Morality—a Social Essential?

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted” was supposedly the last words of the founder of a 12th-century Persian assassin group called Hashashin. It is a quote that has inspired thinkers like Nietzsche to include it in his work and regard it as the freedom of the spirit (1989). Although such a way of thinking argues that a “truly free individual” would not conform to social moral obligations due to a supposed contradiction between one’s “true will” and morality, I am not content with such a simplification as I invoke Durkheim’s suggestion that because rules are made for us that we are free and that morality is immanent to society (2014). To expand on my critique, I offer three propositions: it is through our moral agreements that we uphold our established social bonds, maintain solidarity, and attune our affinity towards other individuals; it is via our relationship with our moral rules that we can express our sentiments towards each other; it is by our moral obligations that we realize the potential for an ‘ethical self’ and act for self-transformation. In this essay, to first elaborate further on my first two propositions, I will befocusing on Conklin’s research with the Wari. Then, to amplify my third proposition, I will be looking into Throop’s research in Yap and (briefly into) Mahmood’s research of the Women’s Mosque Movement in Cairo. In the end, I argue that the cases that I refer to present a more complicated picture of morality contrary to the assumptious liberal notions of “freedom” that I touched upon above.

In her work, Conklin (2001) introduces us to a society in western Brazil called Wari who practices cannibalism by consuming the flesh and certain internal organs of their dead. Examining her work reveals the inherent human sentiments, especially concerning bereavement, that revolve around such a seemingly exotic practice. According to her findings, Conklin argues that the Wari “ate out of a sense of respect and compassion for the dead person and for the dead person’s family” (xvi); not because they needed the protein or liked the taste of human meat. And the individuals who ate the corpse were usually the in-laws of the deceased person’s family, which shows how the obligation of eating the flesh of the deceased served as an opportunity for the affines to build or strengthen their bonds with the family members that the individual married into, regardless of how disgusted by the flesh the in-law may be. Although the case of ‘in-law inclusion’ is merely one side of this complex story, I believe focusing on this aspect alone sheds light on how such a moral obligation may serve to establish or uphold social ties and mark the degree of closeness of individuals. It is precisely the existence of the other that creates the necessity for me and the other to negotiate our relationship and be able to signal its current state through (unwritten) agreements—which we call moral rules. In the case of the Wari, the answer to how much the in-law is committed to his/her new family, or whether the in-law decides to invest in loyalty to his/her new family members gets materialized through the very act of chewing the deceased’s flesh. Thus, by investigating the Wari in this way, we see how certain moral orders are born as a necessary part of the making of a society which consists of a complex web of relations among individuals which are maintained by the moral responsibility of one to another. Without there being such moral codes, I believe we would lack the means of sculpting social bonds and measuring our willingness to solidarity, to speak in terms which Durkheim would agree upon.

The Wari’s funerary cannibalism, again, makes the body a place where relationships are formed and transformed when we consider it as a means of expressing sentiments like compassion, grief,and tranquility. To the Wari, “the corpse itself is the single most powerful reminder” (xxi) and it is by aiding to remove the material focus for felt attachments, by dismembering, eating, or burning the deceased’s body, that one carries out an act of compassion for the bereaved relatives as a way to lessen their sorrow as such benevolent acts make it easier for the deceased person’s family to think less about the loss. In other words, the eradication of the corpse prevents the overburdening of mourners with prolonged grieving which may hinder them from moving on with their lives. Hence, by equipping an anthropological perspective, it becomes apparent that what may simply be perceived as the “primitives” blindly complying with their “unreasonable and exotic” moral rules becomes pragmatic activities that become a means for Wari’ to convey images, cultivate values, and form relationships while dealing with the death of someone close to them. Since every expression of an emotion and belief requires a moral framework that guides us in decrypting and interpreting the symbols and meanings attached to such expressions, morality becomes a social essential. Just like the way verbal expressions become intelligible only under a framework of grammar, the sentiments that lie under our actions become apparent through their accordance with our moral rules.

In his work concerning the people of the island Yap, Throop (2010) describes how “a socially competent person […] is understood to be a person who is able to sacrifice his or her individual desires, wants, wishes, feelings, opinions, and thoughts to family, village, and broader community dictates” (102). This is evident in the examples Throop gives which present how it isvery common for children to hear strict orders from their parents while being taught about selflessness, or how people strive to avoid making noise at night for the sake of quietude and maintaining peace. When describing such expected behaviors in Yap, Throop uses the term “self-governance” as such socialization practices throughout one’s whole life contributed to “the cultivation of reflective self-mastery over the expression of one’s somatic and psychical states” (119). In contrast to today’s liberal notions that urge the individual to embrace and express one’s “true self”, as any restriction is the infringement of a person’s right to “freedom”, the people in Yap consider the transparently expressing of one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions without regarding the concerns of others as the traits of a “weak mind” (102). The prioritization of one’s mind over body and one’s community over his/her self is also evident in the stone paths which were intentionally designed to be slippery as to ensure that the pedestrians would keep their minds focused by being conscious of their steps and not be distracted by the possessions of other villagers along the road. Thus, the stone paths, with their troubles, act as teachers that guide individuals in cultivating virtues such as being humble, respectful, and focused. From the examples that Throop gives, I believe one can say that for the people of Yap it is the very desires of the self that inhibits one’s freedom because it is precisely the cultivation of virtues that help one become the master of one’s self which frees an individual from being a slave of one’s cravings, inclinations, and carnal desires. Thus, the morality inherent in Yap, which may at first seem “oppressive” from a certain liberal point of view, presents us the intricate relationship between agency and morality since adhering to moral rules provided the individuals a framework that aided in the cultivation of virtues, as an attempt of liberation (from egoistic desires). 

Another illuminating example regarding agency-morality association is Mahmood’s work concerning the feminine pietistic movements in Egypt (2011) which presents a completely different understanding of piety and devotion. For the Muslim women that Mahmood analyzed, what initially seemed as subordination to constraining social impositions from an outsider (liberal) point of view turned out to be viewed as socially prescribed forms of conduct, i.e the ‘scaffolding’, through which the self is realized. As an example, Mahmood describes how some women viewed veiling as both an ethical means and ends that served to please God by shaping one’s self. After she analyzes the self-willed obedience to the religiously prescribed social conventions, Mahmood concludes that people exhibit agency precisely because they cultivate certain ethics. As a crucial note, in the given ethnographical examples, it would be misleading to think that individuals conformed to their moral rules all the times, as “there are a great many people who fail to live up to these standards for virtuous ways of being” (Throop 2010, 104). So, there are many scenarios in which the individuals “strategically align their personal wishes, desires, opinions, and feelings with what are putatively broader familial and community needs”(Throop 2010, 104). Hence, in my view these two anthropological cases defy the idea that people simply conform to moral rules and instead present a more complicated picture that encompasses ambivalence, will, effort, difficulty, and dilemma. But most importantly, I have attempted to present how such a complex picture too provides a vast room for self-formation and how erroneous it would be to isolate the notions of “agency” and “freedom” from discussions that concern “morality”, an essential ingredient to the existence of a society.


Conklin, Beth A. Consuming grief: compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society. University of Texas Press, 2001.

Durkheim, Emile. The division of labor in society. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Reginald John Hollingdale. On the genealogy of morals. Vintage, 1989.

Throop, C. Jason. Suffering and sentiment: Exploring the vicissitudes of experience and pain in Yap. Univ of California Press, 2010.

Photo Credit: Kennis And Kennismsf (Prehistoric Cannibalism)

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