The Anthropology of Freedom, pt. 4

I Prefer the Anthropology of Morels of course.  (Much more excellent photo of Morels by: Odalaigh at
I Prefer the Anthropology of Morels of course. (Much more excellent photo of Morels by: Odalaigh at
Recent comments on this series have raised a bunch of great issues that I would love to explore. Conveniently, one of them is the question Rex raised about “Anthropologies Of...” I honestly didn’t mean to signal “The Anthropology of Freedom” as a proposal so much as a query. Because anthropology is so relentlessly ecumenical in its topics and approaches, it should be illuminating to think about what anthropology does not study (or does not allow the study of, in some proscriptive sense, like working for the military). There are some things that we are just silent on, and my hunch is that exploring some of these might sometimes be more illuminating than trying to say what it is anthropology does do. The question of an “Anthropology of Freedom” is at least diagnostic in this sense, if not programmatic. And to be clear, I am not in a programmatic mood here.

But that being said, there are in fact a lot of other “Anthropologies of…” which border very closely on anthropology of freedom, and I want to dwell (at too much length) on one of them here: the anthropology of ethics. There is another one going by the label of an “Anthropology of the Will” which will have to wait until whoever has the book checked out returns it to the library, cause there is no way I will pay $55 for it, thank you very much Stanford University Press. There is also the “Anthropology of Happiness” which insofar as freedom is a means rather than an end might be something anthropologists do study. I’m much too pessimistic for that.

But the anthropology of ethics has finally arrived. This year has seen the publication of two books: Ordinary Ethics, (a semi-reasonable $30, $21.99 on Amazon) ed. by Michael Lambeck, and James Faubion’s An Anthropology of Ethics (ditto). The former is a great collection of essays that includes both anthropologists and philosophers (and includes one from Faubion), the latter is likely to appeal to me, Rex, and like 5 other people, which says nothing about how awesome it is, but rather, indicates a perhaps perverse pleasure in being inside James Faubion’s brain. Nonetheless, both of them lay out some problems and concepts for an anthropology of ethics in rigorous and satisfying ways.

It should be said that the “anthropology of ethics” referenced here probably means many things to many people: the parochial problem of our own ethics in anthropology, the newer problem of the bureaucratization of virtue, which we have dwelled on here and which includes the handful of people studying Institutional Review Boards (Rena Lederman, Annelise Riles, Charles Bosk, etc), the rise of an ethics industry, esp. bioethics, and so forth. But Lambek, Faubion and crew sustain an interest in ethics by asking to what extent ethics is a problem for empirical investigation by anthropologists. Is it a “field” of investigation, a method, a universal feature of human life, etc?

Clearly, they are not alone in this, since the 2000s might fairly be characterized as the decade of evolutionary psychology, wherein the
putative discovery of the “moral organ” (which is apparently shaped like a trolley, and is responsible for the rise and fall of reputations of Harvard professors) has occured and led to hundreds if not thousands of studies identifying “morality” as a universal biological feature of animals. And let me just point out that, ipso facto, there is no actual debate here because a) the kinds of actions and effects we call moral or ethical can be biological without being the same everywhere and b) evolutionary psychologists are rarely interested in defining morality or ethics as such, and more interested in looking for effects that might lead to a theory of what those things are. If there is a debate, it is probably at the level of the efficacy of the discursive, i.e. to what extent is the phenomena of an ethical action inextricably a problem of its circulation in discourse? Experimental social scientists will reduce this to a problem of experimental design, interpretive social scientists will not let it go.

But I digress. There have been calls for an anthropology of ethics and/or morality (and I more or less buy the claim made by both Faubion and Lambek, that it is not a good idea to insist that there is a distinction between the two). In a “debate” in Anthropological Theory in 2008, Didier Fassin and Wiktor Stoczkowski briefly addressed the issue. The debate exemplifies the problem of the anthropology of ethics, viz. is it about an anthropology of morals (or ethics) as a particular real object of study in the world, or is it about the morality or ethics (or by implication, objectivity or political commitment) of the anthropologist. The latter reflects what I referred to in a previous post as political anthropology’s distaste for the concept of freedom: it is a normative commitment, not a thing in the world capable of being studied. Anthropologists (should, some say without irony) shy away from normative terms, especially those that seem to be “western” in origin. (I say ‘seem to be’ because that attribution [e.g. “Freedom is a western notion”] entails both an empirical claim which is not necessarily justified, and a morality in which the concept is both original to “us” and therefore either good or bad, depending on who’s talking.)

But both Lambek’s and Faubion’s book are arguing for the former: that ethics is an empirical field, not just a problem of research orientation. Lambek in particular is keen to make ethics a feature of action generally, and not just one of those “anthropologies of…” domains like politics, art, religion etc. One is not ethical only when in church or when helping the poor, one is ethical at least as regularly as one’s mind is in one’s body. Action has an ethical quality. To the extent that we are comfortable with the claim that all people act, we should be comfortable with the claim that all people act in an ethically specific manner (which is different than the colloquially distorted meaning of “he acted ethically” which is an attribution of having done good).

Faubion, perhaps predictably, is eager to elaborate an anthropology of ethics based in Foucault’s work, and especially that of the last years of his life when problems of askesis, parrhesia, and self-fashioning came to dominate his research. For both Faubion and Lambek (and his contributors) there is a relatively sharp distinction drawn between a Kantian form of ethics, and a Foucaultian one (for the record, Lambek has placed his bets on a return to Aristotle’s understanding of ethics, action and judgement, which he elaborates in the first chapter of the volume, whereas Faubion’s unlikely dark horse is Niklas Luhmann).

Ethics in Kant’s sense is (often caricatured as) the setting of a categorical imperative (a law) by which one must act. Thus Kantian ethics reduces ethics to a problem of reason, which in practical terms creates rules that must be followed (obligations) rather than a series of judgements strongly conditioned by or even determined by, circumstances. This “rule-following” ethics allows for a subject who approaches action as driven by (and subordinate to) his/her own priniciple (arrived at by virtue of reason). (And then there is the Weberian elaboration on this, which I won’t go into here). Freedom, therefore, is the ability to act in accordance with these principles.

Ethical practice in Foucault’s sense is much different. It is frequently laid out (as it is in these two texts) as consisting of four components 1) the part of oneself that is the object of an ethics (sex, religion, work etc); 2) the mode of subjection (reason, divine law, natural law, biology); 3) the substance or means of ethical self-fashioning; and 4) the goal or telos of ethical self-fashioning. Considered according to this schema, the Foucaultian definition of ethics allows us to make sense of how individuals submit to things that seem to be the opposite of freedom (Laidlaw’s examples of Jain ascetisism, Mahmood’s pietist cults in Egypt, etc.). Insofar as the choice is available to them to pursue this kind of ethical self-fashioning, they are engaging in what Foucault called “ethics as the practice of freedom.”

So given this sketchy outline, one might ask: is the problems of Freedom a subset of the problem of ethics, or a separate but related one? Can one have an anthropology of ethics without the concept of freedom? And if not, is freedom something to be explored concurrently with ethics, or is it something that requires a more careful separation and analysis. Under the Kantian version, freedom is more or less straightforwardly about non-interference, and in particular, non- interference with the ethical rules arrived at by way of reason–the categorical imperative. Under the Foucaultian version, the question arises of whether freedom is means or end or both. At some level the freedom to self-fashion is separate from an ethical life oriented towards living freely or achieving freedom. Whether there is freedom to self-fashion takes freedom out of the domain of the ethical, but treating it as a telos, leaves it within the domain of ethics.

It is at this point that I think the work done by philosophers to specify the problem of freedom is actually helpful. So consider how
the political philosopher Philp Pettit approaches the problem. In philosophy, the problem of freedom is divided up into separate problems: the individual, psychological problem of free will vs. determinism
(so-called compatibilism debates) and the political problem of liberty. Pettit argues for reintegrating them both because they were origincally integrated as problems from Hobbes through Kant and because a solution to both problems is more compelling than a solution to either one separately (this is implicitly an indictment of philosophy’s previous work of distinguishing them as different kinds of problems, but he doesn’t say that).

Pettit’s reasoning is that there is a compelling solution to both and it comes from the tradition of “civic republicanism” that has seen much revival as of late. One way in which this tradition is useful is that it mediates between the negative and positive versions of liberty. Republican theorists are disatisfied with the notion that non-interference (negative liberty) is sufficient because it leads to the problem of the contented slave (e.g. a slave who is well provided for and whose master does not interfere in anything that s/he wants tod). Clearly the problem of being a slave, even a happy one is intuitively anathema to most any notion of freedom. But republican theorists are also suspicious of any positive freedom that forces people to do what is right (i.e. you must live this way because it enhances your freedom). The solution is what they call non-domination, which is defined as not being subject to arbitrary power. Freedom for republican theorists requires both non-interference and a kind of structural or institutional relationship which is not arbitrary (i.e. always potentially capable of restricting freedom).

I’m not a philosopher (nor apparently am I an anthropologist, but whatever), so I can’t say whether Kant’s version of things can deal with these problems. At the level of the individual, the categorical imperative does seem to be strictly about the assertion of individual powers, and makes no reference to the structural, institutional or background context of that power. But in the Foucaultian case, there are two different kinds of freedom at stake: the first the ability to self-fashion: to engage in practices of self-fashioning (asceticism, for instance; or good samaritanism) guided by a mode of subjection (reason, the divine law, psychadelic experience etc) oriented towards a goal without interference either directly or as a result of some system of domination. The second however is to make freedom (whether as non-interference or non-domination) into a goal, and here it seems to me to matter what kind of freedom one chooses. If one is going to fashion onself as a freedom-fighter, for instance, the goal of freedom as radical non-interference (the libertarian) implies different practices than does the goal of freedom as non-domination (civic republicanism). This of course, implies “the freedom to fight for freedom” or the “freedom to make onself free” which only sounds paradoxical, but is not in fact. And it’s also why, I think, James Faubion’s case for an anthropology of ethics appeals to “auto-poietic”
systems in a Luhmannian sense. But that is neither here nor there. Or it’s way beyond there.

In any case, if there is a point to this post for anyone who hasn’t rightfully given up by now, it is that freedom as a concept that incorporates both the individual problematic of action, and the political problem of domination seems to be to be uniquely related to the kinds of “structure and agency” problems that anthropologists are interested in, but are loath to investigate under this label… for reasons already enumerated. If there is a programmatic aspect to my thinking here, then it is that the exploration of the theoretical variations in he concept of freedom can illuminate and help explain the kinds of actions people undertake not just when they are being ethical, but when they take the possibility of ethical action under consideration as a goal in itself.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

7 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Freedom, pt. 4

  1. @ckelty If anything has come out of this discussion it is precisely that the notion of “freedom” does operate as a point of sameness even in academic discussions, pulling together seemingly disparate areas of discussion.

    Given the amount of use of ideas of governmentality, I think that the pointer to Faubion’s extension of Foucault in terms of ethics and the making of the self sounds very interesting.

    This sits in an interesting counterpoise to Mackintyres work in “After Virtue” on the shaping of ethics in every-day practice. His point is quite simple, that to operate within groups of others one has to mediate ones desires, and that this is the ground of ethics emerging. Its an interesting thesis followed up by Wenger and Lave in their work on communities of practice, ooking at the social basis of learning. This is particularly interesting because Wenger came out of an Ai background, and so focussed on the differences between machine algorythm learning and social learning, where modification of the overall sense is required, and within social relations (this is an extension of the implications of neural networks as well as of practice theories.)

    What I find particularly interesting in this is the implication that ethics are also implicated with people’s day to day interaction with materia in material practices. That a la Latour the sense of self is worked out through social agency that is implicated with the material. I think these lines of enquiry give a spin towards exploring the materiality of Foucault’s early work on insutitions and discourse, without falling into the traps of linguistic determination that his later work, oriented towards day to day practices, seemed to be avoiding.

    This might allow the rather thing conceptions of governmentality to be fleshed out and materially grounded somewhat. Very interesting discussion, and of course you are an Anthropologist.

  2. Not sure if this is a meaningful contribution but I’ll put it out there.

    I think in practice, within the bits of western liberalism that I live with and study, the term “ethics” is pretty much exclusively understood in the Kantian sense, and I find it a depressing word —

    you mention the phrase “he acted ethically” as an attribution of good, but I can’t see it deployed as anything other than damning with faint praise or ass-covering. A kind of bare-bones basic requirement: “he didn’t break any explicit rules”.

    My little pet peeve doesn’t really leave Foucault’s concept entirely unscathed, though, because ascetic ethics in general have a whiff of limiting moral thought to the prohibition of evil, rather than a positive conception of the Good Life, both in the enjoyment of one’s own life and in solidarity with others.

    As a subjective moral ponderer (rather than, I guess, a judgement-suspending ethnographer), this is my problem with philosophies such as Jainism or veganism.

    On the other hand, the discussion of freedom also makes me think of dojo/martial-arts culture. As someone who trains in a traditional Japanese martial art, I often think of this when I hear or read those clumsy statements about individual freedom not being an “Asian value”.

    Because it’s complicated. The traditional dojo represents a different configuration of freedom than classical europe-based liberals are used to thinking of, and I’m not sure if I can put it across concisely. Essentially, entering into training in a dojo involves subjection to the will of a teacher; your action within the dojo is not “free” in an individual sense. And yet the whole pedagogy is structured around the notion of the individual’s “will” to pursue mastery of the art, and their freedom to leave. And there are some interesting unspoken ways in which contradictions can be resolved.

  3. Essentially, entering into training in a dojo involves subjection to the will of a teacher; your action within the dojo is not “free” in an individual sense. And yet the whole pedagogy is structured around the notion of the individual’s “will” to pursue mastery of the art, and their freedom to leave.

    Seen from a distance it has always seemed to me that mastery enjoys pride of place in Japanese martial arts in a quite different sort of way than domination does in American competitive sports. I don’t know if that makes domination/freedom a binary opposition or not…

  4. We should,perhaps, remember that Western ideas of freedom and domination evolved in contest defined by monotheistic religion and the notion that those who stand in loco parentis, the father in the family and the ruler in the state, are God’s representatives on earth. Thus the question becomes one of submission or rebellion in relation to external authority.

    In contrast, the martial arts traditions to which MT refers are rooted in Daoist/Buddhist ideas in which the primary form of liberation is liberation from desire, ultimately the attainment of a state of no-self in which questions of submission or rebellion are moot. In this context, freedom is not liberation from external authority imposed from outside the self. It is, instead, liberation from the desires that constitute the self, leaving the body free to go with the flow of nature instead of fighting against it.

    Just once in my own life did I have an experience whose memory resonates with these thoughts. As an undergraduate, i was taking a judo class to satisfy a PE requirement. A complete novice and not in great shape, I was paired with an advanced student who was also larger and stronger than I was. When we stood up to fight and grasped the collars of our gi (judo jackets), I gave up and relaxed as totally as I could, hoping to minimize the pain of the fall. The next thing I knew my opponent was flying over my shoulder. That never happened again; I was always too self-conscious about getting into the right mood. But in that moment, I and the universe were one. I did what came naturally, as free as I have ever been in my life. But, of course, “I” wasn’t there. The self that worries about submission or rebellion was absent.

  5. Yet another angle on freedom and its treatment by anthropologists is to consider correlative concepts for which freedom creates an intellectual space. In an entirely self-serving way I point to a piece I published in Anthropological Quarterly

    Volume 74, Number 4, October 2001
    E-ISSN: 1534-1518 Print ISSN: 0003-5491
    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2001.0037
    John L. Mccreery
    Getting To Persuasion
    Anthropological Quarterly – Volume 74, Number 4, October 2001, pp. 163-169

    George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research


    The argument of this article is that persuasion is a topic largely neglected by anthropologists, who prefer to see human behavior as conforming to cultural rules or driven by social forces. Drawing on his experience in the advertising business in Japan, the author examines persuasion in light of cultural heuristics available to would-be persuaders striving to create different types of social relationships.

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