Edited by James G. Carrier
Chapter 24: Economic Anthropology and Ethics
Peter Luetchford As normally understood, ethics is a branch of philosophy; it is ‘philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems, and moral judgements’ (Frankena 1973: 4). In this guise ethical concerns pursue the enlightenment goal of establishing a rational and hence universal morality, founded upon an agreed human nature. The problem, and one that has been exposed from within philosophy itself, is that no generally acceptable criteria for justice have yet been established. Instead of rationality we have philosophical traditions, each claiming precedence over others, but with little consensus about what the basis for moral judgements should be (MacIntyre 1988; Wilson 1997). In economics the dominant trend is likewise constructed around a universal model of human nature, which threatens to unravel under scrutiny. By using an anthropological perspective on the ethic underpinning the market, or that form of market activity which emerged in Western Europe some three hundred years ago, we can begin to see it as just one possible way economic life might be arranged and a particular distribution justified. In this way a universal and supposedly natural model of the economy is denaturalised and becomes historical (Roseberry 1997: 252). But the Western idea of the market also has importance as it is a common point of departure for anthropologists in their studies of specific economies, and moral precepts and ideas are often drawn in contrast to this economic model. It seems that even anthropologists, in the study of non-Western and non-capitalist societies, find it difficult to escape the use...
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