Human Wrongs Watch

Interview with anthropologist and social scientist Ariel James*, by Baher Kamal

Science has advanced so much that we can split the atom, manipulate the genetic code, and produce synthetic cells. However, contemporary science has not fully understood how the brain works, and above all, how do work our senses of identity, consciousness and morality.


**Image: Da Vinci Studies of Embryos | Photography Luc Viatour | Photography *own work | Credit: Luc Viatour / | Wikimedia Commons

Currently there is a debate about the way in which the brain is responsible to organize our moral sentiments and value judgments.

Human Wrongs Watch interviewed Ariel James, anthropologist and a researcher in the field of moral cognition who is dedicated to investigating if we are moral beings by nature or just a byproduct of cultural learning. James is the author of the recent essay “The Meaning of Moral Faculty”(2014), which investigates how and why human beings have a strong sense for justice, cooperation and solidarity. 


Human Wrongs Watch (HWW): What is your field of research or theoretical discipline is all about?

Ariel James (AJ): In very general terms, it is about studying how people perceive, think and conceive their society, and how society defines and interprets its people. In other words: how societies build an image of themselves and about their members.

I call this field of research “Social Cognition,” or the investigation on the relationship between mind and society. But you may also call it as Cultural Anthropology, Social Psychology, Moral Philosophy or simply “Social Sciences.” The formal label doesn’t really matter.

HWW: What is your main research interest?

AJ: I do not want to use dense concepts, so let me use some metaphors. The writer Pierre de Bourdeille, abbé of Brantome, in his “Bravata of the Spaniards,” provided an interesting anecdote according wherein a soldier, having been part of a robbery, was condemned to having his ear cut off, but he preferred to go to the firing squad. The soldier alleged that “life is nothing if it costs one his honor.”

Although the story refers to the bizarre concept of “honor,” it simultaneously elucidates a certain philosophical idea, which I consider fundamental: that is, from a certain existential level, human nature is indivisible; it cannot be subdivided into parts.

It is similar to what the ancient Hebrews believed and practiced. For them, a body could not be buried without all of its parts. I surmise that it is possible to discover some essential element of the human condition if we follow this line of thinking.

HWW: Do you mean the idea that human beings have an intangible value?

AJ: Correct. The same abstract idea of the existential unity can be represented in the opposite way.

For example, it may be shown that the absence of a bodily organ or a limb cannot imply the annulment of a person’s intrinsic value.

In the fifth chapter of Zhuangzi’s book, the author tells the story of a criminal whose feet were amputated for having committed a crime. When one of Confucius’ disciples asks him how a criminal amputee could be considered a practitioner from higher level in Tao’s mastery, Confucius replied:

“This alleged criminal is unaware of the separate functions of ear and eye because his mind is wandering in the harmony of virtue. He looks at things seeing unity rather than absence, and considered losing his foot as if he had lost a clod of dirt”

This response is curiously connected with some Epictetus’ thoughts, from the other corner of the world. Despite the cultural differences between Confucius and Epictetus, they share the subtle idea that there must be something of a greater value than the simple set of organs and modules that make up the human body. Antonin Artaud expressed the same idea through the metaphor of the “body without organs.”

HWW: Only humans have an intangible value? What about the value of other living beings?

AJ: Zhuangzi’s fables point to the existence of an essential characteristic of human beings which is moral agency – the capacity to produce moral judgments and ethical actions. However, certain cultural traditions include non-human beings as also having moral agency.

Therefore, the central question is: Do animals possess free will to choose between different options and alternatives? Independently upon the answer you give, either positive or negative, you automatically should include animals within morality. Let me show you why.

If you say that animals are not capable of rational choice, which is the modern Western stance, what you’re really saying is that everything the animals can do is an imperative or a normative doing. Therefore, animals are normative creatures by nature.

Then, they are moral beings. If you defend the belief that animals cannot freely chose between different options, then you consider them to be axiomatic beings, living in a world of self-evident truths. If animals cannot change their axioms and their value judgments, this means that they are completely moral beings by nature.

Now, consider the other option. In some historical communities, especially in the agrarian contexts of pre-industrial societies, the answer was clearly the affirmative: animals have the capacity of rational choice.

Moral responsibility is not interpreted as an exclusive property of individuals, but as a natural ability of the living beings which increases to the extent that mental complexity is higher. As the human being seems to be the most powerful animal in cognitive terms, therefore it has a greater moral responsibility.

The belief is strange, but it is not illogical. The belief that an animal has a certain degree of awareness and can freely choose among options is not a self-contradictory idea. The consequence is that what defines human beings is their level of moral awareness, but at the same time, this characteristic is what relates them to the other living beings of the biosphere. This magical thesis also implies that the sense of humanity cannot be defined using only purely cultural factors and definitions.

Finally, the two sides of the coin are showing that non-human animals have a moral character. There are situations in which the two opposing options produce the same result.

There is a contradiction, but that does not trivialize the result. That is called fuzzy logic. If you say that animals don’t have free will, then they are absolutely moral beings. But if you say that animals have free will, thus they should produce their own moral decisions, therefore they are moral beings.

In logical terms it is impossible to deny the moral status of animals.

HWW: Back to humans, what is the source of our sense of personhood?

AJ: The sense of personhood is a feeling, an inner and powerful feeling. It can’t be defined simply by concepts, because it is a pre-conceptual sense. It works at the level of different mental faculties or cerebral schemes.

We know very little of how it is configured in the brain, and how it emerges from the cognitive level of the schemes. Some interesting overtures have been made by thinkers as Kant and Peirce. But it remains an enigmatic field where we find ourselves almost completely groping in the dark.

Some say that feral children have ceased to be human because they behave like dogs or wolves. I disagree. Feral children are human beings precisely because they have had the incredible ability to play at being dogs or wolves. Feral children are humans who pretend to be something else in order to survive. They have never ceased to be human.

Isaac Blessing Jacob, painting by Govert Flinck (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam) | 1808: purchased by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam InscriptionsSignature and date top right: G. Flinck 1638 - Disappeared during a restoration References Rijksmuseum Amsterdam online catalogue, as Isaak zegent Jakob, 1638, inv. SK-A-110. RKDimages, Art-work number 2797, as Isaak zegent Jakob, 1638, inv. A 110. Source/ : Home : Info : Pic | Wikimedia Commons

Isaac Blessing Jacob, painting by Govert Flinck (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam) | 1808: purchased by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam | Inscriptions Signature and date top right: G. Flinck 1638 – Disappeared during a restoration | References Rijksmuseum Amsterdam online catalogue, as Isaak regent Jakob, 1638, inv. SK-A-110. | RKDimages, Art-work number 2797, as Isaak regent Jakob, 1638, inv. A 110. | Source/Photographer : Home : Info : Pic | Wikimedia Commons

HWW: However, humans can be very cruel, while other animals not.

AJ: Sure! We don’t know the depths of the human soul. We have just intuitions about it. However, we are not what it seems.

Dante Alighieri hastily condemned the count Ugolino della Gherardesca to hell for supposedly having devoured its children and grandchildren during their imprisonment inside the Torre della Muda in Pisa. Seven centuries after their corpses have been scientifically analyzed, and now we know that this scene of cannibalism never happened. Contrary to all the historical assumptions about the inevitability of human evil, Ugolino never ate his grandchildren to survive. They preferred to starve rather than eat each other.

We don’t know too much about what the moral source of humanity is, and even less about the profundity of this source. And we have to be very careful about what we say on this matter.

HWW: You dedicate yourself to investigate precisely this source of morality. What do we really know about it?

AJ: We only know several tracks, and we can count these tracks with the fingers of one hand.

Thanks to Hume, we know that there are moral emotions and sentiments which cannot be subsumed within a Utilitarian way of thinking. Thanks to Kant, we know that moral rules share a common mental base with the rules of rationality.

Thanks to psychologists as Lawrence Kohlberg and Elliot Turiel, we know that morality not only has innate foundations but that it also evolves along the psychological development of people. Now we know, from the studies such as those of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, that there is no specific center inside the brain exclusively responsible for producing moral emotions and ethical reasoning. We do not know much, but we do know something.

The hominoids are descendants of a common ancestor | Wikimedia Commons

The hominoids are descendants of a common ancestor | Wikimedia Commons

HWW: Do you believe that we are good people by nature?

AJ: Why was Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile and León, simultaneously referred to as Pedro the Just? Perhaps in some cases justice and cruelty are synonymous terms?

Why was the drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was capable of shooting down an airplane full of innocent people, also able to build entire neighborhoods for the poor street children of Medellin? Why did Napoleon feel nothing in subduing the Russians and the Germans but found himself emotionally moved to grant independence to the Poles, to forbid the Inquisition, and ban corporal punishment in Europe?

Let’s put aside value judgments for a moment. The question is: Are moral judgments the exclusive property of some experts and pundits, such as judges or moral guides, or are they public property that belongs to all members of the society without distinctions?

If you accept the former proposition, probably you believe in an aristocratic theory of morality, as Plato proposed, inspired by Esparta: “the betters create the rules, the others obey”. If you agree with the second proposition, then you probably support a democratic theory of moral capacity, which says: “we create the rules among all.”

If moral rules should be exclusively created by the leaders, then the dictatorship of the wise would be morally justified. But it seems that, in real life, the opposite is quite probable. Moral rules are the creation of humanity as a whole. If we agree with this single point of commonsense, then we can move forward.

Moral norms and principles are a public property that belongs to all members of the society without distinctions. This means that the moral faculty is a universal capacity of human beings. We must then, of necessity, define moral faculty.

The moral faculty is a capacity of humans to behave as guided by certain principles and norms for actions, defined by four distinctive features: universality, impartiality, necessity, and “prescriptivity.” The philosopher John Rawls proposed that moral faculty is like a grammar of action. I think it’s a good idea, with some nuances.

If we agree that we all have this ability to apply these principles, then we can suppose that all people have an open access to moral faculty. But that does not mean that we are good by nature, but only that we can become good people if we want to.

HWW: But then we can also become evil if we want?

AJ: Five thousand years of recorded history proves it. Even inside of the moral sense we find serious problems when people use the idea of justice in their particular benefit. Or in the profit of a specific social class, that’s the trajectory of capitalism in a nutshell.

What we call “morality” or “moral faculty,” is a human capacity related to some abstract ideas as “goodness” and “rightness,” but also refers to unpleasant thoughts, with a dark side or a bad pole, which serves to perform negative acts like accusing, blaming, punishing, cursing, execrating, excommunicating, etc… These moral actions are not normally considered inherently “positive,” “enjoyable,” “likable,” or simply “palatable,” but, nevertheless, are still viewed as moral actions.

HWW: The same idea of justice can be manipulated and disfigured…

AJ: Well, examples abound. Moral faculty has an evident side, very well discussed in the past three thousand years, which I call the Taboo’s Logic, which orders: “You should not”. It is an immutable logic which does not depend on the subject who uses it. It is a timeless, universal, and imperative norm for all concerned.

But the moral sense has a less visible or obvious side, so far largely ignored by many philosophers and scientists, I call it as the Logic of Blessing and Cursing, which is based on relative and circumstantial relationships, depending entirely on the person that uses it, and on the context in which it is used.

The Logic of Taboo is the expression of impartial and necessary duties; and the Logic of Blessing and Cursing is the expression of the morallydesirable.

We tend to see morality as one thing, but actually there are two different moralities.

HWW: What is the difference between them?

AJ: The morality of duty refers to what we must do even if we do not like it. The morality of the desirable is what we must do because we like to do it. For Kantian philosophers there is no problem here, because morality is only the first option. But I think the issue is a bit more complex.

Many moral duties are performed without any desire or they are patently against our wishes and finalities. However, some moral duties are done precisely because we want to do them, without any kind of coercion, and that’s a fact that has been systematically ignored and disregarded by some moral thinkers.

People tend to conflate these two different logics of thought, and results of that conceptual confusion are deplorable. People are often accused of using the logic of the morally desirable, when they should use the logic of duties.

Conversely, in cases where the logic of the morally desirable applies, sometimes the logic of moral duties is dogmatically imposed with disastrous consequences for those involved. What seems clear is that both options are not isomorphic mental processes, despite being both logics of moral action.

HWW: Could you give some specific examples?

AJ: Normal people usually don’t conceive morality using Kantian parameters. Actually, what people do is to apply the logic of blessing and cursing, the logic of moral desirables.

Let me explain with some anecdotes. The soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic says he needs to curse in order to score goals. What does this mean? It means that if Ibrahimovic is calm and sedated, he cannot play well. He should be upset if he wants to perform well, and he must curse in order to fulfill that goal. I think Ibrahimovic has given us a wonderful clue on how the human mind works.

I recently met a social worker from Paraguay, at a gathering of friends. Amidst the conversation, she said something very interesting. She said that when she cursed someone or something, she did not do it in Spanish, the “civilized” language of Paraguay, but by using the indigenous language in which she had been breastfed – Guarani. Wonderful! This implies that cursing is a really visceral feeling, a very primitive emotion.

Immediately, I remembered an episode in which I had been attacked by a furious dog in the streets of Miami. At the very moment in which the dog threatened me, I started insulting the animal. The curious fact is that I did not use “civilized” words.

I was not even using a proper Spanish. I was cursing the dog in a kind of Afro-Cuban dialect. In Cuba everyone speaks by mixing Spanish words with Bantu words. But I had stopped using that kind of tropical “pidgin” for the last twenty years because of my wandering around the world.

h the violation of the tombs of mummified corpses, or of the mummies themselves. The idea became so widespread as to become a pop-culture mainstay, especially in horror films (though originally the curse was invisible, a series of mysterious deaths, rather than the walking-dead mummies of later fiction). The "Curse of the Pharaohs" is supposed to have haunted the archeologists who excavated the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whereby an imprecation was supposedly pronounced from the grave by the ancient Egyptian priests, on anyone who violated its precincts. Similar dubious suspicions have surrounded the excavation and examination of the (natural, not embalmed) Alpine mummy, "Ötzi the Iceman". While such curses are generally considered to have been popularized and sensationalized by British journalists of the 19th century, ancient Egyptians were in fact known to place curse inscriptions on markers protecting temple or tomb goods or property. Biblical curses According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Cursing, the Bible depicts God cursing the serpent, the earth and Cain (Genesis 3:14, 3:17, 4:11). Similarly Noah curses Canaan (Genesis 9:25), and Joshua curses the man who should build the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:26-27). In various books of the Old Testament there are long lists of curses against transgressors of the Law (Leviticus 26:14-25, Deuteronomy 27:15, etc.). So, too, in the New Testament, Christ curses the barren fig-tree (Mark 11:14), pronounces his denunciation of woe against the incredulous cities (Matthew 11:21), against the rich, the worldling, the scribes and the Pharisees, and foretells the awful malediction that is to come upon the damned (Matthew 25:41). The word curse is also applied to the victim of expiation for sin | Wikimedia Commons

Donation stele with curse inscription. Limestone. Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, Dynasty XXII, probable reign of Shoshenq III, c. 825-773 BC. From Mendes, Egypt. Inscription celebrates a donation of land to an Egyptian temple, and places a curse on anyone who would misuse or appropriate the land from the temple. (Stated reign length: 837 to 798 BC.) | Wikimedia Commons

HWW: Now that you say that, I remember a poster I once saw in the Trastevere in Rome. On the corner of one street there was a written statement: “San Antonio: do not bless those people who throw garbage here”!

AJ: It’s marvelous, because the poster did not said “curse them,” but simply “do not bless them.” This means that things should be blessed, because if not, then they are somehow cursed. Actually, that’s the sense of blessing: the act of freeing something of their inherent negative charges.

HWW: Then blessing and cursing are very primitive feelings?

AJ: They are pretty primitive mechanisms of mind. In this deep level, the words are also emotions. In this case, semantics appears before the syntax. Blessing, cursing and swearing are some of the most primitive emotions we have. And indeed, they are moral actions.

I’ll give you another example. In December 2010, while I was doing ethnographic fieldwork with some indigenous peasants in the region of western Guatemala, I heard a phrase that caught my attention.

One indigenous farmer complained that their huichil tree had not generated any fruits for almost a year. Another farmer replied, “You have to putshame upon the tree, if you do not, it will not produce any fruit.”

I jot down the idea in my field book: one must shame a tree for it to produce fruit. I waited for the chance to find out the meaning of the expression. A few months later, during a purification ceremony in the mountains of Quetzaltenango, the Mayan spiritual healer Carlos Escalante explained the meaning of the phrase to me: “In our ancestral vision, the trees are sentient beings. If you scold them, they may feel bad. They can feel guilt, and embarrassment.”

Positivist anthropology in the manner of Frazer would say that it is an animist superstition. But perhaps it is just a different ontology, value-laden, at odds with modern ontology that is devoid of values. It is not that the indigenous people have a pre-logical thinking believing that a tree can feel shame.

The fact is that they have a connection with an ontological intuition in which human values ​​are not divorced from the events or from the nature.

I had a similar experience in 2004, among the Quechua community of Peru, but referring to the concept of blessing. In my Peruvian field book, you can find the following quote:

“April 10, 2004. Torontoy ruins. On the roof of some houses there are two thumbnails of two bulls that the people call Pucará bulls.

Back to Cusco a few days later, I asked Benito Masco Aragón, craftsman and master in Cuzco school of art, what the bulls meant to the Indigenous communities of ancient Peru. His answer was that, “When the Spanish came, they found on the roof of every house two alpaca figurines surrounding the cross Tunupa.

These two alpacas in miniature were meant as requests for a good harvest. Inside of the alpacas, the people would throw chicha. It was an offering to get the blessing of Mother Earth. The Spanish settlers banned the alpacas, and put in place the two bulls. They changed the form, but the content remains the same.”

The Huichil tree, which can feel shame and guilt, in the Mayan culture of Guatemala, has its exact counterpart in the bulls of Pucará, in Peru, at the other extreme of Latin America. Both the embarrassed huichil tree, and the bulls of Pucará are considered sentient beings endowed with moral sense.

According to positivist anthropology, both cases are examples of a process that attributes human traits to nature, supposedly, a kind of mental projection, or a form of anthropomorphism. But neither the Quechua people of Peru nor the Mayan of Guatemala saw it in that way. For magical thinking, in general, there is no separation between the moral rules that govern human life and moral rules that shelter the entire Cosmos.

HWW: What does this have to do with the human sense of morality?

AJ: Well, everything! The moral capacity speaks two different languages. We can call them language ​​A and language B. The language A is impartial, necessary, imperative and universal. It expresses ineludible duties. This is morality as understood by Western philosophy.

Language B expresses moral mandates which are circumstantial and related to the interest and welfare of very specific individuals or groups of individuals. Language B is a translation of language A into relative, situational, and personal terms. Through using language B, people feel entitled to create and define moral situations and standards.

We understand language A quite well because it is based on classic logic. But we have very little idea on how language B it works. The Western press has not yet understood what it means when someone throws a shoe at some leader. That is a serious curse. When a powerful evangelical pastor blesses the election campaign in the United States with the candidates as witnesses, it is the same case, but in reverse.

The power to bless and curse was initially an exclusive faculty of the gods. This can be seen in the cursing of Agade by Enlil, or in the mark of Cain made by the God of the Hebrew. At some point in history, blessing and cursing became human capacities. Blessing and cursing is the way in which humans play the game of trying to be gods.

HWW: So what is the true morality, the “Logic of Duties” or the “Logic of the Morally Desirable”?

AJ: Both ways of morality are true, but if they come into conflict with each other, then must prevail the logic of duties, in order to protect the general interests.

That’s the way our brain is designed, to articulate individual purposes with the welfare of others. If the intangible value and dignity of a person were denied, then the logic of the universal norms should have the last word.

Ariel James*Ariel James: Born and raised in Cuba, where his Spanish and American great grandparents would have fought against each other in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba (1898), James left Cuba at age 16, going on to learn “real anthropology” with the shamans from Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras. Later, he went to northern Morocco, where he explored the meanings of symbols drawn on the faces of Berber women. Alongside his research work, James has led a teaching career that has spanned the cities of New York, Miami, Lima, Bogota, Madrid, Bilbao and Casablanca. He currently heads a team of social research at the Autonomous University of Madrid, and is the responsible for an ethnographic fieldwork focused in understand how human perception is modeled by moral and social assumptions.


**Image: Da Vinci Studies of Embryos | Photography Luc Viatour | Photography *own work | Credit: Luc Viatour / | Wikimedia Commons

***Image: scientific reconstruction of a Homo habilis | Author: unknown (; Homo_habilis.JPG: Photographed by User:Lillyundfreya; derivative work: Rafaelamonteiro80 (talk) |  Wikimedia Commons

****image: Homo heidelbergensis | Source: Homo heidelbergensis | Author: Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España | Wikimedia Commons

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