By drawing upon Adam Smith's critique of Hume's utilitarianism this panel focuses on everyday ethical conduct and the intrinsic virtuous nature of practices rather than their effects. In doing so, we aim to interrogate the role of anthropology in the study of ethics, but also 'as ethics'.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith argues that utility occupies a peripheral place in moral judgement. He insists that it is not the ends of actions that obtain our moral approval but the specific motives and dispositions that inform these actions. This principle, Smith claims, can be observed in all judgements about forms of conduct we approve of as virtuous. However, between the propriety and merit of any act lies the act itself. And for Smith it is only in particular examples that these qualities become discernible.
This panel aims to explore a variety of everyday practices and the ways in which ethical value is rooted in acts that do not necessarily pursue specific ends. From various kinds of performances to modes of sharing and forms of play, people engage in a multitude of practices that are considered virtuous in and of themselves. Instead of aiming towards specific outcomes, such practices acquire their ethical meaning through sheer participation.
Questions we will seek to address include: are the motives and dispositions, which compel subjects to engage in such practices, formed in practice? Why do we value the exercise of virtues more than their effects? What is the role of ethnography in documenting transient practices and how do we overcome relevant methodological and temporal limitations? Does the lack of utility of certain forms of everyday conduct reveal something about how anthropology should approach ethics and morality? Conversely, in what ways can anthropology be conceived of as intrinsically ethical?
Matan Shapiro (King's College London)