A reader comments:

You’ve been blogging about faculty attitudes toward morality and religion.  Let me share an incident from my introduction to anthropology course some years ago.  It was a graduate “core” course, but some undergrads took it too; the grads had more work, more reading, and weekly tutorials.

Before and during class one day there was talk about new discoveries about cannibalism.  While forensic anthropology was not my thing, my best recollection is that the issue of cannibalism among the Indians of the Southwestern US had just been decisively proven by a forensic anthropologist from Berkeley named Tim White.  White's analysis of human bones from an Anasazi pueblo in southwestern Colorado, site 5MTUMR-2346, reveals that nearly thirty men, women, and children were butchered and cooked there around A.D. 1100.

While the professor and some of the students were kicking this around, four female undergrad students became restless and visibly sick at their stomachs.  Several expressed verbal outrage (“That's horrible!”).  The professor was visibly perturbed and spoke directly to the outraged students.   She seemed outraged by their outrage, as well as gravely disappointed.  “If you're going to be anthropologists,” she said, “you're going to have to learn to see things from the people's point of view.  You can't be getting upset at them.”

This did not sit well with everyone.  The professor began the next class by announcing she had been called by the president of the university the previous night.  He himself had been called by the fathers of some of the students.  Their families had been caught up in the holocaust, and they did not appreciate the professor invalidating the moral values of their daughters; there is indeed right and wrong.   She went on to explain to the class that she was not saying we do not make judgments, but the anthropological gaze is about describing culture, not judging it.


Your professor’s surprise and dismay about her students’ healthy response to cannibalism is interesting and revealing.  A colleague once commented to me about what happened when he  assigned his freshman class to read the bioethicist Peter Singer’s defense of infanticide.  Those students too were upset (which heartens me) – but he was puzzled that they were.  In his view, their response was intellectually immature.  It was as though he thought the task of moral philosophy was not to uplift and improve our moral judgments, but to desensitize us to moral distinctions.

Something of the same notion comes across in your professor’s statement “The anthropological gaze is about describing culture, not judging it.”  Do you notice her tacit assumption?  She didn’t consider moral facts to be real facts, for if they were, then the description of culture would include evaluating it.  You don’t thicken description by throwing out facts, but by getting them all in.

The ancient historians and students of society took the opposite view.  Aristotle, for example, thought that in classifying the different kinds of political societies, the moral motives of the ruling class are just as important as their social composition.  In other words, if in one state the ruler promote the common good but in another they promote their personal interests, these are different kinds of government, and if you don’t see that, then you are hardly seeing at all.  He distinguished six basic kinds of regime – kingship, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy – in one column the good ones, in the other, perversions of the good ones.  Our approach would distinguish only three.

My point isn’t that we shouldn’t suspend moral judgment; I don’t think that we can.  Whenever we imagine that we are suspending moral judgment, we are deluding ourselves.  What is actually happening is that certain moral judgments which are recognized as moral judgments are being pushed out the front door – but certain others which are not admitted to be moral judgments are slipping in the back door.  We don’t judge cannibals; we do judge those awful judgmentalists.