Ethics without guarantees

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Webb Keane. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.028


Ethics without guarantees

Webb KEANE, University of Michigan

Response to HAU Symposium on Keane, Webb. 2016. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

I want to thank the reviewers for the seriousness of their criticism. I also appreciate the range of different directions from which they approach it, which reflects the book’s cross-disciplinary ambitions. There’s not enough space here to respond to every point they raise, but I’ll try to address the most central and difficult ones.

Relative to the limited amount of space the Ethical life devotes to psychology, Chapters 1 and 2 have received a disproportionate degree of attention from the critics, both in HAU and elsewhere. This is not surprising; it’s there that my challenge to mainstream (socio-cultural) anthropology is most direct. Given this challenge, I appreciate James Laidlaw’s astute remark that the distinction between the first and second parts of the book is somewhat artificial, since the methodological individualism dominant in psychology has to be situated within the dynamics of social interaction. He is also right to observe that the sequence of chapters may be misleading: the reader should not take the psychological components to be foundational to the rest. He captures the spirit of the argument neatly when he suggests that both the psychological and the historical sections radiate outward from the account of interaction. Having said that, I should make clear that the goal of the book is not just to replace one foundationalism with another. Nor is it an exercise in debunking. Rather, those first chapters attempt to persuade skeptical anthropologists to expand the range of the resources they can draw on.

Cheryl Mattingly suggests I take the psychological research too seriously; Rita Astuti that I don’t take it seriously enough. As their divergence suggests, this aspect of the book is the riskiest, not least because it takes me furthest from my own training, my own most deeply rooted ethnographic and theoretical sensibilities, and [486]the common ground I share with so many anthropologists. By the same token, it’s precisely for these reasons that I want to push hard at this pressure point. The book starts from an intuition that it is in the borderlands between the disciplines that we stand some of the best chances for unsettling our most complacent assumptions and for discovering emergent possibilities—or at least, it’s here where we might find the poaching to be good.

Mattingly faults me for not raising more doubts about the findings of psychological research. This reflects a decision I made right from the start. On the one hand, Ethical life does point to weaknesses in the ways psychological researchers have conceived of ethics and how they interpret their results. Moreover, I take care to frame their findings in the conditional mode (“If so-and-so is correct”) rather than as revealed truth. But I do not intend to perform a wholesale critique of the field. A basic premise of the book is that anthropologists must find ways to engage productively other disciplines, if we ourselves are to gain new insights from those who are working on problems that interest us as well, and if we’re to stand a chance of exerting influence beyond our too-often closed conversations among ourselves. By now anthropologists should be self-confident enough that we don’t need to always repeat in the same terms our century-long struggle for disciplinary autonomy. Of course doesn’t mean we should naively accept the premises and methods of other fields—but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand either, which can be just as naive. The critiques of psychology coming from anthropology, critical theory, cultural studies, and STS are well known by now—no one needs me to repeat them. Instead, Ethical life attempts to give a reading of psychology sufficiently charitable that it opens the possibility of learning something new. When Mattingly asks if we can “trust the data that psychology produces that is so often grounded in highly artificial environments?” she’s echoing a question that anyone who works in a fieldwork-based discipline will ask. But every research tradition involves some methodological decisions. The point should not be to eliminate them but rather to understand what is gained and lost in each case. After all, isn’t this is exactly how we would want a psychologist to approach anthropology—not by attacking us for being anecdotal, subjective, politicized, working with miniscule samples, not eliminating selection bias, or criticizing our lack of control populations, verification procedures, and replicable results but by grasping why we take the peculiar approach we do, and what we hope to gain by that choice?

Mattingly is especially worried that the so-called Theory of Mind Theory in developmental psychology may define the ethical subject too narrowly. Admittedly this problem is noted only fleetingly in Ethical life. Mattingly’s own powerful research on families with children in the autism spectrum has convinced me I should give this issue more weight than I was able to do in the book. But her objection to the empirical claims of the psychologists still seems to support my basic account of ethical life, 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.” In other words, it is not that we should rethink the place of intersubjectivity in ethics because autistic children are ethical subjects but not capable of intersubjectivity. Nor is it the case that autistic children are incapable of intersubjectivity and therefore we should not count them as ethical subjects. Rather, because autistic children struggle with intersubjectivity, therefore [487]they have to be included as ethical subjects. This is wholly within the spirit of my approach.

Astuti objects that I haven’t taken on board enough psychology, in particular the more ethnographically grounded and non-Eurocentric research carried out by her, Maurice Bloch, and others. Although the book refers to research in cultural psychology and psychological anthropology, the focus does lie elsewhere. I chose to pay particular attention to psychological research explicitly devoted to ethics and morality, and to the dominant paradigms in child development. Astuti says these choices leave me with little to say about the effects of social history on psychology. Certainly it would have strengthened my own case to be able to demonstrate, for instance, what the effects on Korowai psychology are of life within a society that officially denies or suppresses open intention-reading. But my own sense is the current state of the research is not yet at a point where I can draw on it heavily.

Astuti also takes me to task for not asserting that ethical life is a result of human evolution. I have no quarrel with Darwin, and will grant in principle the working assumption that natural selection is involved in the origins of basic human capacities. But I don’t see precisely what role this should play in my argument. First, I take as axiomatic that an origin story isn’t in itself sufficient to provide a social analysis (bipedalism didn’t arise in order to make possible football and ballet). More specifically, whereas the evolutionary models in moral theory tend to be global in their ambitions, I find it more useful to work along the borders between scales of analysis, those points of convergence between psychology and social interaction, for instance, or between interaction and social movements. Ethical life is not meant to resurrect the positivist dream of a unified theory. Even were we to accept evolutionary explanations of ethics (which tend to be highly speculative) we would still need to make a case for why what they explain in functionalist terms should be describable as “ethical.” A hard-core evolutionist like Sam Harris claims that neuroscience simply reveals the very notion of morality to be an illusion. My book stages an argument against this kind of eliminationism.

Closer to the ground, Astuti also calls for an account of the constraints that human psychology imposes on social history. In fact, something like that is precisely the point of my discussion of the “opacity of other minds” doctrine in Korowai and Mopan Mayan societies, namely, to establish that there are specifically ethnographic insights to be gained from acknowledging the affordances offered by the general characteristics with which humans are endowed. To summarize the point, we can learn more about the specific nature of Korowai social existence if we recognize that they are strenuously denying something that they actually do (namely intention-reading), than if we treat their claims about other minds as just one more item to add to anthropology’s roster of infinite human creativity, more evidence of our promethean world-making powers.

Laidlaw’s central challenge to the book is that at times it seems to buy into the assimilation of ethics to altruism. He is surely right to suggest this view derives from a specifically Christian background (although Christianity is hardly the only religion to promote altruism as a moral prime), and the secular moral systems that emerged from it. Like Williams and Foucault, Laidlaw’s own writings treat virtue ethics as a more encompassing alternative—a position with which Ethical life is clearly, if not entirely uncritically, sympathetic. In this light, “altruism” best serves [488]as a proxy for a more general concept of value, that which is worth doing for being for its own sake, without further justification—a definition, I suggest, that can equally well apply to the eudaimonia of virtue ethics.

The central chapters of the book focus on social interaction, which is the topic of Nicholas Harkness’ comments. Dwelling on the linguistic dimensions of the argument, he lays out with great precision the technical background to the distinctions among first, second, and third person. He points out that first and second person are mutually implicated in two respects. First, they define each other: “you” only exists by virtue of the fact that there is an “I” who addresses it. Second, they are necessarily interchangeable. They only function if “you” and “I” can switch places. This presupposes a fundamental intersubjectivity, since the ability to say “I” depends on grasping that I am “you” to your “I.” By contrast, the third person is essentially a negative category, defined by being outside the interaction altogether. Harkness also recognizes clearly the implication: because of this fundamental intersubjectivity, ethics is not something added onto interaction, since ethicizing processes are implicit in, if not always fully realized by, that very dynamic.

Now Harkness writes of language as what he calls a necessary bottleneck. But just what is the nature of that necessity? After all, if we accept Mattingly’s point about autism and extend it to the deaf or mute, an account of ethical life can’t completely exclude those with different or limited linguistic abilities. So what is the role of language in ethical life? In the book, language plays three analytically distinguishable roles. As a cognitive capacity, it elaborates on the basic intersubjectivity that is already apparent in infants’ prelinguistic interactions. As a pragmatic function, the self-referential capacities of language contribute to the ethically charged performativity in interaction such as insult, irony, and praise. And semantically, language serves the objectifying processes by which specific ethical concepts circulate socially, endure historically, and get taken up by individuals’ self-interpretations. Language facilitates the third-person perspective. As the example of feminist consciousness-raising shows in Chapter 5, the formulation of new categories of action (“date rape”) and person (“feminist”) at a particular historical moment facilitated new ways of being a person that just weren’t possible before. Having said that, I certainly would not want to reduce either ethics or intersubjectivity to language, although it’s hard to imagine how either could become recognizably historical or social phenomena without it.

Although the terminology of first, second, and third person is derived from language, the book deploys it to indicate stances beyond their strictly linguistic functions. Mattingly worries about the wide range of reference covered by the first person pronoun. Linguistically, the first person in any language merely indicates a starting point: there’s no outer limit to how far it can extend—“I” or “We” can refer to dyads, triads, nations, ethnicities, religions, all of humanity, life on earth, or, moving, internally, to bits of what Marilyn Strathern calls “dividuals.” (This open-endedness is reflected in the ways in which the circle of ethical concern can be expanded, as it was by nineteenth-century abolitionism or by present-day animal rights activists, cases in which the familiar referential reach of “we” is made to scale upward—encompassing slaves of African ancestry in the first case and certain nonhuman species in the second.)[489]

In Ethical life, first-, second-, and third-person stances are not restricted to language. They refer to possible stances toward actions, persons, and evaluations. The first person denotes the ways in which someone (however extensive that “someone” may be) is identified with an action or judgment from the inside. For example, it’s about the way in which it matters that it is I who stands accused or receives praise, and not just anyone at all. As I discuss in the book, a founding moment in utilitarianism was when William Godwin said that, given the choice who to save from a burning house, ethics demands that I rescue a great humanitarian rather than my own mother, a chambermaid, remarking “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my,’ to over turn the decisions of everlasting truth?” With those words, it’s precisely the first person stance that he’s trying to eliminate. But if we eliminate the first person altogether in favor of the external perspective I’m calling the third person, then it becomes hard to understand why anyone should care or feel committed to one ethical position or another—we would find ourselves in the position of someone watching a sporting event between teams we’ve never heard of, about whose loss or win we remain indifferent. Conversely, if we eliminate the third person in favor of a purely subjective ethics, we also have trouble understanding things like one’s ability to respond to an ethical argument on principled grounds. Therefore the book argues that we need to understand the dynamic relations among these stances, rather than privileging one or another.

One of the modern philosophical traditions in which the first person perspective has been privileged is phenomenology. Whereas Mattingly appreciates the phenomenological dimension to the book, C. Jason Throop feels I have given insufficient acknowledgment to those who identify themselves with that tradition. The selective influence of phenomenology in Ethical life is probably most apparent in the chapters devoted to social interaction, where there’s an obvious intellectual genealogy one could trace from contemporaries such as Alessandro Duranti back through Goffman and Garfinkle, to Schutz and Husserl. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the book can, as Throop puts it, resonate with that tradition. Having said that, it’s incumbent on the critic to suggest what exactly the book would have gained from a more explicit invocation of phenomenology. It’s not entirely clear to me just what would be different.

More generally, there are limits to phenomenology as a stand-alone approach to social life. Starting with its original grounding in the individual subject, phenomenology has had some difficulty getting an analytical grip on institutions, sociology, and history. Compounding this is the influence of Heidegger on more recent anthropology. To be sure, his early writings have utterly transformed how many of us think about temporality. But, leaving aside his notorious politics (about whose relevance we could debate), Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics has a normative mission whose thrust I find inappropriate for anthropology. Among the anthropologists, this influence too often leads to a rather romantic overvaluing of being in the flow-of-things, or living in the moment, at the expense of an appreciation of how various the forms of human self-awareness and self-distantiation actually are. The moment one speaks, one enters into complex and shifting relations with the third-person perspective. If you think the very existence of language is already a kind of “fallen-ness,” then you’ve lost interest in humans. This is one reason why I resist the terminology of “breakdown,” which, perhaps unintentionally, seems to [490]imply that self-awareness, doubt, questioning, reasoning, inner conflict, and reflection are more or less inauthentic or pathological, or at least, departures from the norm of seamlessly flowing authenticity.

The final section of the book, on social history, is challenged by Mattingly on two connected grounds, the question of scale and the analysis of typification. She proposes there is a missing link between interaction and social history, namely, “the small personal history of longer term intentions” (a topic also implicit in Laidlaw’s concern with self-cultivation). The scale of personal history she invokes seems wholly consistent with the overall thrust of the book. Although the biographical scale is not thematized in the book, it is implicit, for instance, in the Christian and Muslim piety projects discussed in Chapter 6, as well as Don Gabriel’s narrative discussed in Chapter 4. Paying greater attention to this dimension of ethical life would flesh out the argument but I don’t think it would significantly change its direction.

The social history of ethics requires attention to mediation by what I call “historical objects,” which include types or typifications. Comments by both Mattingly and Astuti suggest this idea may need more clarification. First, an ethical type is not a social role. It’s a value-laden characterization of a person or action, such as being generous, sneaky, or brave. As such, it mediates how people become recognizable to one another in ethical terms—in ways that are labile and defeasible. Moreover, this mediation also enters into any given “first person” self-understanding as well. I argue that my self-understanding is shaped (but not wholly determined) by the ethical concepts available to me and my interlocutors. Ethical concepts, like generous, sneaky, or brave, circulate socially as objectifications that I can apply to myself: “I am the sort of person they’re talking about when they talk about ‘honesty’.” It is this third person perspective that that I deploy when giving an account of myself to someone else (addressed as the “second person”). That is, I am most robustly “honest” to myself when (a) honesty is a characterization that’s available to me in my historical context such that (b) it can enter into the account that I can give of myself to others, with the result that (c) their affirmation or denial of that self-accounting becomes part of my ongoing biographical context as I move forward in life.

Typifications of characters and actions emerge and disappear over the course of specific social histories. Their existence does not determine anything in particular, nor, in any individual case, are they necessarily stable. Rather, they are affordances that make possible certain ways to be a person at a given time and in a given social context—and not in others. Examples from the book include feminist “anger” and Vietnamese communist “humaneness.” Astuti mentions another one, “condescension,” although we may differ slightly in how we construe it. The point of that example (taken from the political theorist Don Herzog) is this: in eighteenth-century England, the condescension of a lord to a commoner could be construed as a positive virtue, a gracious, voluntary self-lowering by someone who properly stands above me. In twentieth-century America, the word “condescension” can only be negative, the presumptuousness of someone who acts as if they were inherently superior to me when that cannot be the case—because we don’t live in the kind of society where I will accept fixed social hierarchies as given. The difference is not simply that there is one thing in the world, condescension, about which people have changed their value judgments from being a virtue to a vice. Rather, today it has simply become impossible altogether for anyone to condescend to someone [491]in the eighteenth-century sense of the term. This is because there no longer exists a social reality in which it’s possible to accept someone else’s social superiority as legitimate and natural. In addition, “condescension” is not something an individual can simply chose to enact, since it requires a whole world of others for whom that is also an ethically meaningful possibility. Thus the ethics of condescension is not just a matter of interpretation (condescension is good or bad), since how those other people respond to me will facilitate or constrain (but not determine) my possible actions in the future. Typifications work in coordination with the social worlds that sustain them conceptually and practically. When a certain ethical type vanishes, so too does a certain way of being a person—try as I might, being an ancient Athenian warrior or a Confucian sage aren’t options for me.

Parenthetically, none of this means people are trapped in fixed characters, as Mattingly suggests. First, because the very reality of character consistency has been subjected to challenges on both psychological and ethnographic grounds. But as my discussions of religious piety, the Vietnamese revolution, and feminism should make clear, even in societies where people believe in character, and place a high value on it, they may try to subject their character to all kinds of effort and discipline. Those disciplines typically rely on, and foster, the objectifications that appear in morality systems. As Laidlaw usefully suggests, at this point the discussion can be pushed further, to show more thoroughly how ethical life articulates with political economy, formal institutions, the contest among interests, and, I would add, law. But to do this adequately would require a much longer volume.

Finally I want to thank Richard Shweder for his terrifically stimulating challenge. I can’t remotely do justice to it in the space allocated here, and I refer the reader to the final chapter of Ethical life for more detail. Here I will briefly touch on three questions. First, Shweder asks me to choose among the first-, second-, and third-person stances, but the heart of my argument is there is no definitive choosing among them, and we cannot avoid moving among them. To treat the third person stance as trumping all others (something Kohlberg’s stage model implies) would confine us to so disinterested a perspective as to eliminate the possibility of ethical commitments altogether. Next, he asks whether morality must be based on absolutes. I think the answer has to be a qualified “no.” Although, as I note in the book, Shweder’s own inventory of moral universals is a plausible set of constraints on, and affordances for, possible ethics, these are not determinants, nor do they eliminate the inevitability of ethical contradiction, and thus the necessity of choosing among contending options. I would further argue that they are not normative absolutes in any philosophical sense. Anthropologists have enough experience with local relativisms (your clan’s virtue isn’t mine, divine law for my people isn’t law for yours) to know that the metaethical idea that my ethics must be based on absolutes is not universally accepted. The idea of affordance is meant to suggest that whatever bases human ethical life may have, they can only be realized as “ethical” within particular projects—at the level of universal endowments they do not yet rise to that level of specification. This is a story of becoming, not of origins, of movement, not of grounding.

Finally, must the anthropologist of morality be herself or himself a moral philosopher willing to render ultimate normative judgments? As I argue in the book, the answer must be no, at least not in the terms that Shweder lays out. To quote [492]Ethical life, “We should not expect that empirical knowledge will lead us to some position so utterly transcendent that it will secure our ethical intuitions once and for all—granting us a supreme authority that no one else could challenge” (2016: 260). Does this absolve me from normativity? No. We cannot avoid being within ethical life, and finding ourselves taking stances, nor can we elude the inevitability that there will be others whose stances conflict with ours. But I can’t ask anthropology to do all the work for me. We have to accept that we take our ethics without guarantees.


Webb Keane
Dept. of Anthropology
101 West Hall
1085 South University Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1107