Accounting for oneself and other ethical acts

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Cheryl Mattingly. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.022


Accounting for oneself and other ethical acts

Big picture ethics with a small picture focus

Cheryl MATTINGLY, University of Southern California

Comment on Keane, Webb. 2016. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Webb Keane’s rich contribution to the anthropology of ethics rests on positions both familiar and distinctive, sometimes even controversial. His most innovative claims are tied to an insistence on bringing together “naturalistic” explanations and the kind that anthropologists deal in—which he describes as first person ones. To do so, he draws from three perspectives to examine the way that the ethical permeates everyday human life: “psychology, the ethnography of everyday social life, and social histories of ethical reform” (2016: 5).

Keane’s attempt to move between these very different levels and types of description is nothing if not ambitious. He weaves together psychology (especially developmental psychology) and its universal, biologically based claims with context-specific historical and ethnographic examples. This provides to him a different platform than many others currently writing about ethics within anthropology. One of his aims in doing this is to address a problem that has plagued social histories, namely moral relativism. He contends that by bringing in psychology, an empirical discipline willing to make universal claims, we can attend to certain kinds of innate capacities that provide affordances for ethical life. This allows us to give full credence to human diversity without making strong claims that a particular community’s ethical judgments are made on utterly unique and “ontologically self-contained grounds” (2016: 121). We humans have, in virtue of our biology, a shared humanity, he is arguing, that psychology—especially child psychology—can help us to recognize.[434]

Interestingly, Keane’s invocation of human biology to solve the moral relativism problem resonates with compatible moves among some virtue ethics philosophers who have revived Aristotle’s biological metaphysics. This metaphysics was generally dismissed among neo-Aristotelians during the middle of the twentieth century when contemporary virtue ethics got off the ground but, among some, was later taken up. The most notable example is Alasdair MacIntyre who amends his earlier culture- (or tradition-) based version of ethics in After virtue (1981) to offer one that includes an account of human biology (Dependent rational animals: Why human beings need the virtues, 2001). There is also a resonance between what Keane is attempting—to find a biological base for making universal claims without succumbing to naturalist or essentialist determinisms—and the German phenomenological tradition of philosophical anthropology. Phenomenologists have argued (following Nietzsche and others) that we must consider the human condition precisely as one characterized by underdetermination—this is part of our very biology. In Nietzsche’s words—we are “the not yet determined animal.”1 Philosophical phenomenology tries to develop universals without essentialist metaphysics.

There is something to be said in trying to see where there can be rapprochement between naturalist and social historical positions rather than articulating old lines in the sand and well-worn controversies. I am also quite sympathetic with Keane’s concern to consider what is humanly shared, despite the great diversity among specific communities that social history has documented. And it makes sense that some sort of (minimal) biological metaphysics is necessary for this. But are there costs to this attempt at rapprochement in the name of a big picture ethics? I think there are several, which I will return to shortly.

Before bringing up concerns, I want to point out what I see as the vital contributions of Keane’s ethical approach. At the heart of his argument is his sustained proposal that social interaction is a primary site of ethical life. An analysis of the subtleties of face-to-face interaction is one of anthropology’s great strengths, the kind of empirical stuff our methods are suited to explore. Keane makes a very good case for why such a focus, particularly as exemplified by linguistic anthropologists, can not only bring original insights to the table but also deepen or provide correctives to dominant psychological and philosophical positions.

He argues (bolstered by many ethnographic examples) that ethics are ordinary because ethical reflexivity, in the form of evaluation and accountability, are pervasive. He focuses on the minute social exchanges that comprise everyday life to reveal this. The central reflexive property of social interaction he examines is a play between first- and third-person perspectives. Such perspective taking, he contends, is ubiquitous in ordinary social interaction and it is essential to ethics, it is part of the very ordinary call to be accountable for our actions and ourselves. Through example after example, he elucidates the centrality of taking a third-person position on oneself as part of the “human equipment” we bring to social encounters, an innate capacity (except in the case of some forms of psychopathology) that provides the basis for ethical life.[435]

His debt to both the social phenomenology of Schutz and the pragmatism of George Herbert Mead is very clear in this part of his argument. He defines the process of making things explicit “objectification,” which he says “draws upon people’s cognitive capacity to take a third-person perspective” (Keane 2016: 67). But for him, this is not simply (or even at all?) something that happens privately in an individual mind. Rather, it “depends on the existence of semiotic forms that mediate interactions between people. . . . When people ‘read’ one another’s minds . . . they are responding (consciously or, more often, unconsciously) to perceptual cues of some sort” (67). In his discussion of mind reading, Keane invokes a position familiar to anthropology, valorized particularly within its interpretive tradition (it is not difficult to remember Geertz in this passage), and puts it to use in a thoroughly social ethics.

In foregrounding interaction as a unit of analysis, Keane finds a place to respond to several thorny issues that have plagued theories of everyday ethics, including the problem of defending an account of ethics that is both broadly shared and yet calls upon some notion of reflexivity. He addresses a challenge variously leveled by both naturalist and social determinists: How can ethics be ordinary, reflective (or at least have an unremarkable potentiality for reflexivity), and yet not (typically) be in conscious awareness? The challenge is posed by psychologists: “If people do not have the consistency of character they think they have, and if their acts are not due to the reasons they give for them, but character and action are shaped by processes that lie beyond their awareness, then what role does awareness play in ethical life? (2016: 244). He concedes that he has to have something to say back both to the natural and to the social determinists and their sciences of unfreedom. His response throughout the book is to outline a nuanced account of intentionality that includes both the (relatively) tacit and the more explicit moments of social life. He does not want to argue that reflexivity is a necessary precondition for the ethical. And yet, it still matters: “it can play a catalyzing role in producing that public knowledge that feeds back into people’s unself-conscious responses to other people” (25).

Keane further argues that while explicit ethical stances may be out of awareness of a particular individual at the individual level, they are nevertheless available because they are public within a community. They show up in the form of “judgments that circulate across a community, or act descriptions that endure from one generation to the next” (2016: 244). His point is that while people are not necessarily consciously acting, they could, if necessary, back up their “ethical intuitions” with “descriptions that are available to them”—ethical descriptions that are public knowledge and that others will be expected to also condone, understand, agree with, or recognize as ethical positions.

In exploring the kinds of social conditions that “induce reflexivity” (Keane 2016: 25), he introduces the felicitous concept of ethical affordances. The very term “affordance” alerts us to the way that social situations and cultural semiotics need not be thought of as deterministic but rather as offering a set of potentialities embedded in everyday action. (“A chair may invite you to sit but it does not determine that you will sit” [28]). Ethical affordances, on his account, are “the opportunities that any experiences might offer as people evaluate themselves, other persons, and their circumstances” (31). For example, he notes the presence of multiple ethical worlds that characterize many (if not all) people’s lives, whatever the community. [436]He argues that the coexistence and clashes of “historically constituted ethical worlds” provide “crucial stimuli to moral reflection” (124).

Some costs of big picture ethics

There is much to be gained by mounting the kind of synthesizing project that Keane undertakes and he is often elegant, even brilliant, in carrying this out. However—perhaps inevitably—the breadth of scope required in trying to bridge the historical with the natural (to use his terms) carries several dangers. I point to four I find especially worrisome. One is the conceptual slippage regarding the “first person” as a construct. I think this lack of precision is due, in part, to his need to speak of “social history” as a single broad category. A second worry is that when he does draw upon psychology’s claims and findings, these are sometimes insufficiently problematized. A third problem concerns the analytic gap created when moving between two very different levels of analysis within his “social history” category—the micro moments of social interaction and large-scale social histories of ethical transformation. A fourth concern, which is probably unrelated to the big picture issue, is that by making accountability the cornerstone for his ethics, something that often shows up in everyday interaction through defensive postures, he draws us into an overly penal semiotics of ethical action.

I will take each of the difficulties in turn.

Who (or what) is the first person?

Keane opens his book by distinguishing naturalist approaches that focus on the individual as a primary unit of explanation and social historical ones (most notably including anthropology, conversation analysis, historical sociology) that typically focus on life in communities and the diversity of ethical worlds. When contrasted with the naturalism of psychology, social history emerges as largely concerned with the agentive and the first-person perspective, he tells us. “Although they often describe economic, political, and other forces of which people are unaware,” Keane remarks, “they are prone to giving a central place to the agency of people who act with self-consciousness and purpose” (2016: 4). He reinforces this division between the natural and historical when he further notes that “social historians and ethnographers . . . worry that naturalistic explanations don’t give enough credit to people’s creative agency and self-interpretation, to the first-person point of view” (5).

In a by-and-large kind of way, this dichotomy may seem intuitively right but it is also confusing, especially as a way of characterizing social history. By approaching ethics from this big picture perspective, we encounter an inconsistency within some of the most convincing aspects of Keane’s ethical position, particularly his many compelling arguments, threaded throughout his book, which challenge the strains of social determinism that are a hallmark of many approaches in social history. Early in the book, Keane problematizes both naturalist and historical frameworks for their inattention to ethics because both have a determinist impulse. He notes that naturalisms can presume ethics don’t matter (analytically, as a cause of anything) because of their mechanistic explanations of behavior. And, equally problematic, historical explanations can reduce ethical action to nothing “more [437]than social conformity” (2016: 4). His introduction of the notion of “ethical affordance,” discussed earlier, works to solve this sort of ethics-as-social-conformity explanatory model. He reinforces his position in a particularly elegant passage midway through the book where he is at pains to extract himself from this kind of deterministic thinking. In referring to the availability of “descriptions and concepts with which people understand their actions” (167), he emphatically assures us, there are two things he is not saying. Concepts and descriptions cannot be understood through any kind of psychological determinism. They are “not simply built into human nature” (167). Nor will social determinism do, for concepts and descriptions are not “simply impressed” upon people “by some cultural mold or pure social construction” (167). His repetition of the word “simply” is telling.

His crystal clear rejection of social determinism, stated succinctly above, is one of the hallmarks of his overall argument. But this sits uneasily with his initial broad dichotomies between the natural and the social. In what sense are social histories underdetermined or first-person-centric if they can be critiqued for reducing action to “social conformity”? Do both deterministic and more agentive versions social history produce a first-person sort of explanation? If so, what characterizes their shared first person-ness? Further analytic confusion is added when Keane turns to his microlevel analysis and the interplay between first- and third-person perspectives. Are we now talking about the same construct or a more limited, primarily linguistically identifiable, term? If the latter, is there a connection between the big picture first person characterizing social history as a whole and the first person of social interaction?

To be sure, the first person as a construct is slippery to pin down. Who (or what), precisely, is this first person, ethnographically? Even grammatically the terminology is unclear since it refers to both plural and singular forms—to a “we” as well as an “I.” It has figured prominently in some versions of moral philosophy and it is an even more central term in phenomenology (cf. Zahavi 2008). While phenomenological philosophers speak of the first person with ease, things become trickier the moment you move from thin or abstract philosophical examples to dense ethnographic ones. I have confronted this in my own elaboration of a first-person virtue ethics where the family has often been my designated site of the first person plural “we,” with a relational “I,” (a mother) as another locus of ethnographic attention. But clearly there is nothing prima facie obvious about this. After all, mothers and children belong to many other “we” communities—in my ethnographic case, the “we” of African Americans, of United States citizens, of humans, “of sentient beings,” et cetera. Nothing in principle prevents a first person plural from extending out indefinitely.

In light of this kind of terminological open-endedness, it is hard not to ask Keane to weigh in, more precisely, on his use of notion of the first person. This also bears upon questions he does address, and not only the ones I have raised here, such as the extent to which collectives of various sorts can be considered ethical subjects.

The problematic status of psychology’s findings

The cost attached to Keane’s effort to bring psychology’s naturalism into conversation with anthropology is that it can come at the expense of a careful scrutiny of the [438]credibility of psychology’s findings. One of the places where I am most troubled by Keane’s argument concerns the matter of who gets excluded as an ethical subject. Keane posits that for someone to be an ethical subject, they have to be able to do perspective taking, to see things from the perspective of the other. (Moving among first-, second-, and third-person points of view.) This is because being an ethical subject is linked to such capabilities as the capacity for reflective self-awareness (even if this is not exercised in an everyday way), for engaging in shared intentionality, holding oneself accountable, and other basic social acts. Exercising these ethical capabilities requires, as a precondition, having an awareness of other minds and being able to see oneself from a third-person point of view.

He draws heavily upon psychology here to argue that these are innate capacities, at least in “healthy children.” Since so much of his ethics depends upon “the role of other persons in the self-ethical life” (2016: 70) and he depends upon psychology to make his (universal) case, he must exclude certain sorts of people who psychologists have determined (because of various psychopathologies) as lacking these basic cognitive capacities.

I find it worrisome to depend so heavily on psychology for this kind of exclusionary decision. Take autism, as an instance. Autism is a useful case because it is one Keane (briefly) takes up and one that comes with a long tradition of psychological research documenting that autistics suffer from an inability to have empathy for others—an “other minds” problem. However, a number of ethnographic studies, as well as a host of published autobiographical accounts, problematize these findings (Prince-Hughes 2004; Higashida 2013). Psychologists themselves have also raised doubts. Linguistic anthropologist, Olga Solomon, offers some particularly compelling evidence that children diagnosed with ASD show a capability for taking up the perspective of others in natural family settings or contexts where they feel comfortable, even while not demonstrating this in psychological testing situations (e.g., Solomon 2015).

I offer one example from Solomon because she is exactly focused on the kind of perspective taking that is so primary in Keane’s portrait of ethical subjectivity. In this example, a nine-year-old child with autism (Kid) has just worked with a therapist and a therapy dog (a dog she has grown very fond of). In a recorded dinner conversation that takes place afterward, Kid and her mother talk about her conflicted feelings because of her affection for the therapy dog (Crystal). Kid worries that her own dog (Bobby), which she never plays with, will be jealous. She explains her worries to her mother, imputing an inner state of anger to Bobby in the following passage:

Mother:Do you like to play with Crystal?
Mother:Do you want her to come back and play with you?
Kid:Yes but Bobby is a little angry at her.
Mother:Why do you think Bobby is angry with her? (pause, no answer) Why do you think Bobby is angry?
Kid:Because I never want to play with him!
Mother:(shaking her head) How come you don’t want to play with Bobby?
Kid:I do like him! But I love to play with Cree:::::stal
Kid:So that’s why Bobby is angry at Crystal.
Mother:Ohh, so that’s why you think that Bobby is mad?
Mother:So maybe you can play with Bobby more! Maybe you can even teach Bobby some tricks.
Kid:(getting off the chair to leave the table) I can try right now!
Mother:[emphatically] No, not right now!

Solomon analyzes this exchange as a moral dilemma that Kid is trying to resolve. “In Kid’s lifeworld, dogs experience emotions, a dog can experience anger at another dog because he feels left out, and there is a moral obligation, however unfulfilled, that Bobby should have a human playmate, or more specifically, to have Kid as his playmate.” Solomon concludes, “In any case, the evidence that she can frame the problem of the neglected dog in such intersubjective terms is significant” (2015: 337). I agree with Solomon. There are many published examples that support her conclusion, including ones that document this among people with autism who are nonverbal but can communicate through writing. There is a good deal of evidence that the intersubjective domain of both human and nonhuman interaction is extremely important to autistics, however daunting to discern. Certainly, their difficulties in doing so may make them feel, to paraphrase Temple Grandin’s memorable words, like anthropologists on Mars.

My objection might seem to be a minor squabble over facts. I might seem to be saying that Keane has erroneously concluded (drawing on a dominant line of thinking in psychology) that people with autism lack a sufficient theory of mind to qualify as ethical subjects. I have offered counterevidence to support my claim. If I simply asked Keane to revise his view based on what I take to be a more solid empirical base, does this solve the problem, leaving his theory intact? I think something more radical is needed. I believe Keane’s empirical error (if I am right) indicates a larger problem with his whole project—to what level can we trust the data that psychology produces that is so often grounded in highly artificial environments? I will just play out this point in a bit more detail in regard to autism.

Disability studies scholars have challenged the findings of “positivist psychology” in relation to autism and its theories of mind. Some have noted that autistics face a “double empathy problem” that positivist psychology has not taken into account. Not only do autistics have a difficult time imputing mental states to nonautistics but also nonautistics lack knowledge of “public criteria” that would allow them to accurately impute the mental states of autistics. Neuro-typicals lack this knowledge for the simple reason that it is not (at least yet) publically available: “in the world we live in, the public criteria available to members of society for the purposes of imputing mental states are, by definition, public criteria of a fundamentally non-autistic ontological state. There are no public criteria of an autistic ontological state to assist the non-autistic to understand the autistic” (Chown 2014: 1676). This, of course, figures into the problematic standardization of psychological experiments and evaluations (Milton 2012: 884).

Keane does occasionally voice some caution about the soundness of psychological findings, in a more general way. For example, commenting on psychology’s [440]experimental research on children’s ethical capacities, he states: “We may well wonder whether these features [selected in the experiments] really capture what most of ethical life is like” (2016: 58). We may also wonder whether psychology’s individual unit of analysis in its assessment of psychopathologies (e.g., autism belongs to an individual and is located inside that individual’s deficient brain—it is not socially distributed) should present more trouble for him. The concerns I’m voicing are familiar ones in critical science studies and medical anthropology where there is a long history of challenging individualist models of pathology. Critical studies of how psychological testing practices, as social interactions, produce their findings are also pertinent. Emily Martin’s (2007) historically grounded ethnographic study of experimental psychology and its “tests” and “trials” is a stellar example.

The paradoxical conclusion I come to is that Keane does not exploit his theoretical framework enough here. Perhaps because he is looking for synchrony between the naturalistic methods of psychology and anthropology, he has not been sufficiently skeptical about what is glossed or misunderstood by psychologists. However, his insistence on social interaction as a key analytic site could provide further ammunition for exploration of the intersubjective spaces of psychological testing that yield data, for example, on the theory of mind of autistics. More radically still, it could support a distributed theory of autism that repositions it not only as an individual disability but also as an intersubjective reality that takes different shapes depending upon the kinds of affordances that circumstances provide.

A missing link: Ethical intentionality’s temporal arcs, or history with a small h

History plays a central role in Keane’s analytics. In the final chapters of his book, he makes a significant place for ethical innovation and for conscious reflection on moral norms, shifting attention to a much grander temporal arc, to social history, in which visible and consequential ethical transformations occur at a societal level. In a brilliant dissection of the feminist movement in the United States, for instance, he argues that it provided new ethical affordances for moving between first- and third-person perspectives on the self. He notes how important it was to the rise of feminism that personal experiences, which were unnamed and which you blamed yourself for, could be named through a process of discovering how others, similarly placed, also had similar personal experiences of their own. Through such social practices as individual consciousness raising groups, “general categories that emerge from particular experiences are brought to bear back onto experience, allowing one to see particular events as instances of general types” (2016: 191). It was assumed in the feminist movement that reflection on first person experience would be the basis for newly emerging categories to develop and therefore “participants should reject prior sources of authority in favor of the first-person perspective” (191). By attending to a larger historical scale that unfolds over decades, one that produces new possibilities for naming, and therefore objectifying, personal experiences, Keane reveals how the interplay between first- and third-person perspectives can promote an ethical shift in self formation at a collective level.

There is much that is rich here. However, what I still find missing, or at least seriously undertheorized in this capacious framework is another unit of analysis equally crucial when we look at the more conscious side of ethical intentionality as well as attempts at ethical innovation. This is history on a smaller scale, the history [441]of intentionality that comprises a personal life or a small unit (like a household) who share life over time. There is a problematically large gap between his microlevel of social interaction and broad social histories.

This is not an insignificant matter because Keane often calls upon a version of moral philosophy that stresses the cultivation of virtues and personal ethical projects, commitments that may stretch over the course of a lifetime. As I have argued elsewhere (Mattingly 2012, 2014a, forthcoming), it is difficult to know how to adopt this version of ethics without some robust portrait of a personal self who is entwined in intimate, personal, self-defining relationships. Bernard Williams as well as Charles Taylor, moral philosophers Keane often draws upon, have been particularly eloquent in stressing the personal side of ethics, not as an optional extra but as fundamental to ethical life (Williams 1981; Taylor 1989). For Williams in particular, the self is ethically constituted by commitments that are not just personal but irreducibly individual. He uses friendship as an example. Our friends are not merely interchangeable with one another, Williams points out, but are quite specific individuals with whom we share histories. This is a significant point since friendship has been taken in some moral philosophies (e.g., Aristotle’s) as essential for an ethically flourishing life.

I want to tread carefully here, for Keane does acknowledge the importance of personal history and character. For example, in his cautionary note about how psychologists evaluate ethical capacities cited above, he recognizes that in their reliance on moments of moral decision experiments, they subscribe to a view of ethics that would be rejected by Williams. Here is how Keane puts it: “Certainly Bernard Williams and others who approach ethics as a lifelong project, rather than a matter of momentary decision of right and wrong, would say no” (Keane 2016: 58)—that these tests do not adequately capture ethical life.

More important than these small asides, Keane also make an analytic place for character, which does, at first blush, seem to address the gap I am complaining about. However, Keane appears to treat “character” as a construct that functions as a kind of amalgam of individual personal history and social role. A character is a social figure that is “beyond any single person to define” (2016: 107). One’s character is something that is largely attributed to us by others, as in “imputations of character” that occur in social gossip. He tells us “the character that emerges is co-constructed by the individual and other. That co-construction is likely to draw on what others thing they already know—about the individual and his or her type of person” (107; italics in the original). His insistence on the socialness of character is not problematic in itself but because he so quickly moves from an individual to a type (as in this quote—with “type” as the italicized term), it becomes difficult to distinguish a character from a social role.

This slippage between character and role (if it is that) promotes a worrisome conflation. Is a person, with his or her character, a biographical someone who has a particular history, the kind of person Williams or Aristotle has in mind, or are we speaking about social roles? Or, at an even further remove, about theories of personhood as societal constructs, with their normative ideals? When Keane states that one’s character is something that extends over time, and is “beyond the limits of any specific action or event,” but is expected (in most societies) to remain consistent, aren’t we now speaking about ideal types and theories of personhood rather [442]than individual selves or lived experience? Keane is well aware that concepts are not “identical to experiences” (Keane 2014: 448), but he does seem to suggest this identification here. To add another worry here, how does this characterization of character (as sameness) relate to the ethical notion (dominant in many virtue ethics versions of moral philosophy) of one’s life as demanding ethical transformation over time—being, in a certain essential way, inconsistent, as part of a project of becoming?

Accounting for oneself: A penal semiotics?

It makes sense that Keane draws upon both Goffman and Judith Butler to elucidate the relationship between everyday acts of accountability and ethical self formation because Goffman has been such a masterful theorist of social interaction and Butler has specifically taken up the topic of ethical accountability. Both Butler and Goffman, each in their ways, offer very theatrical (not to mention dark) depictions of ethical accountability. Butler, in particular, offers what Keane calls a “penal semiotics.” Butler draws upon the imaginary of the courtroom as a primary moral scene. We are formed as moral actors, Butler (2005) tells us, precisely because we are put on trial and asked to account for our actions. We come to see ourselves as having an “I” with causal agency because we are blamed for the suffering of others and must try to defend ourselves. Many of the examples of social interaction Keane provides have this structure of defensive accounting in the face of critical accusation.

I appreciate the ethical vulnerability this picture calls our attention to. Keane’s portrait, enriched by Goffman and Butler, certainly tells us something significant about ethical life. However, I continue to find this an overly external and thin way of thinking about the self. It calls to mind E. M. Forster’s notion of the novelist’s flat character. Flat characters, Forster tells us, “do exactly what they are supposed to do, no more and no less. . . . [They] can be described in a single sentence. ‘I will never desert Mr. Macawber.’ There is Mrs. Macawber—she says she won’t desert Mr. Macawber, she doesn’t, and there she is’ (1927: 68). Round characters, by contrast, possess multiple qualities, shadowy ambiguities, and outright contradictions. Most important, they are capable of change” (Mattingly 2010: 108). Forster notes how convenient flat characters are for an author “‘since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development. . . . [They are] little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between stars; most satisfactory’ (1927: 69)” (cited in Mattingly 2010: 109).

Keane is quite aware that his account might seem overly external or presentational in just this way and he does not want to give us characters who can be pushed around like so many “little luminous disks.” Keane notes, “One objection to placing a heavy emphasis on the semiotics of interaction is that it seems to reduce the whole business of ethical life to mere appearances” (2016: 110). He recalls MacIntyre’s complaint about Goffman on this point and wants to distance himself from any such reductionism: “the vulnerability of the self is not just a matter of stage management and strategic manipulations to align appearance with a fixed set of external social standards” but “interaction is crucial to the constitution of ethical sensibilities . . . in the first place” (110). My argument (to return to my earlier point) is that without introducing another level of analysis, the personal and intimately interpersonal, history with a small “h,” there is no way to make good on this [443]concern to see how interaction actually contributes to the “constitution of ethical sensibilities,” especially if these ethical sensibilities are to be understood as more than a reflection of (or response to) societal norms and morality systems.

I attribute this undertheorization to the fact that he, like most anthropologists, is concerned to distance himself from the individual as a site of ethical subjectivity. We can see how Keane is quick to assure us that he is not focusing on the individual when he states that the “natural home of argument, reasoning, and justification is not in the individual autonomous mind but in palpable social interactions, whether face-to-face or in more mediated forms” (2016: 163). It is certainly important to rid ourselves of the highly problematic and improbable autonomous I (including perhaps the “I” that dominates so much of psychology), but there is a real cost in removing individuals altogether as sites of ethical action and experience. This straw man figure has made it difficult to explore the first person “I” as a relational being or to attend analytically as well as anecdotally to the small histories that, in my own ethnographic work at any rate, are of crucial analytic importance for ethics.

I don’t want to overstate my case. Keane catches a great deal of ethical life in his semiotics of social interaction. And we do, occasionally, catch a brief glimpse of a singular biographical figure, someone who struggles to come to terms with his own ethically vexed history. In one of his most nuanced examples, as he considers how clashes among competing moralities can promote ethical reflection, he draws upon Jane Hill’s analysis of Don Gabriel, a person for whom “moral values are precisely what are in question” (2016: 146). But still, I’m left asking, where are the round characters with their shadowy, ambiguous ethical lives, their attempts to become something other than themselves, however failed these attempts may often prove? Making analytic room for round characters can not only reveal situations of ethical intentionality that don’t show up on a world stage but also illuminate sources of ethical vulnerability that accompany fragile projects of becoming.

Longer term intentions and ethical becoming: Two ethnographic examples of small history

In my own work following African American families raising children with significant disabilities and chronic illnesses, this level of analysis has been invaluable for exploring small “moral experiments” in everyday life that are only recognizable as part of larger ethical projects (Mattingly 2012, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). When placed within small histories (the lives of individuals and families, for example), the experimental qualities of social interactions and their potential for creating possibility, new ethical affordances can be brought to light, possibilities that will never make it onto a world stage. More ominously, investigating the ethical import of social interactions in the context of unfolding lives may reveal how experiments in possibility can also be enactments of moral tragedy.

Two small examples illustrate. (These are abbreviated from longer cases published elsewhere; see Mattingly 2014a.) In the first one, a grandmother (Delores) and mother (Marcy) take a child to the hospital for his physical therapy appointment. The grandmother takes charge with the therapist while the mother sits to one side, unengaged, quietly reading a book. The hospital therapists who come [444]in and out of the rehabilitation room are annoyed that this mother is not showing more concern for her son. What an uninvolved parent!

Marcy violates the “good mother” role as dictated by the moral norms governing appropriate parent behavior in the clinic. Certainly, a good mother does not include one who sits on the sidelines. The structure of rehabilitation depends upon the delivery of massive amounts of “chronic homework” to patients and family caregivers who are expected to carry out home programs under the guidance of health experts. When clients (including the family members) do not do their part, they are labeled noncompliant. This label can have extremely serious consequences. Children can be taken out of their homes and put into foster care. This threat has hung over many families who have been part of our study. The smallest infractions can trigger the dreaded “home visit” by a social worker to see if they find any evidence of parental neglect. Marcy’s behavior presented a classic picture of parental neglect.

Here is a perfect Butler moment of penal semiotics in which a mother is held accountable and comes up short because she violates the norms of good parental behavior in the clinic. And yet, her very presence there is part of a moral experiment she and her mother are carrying out. She is only newly clean, after many years addicted to crack. She has lost custody of her five children to her mother, who has quit her job to care for them. The book she is reading is Narcotics Anonymous. She is working on her twelve-step program, quietly reading to herself.

While Marcy and her mother Delores are well aware of how she is being seen by hospital staff, they brave this trial scene because they are engaged in an ethical experiment in which more is at stake for them than the dismissive glances they receive. The two women hope that Marcy will gradually be able to take over from Delores in the care of her children. Together, they are engaged in a perilous and (statistically) improbable experiment in sobriety and mothering. Marcy’s ability to sit still through this hospital visit, reading quietly, provides evidence to them that this is a possibility, despite the odds.

Delores and Marcy both invoke potentiality in their actions in this clinical encounter. Delores’ experience of her daughter speaks not to who she has been and not even to who she is now, in this clinical session, but to a possible becoming—a potential future self. Delores admitted that Marcy could be “really mean” to her children when she was high. But this daughter, the one manifest in her usual actions, was not the real Marcy. Delores saw something else, a latent possible mother who could emerge if only Marcy could give up drugs.

A second example speaks to the kind of moral tragedy that only reveals itself over time, one where the pursuit of one kind of ethical good undermines another good that is equally worth cultivating. This, as Martha Nussbaum (1986) so beautifully tells us, is not tragedy in the simple sense that bad things happen to the undeserving but, rather, “moral tragedy.” This is the sort of unhappy circumstance where good people find themselves inescapably caught and must act in ways they find ethically abhorrent because not to do so would be equally ethically abhorrent. My example concerns a mother (Betsy) whose daughter has sickle cell anemia and whose medical situation is so severe that she is liable to spiral into life-threatening pain episodes at any moment. Over the years this mother becomes an expert advocate for her daughter, speaking “almost like a doctor,” as one of the treating clinicians [445]put it, when she took her daughter to the hospital. Good mothering required that she hone this medical expertise and also be able to battle with clinicians, especially in emergency rooms, who were not familiar enough with the disease to recognize how quickly a pain episode could become life threatening, the kinds of clinicians who were reluctant to administer the necessary morphine, presuming that these black children were just drug seeking.

Over the years, this diligent mothering has turned her—in her own words—into a “Rambo Mom.” But becoming Rambo Mom meant not becoming another kind of mother, one who could be soft with her child, who could see her as “just a little girl.” The weight of this ethical tragedy became so acute for Betsy that when her daughter was an early teenager, she seriously considered trying to get her into an extremely risky experimental trial, a bone marrow transplant surgery where the calculated survival rates were no better than 50 percent.


I have engaged with Keane’s new book in quite a lot of detail because I find it so compelling, despite the worries I have enumerated. He gives us an enormously fruitful way of thinking about the social shape of ethical life when he mines small-scale interactions and their subtle interplay of first- and third-person perspectives. His use of the notion of ethical affordances makes it analytically possible to show how societal-level normative forces bear upon the intimate interactions of everyday life without painting a determinist picture. His ability to look at these same ethical affordances in large histories of societal level transformation is illuminating and elegant.

Finally, although I might want to proceed more cautiously than he does when drawing upon the facts psychology produces, his attempt to think with psychology as well as social history is tremendously important. In a commentary Keane wrote in response to Laidlaw’s recent book, The subject of ethics, he is quite forthright about why he believes this bridge building is so needed: “A glance beyond the confines of anthropological discourse reveals a public enthralled with genetics, neuroscience, and many varieties of psychology. . . . To confine ourselves to the limits marked out by existing disciplinary consensus risks conceding the larger arguments to those outside our discipline” (2014: 445). I think Keane is absolutely right about this. He offers one very persuasive path for doing so.


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Cheryl Mattingly
Department of Anthropology
Kaprielian Hall
3620 S. Vermont Avenue, Room 348g
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089


1. I rely gratefully here on Thomas Schwartz Wentzer’s discussion of this in a forthcoming paper, “Human, the responding being: Considerations towards a philosophical anthropology of responsiveness.”