation to rescue Foucault from this impression, as Laidlaw himself concedes. Laidlaw is at pains to remind us that the ethical subject need not be an individual human animal at all (e.g. 2014: 105−6). He rightly wants to clear space for all sorts of subjects. Belief in rebirth, for example, may extend the subject beyond this life and backward in time (2014: 105), while in other cases the subject may be stretched synchronically so that she or he is coterminous with, say, a kin-group. Such social, spatial, and temporal rescalings are important to bear in mind, but we should take care not to envision this subject monadically, as if it were just a matter of resizing the same old isolable, individual unit to encompass more or less, depending on the case. If, instead, we were to imagine the evaluative reflection of ethics as a communicative event that occurs prototypically in interaction with others (real or imagined, near or far), our attention would naturally fan outward to take in some of this surround and the actors in it.

Consider a few virtues of such a methodological displacement.

If viewed as eventful, ethical reflection suddenly spreads out before us. It seems “distributed” (cf. “distributed” and “situated” cognition and learning [Lave 1988; Lave and Wenger 1991; Hutchins 1995; Philip Robbins and Aydede 2009]). It becomes harder to think that ethical reflection takes place in an individual’s head and easier to trace the distribution of such reflection, as a practice, across actors (and, quite often, across nonhuman materials and actors, too, as Actor-Network Theory would suggest and as work in situated cognition has sometimes demonstrated).3 A taste of this distributedness is enough to get us to remember that reflection typically, if not prototypically, involves more than one interactant. And this is not just a matter of mere multiplicity, of a practice being distributed configurationally, or compositionally, across some assemblage that includes human actors. It also means that we need to be sensitive to the performance dimensions of problematization itself, how such displays are not merely expressive “of” a reflexive, querying subject but expressive “to” and “for” others. That is, these doings may exhibit (without being reducible to) what conversation analysis has classically called “recipient design” (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974; cf. “audience design” [Bell 1984]) or what Bakhtin (1986: 95) sweepingly termed “addressivity.” It has often been observed that even vocalizations that purport to be unmediated expressions of speaker interiority (“response cries” [Goffman 1978] like yuck and wow [indexical symbols of speaker “disgust” and “surprise,” respectively]) are styled to be overheard (e.g. Wiggins 2002), and that “motor mimicries” like the pained expression of a spectator witnessing another’s suffering, described memorably at the outset of Adam Smith’s Theory of moral sentiments, equally exhibit recipient design: experimentally, for example, motor mimicries have been shown to be more pronounced when others are watching (Bavelas et al. 1986, 1987). This suggests that events of reflexive problematization may be styled to be seen by others in ways that deserve attention. At a certain juncture in The subject of virtue, Laidlaw recalls how, in his prior work on Jainism (1995), he was struck by lay Jain practitioners who would declare that “Jainism is impossible” (2014: 126). That “much religious practice is avowedly directed towards cultivating a sense of the impossibility of a virtuous life” (2014: 128), and that “disgust” with life in the world is inculcated, I do not doubt; but might such disgust and professed inadequacy become a means of self-constitution partly through the performativity of such disclosure? Might self-abasement be a means of self-constitution, such that inadequacy is, in effect, expressed “to” others “for” oneself?

A minor breakdown

That ethical problematization is interactional is perhaps most evident in cases of institutionally sited “ethical” debates and disputes, yet as work in ordinary ethics would also suggest, there are countless, less dramatic forms of “everyday” problematization that have their own little proscenium, pragmatics, and dramatis personae. These surely deserve attention too. These events may sometimes look like miniaturized versions of the full-blown ethical debates and belabored decision making that academies and courts and religious institutions engage in, but they may also be as spare and fleeting as, say, a furled brow or pained expression. Problematization isn’t one thing in life, nor should it be in an anthropology of ethics.

A simple, quotidian case: In his contribution to The morality of knowledge in conversation (Stivers, Mondada, and Steensig 2011), Jack Sidnell (2011) observes disputes that erupt during the make-believe playof four- and five-year-old children. The disputes reveal unstated normativities of make-believe play, which Sidnell expertly teases out. In individual play, children use baldly asserted “stipulations” that transfigure ordinary things like mundane plastic blocks into a “Rubik’s cube” or wooden planks into a “swimming pool.” They have epistemic rights to make up whatever they want. In joint play, though, stipulative transformations should be negotiated with others, not settled by fiat, so that’s why kids sometimes append a delicate “okay?” tagquestion or frame their proposal with a diplomatic “let’s pretend.” And so when little Andy chooses to summarily shoot a pretend horse without securing his playmate Sean’s consent, Sean cries foul. Andy: “An- and we shoo:t the horse. Ba::ng. He’s dead.” Sean: “No that not part of the ga::me” (Sidnell 2011: 144). Crying foul is itself a possible beginning, an act that may incite further meta-communication and remedial action. The remedial action, Sidnell found, may include apologies as well as accounts that supply reasons for the violation, and sometimes even extended talk about how one is “supposed” to play.

Minor moral breakdowns like these are instructive because they make it hard to ignore the episodic and interactional character of ethical reflection (cf. Drew 1998). For example, ethical reflection is “locally occasioned,” as conversation analysts would say; it doesn’t erupt randomly but rather in specific interactional environments and in response to certain behaviors and sequences that involve others. While such breakdowns may offer a window onto tacit “moral” normativities, they also illustrate the pragmatics of moral repair—a kind of ethicalizing practice—in which interactants stop and reflexively point to and address (alleged) breaches. A case like this may also help remind us of the reflexive heterogeneity of reflection itself. Bending back on an event and citing how one ought to play, as Sean does, is obviously just a special case.

To open ourselves to this heterogeneity, let us substitute an empirical place-holder like ethical “reflection” with the even more expansive placeholder “reflexivity” (for recent, sustained reflections on reflexivity in ethical life, see Keane 2014). Reflexivity reminds us that reflection comes in many more forms than a caption like “choice” lets on, and in many more degrees and modalities than a trope like moral “breakdown” allows. Reflexivity (and reflection [Joel Robbins 2009: 278]) need not involve “self-consciousness,” and only in special cases does it even involve denotational explicitness, in which one literally talks “about” something, someone, or some event. In linguistic anthropology, “reflexivity” is used broadly to mean “activities in which communicative signs are used to typify other perceivable signs” (Agha 2007: 16). Varieties of tacit (denotationally implicit) reflexivity exist, which can often be more pragmatically important precisely because they are harder to report—to talk about—during or after the fact (Silverstein 1981, 1992; Lucy 1993; Agha 2007). Expanded in this way, ethical problematization takes many, many forms, from faint displays of discomfort (e.g. speech dysfluencies like cut-off speech, markedly long pauses) that, when understood as a “response” to some prior behavior, can be understood to call out that behavior as tacitly “inappropriate”; to the initiation of repair where someone more directly fingers a behavior as problematic; to in-yourface indictments that spell out what’s wrong. All such responses involve communicative reflexivity, but not in the same way (e.g. degree of denotational “explicitness,” degree of conventionalization, range of semiotic modalities used [speech, gesture, bodily comportment, etc.], scope of participants involved or targeted by problematization, etc.).

I gesture toward the heterogeneity of reflexivity not because I wish to encourage a typological exercise that would tag and sort problematization into a dozen or more analytically distinct things; that would deprocessualize ethics all over again. I simply wish to open up ethnographic inquiry by suggesting that we look more carefully at the pragmatics of ethicalization and let this inquiry inform theory. An immediate consequence of this is that the presumption of ethical immanence falls away. Reflexive activities can ethicalize behavior by flagging it as problematic in some respect or capacity. It can cause people to stop and think, cite and synthesize beliefs, even drag onto the scene whole normative frameworks that were not, strictly speaking, there a moment earlier. Whether performatively invoked by reflexive problematization or by some other means (and I, for one, do not want to suggest that reflexivity should be our exclusive focus), the basic point is that ethics is not unproblematically present. When we appreciate the precarious and episodic status of ethics alongside its performativity—the means by which it is made manifest—we can ask how this allegedly pervasive, intrinsic “dimension” of social life becomes relevant at all.

Asking that communicative labor be put front and center is, I realize, a partisan plea of sorts. It assumes a commitment to the empirical study of communicative practice, which we don’t all share. A virtue of Lambek’s important Ordinary ethics (2010) was its interdisciplinarity and willingness, in particular, to engage research on language. The subject of virtue is extraordinary for the skill and care with which it crosses fields, philosophy and anthropology, to the benefit of each. I hope that this cross-disciplinary experimentation continues and that the anthropology of ethics remains open to other fields that have stakes in its subject matter, including fields like linguistic anthropology that study language use and interaction but have largely not given ethics its due.


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Michael Lempert
University of Michigan
Department of Anthropology
1085 S. University Ave
101 West Hall
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA


1. I intend this as a small intervention in Laidlaw’s argument and not as a position on the merits of his theoretical foregrounding of “reflective freedom.” The comments made here are similar to that of Lempert (2013), except that an alternative to the claim of irreducibility is developed more in that essay.

2. To be charitable, one could discover more continuity between Zigon and ordinary ethics than Laidlaw seems to allow (see, e.g., Zigon 2008: Ch. 6).

3. Highlighting the mere fact of “distributed”ness is no explanation, but, at best, a methodological prod that can get us to look more closely at the empirical specificities of ethical assemblages (cf. Latour’s “gymnastics” [2005]). It should also go without saying that talk of “practices” of reflective freedom need not commit us to “practice theory” narrowly conceived, toward which Laidlaw has serious and somewhat understandable reservations.