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The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures: "Ethics as an Empirical Problem"

Friday, September 25, 2015
12:00 AM
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor

The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures, Fall 2015 - Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories

"Ethics as an Empirical Problem"

This lecture introduces the central problems we will be grappling with over the semester.  It starts with the basic premise that ethical impulses, judgments, and goals are features of everyday life in every known society, past and present.  Ethics is an aspect of people’s ordinary activities as they are more or less unselfconsciously carried out.  But it is also a recurrent topic of speculation, doctrine, debate, and purposeful self-cultivation.   The empirical study of ethics thus poses special problems, since it straddles both the divisions between normative and empirical fields of scholarship, and those between human and social sciences.  The latter division is of special interest for any anthropological approach to ethics, since in this light, the propensity for ethics would seem to be both a universal shared by all humans, and in any instance the historically changeable and highly variable creation of particular communities.  This lecture lays the groundwork for an approach to the study of ethics that draws on psychology, sociolinguistics, micro-sociology, ethnography, and social history.  It introduces the goal of the lectures, to show the dynamics among different dimensions of ethical life in a non-reductionist way.  The approach taken here stems from the conviction that the more familiar ways of distinguishing between natural and social realities no longer serve us well, and that ethics, with sources in both biological mechanisms and social imaginaries, is a good place to start rethinking their relations.