Ethics: Provocation

It is Aristotle who claimed the smallest number is two, not one – or,  as Heidegger would write later in more existential terms, there is no being (Dasein) without being-with (Mitsein). But this does not seem to be merely a cutesy theoretical claim, just another line from the history of ideas. The intuition is a powerful one, maybe even an ethnographic one: life comes only as a living-with, not simply a living-amidst or a living-against.  

What if we were to begin an engagement with ethics, then, not with the self, or techniques or technologies of the self, but the 'hurly-burly' of social life itself? What if we were to say that ethics begins at the 'with' of social being, and not the self or the subject?  

My own work has centred on the everyday struggles Iraqis have contented with since the invasion of 2003. While academics and journalists have focused on parsing Iraq into sectarian and ethnic identities, tribes, and political groups, I have tried to show the gatherings and dispersals of social life in the country are barely tracked, and certainly underdetermined, by these labels and their analyses. When I focus in my work, for instance, on the life of a woman, Oum Ali, who runs a grocery stall in the centre of the city of Basra, I am not confronted with issues working under the categories of Islam or tribal identities, but the toils that go into trying to maintain her own life and those whose lives are dependent on her, such as the homeless children she feeds and houses. In dealing with the life of Oum Ali, I am immediately in the midst of other lives – how could it be otherwise?  

But those others entangled in the life of Oum Ali, however, are not entangled because of tribal or sectarian obligation. Nor can Oum Ali's life and those she strives for be explained by turning to Islamic scriptures and practices. As Levinas notes, '[Ethics] hardens its skin as soon as we move into the political world of the impersonal ‘third’ – the world of government, institutions, tribunals, schools, committees, and so on.’ We too easily as anthropologists seek to find the documents and texts, the rituals, or centres which organise and make the social comprehensible. I have as yet found no Quranic verse, nor portions from the Traditions, which has made clearer to me, or the people I work with, the coordinates by which life is lived, or should be lived, in postinvasion Iraq.  

Much more troubling in taking seriously people's everyday struggles, and in thinking those struggles for one's own life and the lives of others, as being ethical, is there is no special domain or part of the social which can disclose the social, as such. Our 'informants' are sometimes as estranged, if not more so, from the world they inhabit than the anthropologist researching it.  

An ethics of everyday struggles, of the 'with' of being, maybe counter-intuitively, pushes one to a much more parsimonious understanding of ethics. I am constantly telling colleagues and students that one of the small gestures common amongst my Basran friends was to buy a bag of fruit or sweets and simply to drop them off at someone’s house. One might say to a friend: ‘the apples looked good today and we couldn’t enjoy them if you did not eat them as well’. It would be easy to think of the fruits or sweets as symbols or externalisations of the care one has for others; beyond such an understanding there is an indication that joy and pleasure do not merely reside within our own skin, but are caught in the experiences of others intimate to us as well. This is one of the ways to understand Zygmunt Bauman’s theoretical framings when he suggests that ‘moral behaviour is conceivable only in the context of coexistence, of 'being-with-others”, that is, a social context'. That is, the claim of life being caught in the lives of others is not simply a metaphysical claim, but more basically, a claim of the ethicality of everyday sociality.  

As I have argued elsewhere, an understanding of ethics and ethical life must be complicated by taking into much greater consideration the relationality, interdependency and intercorporeality of social life. This metaphysical insight insisted on by many anthropologists and thinkers prominent in social theory is an ethical insight which insists that the care and formation of the self is but one form, one mode of ethical being. Our ethical lives are entangled and enmeshed into the lives of others and this enmeshment indicates not only that our existential co-ordinates are ex-centric, but so too our ethical co-ordinates and responsibilities.


Hayder Al-Mohammad is a University of Southampton Faculty Member, Division of Sociology and Social Policy, Teaching Fellow. Having spent more than two years in the southern Iraqi city of Basra since 2005, Al-Mohammad’s research is focused on the struggles for voice, justice and livelihood amidst the turmoil of post-invasion Iraq. He has recently published an article in CA titled "A Kidnapping in Basra." 

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