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Speaking Ethically Across Borders Conference: Registration Open!

Registration is now open for the conference:

Speaking Ethically Across Borders: Interdisciplinary Approaches
8-10 January 2014
CRASSH, University of Cambridge

With lectures by: Michael Lambek (Toronto) and Simon Coleman (Toronto).

Including papers by: Michael Lempert (Michigan), John Marenbon (Cambridge), Carlo Severi (EHESS), Hallvard Lillehammer (Birbeck).
***For registration and further details: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25021 ***
***The Facebook page can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/events/341661642641952/ ***
Convenors: Jonathan Mair (jonathan.mair@manchester.ac.uk) and Nicholas Evans (ne228@cam.ac.uk)


Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the study of ethics among social anthropologists. Much of this growth has been due to the assimilation into anthropological thinking of virtue ethics building on two streams of theoretical work: that of Foucault, and that of virtue ethicists working in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition. Proponents of the virtue-ethics approach in anthropology argue that a focus on self-cultivation as a process allows for sufficient attention to be paid to self-conscious reflection. Reflection and the freedom it entails, they argue, are essential aspects of ethical life that traditional social scientific approaches to ethics – Durkheimian approaches – simply ignore.

There appears to remain an area of ethical experience, however, that neither approach can easily accommodate. Since virtue ethics sees ethical judgment as the result of cultivation within a self-conscious ethical tradition, it can no more account for ethical judgment outside of or between traditions than the Durkheimian approach can. Yet history is full of situations in which multiple, self-conscious ethical traditions meet, and in which people try to judge each other, persuade each other, or draw lessons from each other across the borders that separate those traditions. These situations are what we call ‘speaking ethically across borders’, and this is the phenomenon that the conference will aim to explore.

In these situations, are people limited to using values with which they are already familiar to interpret and judge other values? Or can they genuinely learn from alternative ethical systems? If so, on what conditions does this process depend? Is the capacity for or disposition towards a cosmopolitan attitude to ethics itself a culturally specific norm or a virtue to be perfected, or is it a necessary aspect of ethical thought? Ethnographically speaking, how have people in fact used the intellectual resources provided by one ethical tradition to judge others? How have they sought to borrow from other traditions, or to persuade followers of other traditions to adopt novel values and practices? What meta-ethics have specific traditions proposed to govern the relationship of members of the tradition to the mores of other traditions?

Sponsored by: Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH); The Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge; St. John’s College, Cambridge; King’s College, Cambridge.

Rooted Cosmopolitanism

Diogenes the Cynic, a citizen of the world, in a painting by John William Waterhouse

Tuesday saw the first of a series of reading groups that I’m organizing at CRASSH on the subject of ethical conversations across borders. There will be four sessions this term, each dealing with a different theme, taking in readings from anthropology, sociology, philosophy and history.

The first session, on rooted cosmopolitanisms, was based on texts by philosopher Martha Nussbaum and sociologist Bryan Turner.

Cosmopolitanism is perhaps most frequently used to describe the flows of people and goods between geographically remote regions. Following this usage, a ‘cosmopolitan’ is someone who moves with facility between different regions or cultures. However, the term cosmopolitan is also used with an ethical force. In this sense, it is the idea that ethical considerations ought not be limited by geographical boundaries. An ethical cosmopolitan claims that all persons are equally significant moral beings, no matter where they are located or where they have come from. On this view, any ethical attachment for members of one’s own ethnic group or nation or religion is exercised at the expense of others.

This is a position that Nussbaum has defended before. However, in the paper we discussed in the reading group, ‘Toward a globally sensitive patriotism‘ (paywall), she argues that although the classical conception of cosmopolitanism, which appeals to reason alone, is right and desirable, it is in incapable of motivating people and cannot therefore be the basis of an effective politics. What local, particularistic accounts can provide, which cosmopolitanism, she says, cannot, is a rich background of historical events, experiences of landscapes and particular personalities that can play effectively on the emotions.

Nussbaum distinguishes between two forms of love of country. One form, which she calls patriotism, is focused on leading the subject to think beyond the self to the good of something greater. Though it entails particularistic attachments that can come at the cost of global obligations, Nussbaum believes that patriotism is compatible with cosmopolitanism and that through its repertoire of local, historically rich narratives it is capable of evoking altruistic feelings that can be extended beyond the nation. She gives several examples of patriotic rhetoric that she believes achieves this goal of harnessing the horse of visceral attachment to the particular to the carriage of tolerance and compassion. These include speeches by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, among others.

The other form of love of country Nussbaum calls nationalism, this is based on exclusion of others, and works with shame and disgust. Nationalism in this sense is incompatible with cosmopolitanism.

Turner’s paper, ‘Cosmopolitan Virtue‘ (paywall) addresses the problem of human rights. Human rights are problematic for a number of reasons, including that their advocates can provide no grounds on which the obligations that must correspond to rights (i.e. the obligation not to encroach on rights, the obligation to redress the denial of rights, and so on) might be based. Turner aims to rescue rights by proposing a cosmopolitan virtue which would form the basis of such obligations.

Like Nussbaum, Turner thinks that a reason-only approach would prove ineffective, writing, ‘The idea of global citizenship is probably too abstract and vague to carry conviction and commitment’ (p. 49). The solution he proposes harks back to an idea of citizenship that predates the modern nation-state: ‘…citizenship was originally a product of Renaissance humanism, in which the ascending order of the state and the horizontal ordering of citizenship contrasted with the descending theme of the Church and its hierarchical order of institutionalized grace… This tradition of citizenship became linked to the norms of civility, civilization and civil society.’ Becoming a citizen in this sense was a matter of cultivating virtues, a matter of education or formation. The virtues were universal ones, but they were learnt in a particular form and in relation to specific political institutions and traditions. This is the kind of cosmopolitan virtue that Turner thinks can provide the obligation that is missing from human rights theory, a virtue that is based in specific attachments and can therefore command people’s emotions, but which is aimed at universal goods and avoids exclusion. The virtues he has in mind emerge as conditions of political debate and trade, but extend from politeness to care for the other.

Turner also makes a number of other interesting points, in particular in relation to the universality of the rejection of suffering (a questionable idea, I think), and about the relation between cosmopolitanism and irony, but I won’t go into those here.

In terms of the question of ethical conversations across borders, I think the most interesting aspects of these papers are:

1. The combination of empirical and rationalist approaches. Both Nussbaum and Turner are committed to a universalist ethics that they see as being based on reason, but argue that for practical reasons this must be combined with contingent ethical forms that are necessarily local and historical. One can imagine other thinkers arriving in the same place from the opposite direction: a commitment to an empirical approach to ethics based on actual custom and precedent, a commitment that needs to be laid aside in international contexts in favour of a first-principles approach because there is an insufficient body of shared custom among parties who transact at that level.

2. Their arguments raise the question of the spatial relationship of global ethics and local ethics. Is the cosmopolitan to conceive of global ethics (i) as being beyond space, something that applies at all times and in all places where moral persons happen to be, (ii) as being related to the planet earth as a place, just as local ethics are related to local places, or (iii) in relation to cosmopolitan spaces such as international cities, pilgrimage sites, universities and so on, where citizens of a number of different local polities meet and rub along together? Neither author really answers this question, though Turner does talk about the importance of cosmopolitan cities in the development of cosmopolitan virtue, especially in relation to the ironic detachment from one’s own tradition that he sees as essential to cosmopolitanism. Perhaps the aim of Nussbaum’s patriotism is to lead from (i) to (ii)? Perhaps that would depend on the emergence of prominent participatory political institutions at the global level. Will the increasing importance of international cities lead from (i) to (iii), or from (iii) to (ii)? This issue — the location of the global — is relevant to any scheme that attempts to connect local and universal ethical considerations.



  • Nussbaum, M. 2011. Patriotism and cosmopolitanism. In The Cosmopolitanism Reader (eds) D. Held & G. W. Brown, 155–178. Polity.
  • Nussbaum, M. 2008. Toward a globally sensitive patriotism. Daedalus137, 78–93.
  • Turner, B. 2002. Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism. Theory, Culture & Society19, 45–63.


Alastair Macintyre on the moral/instrumental division of the modern world

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre (Photo Credit: Sean O’Connor)

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), and I’ve just come across a passage that is related to my recent argument about the problems of the use of the concept of neoliberalism in anthropology.

Part of my argument was that academic advocates of neoliberalism and academic critics of it share a view of the world, for all their apparent disagreement, in which all action is either moral or instrumental. I argued that this was part of a long argument in western thought that took the division for granted and in which the problematic was what the proper balance between the two spheres of life should be, and that neither position can adequately comprehend forms of moral life in which effective instrumentality is considered to have intrinsic ethical value.

MacIntyre’s book historicizes this very distinction, attributing its emergence to the attempt of Enlightenment thinkers to justify morality, and looks at historical forms of virtue in which the good and the effective were unified. MacIntyre’s target is not, of course, ‘neoliberalism-ism’, but a theory of morality he describes as emotivism. He argues that emotivism dominates moral thought in the contemporary world.

Emotivism, according to Macintyre, is premised on the division of the social world into,

 …a realm of the organizational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available…

…debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On the one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so it may limit the free and arbitrary choices if individuals. (p. 34f)

CRASSH Project: Speaking Ethically Across Borders

I am currently a research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, at Cambridge University.

One of the things I’m working on is an interdisciplinary project on ‘Speaking Ethically Across Borders’. Right now I’m planning a reading group on the topic for next term. The outline is below, together with some sample readings. If anyone has any suggestions for good readings on this theme, from any discipline, please let me know by email or in the comments below. Thanks!

Incidentally, this is related to my last post: the conversations I am interested in for this project could be seen as self-conscious attempts to overcome potential conversations at cross-purposes.

Speaking ethically across borders

A conversation between Western Christendom and the Mongol Empire:
Pope Innocent IV sends a mission to Central Asia, carrying one of a series of letters that were exchanged between the pontiffs and the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia)


Cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes

Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,

evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified

My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.

This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes. (more…)