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The Ethical Condition

Essays on Action, Person, and Value

Written over a thirty-year span, Michael Lambek’s essays in this collection point with definitive force toward a single central truth: ethics is intrinsic to social life. As he shows through rich ethnographic accounts and multiple theoretical traditions, our human condition is at heart an ethical one—we may not always be good or just, but we are always subject to their criteria. Detailing Lambek’s trajectory as one anthropologist thinking deeply throughout a career on the nature of ethical life, the essays accumulate into a vibrant demonstration of the relevance of ethics as a practice and its crucial importance to ethnography, social theory, and philosophy.

Organized chronologically, the essays begin among Malagasy speakers on the island of Mayotte and in northwest Madagascar. Building from ethnographic accounts there, they synthesize Aristotelian notions of practical judgment and virtuous action with Wittgensteinian notions of the ordinariness of ethical life and the importance of language, everyday speech, and ritual in order to understand how ethics are lived. They illustrate the multiple ways in which ethics informs personhood, character, and practice; explore the centrality of judgment, action, and irony to ethical life; and consider the relation of virtue to value. The result is a fully fleshed-out picture of ethics as a deeply rooted aspect of the human experience. 

400 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Philosophy: Ethics


“Lambek is an outstanding anthropologist whose work has shaped the directions of anthropological thinking, especially in the fields of religion, ethics, and spirit possession—each field inflected creatively by the other. As one reads these essays, one begins to engage not only with the evolution of Lambek’s thought but with the pivotal controversies that mark the emergence of a vigorous debate on ethics, freedom, obligation, and the making of the moral person in anthropology. Throughout we are made aware not only of the theoretical sophistication and the fidelity to the ethnographic record in Lambek’s writing but also of the fact that these ideas on ethics are not just intellectual games for him—they are ways of living and working. This collection is a truly outstanding account of the various pathways open for anthropology to think about ethics and morality.”

Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University

“Lambek has come to be identified with a distinctive position within the anthropology of ethics—one that recognizes the ethical as an imminent dimension of all human social life, that sees the human condition as necessarily and pervasively an ethical one. The argument for this position is richly developed across the essays in this collection and rooted in Lambek’s exemplary, detailed ethnography and fine readings of a distinctive range of thinkers. The result is beautifully written, scrupulous scholarship of the highest order that will be indispensible for this important and growing field of anthropology.”

James Laidlaw, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents


One. The Ethical Condition
Two. Virgin Marriage and the Autonomy of Women in Mayotte
Three. Taboo as Cultural Practice among Malagasy Speakers
Four. The Past Imperfect: Remembering as Moral Practice
Five. The Anthropology of Religion and the Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy
Six. Just Anger: Scenarios of Indignation in Botswana and Madagascar
Coauthored by Jacqueline Solway
Seven. Rheumatic Irony: Questions of Agency and Self-Deception as Refracted Through the Art of Living with Spirits
Eight. On Catching Up with Oneself: Learning to Know That One Means What One Does
Nine. Sacrifice and the Problem of Beginning: Reflections from Sakalava Mythopraxis
Ten. Value and Virtue
Eleven. Toward an Ethics of the Act
Twelve. Ethics Out of the Ordinary
Thirteen. The Value of (Performative) Acts
Fourteen. The Continuous and Discontinuous Person: Two Dimensions of Ethical Life


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