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I originally posted this on psychology SE but received no response, so I am cross-posting here. It seems appropriate for philosophy SE because the cultural dependence of ethics is generally a subject of interest to philosophers of ethics. But let me know if there is a more appropriate SE site.


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.

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I finally had some time to look into 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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this sounds like an issue of law rather than a question of ethics so that when a group agree on some antisocial action it is a group dynamic but unlikely to be a group ethic ie a carefully worked out system of universal principles. social norms are not really ethical norms and if arguments are offered to justify this or that killing it usually involves practical considerations rather than ethical. Ethics usually is an individual orientation rather than a collective possibility. Norms rules and law are for the collective. Cultural is a collective image. robin

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  • I think that the overwhelming majority of philosophers would disagree with the assertion that the question of whether it is okay to kill strangers is purely legal rather than ethical. By this standard, most of the influential philosophers of western history (e.g. Plato, Spinoza, Kant, ...) would be classified as legal scholars rather than philosophers.
    – sasquires
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 3:25
  • More importantly, you didn't answer the questions, i.e., do you have a reference for this incident or any academic criticism of the story?
    – sasquires
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 3:25
  • I guess they mean @sasquires that without it being legally murder it isn't murder, and there is only an imperative against unlawful killing of others (see e.g. euthanasia, or even war) but I dunno! I can't say I agree, if only cos there should be laws agains state murder etc.
    – user57343
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 5:22
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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 is not so trivial to find philosophers arguing like this. A philosopher would need to avoid the word "atrocities" when referring to such actions, as that label would already indicate an ethical prohibition. Examples would require outside groups to be discriminated against on a formal level, such as by racism, sexism or religion.

However I am not aware of a famous philosopher arguing in general that actions that would be immoral inside one group can be moral when done to someone from any other group. In general symmetry or the "golden rule" is an important feature in ethics, meaning ethics philosophers seek principles that would also make it immoral for members of outside groups to act against the inside group.

Symmetry however breaks down in very harsh conditions where each "fight for their own", meaning own survival is impossible without someone elses sacrifice, for all parties involved. Possibly that can help explain the sample culture from the question.

In general though humankind needs ethics training of members of society because there is no strong natural ethical sense. Humans without ethical socialisation from parents or schools will behave less ethically, including low inhibitions for bloodshed.

Not sure if any philosopher developed specific ethics for very harsh situations, though the trolley problem has a lot of parallels. But overall in such harsh conditions, humans are not likely to think much about philosophy.

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  • 1. Sure, I am not a philosopher. 2. The word “atrocities” is spoken from my personal perspective as a modern liberal westerner. 3. You have entirely missed the point. I’m not arguing that there are well known systems of modern philosophical ethics that allow you to commit acts of violence against outsiders. I’m arguing that it is plausible that the behavior of most humans, using whatever ethical heuristics our brains and/or cultures endow us with, frequently applies ethics differently to in-groups and out-groups. The Stanford prison experiment is one famous example.
    – sasquires
    Commented Jan 12, 2022 at 18:06
  • If you want to talk about brains or culture, chose a psychology forum. I give an answer about philosophy, because this is a philosophy forum, and ethics is the study of problems not the non-study and follow your brain and culture. I did not miss your point, i intentionally only answered about the part that may be on-topic here.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:43
  • I would assert that the overwhelming majority of philosophers who study ethics think that the empirical human behavior is at least relevant to the study of ethics. I also think that it's relevant that most modern westerners have cultural or philosophical ideas about ethics that are wildly at odds with those of the Kwakiutl, according to the passages I cited.
    – sasquires
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 3:24
  • If you aren't interested in my question, just don't post an answer, rather than deliberately posting an answer to a different question. You probably should have stopped reading after the second and third sentences: "It seems appropriate for philosophy SE because the cultural dependence of ethics is generally a subject of interest to philosophers of ethics. But let me know if there is a more appropriate SE site."
    – sasquires
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 3:27
  • My answer is not for you personally, but for anyone visiting this site. Other people might prefer my answer to your question.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 4:47

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