Over the last ten years, studies in the anthropology of ethics expanded exponentially, so much so that anthropologists call this intensification the “ethical turn” (Fassin, 2014; Lambek, 2010). This has two main reasons. First, the recent debate over what constitutes human good emerged partly as a response to “dark anthropology” (Ortner, 2016). The main agenda of the latter is to illuminate the devastating impacts of neoliberalism across the globe. Thereby, it offers an overly pessimistic outlook on global social conditions while neglecting how the world is continuously remade through different means and human endeavours (Das et al., 2000; Robbins, 2013). The anthropology of ethics, in contrast, provides a more balanced approach by looking simultaneously at human strivings for good and virtue as well as the works of power, inequality and violence in contemporary societies.
Second, an increased interest in ethics and morality is due to the rediscovery of the Aristotelian idea of ethics “as a property […] of action rather than (only) of abstract reason” (Lambek, 2010: 14). Recognising ethics as being important aspects of everyday practice challenges not only the Durkheimian view of ethics as formal rules and regulations but also the Kantian notion of placing ethical judgments in the realm of reason. Thus, the concept of “ordinary ethics” (Lambek, 2010) opens the door to seeing ethics as prone to change and exposed to contestations rather than as a set of formalized and rational rules that are frozen in time. Ordinary ethics also disputes the separation of morality and ethics. Today, ethics is understood “as a modality of social action [...] than as a modular component of society or [individual] mind” (Lambek, 2010: 10). Such conceptual flexibility also entails a definitional openness, namely the question of what constitutes the ethical is left deliberately open. After all, what counts as right or good in one social and historical context might be labelled differently under other circumstances. Any attempt to tie it to a singular interpretation would come dangerously close to ethnocentrism. A definitional lack does not mean, however, that there are no preferred ethnographic sites to study ethics. On the contrary, “the entailments of speaking, speech acts and ritual performances; establishment and recognitions of criteria” (Lambek, 2010: 11), freedom and its absence, acknowledgment, responsibility, practical judgment, the practice of care, the evaluation of a character, the cultivation of virtue, and guilt all constitute ethical acts (ibid.). In this seminar, we will follow this open-ended requirement towards ethics. We will investigate what counts as good or right in different cultural and social contexts, thereby focusing especially on postcolonial societies.