Friends and Other Strangers
Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture
Friends and Other Strangers is at once expansive and constrained. It seeks to shed light on the field of religious ethics, and to propose a way forward for the field as a whole. That way forward requires a turn to “culture”—understood in the widest possible sense indeed—as “all inclusive” and the “constitutive medium of human existence” (37). Moreover, much of what this cultural turn entails is a reliance on ethnographies that render particular cultures intelligible to their readers. Ethnography is a—perhaps the—primary medium that author Richard B. Miller thinks brings the wide expanse of this “constitutive medium of human existence” into book form. And this, in turn, is where the expansive is overlaid with the constrained. Capturing something as totalized as culture requires a “finely grained comparative studies of vernacular practices and idioms” (45).
My heuristic here—expansive and constrained—mirrors Miller’s stated framing device of “intimacy and alterity,” which he uses “as touchstones for examining normative dimensions of self-other relationships as they are implicated in social life, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships” (6). This book is best read then, not as an explication of intimacy and alterity, but as an exploration of what Miller calls “ethics-near” and “ethics-distant” (46). The concern is not so much to develop an account of selfhood or otherness, but to intentionally allow the mutual and dialogical constructions of selfhood and otherness to frame and inform ethical arguments. In this respect, Miller seems to follow decently-worn ground covered in other cultural critical approaches.
But Miller sees in those approaches a not-so-hidden threat of moral relativism that he wants to overcome. Where other approaches are hesitant or completely negative about the possibility of intercultural moral criticism, Miller thinks it is possible to criticize the moral norms of other cultures from within one’s own—though he is careful to develop criteria which might deem such criticism valid (91). We can see what he is after in the interesting—and somewhat genre bending—epilogue. There Miller “discuss[es] six books that represent a cultural turn in the humanities” (310). The first and most sustained discussion is of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety (Princeton University Press, 2011). While holding that Mahmood’s work is thickly descriptive, Miller thinks that she fails “to think about the terms and conditions according to which she may properly take the liberty to speak as a cross-cultural critic” (317).
If Mahmood is a target of his criticism, it is worth noting that earlier Miller applauds as “illustrative” a quite diverse trio of works: Wayne Meeks’s The Moral World of the First Christians (Yale University Press, 1986), Margaret Trawick’s Notes on Love in a Tamil Family (University of California Press, 1992), and Charles Taylor’s Varieties of Religious Experience Today: William James Revisited (Harvard University Press, 2003). This is not exactly because these texts are willing to pass normative judgment on the cultures they interrogate, nor is it that they use the insights gained from those cultures to critique the norms of their own cultures. Rather, it is that their works attend to “moral psychology and the conditions of human flourishing,” viewing “culture not as inert or irrational but as externalizations of the human spirit, with all of its creative and destructive capacities” (73). I take it then, that it does not matter which culture the ethnographer explores; rather, it matters that one is as involved in expansive/constrained cultural exploration as one is involved in ethical argumentation in both its descriptive and normative valences.
Miller’s stated goal is to “make an extended case for expanding the field of religious ethics to include critical attention to normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships” (14), and this he does with an abundance of precision and rigor. This proposal is meant to clarify and expand the “ordered procedures” whereby the discipline of religious ethics might better function as a “regime of truth” (17-18). This expansion and clarification is, in turn, meant to show how the diversity of cultures undergirds a radical diversity of moral concepts, including concepts that we are otherwise tempted to think of as coherent and semi-natural—Miller’s use of Trawick’s treatment of the concept of love is illustrative here. To put it simply, by closely attending to diversity we more closely approximate moral truths. For Miller, diversity is a facet of moral realism not a tell against it.
Friends and Other Strangers is an argument for the systematic organization of a regime of truth, and it deserves a wide reading within the discipline it lovingly seeks to reshape. To conclude, I will register just one concern. Given that this book is about the conditions for a regime of truth, it is not clear to me that Miller’s argument has much to do with the actual people who constitute—and are constituted by—the cultures ethnographers explore. This is a book for academic ethicists, about how to produce arguments about morality. That is certainly not a problem—but since ethics-as-a-discipline is finally about making moral arguments, whereas ethnography is about illuminating “social life, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships” (6), it does mean there is a gap between ethnography and moral argument that cannot be overcome by simply attending to the features of culture. The ethicist must make judgments about the quality of moral concepts and arguments within a culture, but they do so by subjecting those concepts and arguments to rules of argumentation that are not culturally located. Just because we have learned that some of the pretenses of Enlightenment rationality were pretenses indeed, does not mean that moral arguments should be left to proceed by the whims of cultures. And this means that moral arguments are disciplined by rationality—which, in turn, means that ethicists attending to cultures/ethnographies will always be subjecting the moral concepts embedded in a particular culture to the philosophical tools of investigation that make possible the regime of truth. By no means does this undercut Miller’s proposal; it simply means that I am more constrained in my optimism about the potential of the cultural turn than others following Miller might be.
Dallas Gingles is John Wesley Scholar and Assistant Chaplain at the University of Evansville.
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