Ethical Subjects: Moralities, Laws, Histories

Project Directors: Seth Koven and Judith Surkis

Who and what counts as an ethical subject? “Ethical Subjects” brings together two sets of inquiries: how certain domains of deliberation come to be topics of ethical scrutiny, and how people claim recognition as moral agents in the world. In different times and places, moral argument and moral feeling have been mobilized in the name of many causes, from “civilizing missions” to civil disobedience. They continue to figure prominently in debates about “development,” humanitarian intervention, bioethics, inequality, civil and human rights. In these debates cynicism and sincere conviction can jostle one another uneasily. In attending to multiple perspectives, “Ethical Subjects” challenges methodological divides between “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches. We hope to explore an overlapping terrain, between the study of lives, subjects and practices, on the one hand; and legal, ethical, political, and religious frameworks, on the other. 

Our project is guided by several key questions: Under what historical conditions do particular issues (e.g., the traffic in women or children’s rights, forms of unfree and exploitative labor, drone warfare or marriage) first become a focus of ethico-political debate and regulation (state or international), while others remain in the shadows? How are morality and law disarticulated and rearticulated when people and ideas move across borders? Can humanist inquiry help to negotiate the complex interrelations between morality and law when these come into conflict? What new kinds of politics and ethical practices emerge out of such disjunctures? “Ethical Subjects” will explore such questions in an intensive series of seminars and discussions during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 academic years.

This project is being conducted with support from the Mellon Foundation's Sawyer Seminar program.

The Fall 2016 Ethical Subjects Seminar schedule can be found here.