The interactional foundations of ethics and the formation and limits of morality systems

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © James Laidlaw. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.024


The interactional foundations of ethics and the formation and limits of morality systems

James LAIDLAW, University of Cambridge

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

This is a strikingly ambitious book, which in my view succeeds rather decisively on a number of distinct levels. It impressively synthesizes a very wide range of research from experimental and evolutionary psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and history, as well as anthropology. It sets out a distinctive and largely persuasive general account of the place and character of the ethical dimension of human social life. And it illustrates how that general account of ethical life raises new questions about some familiar subject matter, and suggests new ways of looking at religious and political movements and the broad patterns and trajectories of historical change. It therefore advances the general project of the anthropology of ethics, first by drawing to the attention of anthropologists and making available to them a range of relevant research in neighboring disciplines, and therefore informing and broadening the general debate, and second, at the level of theoretical synthesis, where it will be significant, I think, both because of what it persuasively establishes and for the range and depth of the questions it raises. It seems beyond doubt that this book will be a major reference point for years to come.

The structure of the book is threefold. Part I draws principally on research in experimental and evolutionary psychology to provide a catalog of basic features of human psychology that provide raw materials for ethical life. Keane insists, against some of the psychologists whose research he draws upon, that these features do not in themselves constitute or explain ethics: they are instead, he suggests, “affordances” that may or may not be deployed in various ways. Part II deploys an analytical [456]framework deeply influenced by Goffman, Garfinkel, and the Silverstein tradition in linguistic anthropology to advance this argument, by showing that further affordances for ethical life are grounded in the basic microdynamics of social interaction, and furthermore by showing that those identified in Part I become, properly speaking, part of ethical life on account of how they are involved in social interaction. Part III expands out from the microdynamics of social interaction to the histories of social and political movements dedicated to effecting ethical change, and to very broad questions of whether a general direction of ethical change is discernible in human history.

In a way, the distinction between Part I and Part II of the book is artificial, and could mislead the unwary reader about the nature of Keane’s argument. His position is that there is no such thing as the psychology of individuals, conceived outside the dynamics of social interaction. So on this account human psychology, described only from the “first-person perspective” covered in Part I of the book, is necessarily distorted and incomplete. This critique of the psychological research that Keane is drawing to anthropologists’ attention is woven into his presentation of the material. And from Keane’s point of view, it becomes clear, the phenomena reported in much of the psychological literature discussed in Part I actually make much better sense when placed in a social-interactionist context, which he develops in Part II, than in the methodologically individualist framework in which much of it has been carried out. The structure of the book, building out from the individual, through the microdynamics of social interaction, to larger scale historical change, might suggest that what’s described in Part I provides a foundation for Part II, and that in turn for Part III, but this is not really Keane’s argument. Part II is really the center of the book, from which Part I and Part III, in their different ways, radiate. If I read Keane right then, there are not really two different sets of affordances, a more basic set, inherent in individuals, described in Part I, and others that develop as the individual grows to maturity through social interaction: the second encompasses and includes the first, because the evolved individual that is the product of natural selection is always already a social being. But as an expository device, the distinction between Parts I and II enables Keane to describe and survey the psychological literature in its own terms, while preparing the ground for resituating the “affordances” identified there in a more satisfactory interactionist framework in Part II. While this might seem like an unnecessary detour through an unsatisfactory perspective, it is valuable in enabling Keane to make his case to anthropologists, that they need to take account of the psychological literature for all its faults—and in part in order to be able to identify and comment on those faults.

It seems to me that in fact there is another problem with almost all of the psychological literature Keane discusses, the influence of which he does not wholly escape, which is the extent to which it preemptively assumes that “altruism” is the essential and irreducible core of “ethics.” This assumption, historically rather parochial and unaware of the depth of its Christian background, derives of course from the way the psychologists’ methods posit self-interested action as rational and therefore not in need of further explanation: ethics-as-altruism becomes a problem to be explained when it is read against this conception of how humans “naturally” are. But I think on the whole that Keane is right in urging anthropologists to engage [457]positively with this large and varied literature, and he has done an immense service in surveying and drawing out its significance for anthropology.

Just one example of the quality of Keane’s discussion: there is a fairly large body of writing that is presented as a so-called situationalist challenge to virtue ethics (e.g., Doris 2002). The argument goes that people do not exhibit the stable character traits assumed in virtue ethics; they are much more readily swayed to act in one way rather than another by “situational” features of context and circumstance than the notion of “character” allows. So a favorite experiment shows that people are more likely to stop and give money to a beggar if the latter is located close to a pleasant-smelling baker’s shop, than if elsewhere. And this is supposed to show that an “ethical” motivation (note the assumption that “altruistic” giving to beggars gets us to the heart of ethics) is overpowered by the ethically irrelevant matter of how pleasant the “situation” is. Keane is rightly unimpressed by this alleged critique, and persuasively argues against the artificial separation built into the design of these experiments between the isolated subject of a de-contextualized “choice” on the one hand, and the fabric of that subject’s social life on the other. It does not make an experiment more accurate or telling to separate persons from the everyday circumstances in which their conduct is actually situated: our relations with others, the physical settings we inhabit, the material culture we surround ourselves with, all function, as Keane puts it, as an “exoskeleton” that supports our character. The correct response to this observation is to be interested in understanding just what features of our social environments—what kinds of institutions and practices—are most effective in shaping our conduct. That people’s conduct is affected by circumstance does not show that there is no such thing as character, as the more excitable situationalists have claimed (it might do that only if momentarily putting people in the same situations reliably induced them all to behave identically). It shows, rather, that not everything about a person’s character is necessarily contained within the biological individual. The person includes more than that—but we knew this already.

Part of the brilliance in particular of Part II of this book is the way Keane reprises a lot that will be familiar to anthropologists, about the extent to which, for example, individuality and a reflective sense of self emerge only through social interaction, but rephrases it so as to make clear the light these anthropological insights throw on ethical life. If the natural home, as Keane puts it, of so much ethical thought and practice—giving an account of oneself, applying criteria, ascribing responsibility, and seeing oneself from another’s point of view—is in the dynamics of interaction, then anthropologists have to a considerable extent been studying ethics all along, even if not very much under that description.

Part III of Keane’s book expands on a point developed at length in Part II—that a reflective sense of self arises only through social interaction—to consider the historical circumstances in which the potential for self-consciousness and self-cultivation is institutionalized and developed. In what Keane, borrowing from Bernard Williams, calls “morality systems,” we find conscious attempts to subject ethical life to systematic rationalization, in the pursuit of fidelity to explicit general principles. Movements of this kind, seeking to achieve and impose ethical consistency, depend on everyday features of ethical life, which might otherwise go unnoticed and unremarked in the ongoing flow of interaction, becoming subject to conscious [458]reflection and objectification. Part III therefore considers: what prompts such objectifications?; what kinds of institutions and practices enable them?; and what are their consequences?

The final two substantive chapters of the book consider respectively two kinds of organized movements to implement morality systems: piety movements in monotheistic, scriptural religions (Keane reviews and insightfully discusses Joel Robbins’ [2004] ethnography of the Pentecostal Christianity embraced by the Urapmin people in the West Sepik, and Charles Hirschkind’s [2006] on reformist Islam in Cairo) and avowedly secular revolutionary communism (he reviews the extensive literature, both historical and anthropological, on Vietnam). Then, in his conclusion, he briefly discusses two other more loosely organized movements to implement moral change, in the name of human rights and humanitarianism, respectively. While Keane’s discussion of these varied materials is multifaceted, his stress throughout is on the inherent limits the complexity of social life places on the degree of systematic internal coherence and consistency morality systems can ever achieve. For all their application of systematic techniques of rationalization, their mobilization of mass enthusiasm and sectional interests, and their cunning institutionalized devices to motivate ordinary subjects to discipline and reform themselves, they run up against those natural facts, so painstakingly worked through in the earlier parts of the book, about how human social life is organized and proceeds, and the limits these place on the thoroughness with which human life can be systematically reordered so as to conform to a few chosen principles or ideals. Keane does agenda-setting work here, in bringing such a diverse range of material into a single conversation about the natural and social dimensions of ethical life. He will have posed new questions, and no doubt some provocations, for specialists in the anthropology of Christianity, Islam, (post-)socialism, human rights, and humanitarianism, as well as those interested in the anthropology of ethics, and much of this reaction will take time to formulate. My own immediate comment concerns an almost unmarked step Keane takes, along the way, in setting up his argument.

In his Ethics and the limits of philosophy (1985), Bernard Williams draws a distinction between the general field of ethics—any more or less concerted attempt to answer Socrates’ question, “How ought one to live?”—and what he calls, “the morality system,” Like Nietzsche ([1887] 1994, [1886] 1998, [1887] 2001), by whom he was influenced in seeing things this way, Williams thought that Western philosophy and also more pervasively Western society had taken a consequentially wrong turn in becoming excessively attached to a specific way of answering the Socratic question: one that is formulated in quasi-legal terms around the notion of a unique kind of obligation; that requires the notion of intention to bear extraordinary philosophical weight in the allocation of responsibility; and that insists on an in-principle separation of supposedly unique and distinctive “moral” reasons for action from all considerations of what might be good, in general terms, for the subject asking the question. Like Nietzsche, Williams saw this distinctive way of thinking about ethics—“the morality system”—as specifically indebted to Christianity, and as having become so dominant and taken for granted as to have closed off a range of productive and creative ways of thinking about how one ought to live that had been available to earlier societies. We have come to think that this narrow way of thinking, and the pinched and restricted range of self-denying values [459]it authorizes, as the only thing that counts as ethical thinking. The assumption, which I mentioned above as pervading the psychological literature Keane presents for us, that altruism is the epitome of the ethical, is a symptom of the extent to which Nietzsche and Williams had a point here: those designing these experiments take quite unthinkingly for granted that ethics begins and ends with “the morality system.”

Now, although both Nietzsche and Williams made efforts to expand their range of reference beyond the classical scholarship in which they were trained and the European civilization with whose fate they were concerned, it could not be said that either succeeded very far. So Williams, in identifying “the morality system” as the consequence of a surface secularization of deeply Christian values, never considered which of the system’s features are really attributable to that cause, and therefore really unique to post–Christian Europe, and whether some of them might be shared more widely, for instance by other scriptural religions or literate civilizations across the world, in the Islamic world, pre–Colombian America, India, China, or elsewhere. Nor did he consider whether what he describes as the secularization of post-Christian values might be common to modernizing societies more generally, and observable in non-Christian contexts. Keane is not the first anthropologist to find that Williams’s characterization of “the morality system” rings fairly true of systematic moral thought from outside the modern West. Charles Stafford (2013), for example, describes classical Confucianism as a “morality system” in this sense. He, like Keane, pluralizes Williams’s singular expression and speaks of there being many “morality systems” in human history.

This is undoubtedly a positive move, but it does leave unaddressed the same tricky questions of specificity sidestepped by Williams. Which features, formal or substantive, are shared by the “morality system” of the modern West and those of the other major agrarian civilizations and literate religions? Does the objectification and formalization of rules necessarily go along with a focus on intention and an opposition between morality and practical rationality? While Stafford clearly thinks late-imperial neo–Confucian China is an excellent example of a “morality system,” Keane in practice limits his consideration to monotheistic Abrahamic traditions and their secularized descendants. So how widely is it sensible to apply this concept?

What, if anything, separates all these “morality systems” from the less systematic products of ethical reflection and objectification, in Keane’s terms, in societies without those technologies or an elaborate division of intellectual labor? Is the distinction between ethical life and a “morality system,” as Keane uses these terms here, close to that which Weber (1978) was drawing when he wrote of the “ethicized religions” as opposed to socially embedded religions of tribe, caste, and so on?

Williams, and to some extent Nietzsche before him, clearly thought there was something specifically and uniquely Christian, and different from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on, in the rationalized irrationality of elevating self-destructive values to the exclusion of all others, and both thought that this inheritance was crucial to understanding modernity as it developed in Europe. How much does that intuition survive informed comparison with ascetic and renunciatory traditions worldwide? Nietzsche’s interest in Buddhism shows that he saw the importance of this question, and that he did not succeed in answering it.[460]

Contrariwise, might the features that interested and appalled Nietzsche and Williams in “the morality system” have as much to do with the processes of secularization that produced it as with the nature of the preexisting ethicized religion out of which it was formed? Was what we fondly think of as Enlightenment instead or also a process of systematic forgetting or sublimation? This is the thought that surfaces when they both in their different ways suggest that the deeply Christian character of modern morality is systematically concealed from those who espouse it by the conviction the latter hold that they are “secular,” and that this disables them from resisting or thinking their way out of the Christian values they have inherited. Nietzsche has some fun here, with the extent to which socialism is incapable of understanding its own ascetic moralism; Williams took rather less mischievous pleasure in the situation. Keane’s discussion in Chapter 7 of this book, of Vietnamese communism as a movement for self-conscious moral reform, is a highly suggestive step toward understanding these matters.

Socialism clearly affords some inescapably compelling material for a student of institutionalized projects of ethical self-cultivation and transformation: extraordinarily ambitious both in the depth of the transformations it sought to achieve and the breadth of the populations it aimed to encompass; in some cases and in some respects staggeringly successful, including in the extent to which individuals’ motivations toward self-improvement were harnessed to societal transformation and the realization of goals chosen by state elites, and in others spectacular failures, including in illustrating with brutal vividness the limits to the plasticity of human conduct. Clearly a comprehensive appraisal of all of this would require a wider survey than Keane attempts here, where he concentrates on the adaptation by Ho Chi Min and his followers in the Vietnamese Communist Party of neo-Confucian ideas and practices, and it would need to encompass socialist attempts to create radically new kinds of economic agents, to transform kinship and intimate relations, and cultural revolution, as well as techniques as various as collectivization and the militarization of everyday life, thought reform and reeducation, show trial and struggle session, and the widespread dissemination of practices of self-inquisition. And it would need to examine the consequences for ethical life, including on the allocation of responsibility, of pervasive economies of shortage and favor, and systematic bureaucratization and the institution of politicized hierarchy, to varying extents in different socialist societies. Keane’s groundbreaking book, with its powerful conceptual integration of what he calls the natural and social histories of ethical life, opens up this and a wide range of other avenues of research to the anthropology of ethics.


Doris, John M. 2002. Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hirschkind, Charles. 2006. The ethical soundscape: Cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press.[461]

Keane, Webb. 2015. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1886) 1998. Beyond good and evil. Translated and edited by Marion Faber. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. (1887) 1994. On the genealogy of morality. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. (1887) 2001. The gay science. Edited by Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Stafford, Charles, ed. 2013. Ordinary ethics in China. London: Bloomsbury.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy. London: Collins.


James Laidlaw
Social Anthropology
Faculty of Human, Social and Political Science
University of Cambridge
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF, UK