Ethics & Anthropology

Professor Tom WIlliamson


Anthropology is the holistic study of the human experience.  The discipline includes biological anthropology (human evolution, adaptation, genetics, and relation to non-human primates), linguistics (the origins of language, social use of language, language structure, and translation), archaeology (the study of ancient history and the recent past through material remains), and cultural anthropology (the study of human diversity in terms of social structures and systems).  That makes for a big agenda!  You might think of anthropology as a discipline that bridges such domains as psychology, biology, history, political science, economics, philosophy, and religion.


Before we turn to anthropology and ethics, two key points.  First, anthropology is a field science, such that anthropologists of all stripes like to research while embedded in a particular context.  Anthropologists think abstractly and develop theories, but they insist that these be tested in actual lived experience.  Whether this is an excavation site, a baboon community, a recorded conversation, or participant observation in a neighborhood, anthropologists study in a hands-on fashion.  Second, anthropology ranges broadly.  While many disciplines have a primary familiarity with the Western tradition, anthropologists look for insight from all the world’s societies.  Rather than working mostly among the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic), anthropologists are familiar with indigenous communities, nonliterate traditions, subsistence producers, as well as the poor and the marginalized.  Anthropological reasoning therefore considers the grand sweep of human experience and seeks inspiration from the greatest possible range of human communities.


Thus it is not surprising that anthropologists have had a lot to say about ethics.  Whether in terms of religious traditions, social norms, customs, and taboos, anthropologists have written extensively about the diverse ways that human beings evaluate and regulate behavior and belief.  In fact encountering this diversity has encouraged anthropologists to use relativism as a crucial tool in understanding different possibilities.  Anthropologists, through many painful mistakes, have learned that rapid judgment about a particular practice or value can be a huge impediment to understanding it.  Across time and space such things as marriage customs, bodily modification, dietary practices, or mortuary rites can and do vary greatly among human communities.  The meanings in these specific practices are deeply felt.  A snap judgment by an outsider is arrogant and blocks communication.


To take a pointed example, consider female genital cutting (note that even the terminology is controversial – in English, some critics feel that this should be described as “genital mutilation”).  An anthropological understanding of the ethics involved would include extended study and conversation about the reasons and meaning behind the practice.  Such work would quickly find that FGC / FGM is far from a singular thing, but rather a range of practices done differently in different places.  It would also reveal that communities where it is practiced do not have a singular perspective on its continuation or its import.  A crucial task for an ethnographer is to track the range of such views.  Anthropologists studying such an issue would also consult the ethnographic record of bodily modification in other contexts.  It is fascinating, for instance, to compare FGC / FGM with male genital cutting / mutilation, or for that matter the recent popularity of labiaplasty.  Anthropologists ask how these practices are similar or different, and how  ideas about sexuality, gender, embodiment, and individual autonomy shape how we evaluate them.


Such methodological relativism helps the anthropologist to understand an ethical issue prior to proclaiming a judgment about it.  This is itself an ethical claim, for anthropologists argue that as outsiders they are obliged to resist the human temptation to condemn the strange in favor of the familiar.  In fact we anthropologists sometimes explain our charge as making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.  But this is not meant to say that anthropologists are consistent relativists, because such a stand is not logically coherent.  Anthropology as a discipline is replete with ethical claims about how to practice anthropological research and how to represent difference (see above!).  The American Anthropological Association itself maintains a rigorous code of ethics. Anthropologists argue consistently against exploitation and the degradation of human dignity, and argue for the protection of marginalized individuals and communities (among many possible ethical claims).  In anthropology relativism is a tool for understanding, not an end in itself.  Clifford Geertz used to joke that anthropologists were not so much for relativism, as they were anti-anti-relativism.  Such a statement testifies to the complexities of encountering and engaging seriously with difference.


Given how anthropologists work deeply in particular places and groups (the time it takes to study languages, learn histories, create connections) it is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists have not made grand statements about ethics in general.  That is, until relatively recently.  Here I will highlight several newly published books where anthropologists reflect more broadly on what the discipline might teach us about the ethical.  The first is Michael Lambek’s 2010 edited volume Ordinary Ethics:  Anthropology, Language, and Action.  Lambek argues that the book’s title claims that ethics is basic to the human condition.  He writes that “human beings cannot avoid being subject to ethics, speaking and acting with ethical consequences, evaluating our actions and those of others, acknowledging and refusing acknowledgement, caring and taking care, but also being aware of our failure to do so consistently” (Lambek, 1).  He elaborates that the ordinariness of ethics comes in its tacit quality.  Ethics, he says, are “grounded in agreement rather than rule, in practice rather than knowledge or belief, and happening without calling undue attention to itself” (Lambek, 2).  He explains that ethics becomes explicit only in particular instances, at breach moments or in hotly contested issues, amid prophetic or renewal movements, or among priestly classes.

Lambek’s contributors explicate these claims through the analysis of case studies that range from the Amazon, to Abu Ghraib, Australia and London.


The second is Webb Keane’s 2015 book The Ethical Life:  Its Natural and Social Histories.  Keane picks up on Lambek’s work and examines how ethics emerges in linguistic practice and concepts of the person.  Where Lambek’s contributors are interested in engaging with philosophers and theologians, Keane is curious how anthropologists might make sense of the ethical claims made by psychologists and neuroscientists (for instance that humans are “hard-wired” for such things as fairness and norm enforcement).  He says that he “aims to open up a more productive relationship between disciplines that stress diversity and change on a historical scale, on the one hand, and those that stress universality and change on an evolutionary scale, on the other” (Keane 31).  Like Lambek, Keane argues that ethics is an everyday part of human life.  Unlike my dramatic and clichéd example of bodily modification (of genitals, no less!), Keane’s sociolinguistic training makes him interested in how ethics emerges through subtle shifts of language and context.


He gives a fascinating example (one that comes from the political theorist Don Herzog) about the English-language concept of condescension.  In 17th century England, to condescend to another was a gesture of kindness.  An aristocrat might condescend to servants by eating food with them.  Given that this violated social hierarchies, the gesture showed the aristocrat’s willingness to make an egalitarian gesture toward inferiors.  Three centuries later, in a U.K. that celebrates social equality, condescension takes on a starkly different meaning.  Highlighting one’s condescension no longer appears kind.  This “action under a description” shows us how ethical behavior can be contingent on local meanings and historical setting.  Keane concludes that such an example “suggests that there cannot in principle be a generic or universal moral emotion such as anger, since it will be necessarily be shaped by historically specific prompts, targets, and descriptions” (Keane, 245).  This claim is a programmatic statement made by a practitioner whose discipline is wary of the programmatic.


Anthropologists are deeply committed to learning through conversation.  Anthropological research is an endless series of conversations where one is attempting to find out the limits of one’s assumptions and the stretch of human possibility.  A particularly lovely example also appears in Keane’s book.  Psychologists have emphasized the ethical importance of a reciprocity of perspectives.  A crucial part of human development is to gain a “theory of mind,” recognizing that others have thoughts and that one can imagine what those might be.  Deft psychological research shows that human beings develop a theory of mind at a young age.  How curious, then, to account for well-functioning human communities whose members claim not to have a theory of mind, who assert that claiming to know the intentions of others is in fact dangerous?  What kind of ethical claim is this, that seems to contradict a basic human affordance for ethics itself?  You can read the relevant anthropological studies (Danziger 2006, Stasch 2008) or Keane’s book for more information about this, but the case sheds intriguing light on the anthropological angle for approaching ethics, one with space for continued surprise about what it means to be human.


Another example comes from Liisa Malkki’s 2015 book, The Need to Help:  The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism.  Malkki is interested in an extreme instance, the experience of Finnish Red Cross volunteers who serve in disaster areas and war zones.  These physicians and nurses are adamant that they do not do their work for humanitarian reasons.  In fact, several of them argue that those who volunteer to “save the world” quickly burn out.  The sustainable way to do such challenging service, they say, is to be a professional, a good nurse or doctor rather than a good person.  By embedding themselves in a professional sensibility the volunteers are able to focus on the task at hand and effectively help those who need helping.  Malkki finds in her interviews that “they worked on Red Cross missions to make a contribution as good doctors, nurses, and other professionals, and to do what they could in situations that frequently overwhelmed them” (Malkki, 38).  Such conversations expand our sense of how and why human beings negotiate their ethical commitments.


Anthropologists strive to understand ethics through the lived experience of actual communities, recognizing that concepts and values can change over time.  If philosophers privilege the thought experiment, anthropologists linger on the ethnographic example (anthropologists love the phrase “for example”!).  Here is one last one to consider.  Philosophers have used the “trolley problem” for many decades to illustrate intriguing ethical dilemmas (see “thought experiments” on this site for more).  As is characteristic of such artificial experiments, it posits an autonomous individual working among other autonomous individuals.  It is also a mode most palatable to those comfortable with abstraction (university students are used to such puzzles and often respond to them as a game).  However when anthropologists have tried out the trolley problem in cultural contexts where individualism and abstraction is not dominant, they have run into significant problems (for instance, respondents wanting to know if the people involved are kin or not).  Rather than a mundane exercise, Maurice Bloch’s Malagasy respondents found the “trolley problem” to be a grave matter that required considerable deliberation (2012:65)


The point here is not to suggest that one perspective is better than the other, because ethnographic examples are their own kind of thought experiment.  Rather I would suggest that all considerations of ethics offer illumination and shadow.  Indeed St. Olaf’s EIN program argues that the academy should approach ethics from varied angles and positions.  The introduction to St. Olaf’s “Guide to Ethics” explains that “We are motivated not only by our appreciation of non-Christian ethical positions and traditions, but also our belief that Christians committed to ethical reflection need to appreciate the importance and challenge of other traditions. This site is therefore committed to fruitful interchange of reflection on values significant across cultures and religions.”  The site includes reflection on ethics from many academic disciplines (ranging from psychology to social work) and on numerous topics (from sports to sexuality).  We can better understand the deeply human ethical predisposition through a cross-disciplinary conversation, one that ranges widely across place and time.  If it is not too annoying for me to claim, such an approach is itself highly anthropological!

-Professor Tom Williamson, St. Olaf College




Bloch, Maurice.  2012.  Anthropology and the cognitive challenge.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.


Danziger, Eve.  2006.  The thought that counts:  Interactional consequences of variation in cultural theories of meaning.  In Roots of human sociality:  Culture, cognition, and human interaction, ed. N.J. Enfield and Stephen C. Levinson, 259-278.  Oxford:  Berg.


Keane, Webb.  2015.  The ethical life:  Its natural and social histories.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.


Lambek, Michael.  2010.  Introduction.  In Ordinary ethics:  Anthropology, language, and action, ed. Michael Lambek, 1-36.  New York:  Fordham University Press.


Malkki, Liisa.  2015.  The need to help:  The domestic arts of international humanitarianism.  Durham:  Duke University Press.


Stasch, Rupert.  2008.  Knowing minds is a matter of authority:  Political dimensions of opacity statements in Korowai moral psychology.  Anthropological Quarterly.  81(2):  443-454.