The Culture of Ethics by Franco La Cecla and Piero Zanini (review)
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Reviewed by
Franco La Cecla and Piero Zanini, The Culture of Ethics. Lydia G. Cochrane, trans. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2013. 119 pp.

inline graphic The Culture of Ethics is a work of charming and (one lengthy citation of Bourdieu aside) accessible prose. It might, more representatively, have been titled Cultures of Ethics because it is resolutely committed to the ongoing existence of bounded collectives marked by common habits, commitments, and systems of symbols, even as it attends to global processes and flows. Geertz remains among its theoretical touchstones, as do what Le Cecla and Zanini refer to on more than one occasion as “tribes” (17, 54). In any event, its scope is broadly comparative and its chief focus is “ordinary ethics,” loosely defined as a “tenuous but constant form of rule and of rules” (17). These aren’t “directly rules of good and bad,” but rather constitute a tissue of one or another “art of living” on which we depend in order to manage the everyday and to know how to “get along” with “those who live next to us” (17). This is in accord with what Michael Lambek (2010) intends in introducing us to “ordinary ethics”—the term and the phenomenon—save one crucial difference. Like most everyone else who works in the still-indefinite currents of the anthropology of ethics (or moral anthropology), Lambek would not license the casual reduction of ethics to rules. With most everyone else, he agrees that such a reduction, credited to or blamed on Durkheim, has done far more to hinder the programmatization of an anthropology of ethics than to further it. This is just one instance of a tendency toward intellectual nonchalance that makes the book less effective as an introduction to the anthropology of ethics than it might otherwise be.

Even so, it’s a book with many merits. Several of its chapters extract from additions to the ethnographic corpus vivid instances of the confusions and dilemmas that come when distinct ethical systems bump up [End Page 1311] against one another and the “relativization of relativism” (21) that often results. They call effectively on Unni Wikan (2000), Joel Robbins (2004), and Karen Sykes (2008), but most provocatively on Michelle Rosaldo (1980) and Renato Rosaldo’s (1980) research among the (formerly) head-hunting Ilongot, leading La Cecla and Zanini to pose the inevitable question:

What kind of morality is this? Is it possible that an entire community was held together by this violent cosmology? Yes, obviously, it is possible, and there are many similar cases.


La Cecla and Zanini rightly suggest that such bumps are one of the conditions that account for the very emergence of the anthropology of ethics and their identification of other such conditions is equally on the mark (34). Again somewhat casually, they put the case of the Ilongot to further use in contrasting culturally specific “moralities of every day” with such “universal” moralities as that of the Decalogue, concluding largely in favor of the Ilongot that it isn’t just “philosophy” but also “all theologies” that manifest a “repugnance of the human” (48).

The phrase is a spin off of Stanley Cavell’s accusation that “philosophy’s concentration on the meaning of particular words and phrases, in isolation from a systematic attention to their concrete uses,” constitutes a “rejection of the human” (1979:206-207), and it is chiefly from Cavell (and Wittgenstein before him) that the authors take or at least lend authority to what might be called their “culturalist humanism,” which is nowhere more evident than in their subtle and provocative critique of the philosophy of human rights (87-95). (Their nod of approval to Emmanuel Lévinas is also illustrative.) A reflection on Plato’s ethical focus on the traitor Alcibiades provides them with their closing note. Relationships can fall apart, communities can be betrayed; we can be led, “always culturally,” to “destroy our neighbor” (112). It is only here, however, that “the profound key to ordinary ethics begins”:

“The mutuality of being” does not exclude Alcibiades and his betrayals, and it does not exclude liberty. It does not exclude the inexplicable movement by which every history, every individual destiny, jeopardizes...