ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


When means and ends coincide: beyond 'utility'

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 1
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Evangelos Chrysagis (University of Edinburgh) email
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By drawing upon Adam Smith's critique of Hume's utilitarianism this panel focuses on everyday ethical conduct and the intrinsic virtuous nature of practices rather than their effects. In doing so, we aim to interrogate the role of anthropology in the study of ethics, but also 'as ethics'.

Long Abstract

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith argues that utility occupies a peripheral place in moral judgement. He insists that it is not the ends of actions that obtain our moral approval but the specific motives and dispositions that inform these actions. This principle, Smith claims, can be observed in all judgements about forms of conduct we approve of as virtuous. However, between the propriety and merit of any act lies the act itself. And for Smith it is only in particular examples that these qualities become discernible.

This panel aims to explore a variety of everyday practices and the ways in which ethical value is rooted in acts that do not necessarily pursue specific ends. From various kinds of performances to modes of sharing and forms of play, people engage in a multitude of practices that are considered virtuous in and of themselves. Instead of aiming towards specific outcomes, such practices acquire their ethical meaning through sheer participation.

Questions we will seek to address include: are the motives and dispositions, which compel subjects to engage in such practices, formed in practice? Why do we value the exercise of virtues more than their effects? What is the role of ethnography in documenting transient practices and how do we overcome relevant methodological and temporal limitations? Does the lack of utility of certain forms of everyday conduct reveal something about how anthropology should approach ethics and morality? Conversely, in what ways can anthropology be conceived of as intrinsically ethical?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The sharing economy hoax

Author: Thomas Widlok (University of Cologne)  email


The “sharing economy” discourse presents itself as a moral solution to the current and future problems of human economic relations and for sustainable human-environment relationships. On the basis of the anthropology of sharing and of ethics this paper argues that the “sharing economy” trend is a hoax.

Long Abstract

Enlightenment ideas about utility have been made cornerstones of theories of social behaviour (such as Optimal Forager Theory) but particularly in anthropology they continue to be criticized (for instance in exchange theory) as being inadequate for the analysis of meaningful agency. I suggest to take these ideas as what they are, first and foremost, namely ideas about imagined worlds rather than descriptions of the true world around us. Even if we reach consensus that human relations are not solely governed by notions of utility, it is now hard to analyze them without reference to what they would look like if they were. Conversely, actions or things that are useful as means (and little more than that) are hard to sell, literally, unless they are presented with reference to goals and ends with an intrinsic value. In this paper I discuss whether these two processes are likely to be inevitable flip sides of one another or whether they are subject to a historical developmental tendency. The domain I am looking at is sharing, in particular the recent rise of a discourse that proclaims the rise of a "sharing economy" that promises a moral and sustainable solution to problems of consumption and distribution. In the light of the broader anthropology of sharing the current "sharing economy" and "co-consumption" discourse can be best described as a hoax that disguises exchange as sharing and that falsely portraits the increasing commercialization of life as equally beneficial to all partners involved in the exchange.

Eating (others) well: reflections on activist ethics

Author: Fiona Wright (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper draws on a Levinasian approach to ethics in an ethnography of Israeli left-wing activism, arguing that ethical relations involve a certain objectification of others, revealing the imperfect and even violent nature of the ethical.

Long Abstract

This paper argues for the need to extend our attention not only beyond utility, but also beyond virtue, in the anthropological study of ethics. Drawing on a Levinasian approach to ethics, which places the troubled nature of relations with others at the core of a conception of the ethical, I argue that ethical relations involve a certain objectification of others, revealing the imperfect and even violent side of ethics. This argument is based on an ethnography of Jewish Israeli left-wing activism, which reveals not only the conflicted nature of the ethical subject, whose self-mastery as virtuous is thus placed in question, but also the ways in which ethical relations inevitably compromise the 'good' or 'virtuous' aspects of activist subjectivity. In particular I reflect on activist practices and discourses of care and love for various human others (Palestinians, and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan), and consider the political dimension of such ethical relationships. This attention to violence and politics in relation to ethics may be a central feature of anthropology's contribution to questions traditionally addressed by philosophers, as the lived and imperfect quality of ethical response to others in the world can become visible in ethnographically rich studies. In conclusion I refer to Derrida's notion of 'eating well' to propose an anthropological approach to the ambivalent and contradicted nature of ethics as a relation with otherness.

Invisibility as ethics: play and the making of relatedness in Maranhão

Author: Matan Shapiro (University of Haifa)  email


I focus on the emotional dimensions of ethical personhood as they manifest through forms of play in the Brazilian state of Maranhão. I argue that through play persons ‘bend’ moral boundaries and constitute the public invisibility of certain actions as an ethical practice in its own right.

Long Abstract

In this paper I explore the playful and often paradoxical ways by which residents of a low-income neighborhood in the Brazilian state of Maranhão attempt to reconcile mutually-exclusive ethical prescriptions. On the one hand, both men and women locally consider the expression of desire, rage, longing and other emotive dispositions as the provenance of autonomy and freedom. On the other hand, persons stress the indispensability of complaisance, 'respect' and deference in the structural maintenance of abiding social hierarchies. Based on 20 months of fieldwork, I argue that through prevalent forms of play persons locally sustain an image of ethical personhood from the point of view of both these modalities simultaneously. I demonstrate ethnographically that play in Maranhão mainly consists in performances of jealousy, anguish, mockery and seduction. Since these forms of play regularly include a measure of simulation, double-standard, or even outright deceit; they enable persons to shift the ethical boundaries of mundane encounters. Consequently, play-forms render 'invisible' those actions that challenge conventional moral injunctions. In low-income Maranhão the mundane production of such 'invisibility' is predictable, and it therefore becomes intrinsic to the proliferation of intimate relations as an ordinary ethical practice in its own right.

Ecological art as ethical praxis

Author: Jennifer Clarke (Robert Gordon University )  email


This paper aims to show how environmental art connects with issues of general anthropological concern, and proposes that particular ethical positions and ethical action can be conveyed as a praxis response to environmental crisis, through art.

Long Abstract

This paper explores issues in contemporary 'ecological' art in relation to anthropology and ethics. It describes the work and positions of two British contemporary ecological artists and my collaborations and engagement with them and their work, which are perhaps excellent examples of "acts that do not necessarily pursue specific ends". Drawing on philosophy and politics, in the contexts of working with and in forests and with people and trees, the paper presents an analysis of artists' approaches to ecology.

My argument focuses on doing anthropology with (or withs) art and artists, rather than of art, an approach explored through the idea of an 'ecology of practices'. I describe key encounters with these artists in relation to specific places and ideas, with regard to the notion of creative work as ethical work, considering conversation, drawing 'in and from the field', and disciplinary boundaries between art and anthropology, to show how the researcher actively creates a field of inquiry, and then follows it. In doing so, I explore what it means to work creatively 'with' ones counterparts, and what art does, in ethical terms - as a praxis response to ecological crisis.

Music practice as ethics

Author: Evangelos Chrysagis (University of Edinburgh)  email


The recent resurgence of interest in ethics within anthropology lacks an ethnographic focus on music practices. This paper argues that studying the ethical in terms of the musical provides empirical credence to the idea that ethical means should not necessarily be distinguished from ends.

Long Abstract

Anthropology has not been unique in its preoccupation with the ethical, forming part of a wider postwar turn to ethics in the humanities and social sciences. Foucault's schema of ethical self-cultivation, among others, has variably influenced several recent approaches, while his ideas are also echoed or directly taken up in a range of notable ethnographic monographs that grapple with ethical projects. Despite the thematic pluralism, there is no ethnographic work engaging with music. This is odd considering that several anthropologists have alluded to the ways in which music and sound are related to ethics but also how music practices exemplify central ideas and paradoxes about ethical cultivation.

I suggest that music as a non-teleological field of action is particularly conducive to the ethnographic study of technologies of the self and epitomizes a conception of practice in which means and ends are conjoined. In doing so, I intend to go beyond the proposition that music is simply an additional way of ethnographically studying ethics. My aim is to attend to how music can uniquely contribute to our understanding of how ethical subjects come to be formed. This contribution is distinctively 'musical' because it seeks to examine not only how music 'fits' within an anthropology of ethics but how, if at all, we can come up with musical ways to think about ethics as a relational phenomenon.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.