Eating (others) well: reflections on activist ethics
Fiona Wright (University of Cambridge)
Paper short abstract:
This paper draws on a Levinasian approach to ethics in an ethnography of Israeli left-wing activism, arguing that ethical relations involve a certain objectification of others, revealing the imperfect and even violent nature of the ethical.
Paper long abstract:
This paper argues for the need to extend our attention not only beyond utility, but also beyond virtue, in the anthropological study of ethics. Drawing on a Levinasian approach to ethics, which places the troubled nature of relations with others at the core of a conception of the ethical, I argue that ethical relations involve a certain objectification of others, revealing the imperfect and even violent side of ethics. This argument is based on an ethnography of Jewish Israeli left-wing activism, which reveals not only the conflicted nature of the ethical subject, whose self-mastery as virtuous is thus placed in question, but also the ways in which ethical relations inevitably compromise the 'good' or 'virtuous' aspects of activist subjectivity. In particular I reflect on activist practices and discourses of care and love for various human others (Palestinians, and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan), and consider the political dimension of such ethical relationships. This attention to violence and politics in relation to ethics may be a central feature of anthropology's contribution to questions traditionally addressed by philosophers, as the lived and imperfect quality of ethical response to others in the world can become visible in ethnographically rich studies. In conclusion I refer to Derrida's notion of 'eating well' to propose an anthropological approach to the ambivalent and contradicted nature of ethics as a relation with otherness.
When means and ends coincide: beyond 'utility'