Ethics: Deviation

From the Series: Ethics

Photo by Ian Dooley.

So far in this online exchange, we’ve read two distinctive perspectives on the theme of ethics. Hayder Al-Mohammad has an experience-near take, where ethics must be apprehended on the ground, and is bound to practical considerations and real situations. In this perspective, ethics, including questions about “the coordinates by which life is lived or should be lived,” is an arena for which the thick descriptions of ethnography are well suited. The method and ethic of getting close to everyday struggles is also a basis for moral aspiration and imagination. A distinctively social form of research sets anthropology apart as a kind of dwelling, and the analysis of reality is linked to a consideration of possibility.

What I most appreciate in the subsequent intervention, from P. Joshua Griffin, is its author takes a step back. If Al-Mohammad emphasizes a micro focus on the relationships and situations in which informants and ethnographers are mutually and differently engaged, Griffin asks what we are to make of ethics given the broadscale, planetary phenomena that link humans, however distant and removed their lives and situations might seem. The theme he raises is the global problem of climate change. “In the absence of shared experience, yet given our atmospheric and other (often invisible) entanglements,” Griffin asks, "what role does the anthropological project still play?” For Griffin, ethics turns on the possibility of seeing peoples and places as interdependent and interconnected, and generating transformative thinking and relationships. Anthropology reports on local realities, draws out connections, puts two and two together, locates you in other people’s shoes, and looks at problems from diverse existential perspectives and conditions of life—and in this way it contributes to a project of making things otherwise.

I want to add to this already productive discussion by directing our attention to another macro issue, one of the most consequential sources and sites of power in our times, the multinational corporation. Big capital contributes to problems of planetary proportion and, in the face of critique and regulatory impulses, shapes public debates about ethics in determinant and strategic ways. Corporations frame ethics. They engage with and foster discourse, influencing the realm of what is possible when it comes to conversations about and approaches to problems, whether it be climate change (as in Griffin’s case) or the Iraq War and its aftermath (in Al-Mohammed’s case), or global health politics and tobacco, the area that I’ve been working on for the past decade.

In my work on tobacco I’ve come to look specifically at the ways that tobacco companies, which profit from the sale and global spread of the most harmful commodity that has ever been produced, and which benefit in this enterprise from international free-trade policies, use public relations and other strategies to legitimize their business. And this is not just a story of how bad the tobacco industry is in particular. Indeed, the corporate structuring of ethics seems to have reached an unprecedented level in recent years with the ubiquitous turn to corporate social responsibility. Markets in civic virtue are linked up with economic markets and values in ways that are often insidious and dangerous. Go to the website of nearly any multinational corporation and you will learn about the good works it delivers—philanthropy, the funding of science, the conservation of nature, and so on—and the positive values it possesses as a kind of imagined personality. Chevron is harnessing the “power of human energy,” while Monsanto engages in “sustainable agriculture” that “improves lives.” Even companies that are clearly involved in the production of harm claim to be good-natured and undertaking business in ways that are ethical and virtuous, making the world better, not worse.

Anthropologists, working up and down levels of industry and across supply chains, are in an ideal position to critically assess claims about corporate social responsibility, evaluating the new business ethics in light of the reality of how industry impacts peoples and places. Business ethics commonly function as a strategic means of foreshortening public critique or awareness of harm and containing regulation, as Stuart Kirsch and I argue in a recent article comparing mining and tobacco (Benson and Kirsch 2010). This work is part of a growing body of scholarship in anthropology on the ways that corporations influence culture to strategically position themselves, as when Philip Morris, the biggest of Big Tobacco, on its website and in its philanthropic support of healthy lifestyle initiatives in schools in the United States, seeks to cast smoking as a problem of individual decisions, parenting skills, and the family rather than public policy, industry regulation, and trade restrictions.

Tobacco (and other corporate) supply chains build on and reinforce spheres of “ethical variability” (Petryna 2005), where certain populations—like Mexican migrant farmworkers in North Carolina, or indebted tobacco farmers in Brazil, or potential smokers in growing cigarette markets in the Global South—are exposed to distinctive kinds and uneven levels of risk and harm. Careful ethnographic reporting is needed for an ethics that is attentive to the ways that little histories and everyday struggles emerge in the context of broad-scale processes like industrial pollution and climate change, geopolitical plundering and warfare, extractive industry and mountaintop removal, cigarette production and marketing—but so is critical anthropological attention to the macro domains of corporate strategy and political economy.


Benson, Peter, and Stuart Kirsch. 2010. "Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation." Current Anthropology 51, no. 4: 459–86.

Adriana Petryna. 2005. "Ethical Variability: Drug Development and Globalizing Clinical Trials." American Ethnologist 32, no. 2: 183–97.