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Monica Heintz – Studying morality in anthropology: I- What is ‘morality’? II- Universalism versus Cultural Relativism III- The Question of Freedom in anthropological research IV- Conclusion- Comment " by Amin Elsaleh PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Monica Heintz   
Thursday, 06 February 2014 11:33


Vous pouvez trouver l’ensemble des contributions d'Amin Elsaleh sur le site academia à l’adresse:


“Morality” (*) has been for centuries the concern of the philosopher. I will try to show in this paper how anthropological field research could contribute to go beyond the limits of philosophical research on morality. But for an anthropological investigation to be effective, one first needs to transform “morality” in a viable analytical tool for social science.


The words ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ have been amply used in recent anthropological studies in order to describe social facts, although the black box of ‘morality’ has seldom been thoroughly examined. Morality is often used as the ultimate explanation of social facts, an obvious generality that could not be dug into further, an opaque screen. If this approach does not change, there is a risk that the term ‘morality’, though ‘new’ and ‘popular’, becomes just another synonym for culture or society, terms that are used evocatively rather than explicatively to the point that they become useless for social science[1].


Indeed, the difficulties in defining morality across cultures and evaluating its role in shaping action in a given society oblige social scientists to use the suggestive rather than the analytical function of the term. If an observable social event is explained by the anthropologist through the “moral values” of a group, this claim is often easily accepted by readers, without them knowing whether the evaluation of these values as ‘moral’ belongs to the anthropologist or to the group itself, i.e. whose morality is in question. Another risk of hasty conclusions comes from the fact that moral values are not easy to observe, therefore do not represent sets of collectable data; values can only be revealed by action (including the action of verbal assertion by the protagonists, body movements etc). But we know how complex the links between actions and the values underpinning them could be. For determining indigenous moral values through the observation of action, the anthropologist has to take into account the interplay of subjectivities of his respondents, his own subjectivity and the principles of action existing in that society. Finally, the greatest difficulty encountered by social scientists is to remain neutral, objective, but still in empathy with respect to the observed facts.


I devote my presentation to the questions and biases encountered in the study of moralities that urge researchers to develop a reflexive area of inquiry in which these methodological aspects are openly debated. Despite the difficulties hinted at in the introduction, both anthropologists and lay people recognise the importance of the idea of ‘morality’ in society, so the need for clarifying the notion should not be treated lightly- I devote the first part of the paper to this. The second part is devoted to the question of the relativism of moral values- here I purposefully use the term ‘moralities’ in the plural, not only for signifying that each culture may have its own set of moral values, but also for underlining the fact that in any given society several moral frameworks coexist, often as an effect of the global circulation of people and ideas. In the third part of the paper I bring in the discussion the question of freedom, which, following Laidlaw (2002) I show to be an essential part of the analysis of ethical behaviour.

The challenge that anthropologists are currently trying to address is to render possible an anthropology of moralities that enables the recognition of the plurality and creativity of moral discourses and practices all over the world. In addition to the particularly sensible application of cultural relativism in the field of moralities, anthropologists have also to struggle with several empirical difficulties. How could anthropologists differentiate between a moral/immoral and a morally neutral fact in another culture, when understanding may be limited by translation bias? Given the plurality of moral frameworks in many cultures around the world, how could anthropologists determine which one should be used as reference while evaluating morality in different cultures? How could anthropologists interpret inconsistencies between local statements of morality and observed deviant practices?


What is ‘morality’?

‘Morality’ (in English) defines a set of principles and judgements based on cultural concepts and beliefs by which humans determine whether given actions are right or wrong. We can amply debate the relevance of the term ‘morality’ compared to other notions such as ‘ethics’ or ‘moral values’ when defining the field of the anthropology of moralities (Heintz, 2009). The terms are not synonymous in English and we could certainly nuance our writing by employing them alternatively. However as we are often dealing with translations from other languages that have their own subtle differences between several cognate terms, nuances of the English language might further bias meanings rather than allowing us to deepen the analysis. The term morality does not even exist in all languages (Humphrey, 1997 brings a counterexample), which does not mean that moral evaluation is unknown in these societies. In addition, explicit verbal statements are not the only way in which moralities are expressed, which drives researchers to look for alternative methods of grasping reality without relying on language as primary vehicle of communicating moral values across cultures. Indeed, the anthropological practice is to look at what people do in addition to what they say, in order to evaluate morality in action.


I suggest that we get closer to a 'working definition' by defining morality or ‘what is right and wrong’ in relation to what is accepted or rejected in a society rather than pondering between the linguistic cognates of the term morality in a particular culture. Rejection of moral actions can take several forms, from warning to disapproval, from light punishment to exclusion from the community (including exclusion by capital execution). The form of rejection is not directly proportional to the moral offense, given that factors other than morality govern the management of a community. Also, if we look outside the intersection between the moral and the legal domains, between moral values and norms (that are ‘implemented’ values, rules that are socially enforced and sanctioned within the society), we find that there are norms that either no longer benefit or do not benefit yet from moral endorsement, as well as moral values that have not been translated into social norms. Moral values and norms, morality and normativity (legality) are interdependent, but in a complex way. Although the study of norms in legal anthropology could be a source of inspiration and knowledge, it does not offer unfortunately a strict guide into the field of morality.


It is not by chance that when we try to define morality we actually look at forms of rejection rather than forms of acceptance. While rejection is noisy, acceptance is rarely mentioned, and consequently is less amenable to scientific observation. Moral breaches are more easily identifiable than moral conformism. The study of deviant actions (of what is rejected) is a clearer path to identifying moral values in a society.


Applying the community acceptance/rejection definition does not allow for the differentiation between moral/immoral and morally neutral facts, i.e. facts rejected on grounds other than failure to respect moral values (e.g. their legality). This is a major difficulty in cross cultural research (Baumard and Sperber, 2007:6), as anthropologists tend to have a translation bias. Starting with a subject that is amenable to judgments of being right or wrong in one society, researchers translate the statements and then collect information on attitudes of acceptance/rejection from another society without asking whether the subject falls in the moral realm, or pertains to the etiquette etc. Most permissions or interdictions have some equivalent in another culture but not necessarily equivalents that carry the same weight. Conversely, there are actions that are neutrally judged in our society but could lead to moral judgments in others..


I should note here that the use of the terms ‘translation’, ‘culture’, ‘society’ in referring to cross cultural research should not necessarily lead us to imagine societies A and B (typically: A the Western and B the ‘other’) as a standard pair of different ethnic and linguistic origin with different monolithic moral systems. Within one single society one could also be exposed to several moral frameworks, say A, B, C, which do not give the same weight to the judgment of an action. Take the fact of riding without a valid train ticket in a Western country (e.g. France), which is a legally punishable act. Among older generations ladies brought up with a certain respect for institutions (mostly acquired through longer exposure to societal norms), this is a shameful and morally reprehensible act. For younger people, it is nothing but bad luck if one is caught. For some of them, having a valid train ticket is a legal constraint not a moral obligation. If a young person has his grandmother scolding him, he will end up by sincerely agreeing that it is bad to travel without a ticket. The anthropologist will risk considering him morally involved, which is in general not the case, just because his grandmother appears morally involved (she pays her ticket by principle and scolds those who do not obey the rule). The translation bias means that we would consider the shame or guilt shown by the grandchild as being the sign of the same endorsement of moral values as in the case of his grandmother- which may be false. The youngster may agree with his grandmother that it is bad to travel without a ticket by respect towards her opinion (that he does not fully share) or in order to cut the conversation short. The significance of his behaviour is different in his and respectively her moral frame, which supports the point that a variety of moral codes given different weight to judging breaches, are present within the same society.


Thomas Widlok used a method rooted in psycholinguistics to differentiate morally neutral facts from those loaded with a moral charge among the Bushmen (Widlok, 2009). His approach consisted in provoking a debate among 'actors' by formulating a particular dilemma, while the anthropologist remained a mere observer of the debate. We can roughly determine that when the resulting debates are heated, when actors actively search for solutions, a moral component is involved. This intuitive recognition of morality in action by the anthropologist is dependent upon the recognition of emotions, which is not an easy task in cross cultural research and requires strong familiarity with the field site. In a naturalistic approach to moral judgment, Nichols sees emotions as central to the success of moral values in society (2004). According to him, whatever the origin of the rule, it has more chances to survive in time if associated with a strong emotional charge. A systematic cross cultural investigation of emotions and their involvement in moral judgments should be a useful path of differentiation between morally loaded and morally neutral facts.



Universalism versus Cultural Relativism



The question of how to recognise and study morality cross culturally is akin to the question of how to recognise and study rationality cross culturally. We can certainly benefit from the fact that this last issue is not new in anthropology. The scientific debate between supporters of universalism and supporters of cultural relativism is old, and in the 1960s–1970s there was a heated debate led together by philosophers and anthropologists over the question of rationality (Wilson 1970; Hollis and Lukes 1982; Geertz 1984). Universalism presupposes the existence of a common core of rationality/morality from which diversity emerges in response to different natural contexts and as a result of different historical developments. This assumption provides an easy methodological support for the anthropologist, who has the comfort of exploring differences through a rational lens or, if we were to apply this sentence to morality, to measure differences against the same basic moral standard, supposed to be to some degree universal. Cultural relativism asserts that what we hold to be true/right in one culture can be held to be false/wrong in another culture without any possibility of deciding whether one or the other culture is mistaken in asserting it: each culture has its own rationality. In its strong form, cultural relativism implies that the rationality/morality can only be judged from within a culture and through its own criteria, thus rendering cross-cultural comparisons impossible. Even if it takes the form of extreme respect towards the culture under study[2], this strong form of relativism is not favoured by the anthropologist because it renders research on rationality/morality impossible. In its weak form, of ‘methodological relativism’, cultural relativism avoids ethnocentrism by recommending a ‘thick description’ of beliefs or values that would enable them to appear meaningful in their cultural context. Of course true/false and right/wrong judgments could not have the same ontological status in society and we should not push the analogy too far. But given that no scientific evidence has demonstrated whether there is a universal rationality or not (or whether there is a core of universal morality or not- though on this subject see the arguments for the existence of a universal disposition to comply with moral values in Baumard, 2010), to place oneself as an anthropologist closer to the moral relativist rather than to the universalist position constitutes a methodological and not an ontological choice. Moreover, a reason why we can easily transpose the debates over rationality to questions of morality is that questions asked a few decades ago under the heading of ‘rationality’, regarding the relevance of universalism versus cultural relativism, were actually prompted by moral concerns. When debating on true/false beliefs, the most troubling aspect occurs when those beliefs contradict the moral expectations of the social scientist. This dilemma is easily understandable, because when it comes to categories of right and wrong (even the scientist’s) human emotions run higher.


For illustrating the difficulty of making a methodological choice between universalism and cultural relativism when analysing facts pertaining to the domain of morality, I will take the case study of some news from the French press. In August 2010 an article appears in a leading French newspaper Le Monde relating how in Afghanistan a few days earlier a pregnant widow had been whipped to death then executed publicly (Le Monde, 9.08.2010)[3]. Several other newspapers share the same information. The very fact that this death event information was published by several Western newspapers, at thousands of kilometres away from where it happens, reveals how shocking this application of a customary law was to French journalists. The unusually high number of interventions and comments on Le Monde forum and on the forums of other newspapers showed the shock it represented also for the French public. The press article states that the Afghan government declare themselves horrified by the fact that this execution took place in their country, despite its legal interdiction. Even the Taliban chose to deny their involvement in this execution, despite the fact that while in power between 1996 and 2001, they had encouraged such sentences. Suppose both the Afghan government and the Taliban provided sincere statements. However, the attitude of the Afghan public during the execution, who tacitly approved by watching, implies that there was at least a group/ community that agreed upon the sentence that a widow that has sexual intercourse is punishable to death. This transforms the act from a ‘fait divers’ into a social and cultural matter, which, for Western readers at least, pertains to the field of moral values and of human rights. [4]


What is the cross cultural understanding of this act? By analysing more than a hundred interventions on several French forums, we seem to be travelling through the history of anthropological research. The most often used term to label the act is ‘barbarous’, which echoes the 19th century treatment of the Other as ‘savage’. Overwhelmed by the atrocity of the act, those using this term often abstain from further comments. ‘Barbary’ is used as a wall of unintelligibility the Western public wishes to raise between their world and the Taliban’s. No cross cultural communication is desirable or possible, the rejection is total. The two worlds, the civilised and the barbarous are morally incommensurable.[5] At the opposite side, we find the universalistic comment that no religion is exempted from extremism and the reminder that the Inquisition and the witch hunters used the same means…hundreds of years ago. The message here is one of understanding and tolerance: how could Westerners blame Islam now while Catholicism did the same in the past. And given that Catholicism has become more moderate since, there would be hope in the evolution towards a ‘civilised’ form of Islamic extremism? Behind this hope there is an understanding that Taliban morality must be like us, but, as one forum contributor puts it, ‘in our Middle Ages’. Some women’s comments use the comparative Universalist perspective to a different end: they state their relief that the rights of women (i.e. universal) are better respected in France. These comments resemble strangely the evolution of anthropological thought as described mockingly by Ernest Gellner:


‘The pre-enlightment anthropologist, struck by the frequency with which the interpretations resulted in assertions which were B(ad), and crediting this to the backwardness of the societies whose beliefs were being described, tended to explain this in terms of one of two theories: (a)Primitive Mentality theories, or (b)Jacob's Ladder theories of moral and intellectual growth. […] Neither of these theories is much favoured at present. For one day the Age of Darkness came to an end. Modern anthropology begins with good, genuine, real fieldwork. The essence of such fieldwork is that it does see institutions, practices, beliefs etc in context. At the same time, ethnocentrism is overcome.’ (Gellner, 1970)


And this is a perspective we actually find in other forum comments: the search for more context information. The journalist brings up some; he notes the fact that it is not known since when the pregnant woman was a widow. It is not clear whether the fact of finding out that she had committed adultery while her husband was still alive would make Westerners tolerate her execution. But the danger of ‘understanding is forgiving’ lurks behind his quest[6] in the eyes of the reader. In their search for ‘context’, some forum contributors assert that Islam does not preach the execution of adulterous women and bring quotations from the Koran to back up the statement; thus they suggest that what happened in Afghanistan is an act of deviance from moral values and not their application. Contributors wanted to know the position of moderate Muslims towards this act in order to confirm their supposition. Would they agree with the sanction underwent by the woman or not?


It is notable here that no negative judgement is made on the local community belief that a widow having sexual relations is wrong; the only rejection is that of the excessive punishment. This testifies to the fact that cultural relativism is enshrined to some point in the French society, but that tolerance towards the others' values has its limits. Considering a widow engaging in sexual relations guilty is accepted as a culturally tolerable fact; killing her for this guilt is not an acceptable fact. Searchers of a universal core of morality assume that cruelty and the destruction of human persons should be universally rejected facts and could be a point of cross cultural agreement. This explains why forum contributors seek to convince themselves that the moral values of Islam could not possibly lead to such cruelty and, in consequence, that the Taliban are just a group of deviants from Islamic moral values, who, in their quest for power, use a deformed interpretation of Islam to cover their wrongdoings. Many forum contributors proposed to change the title of the article from using the word ‘murdered’ rather than ‘executed’.

The Question of Freedom in anthropological research


This leads us to the question of freedom and power in a community. We can search for the values underpinning action by observing action only if the relation between value and action is free, if people are free to act according to their moral values. This is the reason why James Laidlaw argues for the development of an anthropology of freedom as a prerequisite for the development of an anthropology of ethics (2002). If we consider our initial assumption that the public watching the execution without interfering perhaps shared the same moral values as the Taliban, we should also question whether the public had the freedom to act according to their own moral position or were forced to watch the execution. According to French forum contributors, who bring information from other sources regarding the conflicting relation between the Afghan population and the Taliban, they were not free and thus the entire responsibility lies with the Taliban. (The same thing could not be said about the public attending Middle Age witch executions. -- how do you know? are you sure? ) If this is correct, then we cannot try to reconstruct the moral position of the public from the action observed (their watching). We cannot conclude that the morality of the community is reflected in their response to this execution. However, we should be able to draw this conclusion with respect to the Taliban executors. And this is what the forum contributors logically did: they concluded that the executors of the woman believed that she was undergoing the right punishment for her fault and her fault was capital, as result of their religious fanaticism. We know however that the Taliban are organised in a military hierarchy and probably obeyed to orders coming from their chief. How much freedom of belief they had and how much responsibility could we charge them with given the limited military freedom? (The executors run the risk of being executed in case of disobedience). The problem with freedom is that it is not amenable to precise evaluation. Nobody is perfectly free of choosing, nor totally lack freedom. On an imaginary scale between total freedom and total lack of freedom, where were the executors situated to allow us conclude that the execution they led was the reflection of their own moral values? This is a question posed since the Nuremberg Trials onwards in the courts for human rights. When the 'hands' not the 'head' of a genocide are under trial, the question of individual responsibility is hard to answer. It is interesting to note that new evidence from experimental philosophy (Nichols and Knobe, 2007) shows that lay people are in some cases likely to endorse moral responsibility even for deterministic wrong doings, that is for actions they had not the freedom to prevent. However experiments done on Western folk intuitions are not transposable to non-Western subjects.


This leads us to another possible methodological bias with reference to the role we assign to freedom in the study of moralities. Indeed, we do consider freedom of choice from the point of view of Western individualist society, where the individual is the entity endowed with reason, responsibility, moral values. But can we suppose freedom has the same role in a holistic or relationist society? Can we differentiate between individual and collective values in this case?

Returning to the case of the Taliban: lapidating the woman was caused by their believing that widows having sexual relations are committing an unforgivable sin or by their believing that their cause has chances to win only through imposing order and discipline in society? Is the Islamist moral frame the justification for their actions or is it just a weapon revived in the fight against the Western occupant? Of course the illustration of several coexisting moral frameworks through this example is contentious. But moral justifications collected in the field do not take simpler paths to gain the desired sympathy of the auditor. As for the anthropologist, s/he walks on shaky grounds when echoing such local justifications or giving context information that opens the path to interpretations that look more like excuses for an unforgivable (by our Western standards) act.


The fact is that the ethics of the anthropologist is itself in question when dealing with the ethics of the others. Committed to objectivity and neutrality on one side, s/he can be accused for the same neutrality on the other subject. Watching, without intervening or denouncing, is morally wrong for Westerners, but so it is giving arguments or context information that would excuse an act judged inexcusable. I shall highlight that the vast majority of comments on the French forum were containing criticism of the incapacity of the western intervention to stop this type of executions in Afghanistan. Clearly this position shows not only that the act was disapproved as being wrong, but also that Westerners were found responsible for not stopping it in the name of their values. These values, stated in the Declaration of Human Rights since 1948, are also applicable to non-Western societies. The guiltiness by watching threatens also the readers who learn about the situation but do nothing to help- this is probably why there were so many comments posted on the forum to act, at least, by disapproving.


I use the example of this execution held in Afghanistan in order to illustrate the biases encountered in research on cross cultural morality, not for explaining what happened in Afghanistan - for exploring this, one obviously needs to do fieldwork in Afghanistan. I would like to draw some complementary conclusions from this case. We had here the story of a morally rejected act[7] through a large number of French public comments that could reveal the French tolerance towards the other: this is largely a case documenting French and not Afghan morality. We shall then note that it is at the interface between systems of values (French and Afghan), that French moral values are better revealed (in this case the acts were perceived by the French public as being a reflection of Afghan values). The shock caused by the other pushes to moral statements and moral reactions (volunteering a post on the forum is an action in itself). The context was anonymous; members of the forum do not know each other, use pseudonyms, are not regular contributors to the forum either. Having no pressure from the ‘community’, no face to save, it means they freely express their own individual position, which maybe would not be the case if they were face to face in a group. The subject being ‘heavy’ and the contributors to the forum ‘serious’, there were few provocative messages. Le Monde has a large readership spanning from the left wing to the right wing, all ages and sexes. I argue for the suitability of using this type of data: debates arising spontaneously around a contentious issue (i.e. not provoked by the researcher) in the anthropology of moralities, but gathered through field observation.[8]




In order to overcome biases encountered in the study of moralities, we have gone beyond portraying moralities as a set of values existing in a given society to which individuals comply or not. We have seen that we often have to bypass language because of the translation bias and look at actions as well as statements of morality; that emotions are an indicator of hot moral issues; that rejection and deviance put us better on the track of understanding what is morality rather than normality; and that the freedom to express one’s own morality in action is not easily quantifiable. It has become clear that, far from generalisations, only case studies could capture the complexity of the picture and go beyond assumptions of what morality is or, worst, what morality should be. (Indeed, the temptation of normativity has probably disappeared considering the complexity of issues related to describing morality). The study of moralities should be guided by solid methodological choices, some of the aporias prompting them being highlighted in the case study above. Field study is necessary for further pursuing the analysis of the case above and I have only showed in this paper the limits of philosophical approaches to morality and the necessity for a field based anthropological investigation.


Studying moralities cross culturally is a difficult endeavour given the numerous difficulties of adopting a functional definition, and the many biases, and ethical problems encountered by the social scientist. Exposing these difficulties overtly contributes to a refinement of what could be called ‘data’ in this field of research and to a more reflexive way of doing anthropology generally. While many anthropologists still refer to collecting data and facts as if they were natural physical objects easy to gather, an anthropologist studying morality is deeply aware that these facts are created, often by him (as in the very common case where he elicits moral responses by interviewing). So s/he is forced to be more cautious about the reality and objectivity of the statements collected. A moral statement of an interviewee does not have the same meaning whether it has been prompted by the researcher or came spontaneously, if it was in reaction to an event rather than another, if it was about a thing of the past, or of the present, if it involved himself or another person. The anthropologist is forced to give the minimum meaningful context necessary for a simple statement of his interviewee to be taken at its face value, or as provocative, or as a resistance. Correlations between interviewee’s actions and statements can reveal further ways to decide whether asserted statements are truly an expression of ‘principles’ of morality or are in fact determined by recent actions in which the interviewee was involved or that s/he witnessed. The complexity of human beings makes them amenable to issue contradictory statements and act in ways that may further contradict statements made at a given moment. Finally the only valid observation we can make is that of their reasoning, negotiation, adaptation and evolution when they are faced with conforming to the principles they believe are important. If we suppose that every human being wishes to go beyond her/his own particularity towards an ever unattainable ideal and with hazardous conjunctures her/his needs to cope with daily.



Baumard, Nicolas. 2010. Comment nous sommes devenus moraux. Paris : Odile Jacob


Baumard, Nicolas and Dan Sperber. 2007. ‘La morale’. Terrain, 48, 5-12.


Geertz, Clifford. 1984 ‘Anti-Anti-Relativism’. American Anthropologist 86 (2): 263-278


Gellner, Ernest. 1970. ‘Concepts and Society‘. In Wilson, B. ed. Rationality. Oxford : Blackwell


Heintz, Monica. 2009. ‘Why there should be an anthropology of moralities’. In Heintz, M. ed. The anthropology of Moralities. Oxford: Berghahn


Horton, Robin. 1973. "Lévy-Bruhl, Durkheim and the Scientific Revolution". In Horton, Robin and Ruth Finnegan. eds. Modes of Thought. London: Faber and Faber


Hollis, Martin & Steven Lukes eds. 1982. Rationality and Relativism. Oxford : Blackwell


Humphrey, Caroline. 1997. ‘Exemplars and rules’. In Howell, Signe (ed.)- The Ethnography of Moralities. London: Routledge, pp. 25-47


Ingold, Tim. 1996. Key debates in anthropology. London: Routledge


Laidlaw, James. 2002. ‘For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8 (2), pp. 311-332


Le Monde. 2010. ‘Une Afghane, veuve et enceinte, exécutée en public par les talibans’. 9.08.2010.


Nichols, Shaun. 2004. Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment. New York: Oxford University Press



Nichols, Shaun & Joshua Knobe, J. (2007). Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous, 41, 663-685.



Widlok, Thomas. 2009.‘Norm and spontaneity. Elicitation with moral dilemma scenarios’. In Heintz, Monica.ed. The Anthropology of Moralities. Oxford: Berghahn



Wilson, B. 1970. Rationality. Oxford : Blackwell



[1] A few years ago anthropologists wondered whether the notion of ‘society’ has not become obsolete for social anthropology (Ingold, 1996). For instance in France, the phrase ‘it is cultural’ has become a way of dismissing and disengaging from values and attitudes that are not shared by the speaker.


[2] It is the ‘fideist’ position endorsed by Wittgenstein. In "Remarks on the Golden Bough" of Frazer, Wittgenstein asks rhetorically: "Was Saint-Augustin wrong when calling God on every page of his ‘Confessions'?" (Horton, 1973).


[3] The news was published simultaneously in many other media outlets. I chose the example of le Monde’s forum as it is one of the best mediated. By comparison, a Belgian newspaper, La Libre Belgique states its inability to cope with the great numbers of comments generated and that the news should be reviewed because of the nature of the debate. Thus the moderating team closed the forum for debates for this article. See, accessed on 15.08.2010.


[4] I underline ‘for the Western’, as we cannot presuppose that among the Afghans, this punishment fell in the moral realm, being subject to right/wrong evaluation. For establishing this, we would need, according to our methodology, to witness some emotional involvement from the part of the locals. We do not have evidence about it here.


[5] This is what Horton calls the contrast/inversion frame of explanation (1973).



[6] As anthropologists that search for an explanation by giving more ‘context’, we would have certainly tried to search for the same information as the one sought by the journalist and would have thus been similarly suspected to have tried to make the act excusable by ‘charging’ the woman with the weight of real adulterous behaviour.


[7] I think that the analysis we were able to draw shows how huge could be differences between an invented story/hypothesis done in experimental settings and a true story caught in situ. I can hardly imagine the same reactions if the story was part of an experiment, given the importance I gave to the spontaneity, frequence and density of reactions on the forum in my analysis.


[8] Certainly, the study of moral values could not be restricted to this methodology and I have relied on my familiarity with the French culture in order to choose from forum interventions those that were meaningful, to correct excesses of language etc. It would be naïve to think that one could arrive in the field and start with collecting this type of data as its main and unique source for analysing moral values.


Comment  by Amin Elsaleh


I- My second reading of this essay, makes me think to a possible debate on "Morality" to resolve some types of conflict using a wider spectrum of perception required to "reverse the steam ".
My own perception starts with reporting this extract from "AlFarabi Educational Ideas":
"It can be concluded of the results of this study that this great scientists had a philosophical religious view to education.
Objective: the necessity of moral education and its importance.
Programs: familiarize students with a specific profession in curriculum includes: reading ,writing, numeracy, morality play and music.
Method: methods are based on student understanding ; according to student activities and practice in the reward and punishment methods"

I believe this essay is a contribution to the process of "reversing the steam" in our country & in some parts of the world.

"Morality" is a prerequisite for what I called " Arab linguistic & identity awareness":


But why should it be only "Arab" phenomena and not worldwide one?

We are living globalisation period & with tools such google, facebook..we can't dissociate the interpretation of values like "Morality" from one space to another. Of course projections are required to handle "awareness & morality" in a given space; but we should start from a global understanding & what Monica Heintz wrote might "trigger" required & innovative debate on many subjects starting with how to preserve "identity" of "Basque;Bretons;Corses";in France; "Druzes;Kurdes" in Syria; "Berbères" in North Africa; "Roms" in east europe..etc and how those identities should subscribe in their welcome space called states: France, Syria, Morocco, Romania..

16 february 2014


II- Morality and the vertue

Another question requires further research: ""le principe de la vertu " chez Al Farabi est plus proche de celui d'Aristote": Farabi's virtue principle is closer than the one defined by Aristotle, a statement raised by Monica Heintz:

I believe that handling this issue should be achieved by carrying out the following project:


project on knowledge Networks and virtuous cities rebuilding

20 january 2016


(*) Monica Heintz is the editor of "THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF MORALITIES"


Summary:  “The significance of this volume and its nine contributions results from displaying a picture that shows the polarization of the ways moralities are being studied but also conveys its theoretical potential for confronting what some sociologists call ‘Durkheim’s dilemma’, i.e. comprehending morality between its social dimension (structure; duty; obligation) and subjective dimension (agency; desirability of the good; creativity).


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