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On becoming ethical subjects: freedom, constraint, and the anthropology of morality

Given that anthropologists are interested in studying the ways people live together, those outside the discipline could be forgiven for expecting them to have been talking about morality all along. For surely moral considerations are part of almost all interactions, even those in which they are primarily attended to silently or by being set aside. Over the last decade, however, those inside the field of anthropology have come to the realization that despite the obvious relevance of morality to their object of study, they have throughout their history mostly neglected the topic. Or at least they have failed to give it much explicit, theoretically creative attention. To be sure, anthropologists have described, for a countless number of societies and often in great detail, the kinds of normative social routines that provide some of the moral foundation of life everywhere. But rarely have they highlighted the specifically moral aspects of these routines, and they have left creative moral action even more thoroughly untouched. This has resulted in a situation in which readers could not miss the fact that the lives described in ethnographies are morally informed, but neither could they turn to these ethnographies to find original formulations concerning the nature of morality as a social or cultural phenomenon.

Over the last decade or so, the place of morality in anthropological thought and discussion has changed dramatically. After a few early contributions that are clearly part of the contemporary conversation (e.g. Faubion 2001a, Laidlaw 2002, Lambek 2000, and Parish 1994), a light drizzle of preliminary interest has become more of a storm. And unlike fields of study that develop steadily and deliberately (as, for example, I imagine the field of medical anthropology to have developed, at least as its growth appears from the distance I have observed it), the anthropology of morality has emerged with impressive speed but without much in the way of intellectual organization to guide it. Once a few anthropologists put morality on the table as a topic, it suddenly seemed as if almost all of their fellows found they had something to add, and many people have been quick to jump in. Michael Lambek’s (2010) recently published edited collection Ordinary Ethics has twenty contributors, while Didier Fassin’s (2012) A Companion to Moral Anthropology has 38. A few contributors to each volume are from other disciplines, but even so, when one considers that only three contributors appear in both volumes, and that several important or emerging figures appear in neither (e.g. Charles Hirschkind, Cheryl Mattingly, Anand Pandian, Douglas Rogers, and China Scherz), it is not hard to read the existence of these two volumes as conveying a sense of how broad the anthropology of morality has become during the first several years of its existence.

Reasons for the rapid growth of the anthropology of morality are perhaps not far to seek. For one thing, it participates in a wider turn toward issues of morality in the humanities and social sciences in the post-Cold War era, encompassing fields from literary studies to sociology (e.g. Garber and Walkowitz 2000, Hitlin and Vaisey 2010). For another, there is a bit of Moliere’s Mr. Jourdaine discovering he has been speaking prose all of his life at work here; the fact that anthropologists have, as noted above, long attended to moral phenomenon in their descriptive practice, means that once they are made aware that such phenomenon have become a legitimate topic of theoretical discussion, many of them have found they have something relevant to contribute. And finally, to this point the field is so wide-open that there is little by way of a theoretical canon a would-be contributor needs to master before jumping in. For the moment, at least, start up costs for joining the conversation are low and the field of the anthropology of morality is one in which a thousand flowers are blooming.

I doubt I am alone in finding the currently frontier-like quality of discussion in the anthropology of morality productive and exciting. But perhaps I am also not alone in imagining that if it is to be more than a fad – a fast burning fire to which almost everyone can add at least one piece of writing as fuel before it peters out – it will need to develop some more sustained intellectual debates and some more established (though not necessarily compatible) theoretical positions that set out central issues a large number of contributors find it useful to address. To be sure, we already have some such position-establishing contributions. For example, those by Laidlaw (2002), Fassin (2008), Mahmood (2005), and Zigon (2007) among others have already generated some significant debate. My point is only that the field will need to deepen its engagement with such foundational works, and foster the development of others, if it is to move from its current stage of immense early promise to one that would see it become an enduring feature of the anthropological landscape.

James Faubion’s An Anthropology of Ethics is precisely the kind of work that can contribute to the consolidation of such an emerging area of study. The open nature of discussion in the anthropology of morality is clearly on Faubion’s mind, as he more than once notes that his is only one of many contributions to this young field – it is “an anthropology” of ethics, not the only one that is possible or necessary (13, 270-271). But his appropriate sense of modesty has not prevented Faubion from offering a sustained presentation of a distinct way of studying ethics anthropologically. He takes his starting point from Foucault’s late work on ethics. This is the Foucault who famously distinguishes between ethical codes and forms of subjectivation, and who makes a fourfold distinction between ethical substance, mode of subjection, ethical work, and ethical telos. As this Foucault is widely known among anthropologists, there is no need to summarize Faubion’s summary of his work here. But Faubion not only presents the most thorough and cogent account of Foucault’s approach that we have in anthropology (an account enhanced by his sound grasp of the ancient Greek materials with which Foucault worked out his position), he also draws on other figures, most notably Niklas Luhmann and Max Weber, to go beyond Foucault in a number of explicit ways. It is the more unique aspects of Faubion’s account I want to focus on here, pointing along the way to their links with and differences from other work in the anthropology of morality.


One of the more surprising features of the anthropology of morality as it has developed to date has been a preoccupation with issues of freedom. Indeed, discussion in this area has been grounded at least as much in the distinction between the free and the constrained as it has been in those between the good and the bad or the right and wrong. In what has likely been the single most widely influential contribution to current discussion about ethics within anthropology, Laidlaw (2002), also drawing in part on Foucault, put the theme of freedom front and center, and it retains that place in Faubion’s work. For Foucault, as Faubion (36) both tells us and accepts as part of his own project, the ethical is ‘a domain of the development of one or another competent and conscious exercise of the practice of freedom’. Where there is no freedom, by both ‘analytic fiat’ and ‘our common opinion’ we are ‘outside of the ethical domain’ (37). On this account, it makes no sense to talk about the ethics of a slave whose agency is exhaustively determined by a master (37). Similarly, if radical notions of the sociological or biological determinism of human behavior were to prove correct, then our talk of ethics in the study of human beings would be misplaced (38). In this scheme, one cannot raise the issue of ethics without raising that of freedom.

Yet raising the issue of freedom within anthropology is not as straightforward a task as it might seem. Anthropologists, like sociologists, have never rushed to embrace freedom as a topic (Bauman 1988, Robbins 2007). In response to the robust presence of notions of freedom in Western self-understandings, anthropologists have tended to be suspicious of it as potentially a very local and often profoundly ideological concern. Moreover, the discovery that in some ways people are not as free as Westerners at least sometimes imagine themselves to be has seemed like one of the real payoffs of our work, and an emphasis on the social patterning of action over the role of freedom in its production has seemed only natural. In keeping with this, those anthropologists who have moved toward making a notion of freedom crucial to their theoretical conception of ethics have been careful to avoid endorsing its most exaggerated, blue-sky, anything goes forms. Faubion, like Laidlaw before him, has found in Foucault a way to accomplish this. For Faubion, the Greek ethics Foucault discusses is not ‘an ethics grounded in the metaphysics of autonomy, or radical and absolute freedom’, but is instead defined by its placement of freedom within an encompassing web that includes the house and the polis and the relationships that constitute them. Greek freedom, like all of the kinds of freedom anthropologists generally want to discuss, is a socially situated and conditioned freedom – perhaps even a freedom that is culturally defined in any given case.

Having noted the care Faubion and others have taken to define the notions of freedom they use in ways that make it compatible with robust conceptions of the importance of society and culture in shaping social life, I might add that there is probably some value in allowing freedom to retain some of its potentially radical edge as we move toward considering its role in human life in cross-cultural terms. One of Louis Dumont’s (1980) signal contributions was to make explicit the argument that although human beings are everywhere socially created and embedded, only some cultures, those he labeled “holist,” foreground this fact and make it something everyone in society recognizes. We might similarly argue that people everywhere experience some freedom, but only certain societies have made this feature of human life one which routinely figures in the awareness of all of their members. The fact that it has primarily been Western societies and the philosophies they have spawned that have promoted freedom to this (overly) exalted position does not mean we cannot find it having a place elsewhere, just as society remains stubbornly influential in the West despite the widespread ignorance of (or hostility toward) its force. If the anthropology of ethics succeeds in directing some attention to those aspects of freedom that shape the lives of people we generally assume do not have it, this alone will count as the accomplishment of a real shift in the discipline.

Faubion makes several strong contributions toward conceptualizing freedom and its relationship to morality in ways that do not blunt the challenging nature of the concept. In keeping with his desire to avoid defining freedom as a wholly open-ended capacity, he distinguishes between two forms of what he calls ‘ethical autopoiesis’, a process he understands as one of ‘the becoming and maintenance of the ethical subject’ (20). One of these forms of ethical autopoiesis is inventive, ready to adjust action to novel circumstances in the actor’s environment (a set of ideas that have their roots in Faubion’s engagement with Luhmann’s systems theory). The other is more ‘homeostatic and reproductive’, tending to instantiate patterns of action that are normative in the society concerned (20). Borrowing the Greek term themitos (which he cites Liddell and Scott’s English-Greek Lexicon as defining as ‘allowed by the laws of the gods and of men, righteous’), Faubion calls this more reproductive form of ethical action the ‘themitical’ (24). An important point I read Faubion as making by way of this discussion is that it is not inventive action alone that is part of ethical autopoiesis, though I must confess that sometimes he seems to come close to suggesting this (e.g. 114-15). Themitical action too can be produced by means of the ethical practice of freedom. As Faubion notes, his account in some respects tacks close to Jarret Zigon’s (2007) influential distinction between morality as a kind of relatively unconscious going on in moral life and moments of moral breakdown as ones in which people undertake creative ethical work in order to return to a state of smooth moral practice. But Faubion wants to avoid Zigon’s suggestion that the themitical comes about only as an outcome of unconscious behavior, or that the two modes of ethical action are opposed (20, 85). I have also floated a somewhat cognate distinction between the ethics of reproduction and that of freedom, figuring their relationship in terms closer to Faubion’s. Zigon has criticized my argument from the point of view of his own (Robbins 2007, 2009, Zigon 2009a, 2009b). Despite the differences between our positions, what all three of us share is a commitment to understanding the ethical domain as one that involves a kind of freedom that can be put in the service both of the adhering to normative expectations and to inventively going beyond them. The question of how to think about freedom in such terms is thus one around which debate is already growing apace in the anthropology of morality.

But Faubion’s account of freedom does not end with the distinction between the inventive and the themitical. Rather, this distinction lays the groundwork for one of Faubion’s most striking arguments, an argument that does much to keep his sensible, socially-bounded notion of freedom from becoming so tame that it loses all of its potentially disruptive force as a new addition to the anthropological lexicon. Drawing on Max Weber’s concept of charisma, Faubion argues that we find in the social scientific record kinds of freedom the exercise of which at least intends to move beyond ethics (“beyond” here not in the sense of producing behavior that is unethical, but rather in the sense that it seeks to exist in a realm in which questions of ethics do not apply – in which ‘the divide between the anethical and the ethical domains…has yet to be made’) (81). This is the kind of freedom one finds in the exercise of charismatic authority. Such authority is thoroughly opposed to the themitical and so refuses evaluation in terms of the morality of standing routines. At the same time, it also expects the other to respond with complete obedience (84). In the exercise of this kind of radical charismatic freedom, only one subject is really free. We approach something like the situation of slavery here, and recalling that where there is no freedom there is no ethics, we can understand why, for Faubion, charismatic authority evidences a freedom beyond or before ethics. In this scheme, ethics only comes on the scene ‘at the moment at which the charismatic leader recognizes the charism of the other’ (86). It is this recognition of a creative potential in the other that is akin to one’s own which sets freedom to work amidst the play of inventive and themitical ethical action.

The charismatic moment at which a would-be leader exercises an absolute kind of freedom beyond ethics serves Faubion as what he several times calls a ‘primal scene’ (e.g. 81, 86). Out of this primal scene emerges a moral drama in which charismatic action is finally resolved into one or other form of the ethical practice of freedom. I read Faubion as using this argument to make the point that human beings know of the kind of radical freedom to which he sees the exercise of charismatic authority giving expression. The point is not that everyone has a concrete experience of exercising such freedom themselves or of coming into relation with the exercise of such freedom by others. Rather, it is that such freedom is at least conceivable to people in many places, a point made plausible by the broad cross-cultural use to which anthropologists have put Weber’s notion of charisma. It remains an open question whether the intuition of charismatic freedom is truly universal. Bryan Wilson (1975), in a book that deserves to be better known among anthropologists, has relevantly argued that the relative egalitarianism of many Melanesian societies has meant that creative movements such as cargo cults have tended to take shape within them without the benefit of charismatic leadership vested in single individuals (see also Robbins 2003). But even if there remains some room for caution regarding the range of applicability of Faubion’s notion of charismatic freedom, it remains a very fertile, anthropologically realistic image of radical freedom and a reminder that we will have to learn to look in new places, look to new “scenes” both primal and otherwise, if we want to produce a robust anthropology of freedom.

Having said this, I should note that producing such an anthropology of freedom is not Faubion’s sole motivation for exploring its charismatic form and the transformations by means of which it becomes a matter of ethical practice. Perhaps more key to his overall endeavor is the way the charismatic primal scene provides him with a beyond-ethical starting point that renders his anthropology of morality a resolutely processual affair. His is not primarily an account of ethical being or ethical decision making, but of how, given the possibility of living beyond ethics, a subject ever becomes ethical in the first place. His focus is on matters of ethical becoming. Such an emphasis on ethical becoming is common to all streams of virtue ethics, Aristotelian and later Foucaultian ones alike. These have had a strong influence on the anthropology of morality, and have made “self-cultivation” a key term of art within it. Against this background, Faubion’s discussion of the process of ethical becoming stands out as unusually thorough and well thought out in theoretical terms. It is to his contributions in this area that I turn next.

Becoming Ethical

In a move that lodges Faubion’s approach to ethics firmly within the social sciences, he defines the process of becoming ethical not as merely one of cultivating various virtues – though that is certainly a part of it – but also as one of coming to fully occupy specific ethical subject positions. The concept of the subject position is so widely used these days, one can if one wants leave it undefined and still communicate to anthropologists and others. And Faubion almost takes this tack, for attentive readers will continue to develop their sense of his use of the notion of subject position as the book unfolds. But even as the concept gathers depth throughout the book, Faubion does at times explicitly tell us some helpful things about it. Thus, for example, he notes that ethical subject positions allow for ‘the development of the practice of freedom on the part of their inhabitants’ (36). Many different subject positions in a society may be ethical ones in this respect, though perhaps not all (Faubion suggests the number is ‘not…unlimited’ – 36). Furthermore, an ethical subject position is not equivalent to what anthropologists have meant by a status or a role, though it does seem to comprehend some of what these concepts express and like them it is always ‘socially, culturally and historically specific’ (36, see also 13, 103). Finally, along with whatever conceptual overlap there may be between a status or role and an ethical subject position, there is also a part of the latter that goes beyond the normative demands of status occupancy and role performance, and this excess Faubion calls “identity” (13). More than just a sense of self, identity here has to with the subject’s recognition of his or her own creative autopoietic abilities.

Two of the primary concerns of Faubion’s approach to ethics lie at the heart of his complicated notions of subject position and identity. The first is the claim that one cannot occupy a subject position simply by themitically meeting normative expectations. Occupancy cannot be, or cannot only be, a matter of responding to duty, which I take Faubion to identify with meeting the demands of the simpler or more socially primitive phenomena of status and role. Beyond basic normative conformity, there is also the matter of the ways in which duties are met, and the way people respond to challenges that require them to make some changes to one or more of the subject positions they inhabit (45-46). ‘One’s duties are one matter; one’s values and the ideals to which one might aspire are often quite another’ (50). So, for example, in order to occupy the subject position of “free-born man” in ancient Athens, one had to cultivate the virtue of competent self-governance (sôfrosunê). One could also aspire to martial power, or to bravery or justness, though these were not required in the way self-governance was (52, 72). Striving toward ideals like these and aiming to fully realize the values they represent are aspects of action that in this model belong to the realm of freedom (both the freedom to act thematically in unfamiliar circumstances and that to act creatively) and hence to that of the construction of one’s identity.

The second issue Faubion tracks through his notion of subject position is the recurring theme of process. He is keen to stress that in real life subject positions take time to occupy, and often even more time to occupy well. By way of illustration, he notes that anthropology is not short of accounts of the difference between being a certain kind of kinsperson, say a mother’s brother, and being a “good” instance of the kind (65). The processes involved in coming to occupy a subject position well are ones we comprehend by means of such terms as ‘a subject “developing” itself or “becoming more deeply” itself or acquiring or discarding one or another dimension of itself – but without becoming someone or something else in the process’ (46). One thing Faubion has in his sights with this processual argument is Althusser’s famous model of interpellation, which makes the occupancy of subject positions an almost instantaneous matter, and one that leaves little room for freedom in how one lives out the positions to which one is interpolated (65-66). His critique is bracing and should be read by all of the very many of us who at one time or another teach Althusser’s text. Of more importance to Faubion’s own argument, however, is the way people’s need to develop over time into the occupants of ethical subject positions by means of more than simple themitical performance drives us even further toward a processual account of ethical becoming.

Faubion’s discussion of how people come to inhabit ethical subject positions goes well beyond those of Foucault and others inspired by him. Most notably, it places a strong emphasis on pedagogy, and thus on the role of the other in processes usually studied almost wholly in terms of the self’s work on itself. In keeping with the need for subjects to develop identities based on something other than mere adherence to the rules set by the subject positions they occupy, pedagogues do more than set out normative expectations. Beyond this, they serve as “exemplars” who convey images of how to live well (51-2). The pederastic lover in ancient Greece was thus subject to ethical evaluation on the basis of his pedagogic performance as an exemplar who would lead his young charge into ethical subjecthood (54). He should, Faubion follows Foucault in noting, be ‘a figure of already established ethical authority who is not merely worthy of emulation but also capable of serving at once as existential guide, psychological critic and practical advisor’ (55, drawing from Foucault 1997: 233-34). The anthropological record, Faubion goes on to point out, is full of such exemplary ethical masters, who appear in initiation rituals and other settings the world over. The recognition of their importance to processes of ethical becoming adds a much needed touch of sociological realism to our understanding of processes of self-cultivation that have hitherto often appeared to be almost solipsistic in the excessive inwardness and isolation they seem to encourage.

Faubion’s discussions of both pedagogy and exemplarity are fresh contributions to the anthropology of morality. Humphrey (1997), whom Faubion references, made a useful start on exploring the theoretical and empirical importance of exemplarity to ethics at the very beginning of the current wave of interest in the subject, and Faubion puts this issue front and center in the current debate in a useful way. Moreover, his argument is a timely one inasmuch as the role of the example in social life more generally is a topic of growing interest at present (Højer and Bandak n.d). Pedagogy too is a topic about which there has not quite been silence, but which deserves the kind of focused theoretical attention Faubion gives it. (In this regard, it is worth noting that some important and highly suggestive precedents for exploring ethical training in pedagogic relations can be found in research on child language socialization, where scholars have long taken up such concerns – see, for example, Schieffelin 1990, Ochs 1988). More generally, Faubion’s overall model of ethics as a matter of processes of coming to occupy ethical subject positions is one that lends itself well to ethnographic specification, a necessary feature of any theoretical formulation that is destined to have influence in anthropology.


In the second part of An Anthropology of Ethics, Faubion himself turns to demonstrating the ethnographic potential of his theory. Even before readers reach the second section, one of the quiet successes of the book (quiet in the sense that Faubion does not announce it) is the ethnographic sketch of ancient Greek ethics that emerges in piecemeal but nonetheless compelling fashion throughout its first, theoretical half. In fact, this is the only example of a traditional sociocultural-style ethnography the book contains. For the two ethnographies of the second section, entitled “Fieldwork in Ethics,” take the form of what Faubion calls “ethical bioethnographies” (210). They are life historical in form, though only one is focused on what anthropologists traditionally think of as a life. One hint as to why Faubion does not present his discussion of ancient Greek Ethics as an ethnography is that, in keeping with his emphasis on the importance of the interplay of the themitical and the inventive in ethics, he insists that ethnographies of ethics need to attend not only to the socially given aspects of particular subject positions, but also to the idiosyncrasies inhabitants of them develop as part of their ethical work on themselves. Since ancient Greek sources do not focus on such idiosyncrasies, it is impossible to derive the kind of account Faubion wants to offer on the basis of them (121). Instead, in the two chapters of the second section, he turns to two cases in which he has been personally involved in the research process and has been able to collect the kind of material his theoretical approach demands.

Both of Faubion’s ethnographic chapters make for compelling reading on their own. Rich in detail as well as theoretical reflection, it is not possible to summarize them here. Instead, I just briefly indicate their subject matter and consider some of the ways they served to push forward Faubion’s theoretical framework.

The first ethnographic chapter takes up the life of a contemporary Portuguese noble Fernando José Mascarenhas, the Marquis of Fronteira and Alorna. Confirming Faubion’s insistence that becoming an ethical subject involves not only normatively fitting into a status but also coming to occupy it well, much of Fernando’s life has been taken up with responding to his understanding that ‘being born into nobility is a condition of privileged possibility but…between the noble by birth and the good noble there can be every difference in the world’ (127). Faubion traces Fernando’s struggle to become a good noble through the course of his childhood, his education to the MA level in philosophy, his coming to play a role as a public intellectual and patron of the arts, and, most importantly, his adult assumption of responsibility for restoring and making accessible to the public Fronteira, the historically important palace and grounds he has inherited. This is an elegant life history. It can be read on its own, and one hopes it will be found by psychological and other kinds of anthropologists interested in this form of ethnographic writing and analysis, even if they are not particularly interested in questions of ethics. But in the context of the book, its most important feature is that it does capture the sense of constant movement and development (sometimes dramatic, often not), that is at the heart of Faubion’s conception of ethical autopoiesis as a processual phenomenon.

The second ethnographic chapter is similarly successful in conveying the developmental becoming of an ethical subject. The twist here is that the subject in question is not a single person, but is rather a relationship: the relationship between Faubion as fieldworker and Amo Paul Bishop Roden, a millenarian prophetess who claims rightful ownership of the remains of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas and who was the subject of one of Faubion’s previous books (2001b). Faubion traces the history of this relationship, including the separate ethical formations that brought Ms. Roden and himself together and the development of their relationship as a productive autopoietic subject in its own right. If the chapter on Fernando Mascarenhas brings an ethical approach to life history analysis, this chapter brings an ethical life-historical approach to the by now traditional reflexive fieldwork account. Given how tired this genre has grown over the years, Faubion’s ability to breath new life into it has to be acknowledged. It also suggests, among other things, one way the new anthropology of morality might be able to intersect with the longer-standing disciplinary concern with fieldwork ethics.

As impressive as are the ethnographic chapters of An Anthropology of Ethics, one imagines that for its theoretical program to fully catch on, Faubion or someone else will have to show how it can provide more than the foundation for a new kind of anthropological biography. Can it underwrite the production of ethnographies of more traditional scope? My sense is that it can. For example, Douglas Rogers’ (2009) impressive historical and contemporary ethnographic account of changing ethical regimes in the Russian Urals would provide a lot of grist for the mill of someone interested in putting Faubion’s approach to use in cases beyond his own. Attentive to how people are socialized into ethical subject positions (particularly because among the faction of Orthodox Old Believers he studies these positions change dramatically over the life course), and also rich in material concerning the way those he studies have had to deploy ethical creativity to adapt to changing circumstances, Rogers is attuned to some of Faubion’s key issues and follows them out through the course of a full-length ethnographic work. Rogers has his own theoretical concerns of course, and my suggestion is not that Faubion’s should replace them. I merely want to point out how, on the basis of Rogers’ work, one can quite concretely imagine the kind of longer and broader ethnographic analyses Faubion’s approach would be able to support.


Relativism is a final concern of Faubion’s book that demands some attention here.

Ever since Laidlaw’s 2002 article, there has been a more or less accepted story about why anthropologists have disregarded the subject of ethics until quite recently. As this story has it, Durkheim, or the standard reading of Durkheim in anthropology, made us do it. Because Durkheim defined all properly social action as ethical, anthropologists could assume that everything they studied was ethical, and thus that issues of ethics needed no special attention of their own.

I think there is much truth to the historical argument that lays the blame for this history of anthropological neglect at the feet of Durkheim . But there is also room to explore other reasons for it that might have acted in tandem with this one. Perhaps, for example, during its relativist heyday (for which Geertz’s Anti-Anti-Relativism turned out to represent the Owl of Minerva taking flight), anthropologists found it convenient to set questions of morality aside. There are two possible reasons for this. First, when applied to morality, relativism might have been too morally tricky for anthropologists to comfortably handle. They certainly seem to have found conceptual relativism much easier to address. Second, it may be the case that moral injunctions vary too little across cultures to be of great interest from a relativist perspective. Foucault (1990: 32) some time ago suggested that moral codes vary relatively little, at least compared to how much variation one finds in the way people become moral subjects. And at least to this point, the main action in the new anthropology of morality has not involved finding exotic versions of moral codes (though as in so many areas of research these days, recent work from Amazonia promises to keep anthropological scholars of morality from becoming too complacent in this regard – see, for example, Londoño Sulkin’s [2012] recent discussion of a Colombian Amazonian society in which moral attention is primarily focused on guiding how people integrate into themselves the moral “speeches” of various cultigens while protecting themselves from inhabitation by the flawed moral speeches and perspectives of various kinds of animals). One imagines that perhaps in the past as well, the fact that there are fewer easy pickings for scholars of cultural difference in the moral domain than in others may have deterred anthropologists from turning to it with great frequency.

As it happens, I am inclined to find more promise in research into cultural difference, and even in some kinds of relativist arguments, than seems to be common these days. But even so, it is hard not to acknowledge that this kind of work is not thick on the ground in the anthropology of morality, and that its rise to prominence has come only in a period during which the mainstream of anthropology has for the most part set questions of relativism aside. I mention all this because one of Faubion’s most original and surprising arguments provides a theoretically principled account of why anthropologists of ethics positively should consider the limits of cultural variation and of the relativist arguments that draw on such variation for support.

Faubion’s argument about the limits of variation in the ethical sphere derives from his engagement with Luhmann’s systems theory. His discussions of Luhmann in the book are much less sustained than those of Foucault, and I do not bring to my reading the kind of background knowledge that might flesh them out. But when it comes to questions of variation, the broad outlines at least are clear. Luhmann is a functionalist who insists that all social systems must be designed in such a way that they can autopoietically produce themselves out of the resources they have available. Anthropologists have demonstrated to Faubion’s satisfaction that ‘human beings can elaborate codes at a far remove from the stubborn this-worldly requirements and constraints of sustainable autopoiesis’ (92). But analysts need to identify such ethical systems as failures in this respect, and are, at least I read Faubion as implying, bound to recognize them as of somewhat limited anthropological interest.

As an example of an unworkable ethical system, Faubion offers the case of the pessimist philosopher Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann, who lived in Berlin during the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. On Faubion’s account, Hartmann claimed that happiness was not an attainable human goal. On the basis of this conclusion, he argued that ‘the only fully rational course of human action consists in the radical pursuit of non-action, and not least in the non-action of a passive genocide, a refusal to reproduce, that would leave the world free of human striving and human suffering’ (92). Hartmann is little read today, Faubion argues, not because his thought is ‘incoherent’, but because it is ‘autopoietically bankrupt’ (92).

The functional impossibility of Hartmann’s ethics is clear enough, but when used as an example his system suffers from being one person’s ideal, not a formulation by which any co-present group of people has tried to live. Yet Faubion’s broader point about attending to the ethical limits at which social life may no longer be possible can be treated ethnographically as well. Yan (2009, 2011) has recently described a new form of social interaction in China whereby people who have been injured in accidents sue innocent bystanders who, acting as Good Samaritans, help deliver them to the hospital. The injured parties raise their claims on the basis of the argument that surely those who offered aid would not have done so unless they themselves were responsible for the accident. It seems that often such suits are successful, with the Good Samaritans finding themselves liable to pay fines. This new form of social interaction, Yan argues, significantly erodes trust and encourages a shift toward a society where no one is prepared to help anyone who is in distress. The practice of suing Good Samaritans is thus one, Yan suggests, that would in Faubion’s terms weaken the autopoietic sustainability of Chinese ethical life in significant ways. Those who work in Papua New Guinea might wonder if there can be societies that attribute responsibility for injury in ways that are somewhat similar to the one Yan describes and still manage to survive as living ethical systems, for in many societies there one can be at least somewhat liable for injuries that occur in situations where one was present primarily to support the injured party in the project they originally set out to accomplish. But nonetheless, Yan’s discussions of the Good Samaritan problem raise in concrete social terms precisely the kinds of issues Faubion’s arguments about the functioning of ethical systems commend to our attention.

Very few anthropologists these days make frankly functionalist arguments in the way Faubion does here. In such a climate, it is important to be clear about the nature and limits of the functionalism he proposes. This is a functionalism of limits, not primarily of requirements – it is more like the ecological possibilism that eventually came to dominate cultural ecology than like the environmental determinism that preceded it. In the realm of ethics, at least in anthropology, this is a novel kind of argument. It is a common philosophical move to explore the minimum necessary ethical components of social life (Habermas is a well known example; for another example from a philosophically minded sociologist, see Joas 2000: Chapter 10). This is not the tack Faubion takes. Rather, he maintains an interest in variation, but one that holds that there are functional limits to it. Put otherwise, in Faubion’s scheme there are many possible ways to do ethics, but there are some that simply do not work. What we are left with is an anthropologist of ethics who ‘is not and cannot be merely…[a] functionalist’, but who ‘should not hesitate to be one when functionalist assessment is as inescapable’ as it is in a case like Hartmann’s (93). Whether or not one follows Faubion in finding in this argument a solution to anthropological problems of relativism, it deserves attention both for the way it steers us to concrete investigations like those Yan has carried out, and for its recognition of and attempt to address the disquiet issues of relativism seem to have long raised when anthropologists turn toward studying morality.


I hope to have said enough here to indicate that Faubion’s book is an important contribution to the emerging anthropology of ethics and morality. It is precisely the kind of strong theoretical statement upon which the future success of this area of research will have to build. By way of very brief conclusion, I want to return to Faubion’s assertion that his is “an” anthropology of ethics – one that he never intended to stand as the only one the field might need. This is important, because there are many issues Faubion, and others who like him work in the broadly virtue ethical tradition, do not take up. These include a whole passel of questions around moral conflict and moral choice. Ever since Aristotle, the tendency within virtue ethics has been to imagine that the various virtues one ought to cultivate work well together (Slote 2011). This means a life well lived need not feature too many hard decisions and tragic choices between competing goods. But there is clearly room for the anthropology of ethics also to constitute itself as an ethics of decision making (Humphrey 2008). One strength of Zigon’s (e.g. 2009a) approach to looking at periods of moral breakdown is that it tends to cast ethnographic light precisely on the moments, even very humble ones, when people develop themselves as ethical subjects by weighing options and considering different rationales for what they might do. My point is not that an anthropology of ethics devoted to studying matters of choice and decision-making ought to replace the kind of study of ethical development Faubion has so productively laid out in his book. It is rather that even as we need ambitious statements like his, we need more than one of them. Learning to put a range of such approaches into play in coordinated fashion is one of the great tasks facing this new field as it moves forward.


I thank James Laidlaw and Rupert Stasch for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.


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