Anthropology has shown just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves. But it also reveals some remarkable commonalities - fundamental moral principles that appear to exist everywhere, and that will always tend to be invoked, wherever people transfer objects back and forth or argue about what other people owe them.--David Graeber (2011, 2014), Debt: The first 5000 Years, p. 90.
Outside of bits of philosophy of biology (a big field) and philosophy of archaeology (a small sub-set of philosophy of the special sciences), philosophers do not generally pay a lot of attention to anthropologists. At first sight this is surprising because there are clear overlaps between areas of anthropology and work done in philosophy of mind and ethics/political philosophy. It's less surprising if one recognizes that (i) anthropological methods often don't fit the image of science within philosophy. An image of science contain (recall) is (a) a list of characteristics that function as short-hand for representing science when (b) these characteristics are used in debates where one side (or more) appeals to the (epistemic) authority of science to settle debate, and (c) such an image is often accompanied by privileged list of scientific virtues. While field work as such is not at odds with philosophy's image of science, anthropologists have (in the perception of philosophers) increasingly tended toward narrative (and post-modernist versions of it), toward political activism, and moral relativism, which are often not treated as scientific at all in this image of science. In particular, this has coincided with (ii) that during the last few generations, professional philosophers have increasingly come to deny moral relativism the status as a respectable position in ethics (we now associate relativism with many of the silly things said by our worst undergraduates). This is not deny that with John MacFarlane's recent technical work on assessment sensitivity, it should be easier to articulate versions of moral relativism that will get a less dismissive response in the future (see here for an intro).
So, when I was prompted to read Debt by Crooked Timber's memorable symposium on it, I was puzzled by the philosophers's interest in it. To be sure, I was not really puzzled because since the aftermath of the fall of Lehman, debt is very high on the political agenda in lots of ways; in addition, a non-trivial number of philosophers have become skeptical of the status of economics as a science, and Graeber presents his own work in opposition to mainstream economics since Adam Smith. But guided, in part, by Chris Bertram's helpful introduction to the Crooked Timber symposium, I had kind of interpreted Graeber as an ordinary anthropological relativist. For, as Bertram correctly notes, according to Graeber, "human societies are always structured (despite appearances) around three competing moral principles: communism, exchange, and hierarchy." In addition, Graeber writes things like "radical equality and radical inequality do exist in the world, that each carries within its own kind of morality, its own ways of thinking and arguing about the rights and wrongs of any given situation, and these moralities are entirely different than that of tit-for-tat-exchange," (p. 94). During the symposium I did not really sit down with Debt at the time, but read it superficially, and so Bertram's became my own understanding of Debt. As it happens, I am teaching the book, and (in light of the passage quoted at the top of this post), I wish to revisit Graeber's relationship to relativism.
“Communism” is the principle familiar from Marx: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Each contributes what they can and we are sensitive to the vulnerability of other members of our family or community [...or friendship]....Graeber argues (101) that this “baseline communism” is the “ground of all human social life”. “Exchange”, by contrast, is governed by an ideal of strict reciprocity among free and equal persons. I give you something and you give me something in return. It is, among other things, the ideal principle of market exchange. “Hierarchy” is a principle of authority and status: we are not equal, I have the right to command and you to the duty obey, in virtue of who we are. These principles aren’t mutually exclusive, and they have peculiar ways of morphing into one another. And it can be a matter of controversy and judgement which principle (or combination of principles) is at work at any particular moment.
There is nothing wrong with Bertram's summary, and he usefully calls attention to the fact Graeber treats a certain form of communism as the ground of all human social life (p. 101), and, thereby (see also p. 267), has a certain conceptual, historical, and even normative priority over the other 'moral-political system of norms.' (Here I ignore the ways conceptual, historical, moral questions are blended by Graeber.) As Graeber writes, "once we start thinking of communism as a principle of morality rather than just a question of property ownership, it becomes clear that this sort of morality is almost always at play to some degree in any transaction--even commerce," (102, emphasis added). He goes on to describe how this explains "shopkeepers in poor neighborhoods are almost never of the same ethnic group as their customers" (p. 102--a topic also quite salient to reflection on the nature of violence in riots and uprisings). I don't think Graeber's any is a slip of the pen, but that's because I have come to recognize that Graeber thinks of anthropology as having discovered some invariances about human nature even if these invariant properties are expressed differently everywhere, too.*
In particular, I read Graeber as identifying two such fundamental invariances (1-2), which in turn lead to a third empirical claim (3):
- When humans transfer objects back and forth between/among each other or argue about what other people owe them the same fundamental moral principles will be invoked everywhere and always (see the passage above).
- Humans have a sense of justice that grounds sociality.
- Mutual sociality grounds all peaceful social relations (p. 101)
That is, (1) is an invariant about the way some parts of morality are discussed and (presumably) understood, while (2) is a kind of biological-psychological fact about us, and (3) an empirical generalization. I take it that for philosophers suspicious of anthropological relativism Debt's insistence that 1-3 are teachings of almost two centuries worth of anthropological inquiry is very welcome. Now (1) is as stated formal; it lacks content. It says that humans have a shared framework for equity, but what this framework is is left silent. Some other time I return to (1) because it requires a kind of synthetic understanding of the whole of Debt.
By a 'sense of justice,' Graeber means, in part, the capacity to track and expect reciprocity, which, in turn, relies on cognitive capacities to track proportionality and symmetry in various context. Now, to be sure, Graeber very clearly rejects inflated versions of (2), which he associates with work inspired by Homans and Levi-Strauss, which claim that reciprocity governs all human interactions. But that is compatible with a more modest version of (2) that allows that we do not always act on the sense of justice. In particular, Graeber is quite explicit that violence can prevent our so acting and that transactions among strangers need not be informed by it. (This matters to his critique of markets and some images of commercial society because market exchange is conceptualized by Graeber as presupposing state violence and as occurring among separated strangers.) By 'modest' I do not mean unimportant because according to Graeber it grounds all peaceful social relations (3), but, of course, not all social relations are peaceful.
Somewhat surprisingly and also maddeningly, Graeber says very little about the grounds of sociality or even the sense of justice, which echoes Rawls's claim that sense of justice “would appear to be a condition for human sociability.” In particular, to the best of my knowledge Debt never mentions sympathy or the sympathetic mechanism in his original book. But in his 2014 afterword, when he takes a "bow to Adam Smith," (p. 398; some other time I return to Graeber's largely polemical and hostile treatment of Smith), Graeber allows that he has not really challenged or addressed Smith's "theory of human motivation that assumed that people, in general, were motivated above all to be the object of others's sympathetic attentions." (p. 399) Part of me wonders if, Graeber also came to recognize that for his stress on sociality to work he requires something like Smith's theory of human motivation to complement what he calls 'a sense of justice.' (In part, because he allows in very Smithian fashion that the spirit of solidarity is itself is directed more to "some people than others" (p. 99).)
I don't mean to suggest that Graeber says nothing about what enters into sociality. He claims, for example, that what he calls 'baseline communism' might be "considered the raw material of sociality." (p. 99) I have to admit that Graeber here edges close to a circle because it seems pretty clear that sociality is, in turn, needed for his account of baseline communism to get off the ground. But rather than harping on this tension in his thought, I close with some observations of what follows from Graeber's inferences from 1-3. One nice feature of Graeber's treatment of communism is that it is really oriented toward a pleasing conviviality. (p. 99)) This is true of "most human beings" (p. 99; on is reminded of the significance of Smith's treatment of the pleasure in mutual sympathy). And presumably this is also what the anthropologist have uncovered. (Because it is only true of most of us, I hesitate to list it as a fourth invariance.)
He then adds a further claim, recognition of our ultimate interdependence...is the ultimate substance of social peace (p. 99). It's not entirely clear if Graeber is here relying on what anthropologists have shown or is innovating here. This allows Graeber to distinguish between the absence of violence (itself a rare occurrence--Debt drills into the reader the pervasiveness of violence) and social peace. For social peace is the absence of violence accompanied by this mutual recognition.+ (To be sure, social peace may rely on all kinds of sanctions and threats.) Of course, who enters into this 'our' is very contested and contextually variant (as Graeber vividly illustrates with various discussions of slavery), but one can discern in this messenger from the anthropologists a Cosmopolitan tendency.
*Graeber is also very funny on Nietzsche, who he treats as in the grip of bourgeois morality.
+It strikes me that this is an unacknowledged debt to Hobbes and Hume in Graeber's thought.