I have witness the following scene in my childhood :

A group of tribe people abducted a newborn baby from a village close to the forest they lived in. The purpose of the abduction was to sacrifice the baby to the tribal goddess by beheading him. The villagers managed to stop those tribe people from sacrificing the child.

Their failure in carrying out the sacrificial ceremony caused deep shame in those tribal people which which caused the group to collectively commit suicide. (This was not forced by social norms but a result of the strong shame.)

The question that troubles me up to this day is, where those people innocent or cruel who were ready to kill a newborn baby? So my question is:

If cultural norms or customs proscribe the (e.g. sacrificial) killing of humans (adult or children), can the individuals or groups committing these acts be considered psychologically healthy and not disordered from the perspective of clincal psychology, or does their culture cause a psychological disorder in its members?

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    This seems to be more a question of moral philosophy than science.
    – Keegan Keplinger
    Apr 11, 2014 at 14:29
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    I edited the question to make it more on topic for this site by deleting the moral philosophical terms and focussing on clinical psychology. If you disagree with my edit, @rajutikale, click "edit", then "roll back".
    – what
    Apr 11, 2014 at 19:58
  • If it is a question of moral philosophy, the scientific answer is yes. IMHO, this is an easy answer to arrive at scientifically by referring to the general manner by which we define disorders. It's usually stricter than this, at least when it's being done right. Apr 12, 2014 at 1:28

3 Answers 3


There are really two interrelated questions at stake here. First, there is a question about the "sanity" of an individual relative to a culture. Second, there is a question about the "sanity" of the views of that culture. Much is hidden in the term "sanity" here however.

The first question is easily resolved. An individual is "sane" relative to their culture if they express views that are within certain norms for their culture and its expectations. What this does not make clear at all is whether this is something we should grant is "sane" or something we should say is "sane in the views of that culture." To know which, we will need to take a stand on the relativity of value.

This is where the second issue comes up. Here, I would maintain that merely because something is well-adjusted to a culture does not mean we should call it "sane." But this is because I believe there are some objective features of human flourishing (See for instance here). We needn't think the list is exhaustive (e.g., we are not losing out if we have a different musical scale), but if we think there are some objective facts about human flourishing, then it stands to reason that we can consider a culture that works directly against those to represent a failure of sanity -- and adjustment to that culture to also be a failure of sanity.

One sentence in the quotation strikes me as odd: "This was not forced by social norms but a result of the strong shame." I don't know what this is supposed to mean -- as social norms are often enforced through shame. Legal norms perhaps would be enforced through laws and punishments meted out in the name of justice.

Thus, the problem presents several points of difficulty:

  1. Are we relativists about value or do we think there are at least some objective features?
  2. If we are relativists, are we to frame our evaluations in our own terms or in the terms of the culture we want to evaluate?
  3. When we say "sanity" do we mean a merely cultural notion of adaptation or do we mean to refer to our modern ideas about psychology or do we mean healthy relative to some ideal of flourishing?
  • Very nice answer, +1
    – iphigenie
    Apr 16, 2014 at 12:34

I'm not aware of studies of the psychological health of human-sacrificing societies (but there may be), so I'll try to answer this question from the perspective of studies done in the wake of the horrors of the German Nazi regime.

The most famous example that, I think, can be applied to your example, is the so called Milgram experiment. How Milgram conducted his study, you can read on the Wikipedia page I linked to. What is relevant here is that Milgram found that obedience to authority caused many of the (psychologically healthy) participants to, as they thought, torture and kill other participants merely for failing at what they believed was a learning task. Milgram's experiment has been replicated multiple times, all over the world, and always with similar results.

How does this pertain to ceremonial killing? Many of the members of that tribe followed the authority of their leaders, of the group as a whole, and of their traditions and beliefs. That is a strong authority and hard to resist or even question.

The horror of the Nazi crimes and similar historic tragedies is partly due to the fact that many of its atrocities where commited by completely average and normal people like you and me. The insight gleaned from research on the psychology of Nazi Germany is that the "right" kind of wrong culture can cause a strong undertow of perversion-perceived-as-moral that is almost impossible to resist, especially for people who rate high in conformity (which is why non-conformity has been one central goal in the education of children in Germany in the Sixties).


An excerpt from my 2015 article Why the Tech Industry Needs More Autism :

In his 1961 work The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz famously argued that what is commonly qualified as mental illness is merely a deviation from societal norms. Szasz argued that mental illness is a metaphor and not a genuine disease, that it is merely a way of dealing with problematic people in society. “Psychiatry is conventionally defined as a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases,” he wrote. “I submit that this definition, which is still widely accepted, places psychiatry in the company of alchemy and astrology and commits it to the category of pseudoscience. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as ‘mental illness.’” By the late 1960s, he was perhaps the most famous psychiatrist in America. However, he was also the most despised among peers. This, and his theories being rooted in the discredited field of psychoanalysis, resulted in his work usually being either ignored or vehemently attacked.


By the late 1990s, online groups of Autistic persons started publicly defending the notion that that Autism is but a variation on the neurological norm and should be recognized and respected as a social category on a par with gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Since the beginning of the 21st century, this concept is now increasingly picked up by scientists as well, although it’s still considered controversial and thus far from universally accepted.

With recent works like Paris Williams’s 2012 publication Rethinking Madness and Wouter Kusters’s 2014 Philosophy of Madness, a similar paradigm shift has begun involving Psychosis — the “opposite” of Autism. ADHD has also been mentioned in this context, and the term neurodiversity has been coined in reference to a more general application of this concept, roughly echoing the ideas of Szasz many decades after they were first voiced.

So, if we embrace Szasz's position was that the concept of sanity is fundamentally subjective / arbitrary, an objective cross-cultural definition of sanity is impossible.

  • First, mental illness in terms of ICD-10 is stronger than just deviation, it includes disfunctioning and often subjective feelings of suffering. Second, although the first and the third part are related to the question and include some good points, the post as a whole seems to be related, but fails to answer the question, especially considering that all the sources are from but one cultural sphere.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 23, 2016 at 13:39
  • @PhilipKlöcking : From the same article : Autistic people have their own unique individual cultures. In that sense, they truly do live in their own little worlds. They live in their own little worlds, not because they choose to or because they fail to understand the world they live in (some Autistic understand actually the world far better than many “Neurotypicals”), but because their inability to relate to the culture they live among sets them apart from that culture. May 23, 2016 at 13:40
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    @PhilipKlöcking : Anyway, Szasz's position was that the concept of sanity is fundamentally subjective / arbitrary. From this perspective, an objective cross-cultural definition of sanity is impossible. May 23, 2016 at 13:44

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