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January 08, 2007

The Ethical Anthropologist in a Relativistic Universe

The Lost Ethnographer has been participating and observing the anthropological tribe now for 40 years. More than any other question, "Can there be an anthropological ethic?" is the one question that has captured and continues to challenge his imagination. It is the question that asks, "Does anthropology have a future apart from all other social/behavioral/scientific disciplines?" The answer will define what, if any, the mission for anthropology will be in the emerging global planetary socio-cultural system. Over the coming months, this will be focus of this Blog.


The Lost Ethnographer has struggled with this problem on a personal and professional level for nearly half a century .

Today, Anthropology is practiced in the full range of the public and private domains of government, commerce, science and education. And not necessarily by persons formally trained in anthropology.

The practice of "cultural study and analysis" is no longer the monopoly academic anthropologists (if ever it was); no more than the practice of DNA testing is the sole domain of the biology or medicine. Globalization, with its rapid cultural change, mitigates the frail attempts by anthropologists, their graduate students, or their organizations to control how cultural knowledge will be used. Anthropologists can no more impose their "ethics" on the planetary culture than the Union of Concerned Scientist, National Academy of Sciences, or other prestigious scientific groups can control the development of WMD out of the knowledge generated from physics, chemistry or biology.

Globalization nurtures the super-, or mega- planetary culture that we see emerging around us today. It should be no surprise to anthropologists whose discipline has its roots in human and natural history. I first encountered this idea of a planetary culture as a teenager in the writings of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Later, as a graduate student, I found a global culture theme (the super-organic) in the writings of Spencer and Kroeber and on TV in the Star Trek series. At that time I struggled with the question of reconciling a sense of a moral imperative with the reality of cultural relativism. I am pleased to see and read here and elsewhere that anthropologists, especially the younger generation, are concerned about the "appropriate and inappropriate use" anthropological skills, knowledge and personal.

Moral responsibility is the highest standard for judging human behavior and the principles are set forth in a culture's philosophic and theology system. Moral behavior is determined by correct behavior regardless of circumstance.

Ethical responsibility is the society's way of transforming its moral principles into a set of actionable guidelines that take into account the reality of context in which the principles are to be applied. Ethical behavior is determined by "proper" behavior under the circumstances.

Legal responsibility, or the law, is minimal level of collective agreement that members of a socio-cultural system can agree upon as how the moral and ethical principles can be applied within and among the members of the system. Legal behavior is determined by "just" behavior toward members of one's society.

Despite the logical hierarchy of values these systems represent, together these domains make up a moral/ethical quagmire of conflicting imperatives and contextual nuances that individuals face when asking, "What is "right?" and "What is "wrong?"

The arguments we have had about ethics and anthropology fall into this quagmire of values. They are old arguments that go back to the pre-formative stage of modern social science and anthropology. Cultural relativity verse moral superiority, natural history verses colonial administration, humanism verses nationalism, history verses science, science verses engineering -- are some of the conflicts that point to the core of our ethical dialogues. They all revolve around being a participant and an observer. About being in the world and outside the world at the same time.

The moral and ethical problems are simple to state but extremely difficult to resolve. It is easy for graduate students to attack their professors, their professional elders, and the profession for moral and ethical failings in the past. Yet, it is equally easy for professionals and elders to dismiss the concerns expressed by the next generation just because they have not experienced issues.

The "prime directive" that Captain Kirk and his crew struggled with in Star Trek was Roddenberry's 25th Century version of the Hippocratic oath "to do no harm." Modern medicine still wrestles with it. It is the principle embodied in the "Golden rule." It may be the only true standard that we, as professional anthropologists, can expect to be held to account by our peers.

Moral and ethical responsibilities are part of living and dying as a human. Until the level of discussion raises above that of the academic discipline, the question will remain "academic." It will be something that is thought about, but not to be worry about.

In today's evolving planetary culture, anthropology needs to do better.