The persistence of deep moral disagreements—across cultures as well as within them—has created widespread skepticism about the objectivity of morality. Moral relativism, moral pessimism, and the denigration of ethics in comparison with science are the results. Fieldwork in Familiar Places challenges the misconceptions about morality, culture, and objectivity that support these skepticisms, to show that we can take moral disagreement seriously and yet retain our aspirations for moral objectivity.
Michele Moody-Adams critically scrutinizes the anthropological evidence commonly used to support moral relativism. Drawing on extensive knowledge of the relevant anthropological literature, she dismantles the mystical conceptions of “culture” that underwrite relativism. She demonstrates that cultures are not hermetically sealed from each other, but are rather the product of eclectic mixtures and borrowings rich with contradictions and possibilities for change. The internal complexity of cultures is not only crucial for cultural survival, but will always thwart relativist efforts to confine moral judgments to a single culture. Fieldwork in Familiar Places will forever change the way we think about relativism: anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and philosophers alike will be forced to reconsider many of their theoretical presuppositions.
Moody-Adams also challenges the notion that ethics is methodologically deficient because it does not meet standards set by natural science. She contends that ethics is an interpretive enterprise, not a failed naturalistic one: genuine ethical inquiry, including philosophical ethics, is a species of interpretive ethnography. We have reason for moral optimism, Moody-Adams argues. Even the most serious moral disagreements take place against a background of moral agreement, and thus genuine ethical inquiry will be fieldwork in familiar places. Philosophers can contribute to this enterprise, she believes, if they return to a Socratic conception of themselves as members of a rich and complex community of moral inquirers.
[A] rigorous and intelligent account of the state of moral inquiry in an era of moral relativism… Fieldwork in Familiar Places provides a good many tools to continue the ongoing work of scrutinising implicit assumptions. At the same time—and this too is a compliment to its author—it makes clear that there is no necessity to converge on a unique solution.
Moody-Adams offers us not only one of the best recent critiques of moral relativism but also the first one to examine systematically the anthropological literature on which relativists usually base their philosophical claims.
It is refreshing to read such a spirited, original, and well-informed account and defense of such a position in moral philosophy, and how sensitivity to cultural differences can be reconciled with objectivism. Moody-Adams is to be commended for showing, what is often lacking in more purely theoretical accounts of either relativism or objectivism, that it really matters whether one is an objectivist or not. Fieldwork in Familiar Places is a superior and important work in moral philosophy.
Michele Moody-Adams’s book is a major contribution to moral philosophy. Its first important contribution is a brilliant examination of relativism. What she shows is that relativists do not merely arrive at conclusions that are untenable, but that even the supposed ‘anthropological facts’ of hopeless divergence on ethical principles between different cultures depend upon questionable methodology and tendentious interpretation. And this is important because if one takes the relativists’ ‘facts’ at face value, one’s understanding of the relations between culture and morality is bound to end up distorted, even if one does not accept the more extreme versions of cultural relativism. A second contribution of the book, one that interlocks with the first, is an original and powerful reconception of the tasks of moral philosophy—one that frees moral inquiry from the obligation to come up with a final theory or a set of principles that are to solve all moral problems, and that connects rationality with problem-solving rather than with finality and absoluteness. There are few books that belong in the library of everyone who thinks seriously about fact and value; this is one of them!
- 272 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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