The Good Behind the Gift: Morality and Exchange among the Maneo of Eastern Indonesia

Article excerpt

The Maneo of Seram live in a region in eastern Indonesia famous for its complex exchange practices (e.g., Fox 1980; Hoskins 1993; van Wouden 1968). Exchange features prominently in Maneo social life and the objects which circulate as marriage payments are highly coveted, sharing them is valued, and giving them is both necessary and confers certain benefits. Nevertheless, exchange often does not occur, and when gifts are not given local expectations suffer less than would be inferred from anthropological models which, like Mauss's (1967), treat exchange as obligatory. Recent scholarship has begun to identify shortcomings in Mauss's model regarding the agency and contingency of practice (Bercovitch 1994; Bourdieu 1990; Weiner 1992).(1) My contention is that these critics go too far in abandoning Mauss's concern with the relation between exchange and social solidarity, effectively turning Mauss on his head by reducing deliberation about whether to give to dispositions 'which do not allow for the possibility of behaving differently' (Bourdieu 1997: 233), or that they do not go far enough in questioning his moral ontology that exchange is necessarily obligatory. Instead, I will argue that sociality, what Weber calls 'mutual orientations' (1947:118-23), is intrinsic to deliberation and not merely an effect of exchange, and that the contingencies of social life (e.g., the scarcity of objects) impinge on people's abilities without affecting their desires to give.

This Aristotelian idea, that most people wishing to do well end up merely doing what is advantageous (Aristotle 1984: 1162b35), points to a concept of morality more useful than Mauss's, one that is better suited to understanding the stakes and motivations of Maneo exchange. Briefly, Aristotle's view of morality focuses on the way people arrive at decisions, including their perceptions and dispositions which precede action. Hence, morality may be reasoned without being rational (Aristotle 1984: 1142a31-b10; Nussbaum 1986); it may also be informed without being determined by local conceptions of the good.(2) That is, although dispositions and notions of the good dispose persons towards certain actions, they do not determine them. For Aristotle, what is at stake and what is specifically moral in action is the responsiveness of agents towards others (Blum 1987: 310). This view obviates the need to assume that agency is intersubjective or individual.(3) Rather, responsiveness varies as people's orientations vary, and orientations in turn are shaped by people's understanding of context. Moreover, being oriented towards others, responsiveness has social consequence inasmuch as actions invite interpretation of the ostensible moral content of one's decisions (Aristotle EE 1241a12-14; Derrida 1997: 256).(4)

I became interested in applying Aristotelian morality to analysis of Maneo society when I reflected on a conversation with a Maneo neighbour, Epe, in his garden one afternoon. Epe complained to my wife, Jennie, and me about Martin, his classificatory brother, a member of the same soa (clan), who was unwilling to share property (arata) which he, Epe, needed to help meet his marriage payment obligations. Epe suspected Martin had some; moreover, he railed against the fact that his own father had given arata to Martin to help him meet marriage payment obligations in the early 1960s. Why had property not been forthcoming here? Other approaches tend to explain away the question. For instance, it would provide scant consolation to Epe to categorize the non-exchange in terms of 'generalized reciprocity' (Sahlins 1972) in which repayment is open-ended or unnecessary because there is 'no book-keeping among relatives' (Valeri 1994: 6). More importantly, the approach would do little to illuminate the moral deliberation behind giving and receiving and would obscure the ways Martin and Epe understand their situation. As I intend to show, Maneo invoke no moral principles that would mandate sharing. …