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Interview with Yael Assor

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

In anticipation of the upcoming conference, Moral Engagements with Power, Emotions and Reproductive Biotechnology (June 28-29 2021), we interviewed Dr. Yael Assor, who will be presenting at the conference: Examining the connection between emotion and morality reveals another layer of social common sense:

Why did you choose to lead the session " Moral Moods and Emotions in Everyday Life"?

Both emotion and morality are aspects of the connection between people's inner world and their socio-cultural environment. In this sense, morality and emotion are intertwined. For example, we see this in anthropological studies that describe the way people talk about morality as something that involves feelings of shame or pride or guilt or remorse. In addition, we can see it in the classical philosophical literature on ethics. In my view, morality and emotion cannot be separated or distinguished from one another, and this worldview stems from a specific view - a phenomenological one - of what we call the "moral experience."

How do you think this session contributes to understanding morality and ethics as everyday phenomena?

One could say that contemporary anthropological research on morality is broadly divided into three camps. One camp deals with what is called "Ordinary Ethics" and sees morality as an aspect of everyday actions. The main point of contention of contemporary leaders of this camp is that there is an ethical aspect to our daily actions, so an anthropologist interested in exploring morality should look at people's daily lives and ask what ethical notions are reflected and present in that culture or situation.

The second camp of the anthropology of morality deals with morality as part of the "sublime," the transcendent, the ideals that people strive to live in light of them, which also often involve religious ideas.

The third camp focuses on the "Moral Experience." This camp focuses on how a person's moral attitudes and moral commitments shape the way she experiences everyday life. That is, the third camp looks at how – from people’s points of view – their moral perceptions entirely direct how they conduct themselves in the world, perceive the world around them, and interact with others. In the literature on the moral experience the connection to emotion strongly arises, because like morality, emotion is another category that shapes the way we perceive our daily lives and our experience. In addition, morality and emotion are systems that nourish one another. For instance, in the conference we will talk about how the mood of suspicion that I identified in the field revealed to me an ethical commitment to creating truthful data in the Israeli Health Basket Committee (Va'adat Sal Hatrufot).

To read more about the different directions in the anthropology of morality, you can have a look at this article, or the list of references here.

What is the contribution of the session to understanding the connection between culture and emotions?

From the 1980s to the present, many studies have seen emotion as a distinct category that depends on and is related to culture. The current session underscores a contemporary direction that enters into this conversation about emotions, according to which emotions are not only related in cultural contexts in terms of power relations - economic, gender, race, etc. - but are also entangled with ethical perspectives and moral experience. The session probes into how emotions and morals are intertwined when both are shaped by and shape the culture we are in.

What in your field has led you to theorize the connection between emotion and morality?

To answer the question, an important pre-definition is needed regarding "Emotion", "Affect" and "Mood". What is called "emotion" refers to the individual's subjective personal experience that has a particular word, a conceptualization in a specific culture. Affect refers more to some kind of "contagious" feeling experienced by a group of people. Mood is an experience that unlike emotion, is much more elusive and we do not necessarily know how to conceptualize it or describe it. In fact, it can be said that in the phenomenological philosophy of the 20th century, Mood was treated as the lens through which we see the world. In this session we will focus on moods. We would like to show that mood is an equally important aspect in trying to understand people's moral experience: from mothers to transgender children, through living on an island that is about to be flooded by global warming to what information is produced about drugs.

What led me in my field of research to theorizing the connection between emotion and morality were of course my interlocutors at my field site. I came to my research with an interest in how ethical ideals shape work processes and decision making in the Health Basket Committee. I quickly realized that the central ethical ideal emphasized by everyone involved in the work of the committee is the ethical ideal of objectivity. What’s more, when the women I worked with talked about what it is to work objectively, the main thing they said was that to work objectively is to work unemotionally (see here for a decade-long article on the subject). The connection between being ethical and being unemotional comes from their world. Emotion and ethics for them are intertwined and from there the theorizing of the connection between emotion and morality begins.

What is the place of the body when it comes to talking about emotions and moral experience?

The basic worldview of the members of the "moral experience" camp that I belong to, and also of some of the other camps, is that every human experience is also a bodily experience, and that these are all intertwined dimensions of the human experience (see for example Chordesh's founding article in this context). The body is an essential, indelible dimension within the emotional-moral experience. This means that every human experience including an emotional-moral is always-already a bodily one.

What can this anthropological perspective on emotions and morality contribute to current social justice endeavors?

In order to be able to resist or change existing power dynamics, we must firstly understand their workings. When we look at the connection between emotion and morality, we are able to reveal another layer in the workings of power, which often remains taken for granted. My motivation for engaging in anthropological research lies exactly there.

What effects has your fieldwork had on your personal moral perceptions?

In the spirit of the recent bribery allegations against some people involved in the Health Basket Committee (see for example in this article) I can say that working with this committee brought me to a crossroads where I had to decide whether to become a very paranoid person or a person trying to believe in human good. Although the former is by far the most rational choice, I made a conscious decision to go with the latter. Because in most cases it will not help us understand the depth of corruption, and not necessarily all corruption is bad (see here for a special issue of Current Anthropology magazine on corruption). Nowadays, I only get alarmed and suspicious when really big conspiracies seem to be happening.

Yael Assor is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Haifa. Assor studies how culture-dependent moral perceptions shape health policy. Her research examined how an ideal of objective conduct as proper bureaucratic conduct shapes the work processes of the Israel Health Basket Committee. Her current research examines the ethical assumptions underlying the concept of “medical efficacy” in medical cost-benefit metrics.

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