Everyday Ethics and Social Change — An Interview with Anna Peterson

Everyday Ethics and Social ChangeRecently, Religion Dispatches interviewed Anna Peterson about her new book, Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire.

Here is the beginning of that interview:

Q: What inspired you to write Everyday Ethics and Social Change? What sparked your interest?

I was inspired, or motivated, by a desire to bring utopianism—a theme that I have been interested in for a long time—close to home. My previous book Seeds of the Kingdom (Oxford, 2005) compared two different kinds of intentional agrarian communities: those of the Amish in the Midwestern United States, and of progressive Catholic refugees in rural El Salvador.

While writing that book, I thought a lot about the relevance of those intensely Christian, explicitly utopian groups for “mainstream” people in the U.S.—who are much more religiously diverse, urban, and consumerist than the Amish or the Salvadorans I studied. I do think that those people have a lot to teach us, but I wanted to explore the possibility of a utopianism with clearer connections to the everyday life of “ordinary” North Americans.

What I find fascinating about utopianism, especially as a theme in social ethics and social movements, is its intrinsic radicalness. But utopianism seems, by definition, to be disconnected from everyday life. Putting those two themes together—utopias and everyday life—seemed a way to talk about the potentially radical dimensions of our ordinary practices and values.

Q: What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That ethics is not disconnected from ordinary activities. This means a couple of things. First, almost nothing we do is “value neutral.” We can’t separate out the times we are acting “morally,” and the rest of our lives. Second, it means that ethics are not something constructed or articulated in the abstract and then applied, in a top-down fashion, to concrete circumstances. Rather, ethics are created in and through ordinary practices. This means we ought to think more carefully, perhaps, about the ethics we enact (or don’t) on a daily basis. In the end, I think, movements for social change seek to transform everyday life so it becomes safer, less oppressive, and more joyful for more people (and other creatures). So it makes sense that the roots of a radical ethic for social change can be found in the best parts of our everyday lives.

This relates to the social role of religion. Religion has often provided this “second language,” as Robert Bellah and his colleagues call it, as an alternative way of thinking about big questions. In a society that is both religiously pluralistic and secular, it is important to look for alternative sources of this second language.

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