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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

6 - The reluctant cannibal


Bernard Williams's (1993) discussion of archaic Greek thinking about responsibility is able to yield the insights it does, and to form the basis for the framework suggested in Chapter 5 for wider historical and comparative analysis on that dimension of ethical life, because he proceeds by taking what he describes seriously, in a way that anthropology also often aims to do but does not always succeed in sustaining. He presents ancient Greek concepts as an alternative for us rather than merely an alternative to us. This of course is also what MacIntyre (1981; 1988) was aiming at with his notion of encounters between traditions (see Chapter 2). By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest here that something like Williams's mode of comparison and contrast can enable the anthropology of ethics to take its subject matter seriously, and so to constitute itself as a form of ethical practice.

While Williams does not deny and indeed seeks to convey the specificities of ancient Greek thinking, his analysis is not framed by an us-them contrast (see Chapter 1) between two cultural entities conceived as mutually exclusive. The most important contrast, instead, is between ‘our’ everyday reflective thought, practical judgement, and experience on the one hand and our most influential theories and publicly validated normative standards on the other; a contrast, that is, between the variety and complexity of how we commonly think, and the narrowness and rigidity of how we often think we ought to think. His account of archaic Greece enables this contrast precisely because it is not located outside the ethical horizon he invites his readers (when he writes of ‘us’ and what ‘we’ think or do) to see themselves as sharing with him. While Williams does not of course suggest that his readers should wish to be or try to think or act like ancient Greeks, they are invited to take Greek thought and practice seriously as pertaining to themselves; sufficiently so for them to reconsider their own thoughts in the light of it.

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The Subject of Virtue
  • Online ISBN: 9781139236232
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