Written over a thirty-year span, Michael Lambek’s essays in this collection point with definitive force toward a single central truth: ethics is intrinsic to social life. As he shows through rich ethnographic accounts and multiple theoretical traditions, our human condition is at heart an ethical one—we may not always be good or just, but we are always subject to their criteria. Detailing Lambek’s trajectory as one anthropologist thinking deeply throughout a career on the nature of ethical life, the essays accumulate into a vibrant demonstration of the relevance of ethics as a practice and its crucial importance to ethnography, social theory, and philosophy.
Organized chronologically, the essays begin among Malagasy speakers on the island of Mayotte and in northwest Madagascar. Building from ethnographic accounts there, they synthesize Aristotelian notions of practical judgment and virtuous action with Wittgensteinian notions of the ordinariness of ethical life and the importance of language, everyday speech, and ritual in order to understand how ethics are lived. They illustrate the multiple ways in which ethics informs personhood, character, and practice; explore the centrality of judgment, action, and irony to ethical life; and consider the relation of virtue to value. The result is a fully fleshed-out picture of ethics as a deeply rooted aspect of the human experience.