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How, why and when do people make moral judgements about what is right or just? How are such judgements influenced by social and cultural factors, such as early childcare practices, local theories of mind, or the relative presence or absence of markets and the state?

Justice, Morality, and the State in Amazonia (JUSTAM) is a five-year research project that will explore these questions with an empirical focus on the indigenous peoples of Western Amazonia. It will use ethnographic as well as experimental research methods to develop a comprehensive picture of how people throughout the region pursue and enact forms of justice in their everyday lives. It will examine the ways in which such judgements and activities may vary according to context (familial, ritual, formal, etc.) and how they are subject to change, as communities grow in size and complexity, as lifestyles become more sedentary, and as people seek out – or are compelled to adopt – new ways of thinking and relating to one other.

Specific issues to be explored include:

  • concepts of fairness, deservingness and entitlement in contexts of resource distribution and blame attribution.  
  • the generation of consensus
  • how responsibility is understood and attributed
  • the resolution of disputes and punishment of wrongdoing
  • processes of moral learning in childhood
  • the scope and social importance of moral emotions such as guilt, shame and embarrassment; anger and indignation; pride and gratitude; compassion and pity.


We hope that our findings will reveal something of the power and sophistication of Amazonian moral and political philosophy, in order to bring these into critical and constructive dialogue with thinking about justice in the West and elsewhere.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 715725).