restricted access Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories by Webb Keane (review)
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Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 304 pp.

inline graphic As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a course in social psychology. The experience was similar to walking into a hidden room of closely guarded treasures, where each social experiment and its consequent explanation shed new light and provided added insight on matters that were close to my heart—issues of conformity, abuse of power, prejudice and discrimination, and even interpersonal matters surrounding love and hate. I realized that, as people, we commonly and observably behaved in predictable ways, through patterns that could be objectively dissected and publicly discerned. It helped me better understand the racism I had experienced and the conformist system I had grown up in, as well as the ways that we, as humans, rationalize and justify the contradictions that we live with everyday. Yet there was something less than satisfying in relying on the conclusions of psychology experiments to describe people’s experiences, as they celebrated but also struggled with life, contemplated its obligations and confronted its overbearing norms, followed some rules and disobeyed others, and repositioned themselves in societies that left little to no room for certain kinds of difference. Getting to know people over a period of time complicated any generality that social experiments provided, reminding me that there were limits to the controlled set of determinants that provided such wonderfully intriguing results.

Webb Keane’s book Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories led me back into that room of hidden treasures while also paying heed to the cautionary tale that not all that glitters is gold. Keane’s book brings together the “natural” (innate, human nature) and the “social” (differences, diversity of human worlds) into one elegant frame. It provides an account of the psychological and cognitive capacities that sit just below the surface of our consciousness while engaging with the habitual, evaluative, and [End Page 305] historical components to human life that sometimes provide a catalyst for change. Consisting of three parts, “Natures” (Introduction–Chapter 1), “Interactions” (Chapters 2–4), “Histories” (Chapters 5–7), and a conclusion, this interdisciplinary book draws on an impressive variety of subjects, including neuroscience, linguistics, developmental psychology, history, cultural and linguistic anthropology, and conversation analysis, in order to ask a rarely-asked question, “what is ethics?” or “where does ethics come from?” While differences matter, Keane explains that there is a cognitive aspect of ethical life that most anthropologists either take for granted or know little about. Yet he does not take the individual as the sole focus of investigation. According to him, what best brings the natural and the social worlds together is a study of an ethical life embedded in social interaction. Keane skillfully traverses the natural and social realms without assuming that one determines the other and with an expertise that does this book credit. Neither explanation is sufficient, but both are necessary, he explains. Whether you agree with him completely, partially, or not at all this book is compelling and presents ideas certainly worth considering.

The study of ethics in anthropology has become a conceptual bridge, an invitation to have other conversations. It is a concept-metaphor that serves to (re)connect important themes in anthropology, such as the symbolic and the material, the explicit and the tacit, performance and practice, language and action, rules and judgment, structure and agency, value and virtue, and immanence and transcendence. The ephemeral quality or durability of this cloud of ideas is still uncertain and there is no consistency with which the term ethics is used. Yet there is no denying its excellent performance, or at least prominence in recently published ethnographies and many anthropological debates. A question some might ask is why are anthropologists attracted to this concept? Part of the answer, as noted above, is that a conversation around ethics encourages other conversations with disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, social and developmental psychology, and cognitive science. Ethics also avoids many potential hurdles that might arise with simple descriptions or understandings of cultures as morality systems that are distinct or separate from one another. Instead, it tends to acknowledge both the (infra)structuring...