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The Moral Implications of Immorality

The Chinese Case for a New Anthropology of Morality


  • Yunxiang Yan


This essay focuses on the issue of immorality, an issue that has largely been understudied in anthropology. It examines two types of immoral behavior in contemporary Chinese society, drawing on cases widely agreed upon by ordinary people to be morally wrong. Next, it analyzes moral experiences and moral sentiments among individuals who either were victims of immoral acts or recalled their own feelings of being immoral. Ethnographic evidence shows that immorality tends to be intuitive and emotional in actual social actions but in recollections of moral experiences it is reflected upon with rational reasoning and justification. Immorality is essentially the violation of the social, which may explain why ordinary people use immorality to define and defend their social behavior in everyday life. The recent emphasis on moral reasoning and ethical choice in anthropological studies of moralities has overlooked the social in the moral as well as the role of moral sentiments and intuitions in social actions.