There’s an unfortunate tendency in contemporary religious studies to widen the word “ethics” so much it loses its meaning. I once was the teaching assistant for a very enjoyable course taught by Anne Monius on Indian stories: the R?m?yana and Mah?bh?rata, of course, but lesser-known works as well. The course introduced the great variety of ways people read and perform these texts throughout South and Southeast Asia. I learned a lot from it: about Southeast Asia, about Indian aesthetics, about theatrical performance, about regional identity, about the anthropology of contemporary India, about lesser-known Indian stories.
What I didn’t learn from that course, though, was ethics. Monius referred to the course as a course in ethics, and much work that now bills itself as “religious ethics” or “Indian ethics” takes a similar approach to hers. In my view, however, such “ethics” is anything but. Monius’s course discussed plenty of material that was related to ethics. We read a great deal of secondary literature about what might be called ways of moral knowing in India – studies of the ways in which people in various settings come to form their beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong. And such studies of others’ normative views are certainly relevant to ethics proper; we need enough humility to learn from other people’s philosophies, to realize that how other people think about good and bad bears a relevance to how we do so.
Such studies are not themselves ethics, however. Consider a parallel case. Suppose an anthropologist, herself an avowed atheist, spends a few years in the American Deep South studying a group of young-earth creationists and their views – especially their views of biology. Our anthropologist is particularly interested in the way these creationists make sense of organisms’ functioning, how they explain it without reference to evolution, how they fit it into a larger worldview. And she writes up a study exploring this creationist biology and explaining it to a secular academic audience which finds it largely alien.
This anthropological study would be a valuable one, interesting and informative in many ways. It would be a valuable work of anthropology, of sociology, of religious studies, even of science studies. But there is one thing such a study would not be – and that is a work of biology.
Many would argue that biology, because it is a scientific discipline, requires all the rigorous standards of evidence and hypothesis testing that are associated with the work of natural science; and so therefore what the creationists do is not itself biology. I’m not going to take a position on that view here. Rather, for the sake of argument, let us assume a much broader, methodologically neutral definition of “biology,” according to which young-earth creationists’ untested or falsified claims still count as biology because of their subject matter – because they are claims about organisms and cells, about life. Even so, even if the creationists are doing biology, the anthropologist isn’t. She’s doing a study of other people’s biology.
Why? For a work to be part of a given field of knowledge, the work must argue for claims in that field. The sociology of biology is a noble enterprise, but to call it “biology” effectively seems to dispense with the notion of biology at all, to make “biology” cover so much that it ends up covering nothing. And to return to our present topic, the same holds of the anthropology of ethics. To study other people’s ethics is not to do ethics oneself. It is to do something one could perhaps call “ethics studies” or “ethicology,” something that is to ethics what science studies is to science.
To do ethics, one must actually make ethical claims – about what really is good or right, not merely about what other people think is good or right. Even to do “Indian ethics,” it seems to me, one must engage oneself with Indian ethical claims, one must consider them seriously as candidates for truth, even if one ultimately rejects them. Such an approach is, alas, still dangerous territory in contemporary religious studies, where an unholy alliance of scientism and postmodernism leads to a skepticism about all normative claims. But if one believes it illegitimate to make claims about what really is good and bad (as opposed to what other people think about good and bad), then one has ruled out ethics as a legitimate field of inquiry – as Christopher Hitchens would rule out theology. Hitchens, however, would be unlikely to claim his own book as a work of theology; he is ready to call it as he sees it, and say that right-thinking people would dispense with the theology he studies. Religionists would do well to follow this example. If you don’t believe in doing ethics, then don’t say that you’re doing it, even when you’re studying other people’s ways of doing it.