The Ethics of Everyday Life

Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human

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Michael Banner
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198766469.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 1958, famed philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that we should no longer practice moral philosophy given that we lack a proper account of intention, agency, desire, and practical reasoning—in short, a thick account of moral existence—necessary for the task of moral philosophy. While Michael Banner’s The Ethics of Everyday Life does not attempt to mount an argument about the possibilities of practicing moral philosophy among philosophers, he does think that moral theologians should cease depending on such philosophy as it further disinclines moral theology from attending to everyday life. Rather, moral philosophy only deepens moral theology’s own misconceived self-understanding as a discipline concerned exclusively with the ethics of “hard cases” (7). This self-understanding is due to moral theology’s historical development out of the practices of auricular confession, penitential guides for determining the proportionality of sins and penance, and an epistemologically Pelagian confidence in natural law. That self-understanding is deepened by disciplinary misrelations between moral theology, moral philosophy, and social anthropology that have been institutionalized in the practice of theological ethicists and the textbook expressions of Christian ethics. The birth of those misrelations came by way of Immanuel Kant’s creation of the discipline we now call social anthropology by refusing its descriptive and empirical tasks from the prescriptive concerns of moral philosophy proper. This becomes a problem insofar as social anthropology’s descriptive attention to everyday life reveals areas of moral concern that remain hidden to moral philosophy and moral theology. The tradition of hard cases gains its convincingness at the expense of the social world where our moral practices get their bearings.

The purpose of Banner’s book is to “set out a prima facie case for reconceiving the practice of moral theology” in light of reservations about its current institutionalized form (7), specifically regarding its dependence upon moral philosophy and avoidance of social anthropology. Along with this renewed conception of the practice of moral theology as a descriptive exercise of moral life comes a broader scope of moral concern, namely everyday practices surrounding conception, birth, suffering, death, and burial—the descriptions of which contribute to a Christian self-understanding about its commitments in relation to biotechnological practices. Banner employs a social anthropology as a way to recover the morality implicit in our everyday collective experience surrounding these moments in human life. Such descriptions expand our theological imaginations toward conceptions of human life in the wake of the seeming necessities which drive the “hard cases” tradition of moral theology. Furthermore, Banner’s descriptive moral project allows for the complexities of our moral life to surface in Christian ethical reflection in ways commonly overlooked by moral theologians and everyday Christians alike. It is in the descriptive complexity and theological reimaging of bioethical and biotechnological concerns that best serve Banner’s methodological thesis.

The rest of the book exemplifies Banner’s recovery of a Christian everyday ethics within a narrative of human life—from conception to burial— and shows the true value of interactions between moral theology, christology, and social anthropology. For example, in his discussion of In Vitro Fertilization, Banner brings the ancient Christian institutionalization of virginity and the New Testament employment of spiritual kinship to bear on the modern social distresses of childlessness and its attending idolatries of kinship based on blood relation. These complex interactions are undergirded by ethnographic descriptions of the construction of infertility and kinship and the mythologies of blood relation in modern Western society. Similarly, Banner broaches issues of suffering by bringing the Christian iconography of Christ’s suffering to bear on current anthropological attempts to recover the significance of suffering from the numbing effect of the promiscuity of images of pain. Such images are exploited by a humanitarian ideology that paradoxically combines the sacredness of life and the valorization of suffering as redemptive. Anthropological descriptions provide a space in which Christian practices of iconographic attention to Christ’s suffering undermines the “mere spectorship” involved in the proliferation of images of pain. In his chapter on burial, Banner reflects on Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between burial and mourning and the tradition of holy relics in order to offer moral criticism of the medical removal and donation of bodily organs without consent. Ethnographies that display the centrality of mourning in death, and its tendencies toward superstition, provide fine-grained distinctions that work toward curing the opacity that medical practitioners have toward mourning and burial.

I cannot even begin to discuss all the driving questions and concerns that Banner raises about our conceptions of the human in this book, for his attention to description is too expansive and detailed. The complex interactions between ancient and medieval theology and practice, contemporary bioethics and biotechnology, and social anthropology in The Ethics of Everyday Life are simply remarkable. The forms of criticism and routes of moral investigation and theological imagination made possible by this book’s relatively brief, but quite difficult, chapters certainly justify Banner’s methodological claim that moral theologians owe social anthropologists their ears if they are to fully account for the depth of our Christian moral life. No doubt, the content of his book so vastly outshines the methodological qualms he voices in his introductory chapter that the reader is left wondering whether the status of the relationship between the disciplines of moral theology, moral philosophy, and social anthropology are really all that central to Banner’s concerns. This is especially the case regarding his understanding of moral philosophy.

For example, Banner criticizes the discipline of moral philosophy following Kant for divesting its concerns from those of social anthropology while the content of Banner’s book largely leaves that disciplinary divide intact. Banner does not so realign the three disciplines he discusses, but rather seeks to disengage moral theology from its friendships with moral philosophy so it can befriend social anthropology. But the problematic lines of this “love triangle” are still mostly present for Banner, which is why he seemingly avoids even those moral philosophies not beholden to Kant. This partly reveals Banner’s object of concern in bioethics, which is certainly so beholden, as he points out. However, we only get one footnote to thinkers that follow the different trajectory of moral philosophy found in Aristotle and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cora Diamond, Iris Murdoch, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Alice Crary are just a few of the moral philosophers who not only share Banner’s disagreements with Kantian moral philosophy, but also share his goals of bringing ethics back into the everyday. Moreover, this line of moral philosophy has also inspired path-breaking anthropologists like Veena Das and Eduardo Kohn who would certainly add to Banner’s project. My concern regarding Banner’s disciplinary positioning of his project is that he may inspire Christians to disengage from precisely those moral philosophies that can aid us in recovering the everyday. And that seems to gain the advantages of social anthropology at too high a price. But this concern only has a slight impact on the substantial credits we own Banner’s book, for his project need not be positioned against moral philosophy in order to gain an audience. His bibliography alone, not to mention his theological and moral imagination, are a gift to Christian ethicists seeking to befriend social anthropology and think more deeply about the ethics of the everyday. If the possibilities are as salient as Banner’s work in bioethics, then may such friendships increase.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon Morgan is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Banner is Dean and Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. His publications include Christian Ethics: A Brief History (Wiley Blackwell, 2009) and Ethics and the Doctrine of God, edited with A.T. Torrance (T & T Clark, 2004).

Keywords: 

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