At Public Books, Philip Gorski writes about Webb Keane’s ETHICAL LIFE and about "the failure of the social sciences to develop a satisfactory theory of ethical life. A theory that could explain why humans are constantly judging and evaluating, and why we care about other people and what they think of us." Theories abound, writes Gorski, but they are all unsatisfactory in one way or another, perhaps because the task to which they are committed is so daunting:
A good social scientific theory of ethical life would need to be compatible with both our current understanding of human evolution and the brute fact of cultural diversity. It would need to show how natural selection could give rise to human ethics. And it would need to show how human history could lead to variation and change in ethical life. It would somehow have to square universalism and historicism.
Gorski’s essay explains Webb Keane’s multi-faceted approach to “ethical life,” an approach in which “Keane tacitly distinguishes at least four levels of social reality. Let’s call them the physiological, the psychological, the sociological, and the anthropological. Each emerges out of the other. Human culture emerges out of human interactions; human interactions depend on psychic capacities; psychodynamics are rooted in our bodily makeup.”
The reader had best be prepared for such terminology as “joint attention,” “ethical affordances,” “downward causation,” and “phenomenological tension”. But if you can make it through the terminological weeds, you get to this:
In his magisterial essay, “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions,” the German sociologist Max Weber painted a tragic picture of our ethical situation.8 In the premodern world, he lamented, life and the world were of a piece. Abraham could die in peace, knowing that he had lived a life in full. He had been blessed with wives, progeny, and property. There was nothing more to want. But “cultural beings” (Kulturmenschen) such as ourselves can never experience this sense of completion. There is always more to know and experience. Nor is that the end of the tragedy. We also live in a world of multiple and competing “value spheres”: religious, economic, political, aesthetic, erotic, and intellectual, among others. Each sphere is held together by a particular value, an “ultimate value” that demands our total devotion: salvation, success, power, beauty, pleasure, truth, and so on. What to do? Some would be dilettantes, flitting from one experience to another, collecting stories along the way. That is perhaps the dominant ethos of the present age: “YOLO!” But that was not Weber’s creed. He longed for the unity of life that Abraham had enjoyed. The only way to achieve this, he believed, was to devote one’s life to a single god, the “daemon” that seized the very fibers of one’s being. Not monotheism, the worship of the one true god, then, but monolatry, devotion to one’s own true god—that was Weber’s ethos.1
What is Keane’s? He, too, paints an arresting picture of our ethical predicament, albeit a less tragic one than Weber. Where Weber saw multiple and competing “value spheres,” Keane sees multiple and competing cultural worlds, both past and present. Once upon a time, these worlds were separate. Some chose to visit other worlds; others did not. No more. Now, one cultural world bleeds into the next, sometimes quite literally, but more often via the global flow of people, artifacts, and ideas. We are all anthropologists now. What are we to do? Stay home? Go native? Be hybrid? Keane does not venture an answer to these questions.2
However we answer these questions for ourselves, we cannot escape the phenomenological tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life. Some will seek refuge in the first person. They will seek to be “true to themselves,” to “listen to their inner voice,” and they will respond to challenges with a mix of apology and indignation. Others will immerse themselves in the second person. They will value loyalty to the “tribe,” and respond to “outsiders” with a mix of indifference and hostility. Still others—intellectuals, mostly—will take shelter in the third person. They will place a high value on toleration and acceptance, and they will respond to challenges with a phlegmatic aloofness. The problem is that none of us can stand still in any perspective for very long. The affordances of our minds and our languages, and the demands of social cooperation and interaction, will not permit it for long. We cannot escape ethical life. Nor can we find peace in it, either. That, for Keane, is our predicament.
Difficult stuff, no doubt; but the difficulty of theorizing about ethics is nothing compared to the difficulty of living ethically in a complicated, conflicted, and crowded world that offers neither certainty nor refuge but that nonetheless demands our attention and our action.
1 Fidelity to one's daemon was also, explicitly, Socrates' ethos; on the other hand, it was also, implicitly, Hitler's. The value of "monolatry" seems very much to depend on which daemon has "seized the very fiber of one's being." We might in fact be better off if we just got rid of the various daemons entirely or at least stopped granting them such authority over us; for all we know, they may be no more than "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. "
2 "Keane does not venture an answer to these questions": is it impertinent, then, to ask why he wrote his book in the first place?