April 07, 2016
In much of the pre-modern world, ritual sacrifice was framed as necessary for the good of the society at large — the only way to guarantee, say, a plentiful harvest or success in war.What's being investigated here is apparently called the social control hypothesis. In the past, whenever I contemplated addle-pated statements about the necessity of accepting moral relativism* when considering the extremes of human ethical diversity, such as the ritual human sacrifices of pre-Columbian Meso-American empires, I wondered why no-one ever considered that said ethical norms may not have been norms for the majority of the people in those societies at all, but merely behaviours embraced by a political elite and then imposed on everyone else for coercive purposes. (Which shows how little I know of the field, as this is apparently a commonplace explanation.) This would be something to bear in mind when faced with an argument that there are no universal moral norms (such as "murdering people is bad") at all: that a diversion from such universal, or widely held, ethical positions may not ever have occurred in any particular society as a whole, but was just notable among the psychopaths in charge.
But the priests and rulers who sanctioned such killings may have had another motive, a new study suggests. An analysis of more than seven dozen Austronesian cultures revealed that the practice of human sacrifices tended to make societies increasingly less egalitarian and eventually gave rise to strict, inherited class systems. In other words, ritual killings helped keep the powerful in power and everyone else in check.
Lots of sociologists have theorized about this connection, the researchers say, but there haven’t been many rigorous scientific studies of how it came about...
[T]he link between the sacrifices and social hierarchies seemed to transcend [cultural] differences. The victims were almost always of low social status, and the more stratified the culture was, the more prevalent ritual killings were likely to be.
The [research] illustrated that ritual killings tended to precede social hierarchies, and once stratification occurred, they served to reinforce it. It was very difficult for a culture to return to egalitarianism after class differences had set in.
*Not to be confused with cultural relativism, although every one does. All societies - "cultures" - are equally capable of atrocity, and arguing any is better invariably requires an embrace of actual moral relativism: when we do exactly the same bad thing as that other group it is actually good, or at least excusable. In fact, there are no good or bad "cultures", societies, nations, tribes, peoples or people; there are only good or bad acts. And I lean (with a concerted effort of optimism) to the position that absent the mental pathologies promulgated by ruling hierarchies, certain basic ethical positions would remain broadly held.