Plen06
Moral sentiments: finding again anthropology's moral voice and vision

Convenors:
Nigel Rapport (St. Andrews University)
Huon Wardle (St. Andrews University)
Format:
Plenaries
Location:
Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall
Start time:
22 June, 2014 at 16:00
Session slots:
1

Short abstract:

What are the origins of moral human behaviour and how can these be given a universal authority? How does recognition of fellow human beings and extending 'sympathy' towards them and the institutionalising of humane norms of social interaction actually take place?

Long abstract:

Mobility, egalitarianism and free choice of identity have better prospects in the modern world than they had in the past', Ernest Gellner argued. Yet establishing this as a set of universal moral propositions, as opposed to a merely fortunate outcome of the rise of Western liberalism, has raised difficulties. A solution might take anthropology back to its Enlightenment roots. Kant, and Hume both sought to formulate universal moralities. For Hume, impartial feeling was key: to treat all like cases in a like way. For Kant, reason was key: to be moral was to abide by rules and make no exceptions. For both Hume and Kant, the need was to eschew the caprice, arbitrariness, ignorance and partiality of cultural specificities. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith deployed Hume's 'experimental method' (the appeal to human experience) but sought to refine his thesis of impartial feeling. The psychological motives behind a moral sense were multiple and 'interested', and found their essence in a 'principle of sympathy'. 'Sympathy' was the core of moral sentiments: the feeling-with-the-passions-of-others, arising from an innate desire to identify with others' emotions. There is much here with which anthropology can interest itself. What can contemporary ethnography and anthropological theory deliver concerning the roots of a moral sensibility? How does recognition of fellow human beings and extending 'sympathy' towards them and the institutionalising of humane norms of social interaction actually take place? What are the origins of moral human behaviour and how can these be given a universal authority?