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Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories Webb Keane offers a new approach to the empirical study of ethical life that reconciles these questions, showing.
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Drawing on the latest findings in psychology, conversational interaction, ethnography, and history, Ethical Life takes readers from inner city America to Samoa and the Inuit Arctic to reveal how we are creatures of our biology as well as our history—and how our ethical lives are contingent on both. Keane looks at Melanesian theories of mind and the training of Buddhist monks, and discusses important social causes such as the British abolitionist movement and American feminism. This rich and original study will certainly fascinate anyone with an intellectual interest in morality and ethics.

It is broad in its scope, careful and reflective in its elaboration of a theoretical vocabulary, it deals with basic issues for the humanities and the social sciences and manages to produce genuine and thought-provoking new insights. In short, Keane has given social scientists a theoretically informed way in which to approach ethics as an empirical phenomenon and he has provided scholars usually working within moral philosophy new challenges with his invitation to think of ethics as socially engrained—all the way down.

Webb Keane takes us from its instinctual beginnings, through the elaboration of moral notions in everyday interaction, to the broader field of conscious ethical change in history. Every chapter is full of reflection-provoking insights, based on extensive research in a number of fields. This book is a game changer.

Unlike almost any other, the account is balanced between both cultural universals and cultural variability in the creation of human ethical life. This book is a must-read for everyone interested in the evolution of human sociality. Webb Keane. No part of this book may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher. Does this mean that the propensity for taking an ethical stance arises from human nature itself? If it is innate, does it follow that we could be ethical with- out knowing it?

There are many who would reject that idea. Some people hold that ethics is based on reason; others, that its sources are divine. If ethics is based on reason, must each individual be ca- pable of working it out in his or her own inner thought or at least of learning from the wisdom of those who have? Or is it, rather, the fact that ethics is something each society creates on its own, so that each of us is stamped with the impress of a particular tradition, borne within a specific community?

And in that case, does that mean each ethical world is ultimately incomparable to any other since each is the con- tingent outcome of a singular historical pathway? Or does it turn out that ethics is a product of natural selection, favoring reproductive success?

Does science then require us to accept that ethical concepts and values are ultimately epiphenomena, generated by mechanisms that themselves have nothing specifically ethical about them? This book looks at several ways of answering these questions through empirical research. Broadly speaking, the approaches we will examine here fall within the traditions of either natural or social history and can lead to very different views of ethical life. Indeed, some scholars think that these two approaches are quite incompat- ible and insist that we must choose between them.

I think that is a mistake: it is important that we are all talking about the same world. But the differences matter.

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Naturalistic research, in fields such as For general queries, contact webmaster press. The research commonly but, again, not always takes the individual as the primary unit of explanation. It describes changes that usually unfold on the vast timescale of evolu- tion. What I call social history includes not just the scholarly disci- pline of history proper but also cultural and linguistic anthropology, historical sociology, sociolinguistics, microsociology, and conversa- tion analysis.

These approaches tend to stress the diversity of existing ethical worlds. The focus is typically on life within communities. The time frame of social change can be as narrow as a few decades. Natural and social histories offer more than different points of view, since they challenge not just each other but also certain dominant strains of ethical thought in philosophy and religion. This book argues against both kinds of debunking.

Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories

It proposes that if we look closely at the points where natural and social histories converge, we can gain new insights into ethical life, the fact that humans are inevitably evaluative crea- tures. We might also gain something looking the other direction as well: this book also 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 mecha- nisms and social imaginaries, is a good place to start rethinking their relations.

For general queries, contact webmaster press. The natural scientists may object that too much emphasis on social construction overlooks the objective foundations on which moralities are built.

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In response, this book assumes that there is a lot to be gained by persuading people to climb out of their respective silos and look around. To that end, this book brings together key findings from psychol- ogy, the ethnography of everyday social life, and social histories of ethical reform. It does not, however, aim to revive the old dream of a unified explanation for everything. It will not leap directly from genetics to social movements, say, or from game theory to theol- ogy.

Rather, these chapters scout along borderlands where certain fields converge and overlap. The approach developed here is based on two premises. The second, which follows from the first, is that neither of them can provide a satisfactory account of ethics on its own. I find unhelpful pretensions that one can be fully explained or subsumed by the other.

For natural historians are right to insist that humans as animals are subject to causalities of which they are not aware. To repeat, we cannot step directly from the one to the other. This book follows them into the middle For general queries, contact webmaster press.

If we are to grasp ethical life as something both natural and social in character, both innate and historical in its origins, we might start by examining some of the points of articulation where natural and so- cial history approach, as well as push back against, one another. That examination is what this book aims to accomplish. Perhaps less obvious is this: I do not mean that even good people are likely to come to a consensus about what ethics entails. This claim requires more demonstration, on which more below.

For now, it is enough to observe that the ubiquity of ethics offers no guarantees: people can assert diametrically opposed positions or values, such as hierarchy and equality, loyalty and justice, or fairness and discrimination, with equal ethical conviction. Rather, this book starts with the proposi- tion that, with some borderline exceptions such as psychopathology, humans are the kind of creatures that are prone to evaluate them- selves, others, and their circumstances.

They may act in defiance of those evaluations but are rarely just indifferent to them. Consider the following stories, each of which exemplifies some of the problems with which research in ethics is grappling. The first and third are famous thought experiments; the rest are actual events. Its basic form presents you with two imaginary scenarios.

In one scenario, you can pull a switch For general queries, contact webmaster press. Utilitarian reason says that the death of one person is better than that of five. Most people who are presented with this situation in experimental settings agree and say they would pull the switch. The interesting complication arises in the second scenario. The five people are at risk as before. Now there is a man standing on a bridge over the tracks.

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He is so fat that were you to push him off the bridge, his body would stop the trolley. The utilitarian calculation remains the same: save five lives at the cost of one. But it turns out that most people balk at the idea of pushing the man to his death. I will not reproduce the various attempts to explain the differences between the two responses and the endless variations they have given rise to. We will return to some of these topics in the next chapter.

Here I want to make just a few observations to clarify the approach to ethics taken in this book. Obviously the trolley scenario is highly artificial, although analogous problems do arise, for example, in war- fare and medical triage. Still, the findings are provocative. That decision is taken by a lone individual who contemplates a lim- ited set of clear options, which have immediate and unambiguous results. Those results can be measured on a single scale of value, num- bers of lives saved. The experiment takes its interest from the con- trast between ideal and actual responses to the emergency.

Ethical life : its natural and social histories (eBook, ) []

In short, the time frame is narrow, the social focus is on the individual actor, and the basic contrast is between rational and irrational decisions. Some aspects of ethical life are like this, but much is not. It con- cerns a friend of mine, whom I will call Sally. Sally is a social worker in her fifties, married to a physical therapist. They have one grown child and another who still lives at home. They get by, but their fi- nancial situation is neither easy nor secure.

For the last decade or so, Sally worked for an adoption agency run by a religious organization. This organization has never accepted unions between homosexuals and has a clear policy of refusing to help gay couples adopt children. One day Sally decided that in good conscience, she could no longer work for an agency that held such a policy and abruptly, and without consulting her husband or chil- dren, quit her job. She had nothing else lined up and in the year or so since has been semiemployed like her husband. Needless to say, this has rendered the family finances even more uncertain.

Now here are some ways we could tell this story. It shows that people are not driven only by egocentric calculations of gain. But then the same can be said of the religious morality that leads the agency to reject gay applicants. The story could also be represented as a nar- rative of ethical progress.

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We might imagine Sally acting quite differ- ently a generation ago. Even ten years ago she worked for this agency with few qualms. The rise of gay marriage as a civil rights cause, For general queries, contact webmaster press. So if ethics is supposed to be solid bedrock, how could that happen? Yet another thing: Sally put her own family at risk. What ethical calculus allows her to treat their interests as less important than those of unknown strangers?

God- win gives an early version of what would become a utilitarian answer.