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Extreme Poverty and Existential Obligations

Beyond Morality in the Anthropology of Africa?

Harri Englund

The suggestion that the anthropological study of morality is theoretically undeveloped carries with it the risk of caricaturing ideas of moral obligation in mid-twentieth-century social anthropology. The need for recovering aspects of these ideas is demonstrated by the tendency of moral philosophers to reduce the issue of world poverty to a question of ethical choices and dilemmas. Examining the diplomatic tie that had existed for almost 42 years between Malawi and Taiwan and an ill-fated project of Taiwanese aid in rural Malawi, this article maintains that honoring obligations indicates neither a communitarian ethos nor rule-bound behavior. As the mid-twentieth-century anthropology of Africa theorized ethnographically, the moral and existential import of obligation lies in its contingent materiality rather than in social control. Such insights, the article concludes, can enrich debates on world poverty with alternative intellectual resources.

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Anticipating Relations

Beyond Reciprocity and Obligation in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Elizabeth Fox

In the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, known as ger districts, a growing number of rural-to-urban migrants live without access to formal urban infrastructure or regular incomes. Under these challenging material conditions, personal networks take precedence, providing and regulating access to employment and meat provisioning. Looking beyond discussions of anticipation among migrants focusing on the goals of migration, I interrogate the role of anticipation in the making and maintaining of relational networks. Existing analyses of such networks in Mongolia have generally relied on idioms of reciprocity or obligation. Focusing instead on material transfers and transactions among ger district residents reveals such networks to be more ambiguous and prone to failure than notions of reciprocity or obligation can easily accommodate. This article argues that the productive contradiction within the concept of anticipation – encompassing both expectative waiting and pre-emptive action – can illuminate new aspects of these relations and networks in action.

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Obligations to Objects

Tangled Histories and Changing Contexts of the Burnett River Rock Engravings

Brit Asmussen, Lester Michael Hill, Sean Ulm and Chantal Knowles

This article discusses changing obligations toward objects from an archaeological site held by the Queensland Museum, through a long-term, 40-year case study. Between 1971 and 1972 a selection of 92 stone blocks weighing up to 5 tons containing Aboriginal engravings were cut out of the site and distributed to multiple locations across Queensland by the State Government under the provisions of the then Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1967. The site was subsequently flooded following dam construction and the removed blocks became part of the Queensland Museum’s collection. This article chronicles the history of the site and its “salvage,” the consequences of fragmentation of the site for community and institutions, the creation of 92 museum objects, the transformation from immobile to mobile cultural heritage, and community- led requests for their repatriation back to country.

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James Furner

'Tacit consent' has long interested historians of political thought and political philosophers, but its nuances nevertheless remain unappreciated. It has its roots in the Roman law concept of a 'tacit declaration of will'. Explicating this concept allows a new conception of tacit consent to be proposed, which I term the 'tacit declaration of consent'. The tacit declaration of consent avoids both the triviality of common sense views and a weakness in Hobbes' account. Unlike other contemporary philosophical accounts, it avoids fictions and meets the condition of intentionality. Furthermore, it also advances understanding of the sorts of claim offered by proponents of a tacit consent-based theory of political obligation, whilst facilitating a more radical critique. The tacit consent-based theory of political obligation is not simply limited in application, but indefensible. It unwarrantedly transposes onto tacit consent the potentially fictional character of declarations of will.

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John Pearson

This paper asks whether David Miller's minimalist theory of human rights is coherent with his claim that obligations of global justice involve obligations to provide people with a minimally decent life. I argue that there is a justice gap in Miller's theory: the structure of his distinction between basic and societal needs is such that people will be left below the level of minimal decency even when obligations of justice are met. Miller can either bite this bullet or look for alternative sources of obligations of justice. I take up the second option by arguing that there can be obligations of global justice to build institutions that enable societies to generate income and wealth.

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Obligations to the Dead

Historical Justice and Cultural Memory

Victor Jeleniewski Seidler

Exploring some of the tensions in the recent international conference on 'Jews and Non-Jews in Lithuania: Coexistence, Cooperation, Violence', held at UCL in December 2012, I show how they relate to ways in which the Holocaust is to be understood and historical justice done not only to those who were murdered and suffered but also to the sufferings of Lithuanians under Soviet Occupation. Questioning the notion of a 'double holocaust' that would seek some equivalence I also interrogate assumptions informing the programme of the Prague Declaration. I explore ethical issues of what it means to do justice to the dead and how this calls for an ethical historiography that goes beyond its positivist frameworks.

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Erasmus Masitera

There has been much debate on the question of rights in African communitarian thinking. Some scholars have averred that duties are prior to rights in African communitarian society, and that to prioritise rights is foreign to the non-Western perspective. Yet, there are others who argue that in non-Western societies rights are prior to duties. I share this view. I present my position by arguing that economic rights in African communitarianism affirms autonomy of the individual, though the same rights are expressed through the ideas of consensus and human well-being. In my argument I state that human well-being is well expressed as a communal effort climaxed through consensus where all these are premised on individual autonomy. By arguing in this way, I respond to the accusation that says African philosophers who argue for the priority of rights have failed to demonstrate how rights are considered prior to duties in African societies.

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The Obligations of the Chosen

Jewish Museums in a Politically Correct World

Tom L. Freudenheim

So there I was – sitting at dinner in New College, Cambridge, next to a rather sophisticated museum-going lady from Chicago. She was sharing with me her fury at the indignities suffered by women visiting art museums. As a prime example, my dinner companion cited a sculpture of a nude, by Aristide Maillol, standing at the head of the stairs at the Art Institute of Chicago. What is a young girl to think about a nude torso, headless and armless, intended to greet visitors to this great art museum? With its focus on the crotch, this image of a maimed and helpless woman sends all the wrong messages.

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Katherine Swancutt

Landmark anthropological works on fame have shown that gift-giving is often the vehicle for producing relations of 'positive value' and recognition. When viewing fame against the related notion of fortune, however, the focal point of study shifts to how people produce reputations that are 'beyond value' or 'priceless'. This article proposes that the Nuosu of Southwest China enter into an ongoing 'economy of ordeals' in order to accumulate priceless 'tokens of value' that increase their 'fate-fortune' and fame. It shows that ambitious Nuosu accept new ordeals to achieve fame, while comfortably viewing their accomplishments as akin to those of a predatory spider. Tellingly, though, these efforts are vulnerable to the counter-extractive maneuvers of other people and ghosts, which present the Nuosu with new ordeals that could deplete their resources.

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Richard Child

Statists claim that robust egalitarian distributive norms only apply between the citizens of a common state. Attempts to defend this claim on nationalist grounds often appeal to the 'associative duties' that citizens owe one another in virtue of their shared national identity. In this paper I argue that the appeal to co-national associative duties in order to defend the statist thesis is unsuccessful. I first develop a credible theory of associative duties. I then argue that although the associative theory can explain why the members of a national community should abide by egalitarian norms, it cannot show that people have a duty to become or to continue as a member of a national community in the first place. The possibility that citizens might exercise their right to reject their national membership undermines the state's ability justifiably to coerce compliance with egalitarian distributive norms and, ultimately, the statist claim itself.