ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(Plen06)

Moral sentiments: finding again anthropology's moral voice and vision

Location Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 16:00

Convenors

Nigel Rapport (St. Andrews University) email
Huon Wardle (St. Andrews University) email
Mail All Convenors

Summary

What are the origins of moral human behaviour and how can these be given a universal authority? How does recognition of fellow human beings and extending 'sympathy' towards them and the institutionalising of humane norms of social interaction actually take place?

Long Abstract

Mobility, egalitarianism and free choice of identity have better prospects in the modern world than they had in the past', Ernest Gellner argued. Yet establishing this as a set of universal moral propositions, as opposed to a merely fortunate outcome of the rise of Western liberalism, has raised difficulties. A solution might take anthropology back to its Enlightenment roots. Kant, and Hume both sought to formulate universal moralities. For Hume, impartial feeling was key: to treat all like cases in a like way. For Kant, reason was key: to be moral was to abide by rules and make no exceptions. For both Hume and Kant, the need was to eschew the caprice, arbitrariness, ignorance and partiality of cultural specificities. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith deployed Hume's 'experimental method' (the appeal to human experience) but sought to refine his thesis of impartial feeling. The psychological motives behind a moral sense were multiple and 'interested', and found their essence in a 'principle of sympathy'. 'Sympathy' was the core of moral sentiments: the feeling-with-the-passions-of-others, arising from an innate desire to identify with others' emotions.

There is much here with which anthropology can interest itself. What can contemporary ethnography and anthropological theory deliver concerning the roots of a moral sensibility? How does recognition of fellow human beings and extending 'sympathy' towards them and the institutionalising of humane norms of social interaction actually take place? What are the origins of moral human behaviour and how can these be given a universal authority?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Who are we to judge? Three perspectives on morality and the absurdity of their coexistence

Author: Ronald Stade (Malmö University)  email

Summary

Moral issues can be considered from three vantage points: the first is prescriptive, the second descriptive and the third ascriptive. The prescriptive view claims that certain principles ought to guide human behaviour. The descriptive view is a ‘view from nowhere’. It can be found in the historical and social-scientific study of morality. The ascriptive perspective hypothesises that certain human qualities—for example, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes—provide the bedrock for morality.

What is the relationship between the three perspectives on morality? Can either (or some or all) of them supply a moral voice and vision for anthropology?

Long Abstract

None provided.

Literary ethnographic writing as sympathetic experiment

Author: Anne Line Dalsgård (Aarhus University)  email

Summary

Subjectivity—the enjoying of a first-person access to one’s own experiential life—is a basic condition of human life and, consequently, in anthropology. Whether we as anthropologists focus upon it or not, take it into account or not, subjectivity is our means of research and also our object (though perhaps only implicitly). Yet we have no direct access to the subjective world of others and can only inhabit their point of view by way of imagination. Writing literary-ethnographic texts is one way, I will argue, of experimenting with such sympathetic imagination. By putting together observed utterances, acts and also hesitations in an overtly fictive experiential whole (fictive because I can only guess it), I not only experiment with qualified guesses on what takes place in another person, I also make my own assumptions about the existence of such a whole explicit to the reader and myself and hence material for further reflection.

I do not propose a radical turn towards literary writing in anthropology. Rather, I suggest that we include the ‘courage of imagination’ that is inherent to literature, also the accompanying doubt, into our existing endeavours, if not for anything else, then for the sake of a more human relationship with our ‘informants’.

Long Abstract

None provided.

Westermarck, moral behaviour and ethical relativity

Author: David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)  email

Summary

This paper takes as its starting point the now neglected work of Edward Westermarck. Westermarck was a pioneering field researcher in Morocco, and Malinowski’s teacher at the LSE. He helped to create modern kinship through his History of Human Marriage. He was also the author of two major works on ethics: The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, and Ethical Relativity. Drawing on the Enlightenment philosophers, Hume and Adam Smith (but not Kant, whom he disliked), he attempted to develop a universal understanding of moral behaviour by arguing that morals are rooted in human emotions. Writing at a time when theories of relativism were not widely accepted, he claimed that understanding human behaviour in this way was liberating and did have universal application. Westermarck’s overall contribution has been greatly neglected; looking at his philosophical works provides one way in to a wider appreciation of his influence on the discipline, and whilst simultaneously permitting us to trace a further way that modern anthropology has been influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. Perhaps too, revisiting this early attempt at philosophical relativism enables us to reflect on possible solutions to the dilemmas we are invited to reflect upon in this panel.

Long Abstract

None provided.

Benevolence, empathy and individualism: Adam Smith’s morality then and now

Author: Diane Austin-Broos (University of Sydney)  email

Summary

Commonly anthropologists have taken the view that market society and private property are antithetical to the forms of value with which they are most concerned. Indeed to take an interest in capitalism’s social orders and its intimacies has often been construed as traitorous – not the purpose of ethnography as an enlightening pursuit.

The paradox in this position is that, as commercial capitalism has become a universal system, all peoples, not we alone, have been touched by it. We and others struggle with the market’s more hierarchical forms. Yet current critiques are inclined to overlook that even social democracies retain capitalism’s major institutions, while command economies bring their own concerns. The moral dilemmas that capitalism, commerce and private property raise are seldom treated with the seriousness they deserve.

This paper makes a start by comparing and contrasting ideas of the moral subject and private property reflected in two very different notions: Macpherson’s ‘possessive individualism’ and Adam Smith’s ‘beneficence’. Both provide accounts of the individual and property though one is negative and the other positive. Both are limited. Discussion will reference aspects of commercial life now and in the past. It will also consider recent discussions of ‘fairness’ as a different way to think about Smith’s ideas of empathy, beneficence, justice and self-interest.

Long Abstract

None provided.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.