- The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom by James Laidlaw
James Laidlaw is currently Head of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College. His regional interests cover South and East Asia (India, Bhutan, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan). The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (2014) springs from Laidlaw’s participation in “Ethics at the intersection of moral philosophy and anthropology,” a seminar at the Cambridge University Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, where he was a fellow.
Anthropologists tend not to engage with the ethical components of a culture, in large part because their aim is to focus on social relations, and ethical concepts operate at the level of the individual. Moral philosophers work at this level of the individual, with special interest in motivations, judgments, dispositions, moral intuitions, and actions. Explicating these aspects of the individual is one challenge moral philosophers face in the absence of a full theory of autonomy, freedom, and thus responsibility.
Laidlaw’s project is to work within the gaps between these two disciplines. He aims to show how a moral philosophy that is enriched by anthropology can work, and how an anthropology that is enriched by moral philosophy is a viable and important aim. Thus Laidlaw’s work belongs [End Page 565] in the discipline of moral anthropology, an emerging field that can benefit from the frameworks available in both disciplines, so that an anthropology of ethics emerges.
The Current Landscape
Moral philosophers aim at clearly considering ethical aspects in conjunction with thinking about moral responsibility, agency, perceptions and dispositions—good, bad, right, wrong, and moral intuitions and ideas. Cultural anthropologists aim to explicate the interactive social processes that create and remake conceptions of persons, kinship, and social values. Both disciplines engage with the “personal responsibility problem,” wherein ethical judgments run up against determinism, cultural relativism, and our conceptions of moral responsibility. The emerging subgenre of anthropology, moral anthropology, is a discipline which bridges a dialogue in both anthropology and moral philosophy by taking on, as its major challenge, the issue of personal responsibility. This subgenre can both bridge and enliven under-examined topics like feminist moral philosophy, feminist anthropology and the anthropology of gender, as well as some more philosophically mainstream topics like personal responsibility, autonomy, freedom, and well-being.
Gains in the social sciences, specifically anthropology, can be of benefit to thinking about ethics at the level of the individual. The social sciences have uniformity in the terms and meanings they use, they have standards of excellence in their analysis of empirical data, and their inclusion of comparative dimensions of social analysis grounds their ethnographies. Laidlaw argues that these tools of anthropology can thus be used to illuminate ethical dimensions of human conduct and thinking, and to provide a way to create ethical theory that can benefit from scientific rigor.
Laidlaw investigates certain tensions, some of which Bernard Williams also explored in Shame and Necessity (1993): for example, the question of how to talk about moral responsibility in an intellectual environment wherein we are, as investigators, conflicted about what personal and moral responsibility consists of. Laidlaw’s premise is that, if ethical concepts like freedom, autonomy, responsibility, and character can be organized and analyzed through anthropological analysis, then moral philosophers who are aiming to inform their work with the psychological and the social aspects of ethical decision-making have more resources than they may know. Laidlaw’s project is to describe how these resources can invigorate the philosophical approach to ethics, thus widening and enhancing the discipline.
Anthropology and Moral Philosophy
Laidlaw opens with an overview of anthropological approaches to social morality, noting how many of the important anthropological ethnographies have historically been very interested in moral concepts. Several generations of ethnographies have sections on the prevalent moral attitudes of people and social processes, and also the limitations in talking about human moral concepts within the confines of cultural instances. What is evident in all...