Bioethics Blogs

A reader’s guide to the anthropology of ethics and morality – Part II by Webb Keane

Editor’s note: We asked several scholars which readings they would recommend to students or colleagues interested in familiarizing themselves with the anthropology of ethics and morality. This is response we received from Webb KeaneGeorge Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Reading lists from other scholars will be forthcoming in this series.


The anthropology of ethics and morality is as old or as new as you’d like to make it. After all, ethics and morality were motivating questions from the very start of the discipline, evident for instance in Tylor’s call for a reformer’s science, Durkheim’s worries about anomie, Weber’s account of the Protestant ethic, Benedict’s patterns of culture, and Mauss’s total social fact. Looking at the field from this angle, one might be tempted to echo the dry remark with which one of my teachers used to greet any new and exciting idea: “But that has been known since Aristotle.” To overemphasize continuity, however, can blind us to emergent possibilities; we shouldn’t let genealogy blind us to the freshness and specificity of what we can call “the ethical turn.” So why an ethical turn now? Here are two factors, among others. First, after a generation, the turn to power critique in anthropology, important though it has been, seems to have reached a certain limit. Once “power” (or, say, “neo-liberalism”) became the answer to all questions, it started to lose both its explanatory and critical force. The turn to ethics opens up new ways of looking at political commitment.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.