Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Priesthood of Anthropology


I absolutely love Inside Higher Ed.  The publication is by no means conservative, but it does something the Chronicle of Higher Education does not do: It covers the academy as it is, not in its idealized form.  Today’s edition of “the academy as it is” brings a fascinating article about anthropologists wrestling with the “ethics” of providing information to national security agencies.  Putting aside for the moment the obvious absurdities of an entire academic discipline seemingly conflicted about whether they can ethically put their knowledge at the service of their country, the striking thing about the article is the seemingly absolute cultural relativism at the heart of the debate.  Put simply, anthropologists feel that they must protect the “good” of the cultures they study and not do anything that could “harm” them.  Some examples (from an anthropologist who has warned against working for intelligence agencies):

“My feeling is that anthropologists’ primary ethical contract is with the people they study. Their loyalty to their government has to come after their ethical obligation to the people they study,”

. . .

“There are certain “clearly dirty areas to avoid,” . . . “if you study enemies of the United States and then give information that will be used to kill them.” But he also said that there are plenty of situations where one might not know how information would be used — and that still doesn’t address the issues of informed consent.  [Informed consent involves telling the culture you’re studying that you may give some information to the government].”

Is it really true that it is “clearly dirty” to give the government information that would allow it to more effectively fight the Taliban?  Must the anthropology profession work for the “good” of the Taliban?  When dealing with aggressive, murderous, and potentially genocidal cultures like the Taliban, doesn’t work for their “good” mean harming others?  The simple-mindedness of this approach is almost breath-taking.  Some cultures are certainly better than others, and some cultures must be reformed or destroyed.  

Finally, in the era of an all-volunteer military and an all-volunteer CIA, no one is forcing these anthropologists to assist the government.  The question anthropologists are debating is whether an individual scholar can be ethically allowed to work with national security agencies even if he or she wants to serve.  In sum, the military merely asks anthropologists for their help, while anthropologists may coerce (through ethics rules) even willing volunteers away from national service.  It is increasingly clear that the academic community has lost touch with the very idea of citizenship or any sense of obligation to the nation that gave them their freedom.


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