I recently had a conversation with a friend about the psychology of ethics, and it reminded me of an anecdote that I read perhaps 10-15 years ago. The anecdote supposedly originates in the anthropology literature, but I couldn't find an anthropology SE, so I am hoping that someone here will have encountered it. I'm looking for either a reference or perhaps a similar anecdote that does have a reference. If the story can be identified, I'm also interested in how credible the story is (i.e., if there is any known criticism or dispute about it).

I just want to point out in advance that I have no formal training in psychology or anthropology and that I have only read popular literature on these subjects.

I recall picking up a book in a bookstore and reading most of a chapter that was devoted to the idea that most ethical concepts that modern westerners would consider "self-evident" are not universal and are certainly not considered self-evident in many other cultures. One big part of this is the in-group/out-group distinction, where many ethical rules are only considered applicable to the in-group.

As an extreme example, the book related the following story, which comes from an anthropologist who studied the Inuit (or perhaps another Arctic people):

There was a band of Inuit people who were out hunting in a remote area. Some tragedy occurred, and one member of the band died. (I think the tragedy was natural, not human-caused.) Everyone grieved for several hours. Then, in the night, one of the men stood up and shouted, "Shall we suffer, or shall others suffer!?" Four or five of the men got together and went off searching the wilderness for other people. They found a tiny hunting party of strangers, who were all asleep. Then they killed them all. This raised their spirits and they went back to their camp. When questioned, they did not consider this to be ethically problematic at all.

(This retelling is based entirely on my faulty memory.)

I was deeply skeptical of the story when I first read it, but I was also open-minded enough to take it seriously. It is trivial to find examples throughout history of atrocities that are committed against a dehumanized outside group, which lends credence to the argument that humans generally consider ethical prohibitions to only apply within one's own group. It's also conceivable that one's in-group could be small enough that strangers are automatically excluded.

Please let me know if you have read this (or anything similar enough) before and can provide a reference and/or criticism.


I finally had some time to Google this again, and I found the source. The most popular source of this seems to be Ruth Benedict's paper in J. General Psychology, 10, p. 59-80 (1934). Long excepts from it can be viewed without a paywall here.

I think that the original source is from Franz Boas's anthropological work on the Kwakiutl (one group of Kwakwaka'wakw people) from roughly 1895-1920. For example, he published The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island in 1909.

Here is Benedict's retelling of the story:

Among the Kwakiutl it did not matter whether a relative had died in bed of disease, or by the hand of an enemy; in either case death was an affront to be wiped out by the death of another person. The fact that one had been caused to mourn was proof that one had been put upon. A chief’s sister and her daughter had gone up to Victoria, and either because they drank bad whiskey or because their boat capsized they never came back. The chief called together his warriors. “Now, I ask you, tribes, who shall wail? Shall I do it or shall another?” The spokesman answered, of course, “Not you, Chief. Let some other of the tribes.” Immediately they set up the war pole to announce their intention of wiping out the injury, and gathered a war party. They set out, and found seven men and two children asleep and killed them. “Then they felt good when they arrived at Sebaa in the evening.”

(My memory was pretty good, except for mixing up the Kwakiutl with the Inuit.)

For some context, there is a passage from Benedict's Patterns of Culture (available here) describing why this is true in Kwakiutl culture. (As in my question, I don't take this completely at face value, but it does seem to be accepted by the anthropological community.)

The Kwakiutl recognized only one gamut of emotion, that which swings between victory and shame. ... The Northwest Coast carries out this same pattern of behavior also in relation to the external world and the forces of nature. All accidents were occasions upon which one was shamed. A man whose axe slipped so that his foot was injured had immediately to wipe out the shame which had been put upon him. A man whose canoe had capsized had similarly to ‘wipe his body’ of the insult. People must at all costs be prevented from laughing at the incident. The universal means to which they resorted was, of course, the distribution of property. It removed the shame; that is, it reestablished again the sentiment of superiority which their culture associated with potlatching. All minor accidents were dealt with in this way. The greater ones might involve giving a winter ceremonial, or head-hunting, or suicide. ...

The great event which was dealt with in these terms was death. Mourning on the Northwest Coast cannot be understood except through the knowledge of the peculiar arc of behavior which this culture institutionalized. Death was the paramount affront they recognized, and it was met as they met any major accident, by distribution and destruction of property, by head-hunting, and by suicide. They took recognized means, that is, to wipe out the shame.

(Here, "head-hunting" refers to what modern westerners would call "murdering random people," as in the story above.)


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