Accepted paper:

Westermarck, moral behaviour and ethical relativity


David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)

Paper short abstract:

This paper takes as its starting point the now neglected work of Edward Westermarck. Westermarck was a pioneering field researcher in Morocco, and Malinowski’s teacher at the LSE. He helped to create modern kinship through his History of Human Marriage. He was also the author of two major works on ethics: The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, and Ethical Relativity. Drawing on the Enlightenment philosophers, Hume and Adam Smith (but not Kant, whom he disliked), he attempted to develop a universal understanding of moral behaviour by arguing that morals are rooted in human emotions. Writing at a time when theories of relativism were not widely accepted, he claimed that understanding human behaviour in this way was liberating and did have universal application. Westermarck’s overall contribution has been greatly neglected; looking at his philosophical works provides one way in to a wider appreciation of his influence on the discipline, and whilst simultaneously permitting us to trace a further way that modern anthropology has been influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. Perhaps too, revisiting this early attempt at philosophical relativism enables us to reflect on possible solutions to the dilemmas we are invited to reflect upon in this panel.

Paper long abstract:

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