Moral engines fueled at international interdisciplinary conference

Anthropologists and philosophers gathered at the AIAS Conference ‘Moral engines: Exploring the moral drives in human life’ to discuss moral, ethics and the interplay between the two fields of studies.

2014.07.01 | Lena Bering

Moral Engines conference at AIAS.

With ten international keynotes in combination with five local Aarhus University speakers, representing 7 nationalities and two main field of studies, the conference ’Moral engines: Exploring the moral drives in human life’, 4-6 June, provided an excellent foundation for reflecting on the main issue at hand from different perspectives, namely ‘What fundamentally drives human beings to ethical reflection and practice, to strive for moral perfection or the cultivation of particular virtues?’. While in some ways, this is a very old question, it has taken on new life in recent decades within both anthropology and philosophy. Within anthropology, in particular, a new “ethical turn” has arisen in the past ten years, a turn that has also provoked increased interest in developing an interdisciplinary conversation between philosophy and anthropology. This conference brought together anthropologists and philosophers who represent some of the most influential scholars currently shaping this ethical turn. The format of the conference facilitated dialogue in a way that proved enormously fruitful. After each of the 15 talks, time was allocated for discussion, prompting enthusiastic and, at times, heated conversations over the three days. It became clear to many of the speakers that these discussions were very helpful in clarifying their own positions. Perhaps more important, as the conversation evolved over this three day period, its generative potential became clear as some participants were introduced to frameworks and points of view that they had not seriously considered before. The generativity of the conference was aided by the fact that speakers and other participants spent informal times continuing their conversations, for example during the conference reception, at dinners, or late into the evening at the hotel bar.     

Where does “The Ethical” live? The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

Drawing on more than 30 years’ experience of anthropological field work in Sierra Leone, the keynote speaker Prof. Michael Jackson (Harvard University) spellbound the audience with his talk in which he used Kuranko storytelling as a form for his own academic talk to illustrate “the extraordinary of ordinary life”. Debates and claims about the role of the ordinary in ethical life was one of the recurring themes that several of the speakers returned to in their exploration of the overall theme – “the moral drives in human life”. Do these drives belong to the realm of the extraordinary or in fact to the ordinary? In Jackson’s optics, the extraordinary is actually found in the ordinary. In a different vein, Prof. Michael Lambek (University of Toronto) drawing especially on ordinary language philosophy and speech act theory, also made a compelling case for locating the ethical in the ordinary or the “immanent.” In the talk of AIAS Fellow Cheryl Mattingly, she explored a case when “life seems to fail.” She drew upon her fieldwork among African American parents caring for seriously ill children to argue that people may respond to this through what she has coined “moral laboratories” – experiments in everyday life in which people try to transform or reinvent the quotidion.

Actuality and Potentiality: How are these related to ethical life?

Another theme that several of the speakers kept returning to was a debate about the division between “the actual” and “the potential”. It might be thought that anthropologists work with “actuality” while philosophers, using literary fiction or hypothetical thought experiments, can dwell on “potentiality” of human existence. PhD Fellow and philosopher Rasmus Dyring (Aarhus University) sees this division as a flaw, and sought to illustrate the opportunities in the coming together of philosophy and anthropology. In his talk this was illustrated by his own use of the “actual”, Averesti’s work of art Helena (10 gold fish in a blender) as point of departure for his theoretical discussion of ‘the provocation of freedom’. Several of the anthropologists also made the case for a more complex view, drawing from their own fieldwork experiences in, for example, Uganda (Prof. Lotte Meinert, Aarhus University), Kazakhstan (Prof. Maria Louw, Aarhus University), inner city Los Angeles (Prof. Cheryl Mattingly, AIAS), and the island of Yap (Prof. Jason Throop, University of California, Los Angeles). In various ways, these anthropologists argued that perhaps actuality is shot through with possibility in a way that has ethical implications. In their talks, they explored the ways that people struggled to discern their own moral possibilities, often in very bleak and unpromising circumstances. Throop introduced a particularly phenomenological approach to this question in an exploration of the notion of “mood” to consider how Yapese adopted affective stances as part of their considerations of “possibilities for becoming otherwise.”

Social dimensions of the Ethical: Politics, Culture, Society

Several speakers were especially attentive to social dimensions of ethical life and tried to consider the issue of “moral engines” from theoretical frameworks that foregrounded the cultural or the political. Two of the philosophers, Prof. Jonathan Lear (University of Chicago) and Prof. Uffe Juul Jensen (Aarhus University), drew from literary works to explore the relationships between the ethical and social justice. Lear, whose book Radical Hope, has had an enormously wide reading, took up questions he began to pose in that earlier work, but this time considering the conditions of possibility for thinking about justice. He asked, in conditions of injustice, will thinking about justice be crippled? Some of the anthropologists were also especially concerned with the possibility of useful ethical conversation around topics of injustice. For example, Prof. Jarrett Zigon (University of Amsterdam), drawing upon his recent fieldwork in human rights movements in a variety of international contexts, argued that we need a new “critical hermeneutics” of some of the key terms informing that movement and its primary discourses, especially its use of the concept of “human dignity.” Prof. Joel Robbins (University of Cambridge) took a different turn. Drawing on his anthropological fieldwork among the Urapman, he argued the need to rethink some of anthropology’s classic notions, especially its concepts of “cultural values”, or ideas that motivate action, as crucial “moral engines” for ethical life.

Social dimensions of the Ethical: Community, Responsibility, Responsiveness

Prof. Thomas Schwarz Wentzer (Aarhus University) drew upon the philosophical resources of virtue ethics and especially phenomenology to consider the social dimensions of the ethical. He argued that it is an existential necessity for humans to respond to their situations, and this demand that life presents to us – to respond – is also an ethical one that we cannot help but take up. The theme of responsiveness was also central to the talks given by philosophers Dorothee Legrand (Husserl Archives, Paris) and Prof. Francois Raffoul (Louisiana State University). By analyzing the encounter between psycho-analyst and analysand in the clinical room, Legrand explored the existential dynamics inherent to the meeting between human beings; a meeting which cannot properly be understood by reducing it to a third and higher instance, e.g. to an all-encompassing culture, to the rules of communicative action etc., but most be spelled out in terms of the processes by which a singular being responds to another singular being, who is utterly other and unassumable to the ownmost existence of the former. Prof. Raffoul traced the history of responsibility and pointed to some decisive differences in the metaphysical foundation of the concept throughout the tradition. Prof. Raffoul argued that the term “responsibility”, rather than being conceived of as the accountability ascribed to the human being qua rational, thinking substance, should be defined with reference to an understanding of the human being as constituted in and through its modes of being responsive to existence, to the Other, to the human predicament of freedom.

A need to continue the dialogue and the question of a new "philosophical anthropology"

Prof. James Laidlaw (University of Cambridge), another very influential figure in the new anthropology of morality, gave the closing paper of the conference where he sketched some of the major themes and debates raised by anthropologists during the three days of the conference. His summation led to a lively discussion between philosophers and anthropologists about what each discipline had to offer, where the key questions were, and where their styles of argumentation compared and differed from one another. Many of the talks given at the Moral Engines Conference actually showed that both fields are drawing on each other and could certainly benefit from doing so, e.g. in what is termed ‘philosophical anthropology’. Already during the conference, several of the speakers expressed a need to continue the fruitful dialogue that had just begun at this years’ conference. The AIAS works on a conference proceedings publication – a collection of some of the papers given at the conference in collaboration with the organizers. But as little has so far been written within this field, a need for a larger publication is there e.g. in the form of a book on the topic. Finally, the organizers have assured that they work on a similar conference in June 2015 to continue the collaboration and dialogue.


See photos, abstracts etc. on the conference website


PhD fellow Rasmus Dyring, or Communications officer Lena Bering,


Cheryl Mattingly, Dale T. Mortensen fellow at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, AIAS, and Professor at Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California, USA.

Maria Louw and the research group, "Moral engines", Contemporary Ethnography, CAS, Aarhus University.

Thomas Schwarz Wentzer and Rasmus Dyring and the research project "Existential Anthropology – Inquiring Human Responsiveness", CAS, Aarhus University.