Weber – Social Action and Alms-Giving

Written by Ben Eyre

Spirit of Capitalism

A short summary of our reading

As part of our moral anthropology reading, a number of the group felt the weight of Weber on our intellectual consciences. We therefore decided to engage with Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not being Ivy League undergraduates, we elected to forego the 800-page-plus marathon of the former, and stick to key essays alongside the shorter second text. We focussed on selections that spoke to contemporary anthropological and sociological concerns about humanitarianism (linking back to Didier Fassin again):

  • Social Action (from Economy and Society)
  • Alms-giving, Charity, and Protection of the Weak (from Economy and Society)
  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

We also looked at two articles to illustrate the relevance of Weber to contemporary debates about humanitarianism:

  • Erica Bornstein (2009) ‘The Impulse of Philanthropy’
  • Craig Calhoun (2008) ‘The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action’

Each of these texts deal with the issue of moral imperatives by categorising different forms of action and institution in which they inhere. The Weberian ideal model is at the centre of this project.



The group met on 23.01.17 and 05.02.17.

Participants: Ben Eyre, Piyush Pushkar, Karen Sykes.

I think it is fair to say that Weber was a more elusive interlocutor than other authors we have focussed on in the moral anthropology reading group. Why? We seemed to agree that our readings from Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic were clear, relevant, and resonant, but somehow Weber did not inspire the debate nor the attendance we have become used to. Our discussions might help to explain why.

I began to engage with Weber through the lens of recent anthropological discussion that have used his typology of social action to help understand humanitarianism. This seemed like an obvious departure point considering our past reading and future plans. The discussion opened around Weber’s delineation of different forms of social action: value-rational (wertrational), instrument (zweckrational), affective, and traditional action. Anthropologist Erica Bornstein (2009) finds Weber’s ideal model useful to understand the ‘philanthropic impulse’ and the relationship between unregulated largesse and regulated charities in India. We agreed that Weber provides a helpful explanatory framework here. As both Bornstein and Weber make clear, this ideal model does not preclude the simultaneous existence of different rationales for social action. This is important in this case. However, we questioned how useful this model is when the overlap and relationship between different rationales seems key to emic conceptions of action, rather than incidental or occasional. This led us to something of an impasse: did Weber hold the generalizable explanatory value we required? We were unconvinced that Weber helped to answer the three questions that Craig Calhoun says haunt humanitarians:

  • Do they seek to improve the human condition, the well-being of all humanity?
  • Or, do they seek to alleviate suffering, impartially, neutrally, and wherever it may occur?
  • Or, do they respond more specifically to “humanitarian emergencies,” seemingly sudden crises in which human conflict creates concentrated human suffering, in which, perhaps, suffering is so extreme as to be dehumanizing?

Calhoun does not claim Weber answers such enormous questions. But he finds Weber constructive for understanding the different actors connected by this endeavour. Comparative attention to humanitarianism using Weber builds on an approach to ‘good works’ (Benthall 2012).  This has helped ground an important corrective to the idea that Christian or ‘Western’ notions of charity have been privileged above other cultural norms of moral activity. Weber’s grand sweep of world religions was not our focus, however, we found that thinking about the connection made between different rationales for action and specific religious traditions was useful. The instrumental rationality of ascetic Calvinism is key to the regulation of charity, and distinctions between proper subjects of assistance and those who should look after themselves. This insight could be important for different contemporary anthropological projects concerning humanitarianism. Bornstein’s (2009) example of the resonance between regulation of the charitable sector in India and the instrumentally rational Calvinistic model that challenged alms-giving is sufficient to show that.

Perhaps Weber has been a victim of his own success. We seemed to find little revelatory potential in his grand and influential theories of the link between religion and political economy. But neither did we find them controversial. Weber seemed, instead, in both Economy and Society and Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to offer conceptual resources to draw upon to theorise detailed ethnography and to situate through comparison. Perhaps it is no accident, though, that we decided to read a collection of essays (Das et al 2014) that specifically challenges the use of philosophers (and other thinkers) in this way. Perhaps we will be able to return to Weber with specific ethnographic problems.



Benthall, J. 2012. ‘Charity’. In Fassin, D. (Ed.). A Companion to Moral Anthropology. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Bornstein, E. 2009. The Impulse of Philanthropy. Cultural Anthropology. 24(4): 622-651

Calhoun, C. 2008. ‘The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action’ in Weiss and Barnet (eds). Humanitarianism in Question: Politics; Power: Ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Weber, M. 2006 (1905). Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.

Weber, M. 1978 (1922). Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Das, Kleinman, Jackson, Singh - The Ground Between

V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh – The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy

The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy (2014) edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.


A brief summary of the text

This is a collection of essays by anthropologists who have used the work of philosophers more or less explicitly in their own work. In the introduction (Das et al. 2014), the editors set out the intentions of the book: not so much to set up an interdisciplinary dialogue, nor to map out the generalities of the relationship between the disciplines overall, but “to explore the attraction and the distance that mark the relation between anthropology and philosophy” (p1).

They maintain that they are not turning to philosophy “to provide ‘theory’, as if anthropology were somehow lacking this impulse” (p2). Philosophical concepts are “helpful inasmuch as they signal potential routes of ethnographic attentiveness but not as ‘theory moments’ that can be applied to ethnography” (p2). The essays reveal that “As such, it seems that for philosophy to have value in our world, it must learn to respond to the puzzles and pressures that an ethnographic engagement with the world brings to light” p2.


Group discussion

The group met on 02.03.17 and 16.03.17.

Participants: Karen Sykes, Piyush Pushkar, Ben Eyre, Marketa Dolezalova, Jenna Murray de Lopez.

All of us thoroughly enjoyed this collection. We each read different chapters that were relevant to our own work and thoughts, and agreed that the essays addressed very different themes. Since they were self-contained, it was difficult to speak across them. Therefore, our discussion tended to focus on one writer at a time. (In particular, we discussed the chapters by Clara Han (2014), Steven Caton (2014), Veena Das (2014) and Bhrigupati Singh (2014).) This fitted with the aim of the editors to explore the relationship between anthropology and philosophy speculatively and partially. They aimed to suggest potentialities rather than synoptic, authoritative patterns or a single tradition of using philosophy within anthropology.

However, the chapters did help the group to separate philosophy from anthropology. As one group member memorably put it, philosophy involved “thought gymnastics without bothering with the real world”, whereas anthropology “brings the two together and mashes them up”. Another group member related this back to an earlier essay by Geertz, in which he described a world which was difficult to describe and interpret ethnographically, a world full of incoherence, cacophony and noise. Anthropology could use philosophy to bring coherence to this noise.

For example, Das used Wittgenstein, Cavell and Austin heavily in her chapter. She took these thinkers into the field with her and put them into conversation with her research subjects, placing on the same intellectual plane. I do not mean this literally; she did not lift quotations directly from Wittgenstein and shout them at her friends in the slums of Delhi, in order to hear their replies. As one group member put it, social science can do more than than simply write what people think. The benefit of spending extended periods of time doing ethnographic fieldwork with people is that it affords the opportunity to think with people about things, and to think through things with people. As such, fieldwork itself is a kind of thinking that is fundamentally social. (As I write this blog, I think that this is a very interesting insight that may benefit from further attention.)

We found it important to recognise this way of using philosophy, as part of a broader recognition that there were social and political implications to bringing anthropology, ethnography and philosophy together. Das was very careful to state that she wanted to place her informants and these philosophers on the same intellectual plane. What she did not reflect on was that almost all of the philosophers discussed in this collection were ‘pale, male and stale’. The group reflected on the temptation to use references to established European male voices simply to legitimate one’s own voice in the academy. But with Das’s work, although she references these older philosophers, what the reader gets is very much Das’s own voice. Therefore the worry is partially allayed. Geertz came into the discussion again at this point, since he made a conscious decision to break the contemporary tradition of doing fieldwork in a place without written records (e.g. the highlands of Melanesia or the heart of the Amazon rainforest). Instead, he did fieldwork in Indonesia, where there were deep archives of written historical records. This afforded him the capacity to dwell within their own philosophical traditions, rather than relying on the Western canon.

In this attempt to use philosophy constructively rather than simply hitching one’s findings to a philosopher, we found Singh’s essay least convincing in the collection. He has Deleuze in mind as he revisits his findings from the field. Singh uses Deleuze to hold onto the contradictions in his findings rather than simply reducing them to a master/slave dialectic. The cynical question posed by the group was whether Deleuze was required for this kind of analysis, or whether Deleuze’s role here was simply to add weight to an otherwise fairly obvious point. The group decided that this would be unfair on an interesting essay by Singh, but the point spoke to more general concerns regarding the use of philosophers’ names to beef up and add greater legitimacy to papers in the – perhaps mistaken – belief that this was necessary to get published.

We agreed that the most successful chapters used philosophy to pose questions. This was related to, but slightly different from, the editors’ injunction to use philosophy to respond to puzzles from the field. However, both points share in their rejection of the role of philosophical theory as something to simply be tested by ethnographic methods, or to provide a template to fit one’s ethnographic findings into. As the editors write in the introduction, “As a starting point, we could perhaps accept that the philosopher’s anthropology and the anthropologist’s philosophy may mutually illuminate on some occasions but that it is also the friction between them that allows us to walk on our respective paths” (p3).


Caton, Steven C. 2014. “Henri Bergson in Highland Yemen.” Pp. 234–53 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.

Das, Veena. 2014. “Action, Expression, and Everyday Life: Recounting Household Events.” Pp. 279–305 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.

Das, Veena, Michael Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, and Bhrigupati Singh. 2014. “Introduction: Experiments between Anthropology and Philosophy: Affinities and Antagonisms.” in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.

Han, Clara. 2014. “The Difficulty of Kindness: Boundaries, Time, and the Ordinary.” Pp. 71–93 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.

Singh, Bhrigupati. 2014. “How Concepts Make the World Look Different: Affirmative and Negative Genealogies of Thought.” Pp. 159–87 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.

Laidlaw J - The Subject of Virtue

James Laidlaw – The Subject of Virtue

Laidlaw, James. 2014. The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The group met to discuss Laidlaw on 28.11.16 and 12.12.16. I have refrained from putting up a summary of the discussion as I am writing a review of the book for submission to a journal and I do not want want to repeat myself. I will place a link here once the review has been published.


Thompson EP - Customs in Common

EP Thompson – Customs in Common

Thompson EP (1993) Customs in Common. London: Penguin Books


A brief summary of the text

We chose to focus on three of the essays in this volume, listed below with original publication dates:

Chapter I: Introduction: Custom and Culture [1991]

Chapter IV: The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century [1971]

Chapter VI: Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism [1967]

The book was published in the 1990s, decades after the original publication of some the essays contained within. These older essays are combined with some more recent work, e.g. Chapter V, which revisits the concept of the moral economy and responds to its critics and others who have used it in their own work. The introduction summarises his aims in bringing these essays together: to outline the contours of customs that formed part of an eighteenth century English culture (and I note that Thompson is appropriately careful with this word) and fed into a “customary consciousness” (p1) for plebeians. This consciousness set them apart from the supposedly ahistorical ‘economic man’ of contemporary thought that Thompson saw becoming so prevalent in scholarly work. The point here was not to exoticise plebs as non-rational or pre-rational, but instead to undermine the kind of rationality espoused by the abstract homo economicus model.

Within this customary culture, social and moral regulation works by communities imposing inherited expectations upon transgressors. But these are not simply the rules of the state or the church, and the sanctions are not just those of the law, although Thompson does not deny the importance of church or state. What he is talking about are conservative forms of custom working by “non-rational” (p9) sanctions: force, shame, ridicule, intimidation. (I am only mentioning transgressions and sanctions but Thompson also discusses other customs and traditions, e.g. in recreation. Of course, sometimes there is overlap.) And what is particularly interesting about this is that although the form of these customs may be conservative, the content cannot be described as such, since labour is gradually moving away from manorial, paternal, parochial controls. “Hence one characteristic paradox of the century: we have a rebellious traditional culture. The conservative culture of the plebs as often as not resists, in the name of custom, those economic rationalizations and innovations… which rulers, dealers, or employers seek to impose” (p9).

Chapter IV explores this in far greater depth, outlining his famed concept of the moral economy, defined thus: “a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action” (p188). The chapter attempts to offer a more complete understanding of how and why food riots occurred in times of shortage than had hitherto been given by those studying 18th century England. Previous histories had labelled riots simply as “spasmodic” or ‘compulsive” (p185), i.e. following a simple formula of: food shortage > riot. Thompson instead explores the complexities obscured by such reductivism. He describes how a new moral order was being created. Although it may have appeared at times that the market was creating this new moral order, Thompson clarifies that it was the patrician classes who had created a new ideology which they associated with the market, and that they were attempting to impose it upon the plebs, who were resisting, as a class. What interests Thompson particularly is that their resistance referred back to an older moral order, a “paternalist model” (p193) from which the crowd “derived its sense of legitimation” (p208).

Chapter VI describes how perceptions of time changed over the same time period, so that time became loaded not just with exchange value but also moral value, and what effects that had. Capitalism and wage labour clearly played a large role in this, but so did Protestantism and Thompson shows how these streams feed into each other.

Group Discussion

The group met on 24.10.16 and 07.11.16.

Participants: Karen Sykes, Phaedra Douzina Bakalaki, Jong Min Jeong, Jenna Murray de Lopez, Ben Eyre, Jeremy Gunson, PIyush Pushkar, Amy Penfield, Chika Watanabe, Pnina Werbner.


This was another lively discussion that followed a number of different strands. I have had some difficulty in pulling them all together into a single narrative piece.

We had been drawn to Thompson by Fassin’s use of the moral economy concept. To recall how he used it, Fassin defined a moral economy as “the production, dissemination, circulation and use of emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space: they characterize a particular historical moment and in some cases a specific group (p266 of Humanitarian Reason).

Our discussion began with an exploration of Thompson’s perspective. He was writing as an English academic, working in a post-war environment and living in the Calder Valley, one of the hotbeds of the Industrial Revolution. But looking out over the Calder Valley from his house now, as one group member noted, the biggest building one can see is actually not a mill, but a hospital. As one of her American friends noted, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that “capitalism is bad for your health”.

However, his perspective was also that of a Marxist historian. Therefore, the economy, economic roles, division of labour and, crucially, class have an importance for him that they clearly didn’t for Fassin. Fassin’s use of the ‘moral economy’ did not create adequate space for the recognition of the importance of asymmetrical exchanges within relationships, whereas these are central in Thompson’s usage. His investigation shows how the crowd responds to a kind of contract being broken when the price of bread rises to unjust levels. However, this is not because they seek to maintain or restore a ‘just price’ calculated in the abstract (á la Aristotle), but instead they protest on the basis of a fair relationship. And, of course, for legitimation of this argument, they refer back to the old relationship between land-owner and pleb.

We appreciated Thompson’s respect for the subjects of his research. What one group member called his “ethnographic sensibility” had facilitated a demonstration of how the plebs were not just a subjugated mob, but actually were thinking individuals expressing counter-cultural ideas. This appreciation of Thompson’s approach led us to comparisons across time and space. For example, the Luddite valorisation of the lustre and beauty of a product as evidence of the moral worth of artisanal work was compared to hipster Britain, in which artisanal coffee and bread is revered, while Big Macs are sneered at. But then in post-socialist environments where consumption and the ability to consume are seen as moral goods, Big Macs are seen differently again. The importance and interest of these comparisons lies in the asymmetries they reveal. And therein lies the power of Thompson’s use of the moral economy. The concept, as he used it, was able to recognise economic inequality and its practical consequences, while also fully exploring what they meant to individuals in the contexts of their relationships with people on the other side of those inequalities.

That he did so with class in mind was important, and also lent itself to cross-cultural comparison. We noted a similarity with Weber in how Thompson describes the interplay between Christianity, morality, work and the development of capitalism. He demonstrates how work is transformed so that its meaning goes beyond the work itself and is invested with greater moral resonance as its place is recognised in a cosmology of redemption. However, one of our group members had also witnessed something similar in her own fieldwork with workers in Southern Africa, which had contributed to further intermingling between Christianity and the workers’ struggle. Indeed, in her fieldsite, trade unionists frequently addressed congregations in churches. As well, the movement had actually learnt much from reading Thompson themselves, in particular that classes did not merely exist as thing-like categories but were always in-the-making, with class consciousness built through relationships, work, sociality and struggle.

These comparisons inevitably led us to our own current conjuncture, post Brexit (and now, at the time of writing this blog, although not at the time of the discussions, post American election). Are we seeing a time in which our own moral order is breaking down, leaving so many people struggling to get by? And, importantly, how do we throw up a critique that is not just reactionary? Thompson showed that the 18th century English crowd’s resistance was rooted in references to the past, to a paternalist order which also subjugated them. “They found ways to cope, incompletely, with suffering,” as one group member put it. However, as industrial capitalism found its footholds, the actions of the crowd did improve their lot, they did improve their conditions. Thompson demonstrates how – up to a point – rioting worked to achieve the aims of the rioters, i.e. to be able to feed themselves in the short term, and to influence prices in the long term. An intolerable situation was made palatable. As such, their actions were not just reactionary, they were progressive.

Thompson does not use this word – progressive – but his analysis is intrinsically linked to an idea of historical progress that flows from his Marxist perspective. Following from this, we wondered if he was guilty of thinking the concept of the moral economy capacious enough to encompass or even replace political economy. One group member reminded us that Susana Naroztky has been very careful to keep moral and political economy separate from one another analytically. In so doing, she has been able to show how the workings of political economy actually undermine people’s moral assumptions about one another and therefore disrupt actual relationships, i.e. separating the two concepts allows one to show how the one interacts with the other.

Thompson accepts that he doesn’t really separate the two concepts. However, he does speak of the way in which the classical economists claimed to have disinvested political economic analysis of morality. He is careful to note that he is not claiming that Smith and his followers were or are immoral or amoral, but he wants to underline the claim made in their analysis. This is so that he can demonstrate what work this de-moralising does: allowing rulers to deny their duties to the poor without delegitimising their rule” (p270).

We discussed another criticism thrown at Thompson: that he is a ‘little Englander’, romanticising the English working class. Following his dispute with Althusser, this was how the structural Marxists saw him, opening up a divide within postwar Marxism. Althusser, for whom the base/superstructure model still held, continued to see modes of production as the primary motor of history. As such, the classroom was the place of social reproduction of the capitalist economy. And Thompson took issue with this, arguing that the production of the self was about more than the mode of production. Other factors had their roles too: the nation, the community, sociality. Theory that did not take these factors into account was impoverished. The group member speaking of this thus linked these factors to an over-riding question: what is the moral construct that we can recognise collectively? This question is required in order to ask less abstract ones about fair prices, etc., in a way that is intelligible to all of the relevant stakeholders.

This question can be framed slightly differently: how can we make coherent moral arguments in a way that remains adequately intelligible to others: i.e. across classes and other social divisions? Reframing it in this way demonstrates how close we came in the group discussion to Alasdair MacIntyre’s problematic: that we have lost our coherent conceptual scheme, so we have no ongoing basis for rational debate. Therefore, according to MacIntyre, our moral arguments are so much emotional hot air, humans shouting past each other with no shared understanding of the moral terms and concepts we use. Laidlaw, in his devastating critique of MacIntyre in The Subject of Virtue, finally concludes that this view is ultimately conservative, following in a long line of authoritarian, anti-liberal thinkers: Rousseau, Schmitt, Heidegger, Strauss. This reference to conservatism and anti-liberalism again put me in mind of one of the group’s earlier questions: “how do we throw up a critique that is not just reactionary?”

These questions haunt us now. They have haunted us since at least 1989 (although I must admit that at the age of 6 it wasn’t at the top of my mind). As we discussed, they haunted Thompson since 1956. But we must consider them in our own worldliness, at our current conjuncture. Brexit and Trump have not made these questions more urgent. They have simply pushed to the surface an urgency that we had hitherto been too complacent to recognise. And they are, of course, global questions. Thompson showed how we can speak to the global from a local and particular perspective, with an ethnographic sensibility. Ironically, since he wasn’t an anthropologist, he demonstrated how relevant anthropology can be today.

Piyush Pushkar

Fassin D - Humanitarian Reason

Didier Fassin – Humanitarian Reason

Fassin D (2012) Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press


A brief summary of the text

Fassin seeks to describe the outlines of a moral framework that he has detected at work in France and, perhaps more controversially, globally. He starts with a definition of “moral sentiments” (p1) that sets up the arguments for the whole book: “the emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them” (p1). Such sentiments manifest in compassion, and when translated into policy result in “humanitarian government” (p1), i.e. governments basing policies and programs, and their justification, on an explicit desire to alleviate suffering. It is this “deployment of moral sentiments in contemporary politics” (p1) that Fassin refers to as humanitarian reason.

In the Introduction, he states that he will investigate the moral obviousness of humanitarian reason, i.e. why does this line of moral reasoning work so well? As well, he states that he will follow an analytical, rather than a normative, approach, seeking to follow what has been enabled or foreclosed by this framework, and what consequences it has had. As such, he seeks to describe a new “moral economy” (p7).

He does so by way of a number of ethnographic case studies and non-ethnographic research involving interviews and analysis of documents. The first four studies are based in France, and the following four outside France, in the underdeveloped world: South Africa, Venezuela, Palestine and Iraq.

Group Discussion

Participants: Richard Werbner, Amy Penfield, Karen Sykes, Phaedra Douzina Bakalaki, Jong Min Jeong, Jenna Murray de Lopez, Ben Eyre, Soumhya Venkatesan, Angela Torresan, Jeremy Gunson, Piyush Pushkar.

Clearly, Fassin’s project is ambitious. He is seeking to find generalities across a number of sites in order to find evidence of a logic that he argues prevails globally. He refrains from using the word ‘universal’, but he comes close to framing it in these terms. While the group differed in opinions regarding the success of what he was trying to achieve in terms of a macro-level analysis, everybody agreed that one key failure was in his micro-level analysis. The question was whether this led to a collapse of his whole argument, or just represented a lacuna that could be ameliorated by further work.

One other member of the group and I felt that the best attempt at this kind of micro-level analysis was achieved in Chapter 2, in which Fassin describes the creation of a 1bn Franc Fonds d’urgence sociale, a one-off scheme to give money to poor people in need of emergency funds. Fassin carefully analyses the appeals that are made to the scheme and the rationales of the decision-makers, and is able to demonstrate that the appeals made were not to legal precedent or some kind of rule-based rationality. Instead they were to the compassion of the decision-makers, i.e. they sought to elicit pity, rather than invoke rights. The chapter neatly demonstrates evidence for the compassion-based reasoning of the people in charge of regulating the donations, but as he himself admits, actually says nothing about the subjectivities of the recipients of these donations. This is because Fassin only reads the written appeals, but does not actually interview or spend time with the people writing them. Indeed, he never actually meets them at all. So, were their appeals conscious and skilful strategies to manipulate a bureaucracy, or were they evidence of an internalisation and acceptance of a construction of their selves as the subjects of aid? Fassin’s investigation cannot answer this question.

This gap, replicated in all of the case studies, was a key criticism for our group. The main argument concerns humanitarianism, a key element of which is the giving of aid to those less fortunate than the donors. (I am knowingly conflating charity, philanthropy and governmental aid, simply because Fassin does. This was another of the group’s criticisms.) An anthropological investigation that has only looked at one half of this gift relation has missed a key constituent of the dynamic. Although I felt that this kind of gap was most important for the gift relation, other group members found that his analysis – in this chapter and others – was devoid of other intricacies of detail that were deeply important: gender, religion, aesthetics, etc.

These gaps matter because he is seeking to make a globally applicable argument. Of course, no monograph can cover all topics, but by failing to examine the micro-level relations that may undermine his argument, Fassin has opened himself up to easy criticisms. In other words, French governments may well attempt to apply humanitarian reason in various sites. But what if it ends up working in different ways in different places? What if differing social, cultural, economic and political contexts lead to the recipients of aid experiencing the effects of that moral logic (and its translation into policy/programs) in different ways? What implications would that have for humanitarian reason itself? He has outlined the moral structure of humanitarian reason with a clear direction of centre to periphery, European (or more specifically, French) government/charities to the suffering poor of Europe/France and less developed countries. By not countenancing the possibility that the obverse part of the relation may affect the moral structure, he undermines the foundations of his argument.

I do not believe that these criticisms necessarily invalidate his argument regarding the existence of something called humanitarian reason. However, they do weaken it, particularly with regard to its universality.

Although the group levelled the above criticisms regarding the examination of the gift relation and the subjectivities of the recipients of aid, we did find much to praise in his elucidation of the unintended consequences of humanitarian programs, e.g. the construction of “hierarchies of humanity” (p223) in South Africa by the prioritisation of children with AIDS by French and American charities. I myself was particularly moved by the chapter on the medical documentation of torture, having myself done work as a medico-legal report writer for Freedom From Torture. These reports, written by well-meaning physicians, are used in claims for asylum, but at the same time reinforce a logic in which the body becomes the “ultimate site of veracity” (p113), a scar – psychic or physical – being required in order to be believed by the state.

These successes of the book form a part of what he has described elsewhere as part of the project of moral anthropology: examining “the economic and social issues [moral language] reformulates or eclipses, particularly in terms of inequality and power, and the alternative perspectives it delegitimizes, whether they invoke justice or conflict” (Fassin 2015:15). But in his quest, he fails to forge an anthropology of the good that goes beyond the “suffering subject” (Robbins 2013). In other words, he fails to ask what else is ‘in’ the good that cannot be accounted for by compassion. As pointed out quite vociferously by one member of the group, the reason he fails to account for a broader conceptualisation of morality is because his definitions “have rigged the game”. For Fassin, “moral sentiments”(p1) are “the emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them” (p1).[1] His a priori definition has already focused the investigation on suffering, thus foreclosing an analysis of what one member called the “ambiguity of morality”. The same member wondered if Fassin was a philosopher rather than an anthropologist because of this rigging of the game. He also lamented Fassin’s lack of reference to the long history of anthropological literature on suffering, violence and morality.

This was not nit-picking. The point was that Fassin, in imposing these a priori definitions of morality, had disavowed any intention of investigating where morality comes from. As such, he may have provided evidence of the moral obviousness of humanitarian reason (in some sites), but had not spoken to his own question of why this line of argument works so well. Therefore, he had not helped the group with its primary question (which you can find on the About page).

However, he had certainly helped us with our second question, albeit primarily with regard to France and French institutions. This clearly-written, digestible and frequently moving monograph does provide evidence for something he calls humanitarian reason, although it may not extend as far as he claims, at least not in the same way in all sites. As well, he goes a long way towards analysing the hidden effects of this moral framework, what it enables and forecloses, what kinds of economic and political structures are reinforced by it, what kinds of social struggles it contains. In short, Fassin’s major success is in showing us that humanitarian reason exists, and in showing us some of its unintended consequences. Not all of the group would agree with me on this, but I think there is much to be appreciated in that achievement, even if much works remains to be done in order to fill in the gaps.

 Piyush Pushkar

Fassin, Didier. 2015. “Introduction: Toward a Critical Moral Anthropology.” Pp. 1–17 in A Companion to Moral Anthropology. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Robbins J. 2013. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 19:447–62

[1] We realised that although Fassin does not credit him, he may have been following Adam Smith in his definition. The following quote is from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I have lifted it from Wikipedia:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

However, as one member pointed out, Smith was drawing on the Nicomachean Ethics to make his argument, according to which there was a limit to how much pity a person could beneficially draw from another, after which compassion would be replaced by resentment. I realised after the discussion that actually, Fassin does make a similar argument in Chapter 2, in which he identifies “compassion fatigue” in the decision-makers (p61).