Book Review: Ethics of Everyday Life

on May 30, 2017 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

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Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human

Michael Banner. Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 240. $35.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Stephanie Mota Thurston


Michael Banner, of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, takes up two broad tasks in Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human. The first is to argue that moral theology, moral philosophy, and social anthropology currently relate to one another in a disordered way and that there should be a disciplinary realignment that addresses this disorder. The second and more constructive task is to demonstrate, albeit in a cursory fashion, what this newfound relationship between moral theology and social anthropology might look like.

Banner takes up the first task in the Introduction and Chapter 1. Here he locates the need for a disciplinary realignment in the failure of moral theology to adequately provide an everyday ethics. Banner identifies this failure in moral theology’s tendency to focus on “hard cases” or dilemmas and questions about what is licit or illicit. Turning to moral philosophy, however, is no help. The leading forms of moral philosophy, according to Banner, are completely disassociated from the social and fail to understand morality as a social practice (18). Thus, argues Banner, moral theology needs to turn to social anthropology because it is the only discipline of the three that is concerned with ‘morality.’ “Morality here means an everyday practice which exists on the ground—the practice of appraising ourselves and others against notions of the good, or the right, or the fitting,” explains Banner (7).

Banner then turns to the constructive element in chapters 2 through 7. The central question of these chapters is: “how does the Christian imagination of conception, birth, suffering, death, and burial bear on the human life course, and envisage and sustain a Christian form of human being?” (5) In chapters 2 and 3, Banner considers the issues of in vitro fertilization, kinship, and the desire to have children. In Chapter 4, Banner addresses suffering, the politics of compassion, and humanitarianism. Banner speaks to euthanasia, Alzheimer’s disease and hospice care in Chapter 5 before turning to the various practices of burial and mourning in Chapter 6. Finally, Banner addresses the idea of memory in Chapter 7. These chapters are meant to “demonstrate that an engagement with social anthropology, which seems promising in theory, really is so in practice and can assist moral theology in undertaking its proper work” (28).

Chapter 2 is one of the clearest examples of the constructive moral theology of everyday ethics Banner seeks to encourage. Banner argues that Christian moral theology can respond to questions of conception and kinship more effectively and more therapeutically by grasping lived reality through engagement with social anthropology. For example, Banner thinks we are able to see how the use of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) is socially framed. He identifies two underlying issues. First, Banner identifies the feeling of the ‘desperation of childlessness’ and second, the notion that the best way to resolve the desperation is to have a ‘child of one’s own’ (37). Banner then turns to the Christian tradition, beginning with Augustine, which challenges both of these notions because the “Christian reconstruction of kinship…believes neither in the tragedy of childlessness, nor in the possibility of answering that tragedy by obtaining a child of one’s own” (38).

Moral theology, as it currently stands, might only be able to offer a verdict about the licitness or illicitness of IVF and other ARTs. However, Banner believes that a better understanding of the psychological and sociocultural phenomena that undergird the contemporary turn to ARTs enables moral theology to respond more therapeutically. Moral theology can then illuminate the ideas of spiritual kinship, godparenthood, and virginity from the Christian tradition and imagination. The rest of Banner’s chapters take up a similar methodological dance between current research in social anthropology and the Christian tradition as it pertains to issues that make up the “human life course.”

If Banner’s project is over-ambitious, it is nonetheless exciting. To be fair, he cautions his readers that he has the modest goal of taking “initial steps” towards the disciplinary realignment that he imagines (4). While this disclaimer helps to keep the book’s aims in perspective, the idea that these are “initial steps” falls a bit flat, at least for some readers in the United States. Certain strands of Christian ethics have sought to dialogue with literature, history, and social anthropology over moral philosophy for quite some time. For example, in Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community, Cannon turns to the black women’s literary tradition in order to illuminate “the concrete depiction of Black life” in America (77). One of her main sources is Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist and anthropologist, whose social and moral imagination reflected her understanding of the lived experience of African Americans in the United States. So perhaps it is better to understand Banner’s book as a contribution to these strands of Christian ethics, which have already sought to think theologically about the everyday texture of our moral lives.

For many Christian ethicists and moral theologians who are eager for deeper engagement between anthropology and theology, Banner’s book is a welcomed contribution and clearly articulated argument for disciplinary realignment. Furthermore, since each of his six constructive chapters would certainly warrant a book-length ethnography of their own in order to provide the thick and rich account of social life needed for adequate theological reflection, the book gestures towards a future in which these issues can be more fully explored.

Stephanie Mota Thurston, PhD Student, Princeton Theological Seminary