Speaking Ethically Across Borders: Interdisciplinary Approaches

8 January 2014 - 10 January 2014

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT - SG1&2

Register online via the link at the top right hand side of this page
Conference fee: £60 (full), £30 (students) - includes lunch and tea/coffee
Conference Dinner at St John's College: £42 (optional, places are limited)
Deadline: Sunday 5 January 2014


Jonathan Mair (Mellon Newton Fellow, CRASSH)

Nicholas Evans (Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)


Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the study of ethics among social anthropologists. Much of this growth has been due to the assimilation into anthropological thinking of virtue ethics building on two streams of theoretical work: that of Foucault, and that of virtue ethicists working in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition.

Proponents of the virtue-ethics approach in anthropology argue that a focus on self- cultivation as a process allows for sufficient attention to be paid to self-conscious reflection. Reflection and the freedom it entails, they argue, are essential aspects of ethical life that traditional social scientific approaches to ethics--Durkheimian approaches--simply ignore.

There appears to remain an area of ethical experience, however, that neither approach can easily accommodate. Since virtue ethics sees ethical judgment as the result of cultivation within a self-conscious ethical tradition, it can no more account for ethical judgment outside of or between traditions than the Durkheimian approach can.

Yet history is full of situations in which multiple, self-conscious ethical traditions meet, and in which people try to judge each other, persuade each other, or draw lessons from each other across the borders that separate those traditions. These situations are what we call ‘speaking ethically across borders’, and this is the phenomenon that the conference, and the publication we hope to produce from it, will aim to explore.

Contexts in which we might expect to find people ‘speaking ethically across borders’ include:

  • religious missions
  • international law
  • colonialism and anti-colonialism
  • vernacularization of cosmopolitan cultures
  • universalization of vernacular cultures
  • the adaptation of ancient models to contemporary situations in renaissances

In these situations, are people limited to using values with which they are already familiar to interpret and judge other values? Or can they genuinely learn from alternative ethical systems? If so, on what conditions does this process depend? Is the capacity for or disposition towards a cosmopolitan attitude to ethics itself a culturally specific norm or a virtue to be perfected, or is it a necessary aspect of ethical thought?

Ethnographically speaking, how have people in fact used the intellectual resources provided by one ethical tradition to judge others? How have they sought to borrow from other traditions, or to persuade followers of other traditions to adopt novel values and practices? What meta-ethics have specific traditions proposed to govern the relationship of members of the tradition to the mores of other traditions?



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the Department of Social Anthropology, St John's College and King's College.

Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.

Poster image: Chronique des Empereurs by David Aubert (1462) reproduced in ‘Genghis Khan et l’Empire Mongol’, Jean-Paul Roux, Wikimedia Commons

Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk





Welcome and introduction


PANEL: Difference and similarity in ethical conversations

  • Jonathan Mair (Cambridge): How to speak ethically across borders
  • Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck): Uses and Abuses of Self Evidence In Ethics

Chair: Nicholas Evans


Coffee break



  • Michael Lambek (Toronto): The hermeneutics of ethical encounters

Chair: Jonathan Mair



PANEL: Conversations between local, national and global regimes of ethics

  • John Marenbon (Cambridge): Medieval Christianity and paganism, ancient and contemporary: moral and non-moral relativism
  • Carlo Severi (EHESS): The Universalism of Diego Valades

Chair: Jane Heal


Coffee break


PANEL: Conversations between local, national and global regimes of ethics (continued)

  • Dinah Rajak (Sussex): Global Extraction and the Ethical Frontier of Development
  • Harri Englund (Cambridge): Poetic Justice and the Proletariat that Never Was

Chair: Matei Candea




PANEL: Disputes, persuasion, and compromise in religious discourse

  • Michael Lempert (Michigan): Hexis, Nexus: Illiberal Buddhist Virtue in the Tibetan Diaspora
  • Nicholas Evans (Cambridge)
  • Naor Ben-Yehoyada (Cambridge/Harvard): Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men

Chair: Soumhya Venkatesan


Walk to St John's College


PUBLIC LECTURE in St John’s College

  • Simon Coleman (Toronto): Borderlands: Ethics, Ethnography and ‘Repugnant’ Christianity

Chair: Richard Irvine

18.30 - 19.00

Drinks reception


Conference Dinner


10.00 -11.00

PANEL: Distinct traditions, common standards

  • Paolo Heywood (Cambridge): Are We Church? Moral dialogues between Catholic and LGBTQ activists in Italy
  • Jan Lorenz (Manchester): Moral obligations, moral upheavals and questions of belonging in a contemporary Polish Jewish Community

Chair: Tim Jenkins


Coffee break

11.30 - 13.00

PANEL: Distinct traditions, common standards (continued)

  • Joanna Cook (UCL): Furtive loving-kindness and the problem of Buddhism in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

Chair: Tim Jenkins

13.00 - 13.30

Final discussion


Jonathan Mair: ‘How to speak ethically across borders’
This paper will examine the conditions on which speaking ethically across borders depends. Drawing on the thought of a Taiwanese Buddhist leader and the practice of his followers, I will propose a tentative general model. Successful ethical conversations require, in addition to the elaboration of a conception of a border, the identification of ‘affinities’—values that are shared across that border. Affinities provide pivot points across which force can be applied in order to produce movement in relation to other, unshared values. I will consider a number of historical examples of ethical conversations across borders in order to illustrate the range of forms affinities might take. I will suggest that one of the reasons that ethical conversations across borders have been overlooked by anthropologists is that their common premises resemble an unpopular class of response to the moral relativism debate. The simultaneous recognition of border and affinity, or difference and similarity, that such conversations require does not correspond to the relativistic model that has been the foundation of most anthropological studies of morality.

Hallvard Lillehammer: ‘Uses and Abuses of Self Evidence In Ethics’
Philosophical discussions of ethical diversity and disagreement often leave unarticulated the ethical terms in which this diversity and disagreement is formulated. In this paper, I turn the focus on the way in which standard philosophical discussions of ethical diversity and disagreement embody specific assumptions about the basic terms in which any ethical conversation across borders must take place. What are these assumptions? Are they themselves fit to travel across borders? By subjecting the choice of some of the basic categories of evaluation in contemporary moral philosophy to historical analysis, this paper seeks to illuminate some of the conceptual challenges faced by attempts to achieve ethical understanding across significant cultural and historical boundaries


Michael Lambek: ‘The Hermeneutics of Ethical Encounters’
What the conveners describe is the scene of hermeneutics. To put this another way, encounters between traditions can be ethical only when they are approached hermeneutically. The hermeneutic approach lies beyond an extreme choice between rationalism and relativism (a border of its own), not to mentiondoctrinaire assurance that one’s own tradition is right. Hermeneutics sits quite well with virtueethics, as taken up less in the Foucauldian or the “Anglo-Saxon” (?) streams, than in the German one.  Moreover, “traditions” and borders occur within multiple levels of inclusion; speaking across them is a part of ordinary experience, hence must be a part of any account of ethical life. By way of illustration I revisit the local interplay of three traditions described in Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte (Lambek 1993) through the lens of ethics.


John Marenbon : ‘Medieval Christianity and Paganism, Ancient and Contemporary: Moral and Non-moral Relativism’
Christians in the Long Middle Ages (c.200-c.1700) in Western Europe often thought about paganism, especially that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Aristotle and Virgil, who provided the foundations of their intellectual culture, but also contemporary pagans (that is to say, people who were neither Christians, Jews nor Muslims), such as the Lithuanians, Mongols and, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ‘Indians’ both of America and India itself, the Japanese and the Chinese. This paper will set out and explore the reasons behind one of the surprising features of these discussions. With regard to pagan knowledge – in particular, that of the ancient pagans – some writers develop a relativistic approach, which becomes of the most important (and often hardly noticed) features of medieval intellectual life. But with regard to the question of the virtues of pagans (both ancient and contemporary), the approach is in almost every case resolutely non-relativistic, both from those who deny true virtues to any pagans and, more surprisingly, from those who recognize virtuous pagans.

Carlo Severi: ‘The Universalism of Diego Valades’
Diego Valades, a Franciscan of Nahuatl origins living in Mexico City in the second half of the Sixteenth century, published in 1572 a Rethorica Christiana (a Treatise on the Art of Memory) where he argued that the ancient Nahuatl shared with the Greeks and Romans the “essential part” of the techniques of representing and preserving knowledge that constituted the roots of any “art of memory”.
This statement implied two implicit assumptions, very rapidly understood and condemned by the hierarchy in Rome. The first was that the Mexican had invented a highly sophisticated technique, comparable to the Egyptian hieroglyphs (a point that suggested that they might have had, like the Egyptians, an hermetic knowledge about God). The second was that “before” the message of Christ came to be known, Humanity had shared a common, potentially universal, culture.
In my paper, I’ll argue that the position of Valades (and possibly Matteo Ricci’s), is an example of a kind of “reflexive” thought, that we could name “Renaissance Universalism”, where the reference to Antiquity (and to Aristote in particular) led to a potential “dialogue on equal bases” between European Christianity and other cultures.  

Dinah Rajak:  ‘Global Extraction and the Ethical Frontier of Development’
This paper concerns the rise of a new moral economy of social responsibility within the supposedly amoral realms of corporate capitalism. As transnational corporations (TNCs) increasingly take on roles not only of agents of empowerment, but as its architect - new regimes of local, national and global responsibility are emerging in which corporations are elevated as purveyors of a new global moral authority.  Disenchantment with the rampant free market fetishism and hard-line neoliberalism of the 1980s has given way to the (re)birth of an era of compassionate capitalism offering, it appears, moral, and perhaps even spiritual, revitalisation of the ‘Market’.  It has become commonplace to hear the language of commerce and that of community, of enterprise and ‘the social’ coupled together where once they were seen as antithetical; merging bottom line economics with a new register of corporate responsibility. Yet nothing is straight forward about this apparently win-win formula.  As the phenomenon of CSR asserts a symbiosis of ‘enlightened self-interest’ and social improvement, economic value and ethical values, I consider here what lies behind this marriage of moral imperative and market discipline, and, more importantly, what are the effects of it?

Harri Englund:  ‘Poetic Justice and the Proletariat that Never Was’
The predicament of contemporary ‘surplus populations’ – embroiled in situations where labour is abundant but jobs scarce – involves moral as well as material dilemmas. How to achieve a sense of obligation in relations of inequality when laws would seem to define the rights and wrongs of labour relations? An alternative jurisdiction – the use of language in articulating judiciousness – is conveyed by the notion of poetic justice as a matter of moral imagination rather than moral certainty. Reaching beyond moral and literary theorists’  focus on the realist novel, this paper identifies a locus of poetic justice in vernacular radio in provincial Zambia. Its role in mediating a dispute between Zambian workers and Chinese employers involved both awareness of labour laws and the use of proverbs and allegorical storytelling in the service of an apparently different moral sensibility. Where, for historical reasons, workers are less inclined to consider themselves as belonging to the proletariat than to insert themselves into relations of dependence, poetic justice can be particularly pertinent to understanding obligation in its multiple moral and legal dimensions.


Simon Coleman: ‘Borderlands: Ethics, Ethnography and ‘Repugnant’ Christianity’
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have been characterized as the repugnant Others of liberally-minded and secular social scientists. To some extent, attitudes have shifted as the anthropology of Christianity has emerged as a powerful sub-field, but ambiguities and ambivalences remain. I examine such textual and ethnographic encounters in my own and others’ work, and argue that more than divergent political orientations are at stake. Ethnographic critiques frequently centre around how such Christians cross ideological and cultural borders: acts of crossing (ranging from conversion to mission to economic transactions) themselves become sites of disputed ethical practice. I argue that ethnographers may in fact be complicit in constructing borderlands that reveal as much about the ethics of ethnographic practice as they do about those whom they presume to describe. I explore representations of belief,  doubt, contingency, risk and sincerity in support of my argument.


Michael Lempert: ‘Hexis, Nexus: Illiberal Buddhist Virtue in the Tibetan Diaspora’
When exiled Tibetans in India began to worry about their seemingly illiberal methods for making monks of men, “violent” methods like public reprimand and corporal punishment, they worried about what these might look like to foreign observers whose sympathy, and support, they needed.  Individual “autonomy” and “rights,” communicative “transparency” and “civility”—how could one countenance such liberal virtues in existing interaction rituals that turn Buddhist virtues into dispositions?  Buddhism and liberal-democratic ideals may converge, as the Dalai Lama often declared, but it wasn’t easy to show this convergence, to self or other.  Drawing on fieldwork at two sites in India–-the self-consciously modernized Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, and the relatively conservative Sera Monastery of Byllakupe—I suggest that this problem was not a matter of “translation” or the adoption of a “language of rights.”  Tibetan efforts to calibrate virtue meant adjusting the design of interaction rituals.  Yet the iconicity of design—what rituals are felt to exhibit--is notoriously mercurial and needs metasemiotic regimentation to be stabilized.  In narrating how Tibetans try to manage iconicity in ritual, I illustrate how the reflexivity that erupts in encounters with ethical difference comes in varying degrees and involves diverse semiotic modalities.

Nicholas Evans: ‘The Mubahala: Competing for an Ethical Tradition’
Ahmadi Muslims and their opponents from major Sunni sects in South Asia have long considered one another to be outside the boundaries of the Islamic tradition. In 1988, the leader of the Ahmadis declared that the insults, lies and propaganda of those opposed to his sect had reached such a level of severity that the boundary between the groups could no longer be crossed by rational discussion. The only action that could be undertaken, he declared, was a form of ritualised trial by ordeal known as the mubahala. If properly performed, the mubahala should prove the supremacy of one side by invoking the wrath of God upon the other, in the most extreme cases leading to death. I present an ethnographic dilemma: why was it that my Ahmadi interlocutors in India were almost universally uninterested in the outcome of mubahalas, even when this outcome appeared to support them? I show that this is because the mubahala is a ritual that works precisely because it almost always fails to produce divine adjudication. It is instead a competition to prove the centrality of one’s own community within the Islamic ethical tradition, crucially, not just by demonstrating obvious virtues of piety and sincerity, but also by demonstrating organisational capacity and the ability to broadcast a message globally.

Naor Ben-Yehoyada : ‘Follow Me, and I Will Make You Fishers of Men’
In 2009, the Bishop of the Sicilian town of Mazara del Vallo conducted a seaborne Holy Mass off the Pantelleria coast in the middle of the Channel of Sicily, from an altar mounted on the upper deck of an Italian Coastguard ship, and performed the Eucharist to fishers of his diocese, whose vessel were tied alongside. The bishop prayed for the souls of migrants who had died trying to cross the sea, and postulated seafarers’ obligation (“as Sicilians and Christians”) to assist any person in distress at sea. The Mass was celebrated not in any of his diocese’s churches, but rather in a space the Bishop conjured up as “Mediterranean, this great Lake of Tiberias.” By alluding to the walking on the water in the Sea of Galilee, this “Imitation of the Christ” expanded to cast the participating fishermen as the Disciples, and the entire Mediterranean as the Gospel’s Lake of Galilee.
This paper examines how this ritual transformation and its aftermath challenged Italian and European governments’ treatment of clandestine migrants, not from the abstract and universalist perspective of human rights, but rather through a regionally-specific worldview, which made the sea rather than the continent to its north the source of orientation and justification. In the public debate that followed, political and clerical authorities disputed each other’s definition of moral and political authority and, most importantly, the border and relationship between the two. While many echoed positions familiar from “moral anthropology,” others clarified the shared ethical foundation for the two opposing “orders,” the very foundation that oriented the struggle over seafarers’ souls and actions on the high sea.


Jan Lorenz : ‘Moral Obligations, Moral Upheavals and Questions of Belonging in a Contemporary Polish Jewish Community’
On the margins of the mass-scale ‘Jewish cultural renaissance’ with its thriving tourist industry, mass consumption, and, in some cases, nostalgic cultural appropriation, post-socialist Poland witnessed a profound transformation of organizations and social life of actual Polish Jews and Jewish Poles. The emergence of a new Polish Jewish generation has been one of characteristic features of the last two decades. Most of these individuals come from intermarried families and are descendants of people involved in the post-war Jewish sociality. Others claim Jewish identity on the basis of premonitions and traces of memory or are non-Jewish Poles who convert to Judaism. For many of these people joining Jewish Communities and engaging in Jewish social and religious activities has been enabled by the ‘revival’:  revised  internal legislation of Jewish Communities, the emergence of transnational programs of education and socialization, and the impact of religious leaders and ideas from abroad.  
One way to look at the Jewish Community where I did my research, is through the prism of a contentious ethical judgments of claims to Jewish identity, which in turn are driven by disparate ontologies of Jewish belonging and becoming. For once, there is a sense of moral obligation fostered by familial heritage and the gravity of Jewish affiliation in Poland. Then, there are localized transnational projects that encourage claims to Jewish identity, introduce new categories of affiliation and enable religious conversion. Finally, there are moral judgments informed the perceived inalienability of Jewish belonging forged in the tragic history of Polish Jews. Encounters within Poland’s Jewish communal spaces are often informed by the friction of these disparate understandings and affects.  

Paolo Heywood: ‘Are We Church? Moral dialogues between Catholic and LGBTQ activists in Italy’
This paper describes the interactions between LGBTQ activists in Bologna and a group of liberal lay Catholics called We Are Church, who lobby the Church to adopt a more progressive position on various issues, including homosexuality. The latter have made various attempts to initiate dialogue with the former on the basis of apparently shared values such as love, respect, and tolerance for diversity. In the course of such dialogue however, distinct interpretations of these values emerge. Moreover, the relative success of these conversations depends upon We Are Church persuading their anticlerical interlocutors – whose antipathy towards the Vatican runs deep – that they are an entirely different entity to the Catholic ‘hierarchy’, as it is known. But in prevailing in this endeavour, they create a further obstacle for themselves: the more convincingly they distinguish themselves from orthodox Catholicism, the less convincing is their eponymous declaration of ‘We Are Church’. The further they travel towards the positions held by their LGBTQ activist counterparts, the more likely they are to be dismissed as unrepresentative of Catholicism, and thus irrelevant.   

Soumhya Venkatesan: ‘Finding causes and solution across religious divides’
This paper focuses on a divination event wherein a HIndu ‘god-dancer’ or one who is possessed by a goddess proposed a solution for the persistent ill-health plaguing a young Muslim woman. The vent points to the ways in which women’s decisions and actions are framed and scrutinised within a broader cultural and ethical framework, which transcends religious divides, although ‘solutions’ are firmly placed within practices pertaining to one or the other religious tradition.

Joanna Cook: ‘Furtive loving-kindness and the problem of Buddhism in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy’
While Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy employs principles of mindfulness drawn from Buddhist meditation, it is presented to patients as non-religious in its implementation. Debate rages amongst mindfulness therapists in the UK as to the most appropriate engagement with Buddhist metta practices (loving kindness practices) in the treatment of recovered recurrent depressive patients. Some argue that metta practice, a Buddhist technique often practiced in conjunction with mindfulness in Buddhist contexts, may itself be a powerful vehicle for transformation. Others counter that it may inspire a deep aversion, leading to a total rejection of therapy altogether. In this paper I will focus on the position of loving-kindness in MBCT in order to explore the relationship between Buddhist and psychological values. Through ongoing ethnographic work with therapists in training I will consider the deliberation involved in mediating between a religious and a therapeutic tradition.