- Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action by Michael Lambek, ed., and: The Ethics of Anthropology and Amerindian Research: Reporting on Environmental Degradation and Warfare by Richard J. Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza, eds.
In recent years anthropologists have taken up the study of ethics in increasing numbers, and these two edited volumes present an interesting sample of the various topics addressed. The older work, Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action, edited and introduced by Michael Lambek, contains 20 essays presented at a workshop held at the University of Toronto in 2008. The contributions are arranged into seven thematic sections—theoretical frameworks, the ethics of speaking, responsibility and agency, punishment and personal dignity, ethics and formality, ethical subjects, and ethical life—and cover a vast ethnographic and topical territory. What ties them together is the attention each author was asked to pay to “ordinary ethics.” This concept is elucidated in the introduction, which also serves as an elegantly written but, for readers lacking a firm foundation in moral philosophy, a rather challenging orientation to the intersections of anthropology and philosophy that Lambek and colleagues explore in this reader. Central to this project is the proposition that ethics ought to be studied within the realms of ordinary speech and action, following the Aristotelian insistence on seeing ethics as “a dimension of action” (14) rather than as a formal set of rules and obligations. According to Lambek, since anthropology provides insight into “the diverse practices that passionately engage people in particular settings” (22)—be they kula in the Trobriand Islands, art and ceremony in Bali, witchcraft among the Azande or headhunting for the Ilongot—it is well-positioned as a source of universally valid insights into the ways in which people everywhere use daily speech and social interaction as the stuff of “ordinary ethics.”
Lambek elaborates these guiding principles in the first chapter of the section devoted to theory, where he extends Roy Rappaport’s interpretation of ritual as canonization of order to other spheres of social life, notably speech. Unlike the “sacred” and thus highly formalized ritual action, “profane” speech and acts of everyday life come across as commonplace and therefore ordinary. Nevertheless, Lambek argues, they serve the same function as ritual insofar as they guide human conduct into predictable channels according to certain ethical principles.
Most of the essays make a more or less explicit contribution to this elucidation of the ethical from the ordinary, humdrum and commonplace stuff of daily human interaction. They do so by touching on and often engagingly describing situations from a variety of ethnographic settings, such as speech patterns in Papua New Guinea (Alan Rumsey), pollution beliefs in Taiwan (Charles Stafford), changing cosmologies among Australian Aborigines (Francesca Merlan), the relationship between aesthetics and ethics among the Hopi (Justin Richland), person-hood in Colombian Amazonia (Carlos Sulkin), the ethics of sex workers in London (Sophie Day), business ethics in Sri Lanka (Nireka Weeratunge), Muslim-Hindu love affairs and marriage in India (Veena Das), the ritual commemoration of former enemies in Vietnam (Heonik Kwon) and several more.
Given the vast ethnographic scope of the book, a single reviewer cannot appreciate or critically evaluate the contribution made by each individual author. Yet, there are some surprising gaps in the supporting literature that ought to be mentioned. In his essay, “Abu Ghraib and the Problem of Evil,” Steven Caton claims that “it bears repeating that modern philosophy and anthropology have all but abandoned [evil] as an analytical construct” (166), but back in the 1980s—though that’s perhaps not “modern” enough?—there was actually an attempt to formulate a distinctive “anthropology of evil” (Parkin 1985). Caton’s even more comprehensive assertion that the problem of evil has been largely ignored after Kant, “with the possible exception of Nietzsche or Hannah Arendt” (166), is difficult to accept in view of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and the recent explosion of...