The Genealogy of Ethical Life – by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki on Webb Keane’s Ethical Life

Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, Princeton University Press, 2016, 293pp., $29.95
Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, Princeton University Press, 2016, 293pp., $29.95
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I kept on thinking of Nietzsche.

I need not have, of course; neither the book, nor the larger anthropological moment that it is a part of, necessitated this thought. After all, Webb Keane’s Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories does not dally much with Nietzsche. He is evoked only a few times in passing, and usually in a form mediated through some other figure such as Foucault or Butler, so a reader’s turning to Nietzsche was in no way predetermined. Because of the book’s scope, I could also have recalled a wealth of other authors. It is an unusually broad-reaching piece of scholarship, shooting runners out in numerous directions, and spending time weighing psychology, philosophical ethics, experimental philosophy, discourse analysis and political history in its quest to understand “ethical life.” Any one of those domains could have been where the mind alights. I could also have thought about any number of anthropologists while reading this book, particularly considering the shape of contemporary anthropology; Keane’s discipline of anthropology is in the middle of experiencing an “ethical turn,” with numerous established scholars abandoning a Durkheimian vision of morality as convention and compulsion. Both they and their younger colleagues are instead turning to conjoined questions of how ethics, morality, and values constitute sites of agency, rather than a foreclosing of it. Finally, no degree of purposeful misreading could find any elements of a Nietzschean political project or narcissistic grandiloquence in Keane’s sober and abstentious prose. Keane’s point is at once technical and far-reaching, and no doubt has political implications if viewed at a certain angle, but it is chiefly concerned with the hierarchy of academic fields, and the relations between the semi-autonomous corpuses and objects that they study.

But the association with Nietzsche was insistent all the same. I suspect my mind turned to Nietzsche and The Genealogy of Morals not despite all these other associative threads, but because of them. One of the hallmarks of Nietzsche’s work was his appeal in Genealogy to psychology and physiology to assist the philosopher in solving “the problem of values”; his seriousness of purpose in this regard was attested by his invocation of now-discredited biological theories of race and breeding, and his frequent references to digestive processes and dietary regimens. Obviously, both the content and form of these various disciplines have changed in the intervening century and a half, and it is not entirely clear that anthropology as it is currently understood even really existed when Nietzsche was writing. But there are still resonances with Nietzsche in the way that Keane’s interdisciplinary work traverses both the natural and the human sciences. To be honest, the mere fact that Keane is doing this should be of note. This is a move that most in anthropology would rather not take; the general tenor of the field is that biology, cognitive science, and psychology are at best just ethnosciences. And while there are obvious exceptions, such as Tanya Luhrmann, anthropologists in general give academic psychology particularly little respect, treating it as an epistemologically damaged practice that is based primarily on the artificial conditions of the lab, extrapolating species-universals from a restricted set of (usually white, usually western, usually undergraduate) guinea pigs.

Keane takes a different road, though, asking what it would mean if anthropologists were to take neurological, psychological, and cognitive claims seriously. He spends the most time focusing on particular psychological claims about supposedly innate capacities for evaluation, judgment, cooperation, and empathy. Also central to his argument are core abilities to decode the intention of other actors (or “mind reading”) and a general outward orientation to other members of our species. Now, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz long ago criticized the “layer cake” model of humanity, in which biological processes are topped by psychological mechanisms, and finally social institutions and cultural symbols; each of the strata is informed by what is below it, but that influence is not reciprocal as higher strata are unable to reach down and affect what lies below them. This determinism is one aspect that anthropologists find unpalatable about psychological explanations, and particularly ones that are based on neural architecture rather than psychodynamic play (though we should note that even psychodynamic explanations do not have the force they once held in the discipline during the days of anthropologists such as Benedict, Mead, and Kluckhohn).

Keane sidesteps this determinism problem, and his means of doing so is the key to this book’s methods and goals. He frames these bio-psychological capacities as not determinative but rather as unfinished; they are incomplete processes that only may (or may not) be invoked as part of a moment of moral judgment that occurs in some other strata of the subject. These processes do no work in themselves, being without expression in a world of socially produced meaning; but the multiplicity of meanings and ends that can be given to them socially makes their effects particular and not universal. Hence Keane’s insistence that these bio-psycho-cognitive structures, which are often identified by natural science as the actual mechanism through which ethics occurs, are merely the preconditions of ethics, and are neither the engine nor site of ethics in and of themselves.

The specific implement that Keane uses to make these erstwhile determining processes continent and open is the concept of “affordances.” Affordance is an idea that originated in perceptual psychology, but has since wandered through domains like design and human-machine interaction. As Keane uses it, affordance is nothing other than the observation that the extant features of any of the neuropsychological processes he discusses do not compel their use, but only invite, and they invite in open-ended ways. They can even be fought into relative submission or infectivity; Keane claims that it is possible for groups to hypocognize or even deny the existence of universally available human capacities, such as the ability to intuit the thoughts of other actors. Given the wide reception that affordance has received in other fields, and even its use by some anthropologists, one could view this as merely a technical borrowing. But there is also a sense of the tautological to how affordance is used by Keane: things have open features that are used to open ends because they have open features.

The recursive edge to the concept of affordances, though, should not distract us from the fact that the tautological aspect here is not a moment of intellectual laziness. Rather, while he does not say so, for Keane affordance is a metaphysical concept. What is important is an inescapable underdetermination not just of the bio-neurological-psychological mechanisms, but of all mechanisms. For that reason, it would be a mistake to expend too much energy on the specificities of the psychological mechanisms he discusses, or to become too exercised with undoing them with the usual sort of critique that qualitative social sciences use to counter them. Their truth-value, while perhaps helpful for illustrative purposes, is in this case beside the fact. Keane himself has a mastery of the mechanisms that he presents, but it is not these particular mechanisms that ultimately concern him; this is not a model that will be held hostage to further developments in other fields. Rather, it is the plastic nature of the relation between biological, psychological, and cognitive mechanisms to social processes that is important to Keane, and the contingent and multiple expressions that their combination engenders. Therefore, while he discusses specific processes proposed by academic psychology, he does so only to show how anthropology should think the psychological in general.

This presumption of an underlying core undeterminability is, again, also Nietzschean. This is Nietzschean because it endorses the understanding that in the end it is the play of things (one is almost tempted to say the play of forces and instincts) that is controlling, and not the specific essence of each element by itself. Equally Nietzschean is the way that these mechanisms are expressed to the (sometimes) conscious mind. Keane makes much of the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s concept of “moral dumbfounding”: the presence of ethical intuitions, often unspoken, that cannot be consciously elaborated or defended by the subject that is informed by them. We are in effect “unknown to ourselves, we knowers.” Of course, there is not a hard line between being dumbfounded and conscious elaboration; and this is again because of the unfixed nature of things. Ethical concepts, Keane argues, are not sets of norms written into the subject through some kind of Durkheimian social inscription, but rather come into fruition in moments of contestation, where one accounts for oneself or challenges another. It is here that Keane is most conscious of the potential Nietzschean ligaments of his argument, as he relies on Judith Butler’s thinking on the role that power plays in evoking conscious justifications. These justifications and judgments, of course, are only conscious to varying degrees, and Keane notes that self-awareness may often be partial and retrospective. But this justification is the pivot that brings us from natural history to social history.

In exploring the social history of ethical life, Keane then plunges us into the semiotic thicket, where he works through Goffmanesque analysts and Garfinkel-style experimentation to show that it is everyday communicative practices, surface phenomena like speech and gesture, that give birth to the common ground necessary for ethical evaluation between individuals. He shows the vulnerabilities that this gives rise to, as the construal and control of these surface phenomena lie outside of the subject, distributed among other interlocutors, diffusing tacit assumptions and understandings. The dyadic nature of engagement and the inability to control fully how any particular situation could be read by real or even hypothetical others splinter subjects in ways reminiscent of the grammatical person. Keane organizes this fractured grammatical person triadically, with the “first-person” perspective being that of the actor herself, the “second-person” the alienated view of an immediate exterior actor, and the “third-person” perspective an even more alienated point of view that allows the subject to reflect on the situation from an even more distant (and most likely fictive) indifferent vantage point.

It is the most extreme moment of third-person facilitated reflective alienation that concerns Keane in the concluding arc of the book, where another Nietzschean theme becomes dominant. In the closing chapters on collective ethical projects, Keane turns to two Nietzschean bugbears (though he does this in a much more forgiving and hesitant way than Nietzsche ever would): religious asceticism and socialism. Specifically, he examines ethnographic cases of mass Pentecostal conversion in Highland Papua New Guinea, the Egyptian Islamic dakwah movements, and Vietnamese Communism; feminist consciousness-raising and abolitionism are also given substantial analytic attention. He chooses these reform movements because their objectified hardness gives them a strength, a capacity to travel, and an internal teleology that allows them to radically remake everyday practices (where these movements need to be expressed if they are to have effects) and thus also to remake larger socio-political horizons. This is not teleology in the sense of ever-increasing ethical knowledge and sophistication, or an incipient ethical universalism; this is rather the way that each of these movements has their own directionality they follow as they unfold and intensify as projects. Nor are these projects without painful contradictions, even as they insist on subjects taking up ethically consistent lives. But still, these are projects with world-making stakes, though forged through an internal policing of the most quotidian of encounters.

Now, viewing Keane’s book through Nietzschean lenses may seem off. Yes, Keane does describe the plasticity and instability of emotions, reflexive consciousness as a product of being compelled to account for oneself, and how one doubles up and acts on oneself to mold a pre-ethical species inheritance to self-denying ascetic ends; he even talks about these phenomena not as transcendent, but as things which have a history, and hence are immanent. In fact, not only does he put the word “history” in the book’s subtitle, he uses the plural form. Keane would never do any of this, however, in a way that would invoke Nietzsche’s own ethical charge, and he certainly would never invoke the judgment-laden Nietzschean vocabulary of ressentiment and bad conscience. And Keane is free of the most disturbing Nietzschean baggage, that involving gender, race, and violence. If Keane is Nietzschean, it is probably in the way that we are all Nietzschean now, which is probably a Nietzscheanism that Nietzsche himself would not approve. But I think that despite these infelicities, viewing this book through a Nietzschean lens allows us to ask an additional, and I think important, Nietzschean question: what is it that Keane’s book, and a larger anthropology of ethics, wants? If everything is the expression of an involuted or re-channeled drive, what is the force that animates the anthropological turn?

To be clear, this is a question that is not about Keane’s own personal desires as thinker or as a human being. These things always go deeper than that for Nietzsche. Nor is this to say that this is to indict either Keane’s book, or the anthropology of ethics, as a tool; a tool is as good as the work that it can do, and Keane’s tool is very much an elegant, multi-purposed instrument. Finally, this is not to say that Keane as an individual does not have his own intellectual project apart from the animating drive, since it is obvious that he does: he endeavors to capture and tame both bio-psychological and political determinism by making them unfinished projects that can only have their expression, and hence the true determination of their form and meaning, at the scale of quotidian personal interaction that anthropology is particularly suited to think through, and that anthropological ethnography is particularly suited to capture. We could say that as far as his own purpose goes, Keane breaks the cultural anthropological embargo on the neurological-psychological only so that he can tame it.

But these are the specific features of the book that may allow us to see the underlying contours of the problem more clearly. The clarity of purpose, along with the precision that comes from Keane’s training as a linguistic anthropologist, gives him an exactness and lucidity that allows us to see not what Keane wills, but what the books wills; it also allows us to see more clearly what we might suspect is willed by the anthropology of ethics as a whole. And what does Keane’s book, and the anthropology of ethics, want? As always, look to the symptom, the tic that unveils the latent structure. This book is a very catholic book, in as much as it is open to acknowledging the validity and veridicality of any discipline, as long as that discipline allows itself to be disciplined by anthropology in turn. Even armchair philosophical canards like the trolley problem are given the dignity of being an exemplar of a mode of life, even if they are not endorsed as the summa of ethical thought writ large that some of their practitioners understand them to be. But there is only one moment where the book becomes nervous, where it suggests that there is something out there that is inassimilable. In reviewing the natural science literature on ethics, Keane goes over a series of psychological and neurological experiments that seen to point not to the universal work of cognitive capacities, but which document ethical decisions as being ephemeral. In these experiments, evaluations show no underlying consistency, and are determined by contingent and seemingly irrelevant environmental factors: people are more likely to assist a stranger in making change if the encounter occurs near a bakery; when asked to judge the morality of some act in a scenario, they punish immorality and praise the moral if they have their eyes closed rather than open at the time they happen to be asked. This class of psychological claims, which Keane (following Anthony Appiah) calls situationism, is the one psychological contribution that is summoned up only to be undone; everything that situationism tears apart, the book works hard to staple together again, forging a social consistency from semiosis and obligation where a situationist natural history denies that any exist.

To the reader unacquainted with developments in anthropology, this rejection and undoing of a psychological proposition may not seem to raise any flags. The reason, though, that this may point to something odd has to do with the origin story for the anthropology of ethics. Of course, each of the anthropologists who is a part of this conversation would probably have a different initial impetus and time if asked. The story that could perhaps most convincingly be told, however, is that ethics became a way of sublating the late 1980s and early 1990s’ disciplinary opposition between a very controlling vision of cultural determinism that was inherited from Durkheim and intensified by structuralism and some forms of Marxism, on the one hand, and the opposing late-twentieth-century anthropological romance with agency, resistance, and freedom, on the other. Each of these visions went too far, and what was needed was some way to acknowledge the fact that “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Ethics thus became a way for anthropologists to see people as engaged in the freedom of self-crafting, albeit in a way that was neither obligatory nor culturally or socially unconditioned. Not everyone in a society was a paragon of virtue, but most in a society could recognize virtue both in the abstract, and as exhibited by specific figures. It is telling that in one of the two inaugural papers calling for an anthropology of ethics, Nietzsche made an explicit front-and-center appearance. Nietzsche, as laundered through the late-period Michel Foucault and the ethicist Bernard Williams, was used to set up the presence and shape of ethics and morality as a problem, though Nietzsche’s causal account was not. This in general, and the Foucault aspect in particular, ended up creating an anthropological vision of ethics as a positive crafting of the self, and not the mutation or mask of some other force. This also ended up making freedom a necessary component for an act to be “ethical,” or at least ethical as construed by anthropologists interested in charting the phenomenon. The anthropology of ethics and values has since been leavened with other influences ranging from Stanley Cavell to Alasdair MacIntyre, and this made the conversation richer, but it did not undo its basic moorings. Freedom is still a recurrent thematic, and even when it operates under a different moniker in the anthropology of ethics, such as a (very humanist) “underdeterminism,” it is still openly acknowledged to be the same underlying concept. And Keane follows in this; for all he stresses the determining effect of particular historical, social, and cultural constellations, what the subject does in that moment is ultimately up to the subject.

Objections could be made to the anthropology of ethics, and questions asked. Is freedom the necessary precondition for ethics? Putting to one side the classical anthropological argument for ethics as the Durkheimian compulsion of norms, the philosopher Peter van Inwagen has shown that it is at least possible to construct a vision of ethics that is predicated on the absence of freedom, and yet that still allows for evaluation and judgment. But I think a more telling question is what faculty is availing itself of this freedom, and through which mechanisms? As I have already stated, Keane’s vision consists of a series of neurological, cognitive, psychological, linguistic, cultural, social and political affordances, but affordances are of interest only to the degree that they can be used by someone. But the identity of this someone is a mystery. Instincts are grasped, but only by language and the dynamics of social interaction; social interactions are ends, but only for instincts or values reified through technologies like writing or large-scale political-economic forces. In short, the subject is considered to be necessary for the process to unfold as an ethical process capable of being evaluated, but as analytically presented the actual encounter with the subject is always deferred. We simply have enchained trails of cognitive faculties and modules, semiotic codes and reified values, political constellations and social encounters, as they accidentally invoke one another. We have a system that is predicated on freedom, but the agent who is free is always also readable as merely a causally determined but stochastically unpredictable prior node that is itself an expression of other forces. This is freedom, but not the freedom of a biologically, socially and historically positioned but still somehow sovereign subject. Rather, these are degrees of freedom in the statistical or engineering sense of degrees of freedom, where freedom merely means the range and number of variables that mark the number of different actualizations of a process that could occur.

And that is why situationism is so disruptive. It is not the determinism that is a threat to the anthropology of ethics. The anthropology of ethics as it is presently constituted needs soft determinism, be it social, cultural, or cognitive, for its project to be intelligible; absent determinism, it is just an existentialism, and a denial of the human capacity to be differently constituted that gave rise to anthropology in the first place. But what the determinism of situationism suggests is that the act of judgment, either of others or of one’s self, is itself not freedom, but the chaos of non-linear systems, and that the self that stands at the heart of the anthropology of ethics is at best weakly emergent with little true autonomy, or at worst entirely epiphenomenal. This self is just a phenomenological shell passively recording other forces as they traverse this effectively empty space, and what looks like deliberation or reflection is actually something along the lines of a halting-state problem. This is the anthropology of ethics’ dialectic of freedom and determinism resolved yet again, but this time in a radically anti-humanist and alienating way, more resonant with strains of cosmic pessimism now current in Anglophone continental philosophy than with Anglo-American philosophical ethical thought. And this also means that the self is not just vitiated, but effectively disintegrated. Set against that possibility, the anthropology of ethics looks like a defense mechanism intended to fight off the void, an instance of the drive for self-preservation sublimated to symbolic and intellectual strata. (And given that for Nietzsche self-defense is always a proxy for far deeper drives, we could possibly follow this trail even further.)

Keane’s tactical expansion of the range of determinants merely allows this to be seen more clearly; his proliferation of determinism and his emphasis on responsibility and judgment just makes the contradictions that are arguably implicit in an anthropology of ethics more sharp. This is not to say that what Keane does in his book, or the project that a wider anthropology of ethics is fighting for, is wrong in either an analytic or veridical sense. Rather (and I think Keane here would agree) it is itself just another contingent framing. In its own language, the anthropology of ethics is a choice, and is itself an exercise of freedom in how to evaluate evaluation. And analytically, it certainly has the advantage of being more “experience near,” or at least being closer to the experience of us moderns. Nor is it intellectually indefensible. If backed up by a hard compatibilism, it would be able to push back against the picture of the subject I suggest it fears (though one notices that in a work that is very well versed in many different academic takes on these issues, compatibilism is not mentioned). But in the other, darker, alternative view, which sees the anthropology of ethics as a sublimation and a defense of instincts and drives that have no real subject, it is just one bifurcation in the way that transvaluation happens under present intellectual, biological, and psychological conditions, a successful but only partial attempt to grasp hold of the dynamics of self-making without unleashing a fatalistic, and possibly pessimistic, anxiety. Keane has built on the anthropology of ethics and produced a full-throated exemplar of how an anthropology of the first sort can respond to the hard but linear determinisms that are often facilely spun out by other disciplines. But at least for the present, we are still awaiting an anthropology of ethics that takes the second, darker path, and asks what happens if we see “the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man.”