Ethics: Provocation

From the Series: Ethics

Photo by Ian Dooley.

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-amid 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 with the self or the subject?

My own work has centered on the everyday struggles with which Iraqis have contented 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 center 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" (Levinas and Kearney 1986, 29–30). We too easily as anthropologists seek to find the documents and texts, the rituals, or centers which organize 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 the fact that 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 counterintuitively, pushes one to a much more parsimonious understanding of ethics. I am constantly telling colleagues and students that one of the small gestures common among 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 externalizations of the care one has for others; beyond such an understanding, though, 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 (1989, 180) theoretical framings when he suggests that "moral behavior 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 coordinates are ex-centric, but so too our ethical coordinates and responsibilities.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel, and Richard Kearney. 1986. "Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas." In Face to Face with Levinas, edited byRichard A. Cohen, 13–35. Albany: State University of New York Press.