The term ethics was first coined by the philosopher and physician Aristotle (384-322 BC), in his book Ethika Nikomacheia (ethics for his son Nikomachos). Ethics has its roots in the noun ethos, which means “custom.” Aristotle understood it as the rational study of custom which, methodically, as a practical science has not the exactness of the theoretical sciences. Today “ethics” is used in a manifold way. The public often uses the term synonymously with moral behavior: Someone is called ethical if they behave morally. In philosophy, ethics is synonymous with “moral philosophy” and deals with questions of how we can justify norms, distinguish “good” and “evil,” or develop consistent ethical theories. In Christian theology, ethics is synonymous with “moral theology,” reflecting the moral precepts of the Bible and the Church. The term anthropology is ambiguous in a similar way. It covers a range from biological anthropology as well as cultural and social anthropology, to philosophical and theological anthropology, each with their different methodologies and scopes.
Let us focus on the fundamental anthropological-ethical question of whether or not there is free will, then turn to the important question of ethical relativism and some topics of professional ethics concerning social and cultural anthropologists.
The Question of Free Will
Neurobiological discoveries in combination with modern genetics have led some to the conviction that human beings are biological machines determined by the biological hardware, especially their brains and genes, combined with influences from outside. So there is no room for free will: The basket of motivations that move us may be fixed. We just do what we are determined to do. If ethics develops moral norms of what we ought to do, this seems to be contradicting the assumption that we are determined. We need the ability to act in accordance or disaccordance with the “ought,” not by determination, but by free will. Otherwise, the concept “ought” becomes meaningless.
There are different solutions to this problem. Philosophical anthropology often suggests a version of free will in terms of modular brain functions that is compatible with determinism. We are seen as a complex, determined, neurophysiological system. Data are taken in and alternatives generated and ranked. Eventually, an output initiates an action. This action is considered free, if the following is valid:
The subject acted freely if she could have done otherwise in the right sense. This means that she would have done otherwise if she had chosen differently and, under the impact of other true and available thoughts or considerations, she would have chosen differently. True and available thoughts and considerations are those that represent her situation accurately, and are ones that she could reasonably be expected to have taken into account. (Blackburn, 1999, p. 102) Theological anthropology often offers an incompatibilist version; that is, free will is not compatible with determinism. For strict Calvinists, for example, there is no freedom of (the) will. God predetermines what we do. The Roman Catholic Church explains freedom of the will by introducing an inner self, the soul. It is the soul that decides what to do. The question of how different thoughts are evaluated by the soul and why some act in accordance and some in disaccordance with the “ought” is answered by introducing the concepts of grace and sin and the mystery of evil.
Ethical Universalism Versus Cultural Relativism
Social and cultural anthropology has discovered a huge variety of customs among different populations and tribes. The Greek historian Herodotus reports one of the most famous examples. Darius, king of Persia, once asked Greeks who burned the dead bodies of their relatives how much he would have to pay them to eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They refused to do it at any price. Then, Darius offered a huge amount of money to some Indians, who by custom ate the bodies of their parents, in order to make them willing to burn their fathers’ bodies. The Indians, according to their convictions, refused to accomplish so horrid an act. Herodotus drew the obvious moral conclusion: Each nation considers its own customs as morally right and the opposite customs as morally wrong. Social and cultural anthropology, up to the present day, has discovered huge differences among societies in their moral evaluation of such matters as euthanasia, infanticide, permission of sexual relationship, the question of duties to support children, the poor, the status of women, slave labor, and so on. Philosophical and theological anthropologies differ so much in their theories about men and women that they are one more example of the diversities of different cultures. A very important question arises from these discoveries: Does a cultural relativism entail an ethical relativism? Is morality only a matter of what is customary, relative to a particular society? If this is so, then words such as “good” and “bad” just mean “approved in a certain society” or “disapproved in a certain society.” Even if there are common moral convictions across cultures, this does not mean that ethical relativism is proved wrong. There was a time in which slavery was not questioned by any known society. Today, we do not accept slavery as morally right. Although the populations of the great powers were excited about going to war in 1914, we do not claim today that World War I was morally “good.”
From a logical point of view, ethical relativism cannot be proved wrong, but the examples of slavery and of World War I show that this ethical position is highly problematic: We do not accept slavery today because our society disapproves of slavery. We (do) reject slavery because we are convinced that slavery was wrong and is wrong and will be wrong. And we have good reasons to do so in order to defend human dignity and human rights, which through the experience of the atrocities of the 20th century became the fundament of a common universal ethical bond among human beings. Alan Gewirth developed a rational argument for an ethical universalism concerning human dignity and human rights. This argument rationalizes the experience: I do (or intend to do) “X” voluntarily for a purpose that I have chosen.
There are generic features of agency in a deep sense of the word agency. My having the generic features is good for my achieving the purpose I have chosen. I ought to pursue my having the generic features of agency. Other agents categorically ought not to interfere with my having the generic features against my will and ought to aid me to secure the generic features when I cannot do so by my own unaided efforts if I so wish. I have both negative and positive claim rights to have the generic features. If I have these rights, all agents have these generic rights, and I have to respect their rights. Who does not accept this reasoning contradicts himself or herself, because then it is possible to interfere with his or her generic features against his or her will. But even if this argument gives good reason for an ethical universalism, it does not entail what generic features exactly are. Therefore, on one hand the different results of social, cultural, philosophical, and theological anthropologies do not necessarily lead to an ethical relativism. On the other hand, they help to become careful not to claim a norm as universal too early. For example, the final report of the commission to review the American Association of Anthropologist’s statements on ethics states
Acceptance of “cultural relativism” as a research and/ or teaching stance does not mean that a researcher or a teacher automatically agrees with any or all of the practices of the people being studied or taught about, any more than any person is required to accept each practice of his or her own culture as morally acceptable.
It seems to endorse ethical relativism, but at the same time relativizes the relativism that clearly is the case when the same committee states as a universal principle: “Anthropologists must respect, protect, and promote the rights and the welfare of all those affected by their work.”
Professional Ethics of the Different Anthropologies
The professional ethics of the different anthropologies have common features with all sciences and humanities. They are bound to good scientific practice. This means that they have to develop an ability to distinguish important from unimportant results. The publications should be scientifically important. This excludes, for example, plagiarism, manipulating research material, and similar kinds of frauds. They have to struggle not to be compromised by research funds they get from “parties with a vested interest,” for example, if the ministry of defense of a country pays for anthropological studies in a certain area. Theological anthropologists have to be careful not to present personal opinions as statements of their religious communities. Instead, their research has to be a service to God. Philosophical anthropologists have to reflect the implications of their “image” of human beings for society (cf. the discussion of free will). Theologians and philosophers also have to take into account what the sciences develop. If their results are incompatible with the results of science (to distinguish from transcending the results of science), for example, in stating that the earth is flat or that the species are created distinctly, excluding a creation by means of evolution, they become close to superstition. Biological anthropologists have to be careful not to confuse science with philosophy. If someone speaks of a “selfish gene,” he is not speaking as a scientist, but as a philosopher or poet. Social and cultural anthropologists often face ethical dilemmas. If the “universal” principle to promote the welfare of all those affected by their work, mentioned above, is the guideline, there are situations that do not allow a simple solution. This always is the case when the welfare of some is promoted but at the same time the welfare of others is endangered. Therefore, in many cases, ethical codes, for example, for anthropologists in the field, can offer only a framework for decision making. Nevertheless, they are helpful tools in the development of a professional ethics.
- Blackburn, S. (1999). Think: A compelling introduction to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cantwell, A. E., Friedlander, E., & Tramm, M. L. (Eds.). (2002). Ethics and anthropology: Facing future issues in human biology, globalism, and cultural property. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
- Caplan, P., & Caplan, P. (Eds.). (2003). Ethics of anthropology. Debates and dilemmas. Oxford: Routledge.