Morality is a concept that has been of philosophical interest for over 2,000 years. Rarely, however, did these philosophical explorations take much notice of the everyday moral lives of actual, living people (some important exceptions are: Brandt 1954; Ladd 1957; Nordenstam 1968). In other words, moral philosophy tends to consider the concept of morality at an abstract level. At the beginning of the twentieth century sociocultural anthropology as we know and practice it today began to shape itself. In contrast to philosophy, modern anthropology took on the task of describing and analyzing the everyday life experiences and conceptual worlds of different peoples around the world. Yet, as several have argued, until recently there have been very few explicit anthropological studies of local moralities (Wolfram 1982: 274; Pocock 1986: 7; Faubion 2001a; Laidlaw 2002; Robbins 2007; Zigon 2007).
This, no doubt, is a contested claim. For many anthropologists will say that in having studied, for example, the various religious, gender and kinship systems from around the world, they have been studying morality all along (Parkin 1985: 4). This, however, is a question of definition. According to those anthropologists who would claim that the discipline has, at least to some extent, been studying morality all along, it would seem as though they would agree with Ruth Benedict's claim that morality “is a convenient term for socially approved habits” (1956: 195). Unfortunately, such a definition does not differentiate morality from any of the other concepts anthropologists generally use. For if morality is just another term for socially approved habits, then morality becomes a synonym for, for example, religious practice, ritual, reciprocity, or kin relations. It is a central contention of this book that it is this confusion of definition that has stood in the way of a more subtle and in-depth anthropological study of moralities. In exploring various examples of anthropological approaches to the study of moralities, we will leave behind this confusion and set out a more focused approach to this study.
This book, then, is an exploration of the anthropology of moralities. Its main task is to forge a new path for this important line of research. This will require new and more precise definitions of what is to be studied. For I think it is fair to say that the history of our discipline has shown that it is only with this kind of focused
1.Wolfram points out that this confusion of definition stems from anthropology's theoretical
foundations in Durkheimian sociology and Durkheim's confusion and poor philosophizing on morality
(1982). This point is also made in Laidlaw 2002 and Robbins 2005.