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There's a Rational Explanation for Human Sacrifice

We interview an economist who believes he's found a logical explanation for why the Aztecs sacrificed humans at the altar.

by Ben Richmond
Jan 31 2014, 6:00pm


Does anything make less sense than ritualized human sacrifice? When the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was looking for a counterpoint to rational thought—the clearest example of something that strict self-interest couldn't account for—he told the Old Testament story of Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed. What could possibly be the point of sacrificing your own child? What the hell?

For Kierkegaard, that answer is that Christianity and rationality occupy two separate spheres. For the typical internet atheist, the answer is that religion makes people crazy. For Peter Leeson, the answer lies in looking at the problem economically. Leeson investigated the much more recent and historically corroborated example of ritualized human sacrifice practiced by an ethnic group in India called the Konds, who, if they were known to Western audiences at all, it was  for being "a warlike ferocious race, delighting in cruelty and devastation, we may be assured that they will have deities delighting in slaughter, and rites polluted with blood."

From his position in the Department of Cconomics at George Mason University, Leeson is making a career out of finding the rational explanation for historically irrational things. He's published papers on the medieval European practice of putting rats and vermin up on trial, an African society that poisons chickens to tell the future, and he has an upcoming paper on the practice of auctioning off wives. So ritualized sacrifice fit right in his wheelhouse.

The paper, which is available on Leeson's website, was just published in the Journal of Behavioral Economics—even though Leeson told me he describes himself as sort of the anti-behavioral economist.

"My work is kind of trying to cut against behavioral economics," he said. "My work more generally tries to look at unusual behaviors, and strange practices that individuals do both today and historically and I try to explain those behaviors using a strict rational choice framework."

I'd called him up to see if he could explain the rationality behind human sacrifice, and if indeed he could, to find out whether there was anything he thought was totally irrational.

Motherboard: Let's dive into human sacrifice. You used a specific example in the paper.

Dr. Peter Leeson: Yes, I draw on the Konds of Orissa and the material I'm drawing on is from the mid-19th century. And that's the case that I considered.

How did you explain the ritualized human sacrifice?

Basically what happened was these communities would regularly purchase innocent people, often times children, although not exclusively. And then they'd hold a big—for lack of a better word—sacrifice party, where they would members of neighboring communities and villages to participate in the sacrifice and then they would ritually slaughter the person that they had purchased.

Part of what makes it weird as well as gruesome is that the victim of sacrifice was bought. So that doesn't seem to fit very well with the strict rational choice. The strict rational choice is typically that "more is preferred to less."

So it's strange when people expend valuable resources only to destroy it, that's like throwing money down the drain. So the question is: why would these people be engaging in that?

And my answer to why the Konds of Orissa were engaging in it, at least what I think is the reason that they were doing so, was that they were using human sacrifice as a way to protect their property rights. They were using ritualized slaughter as a sort of technology of property protection.

Was this something that was done seasonally, or annually?

It was done multiple times per year. There were special times, times when communities were supposed to sacrifice, according to their, what we might call, religion. They also created opportunities to sacrifice on an ad hoc basis. For instance, if something unexpected or negative happened that year, the idea was that this Earth-Mother or Goddess who was malevolent was upset with them and they needed to appease her with the blood of a purchased, innocent person. And so they would have these on-the-fly human sacrifices as well as their regulated, seasonal ones.

So could the sacrifice could also be thought of as preventative? Is it like insurance against future malevolent Earth Goddess?

Ostensibly the idea was that you needed to appease her to ensure that crops grow well and she doesn't do any negative things to your community. That's the justification, or way that the people who practice it sort of saw the practice.

In fact, though, what I'm arguing is what underlines it is a political and economic rationale. Sometimes, counter-intuitively maybe, the cheapest way to protect your property is to destroy part of it. The basic reason for that is that it's expensive to protect your property.

In the case of the Konds of Orissa, the basic means of protecting their property was fighting with each other. Conflict is expensive: people die, and wealth is destroyed, and so one thing that you might want to do to prevent those conflicts from happening is to preemptively publicly destroy part of your wealth as a way to communicating to others that you aren't wealthier than them. That you don't have what they think you do. And in doing so you preclude them from wanting to attack you.

Can you think of parallels to today?

Yeah. I think this isn't insurance—an insurance mechanism would operate in a different way. But people kind of engage in this activity—destroying or reducing part of the value of what they have in order to protect the remainder of what they have—all the time.

So, a very trivial example: If you know you're going to be, say, in a dangerous neighborhood at night you might not wear your finest jewelry, for example. Or you might not drive your best car. Part of the value of owning nice jewelry or your fancy car is that you can always use it whenever you want. By not using them you're reducing the value of them. But the reason that you're reducing the value, is that it precludes the possibility of a greater loss—getting it taken away, or car stolen.

That's sort of the logic in it. In a basic way we want to look for examples in the contemporary world of things like that, sometimes on a grander fashion, and sometimes on that minor level. In the paper I give some examples, historical and today where I think that the logic that I'm describing in the paper could shed some light on these practices.

For instance if you look at the developing world: one reason countries are still developing is because governments excoriate their citizens. If you earn a lot of money then you're kind of a target for a corrupt government to take your stuff. So one thing that business owners in those circumstances do, is eschew growth. They keep their businesses small. They don't maximize their businesses, because if they did the government would come in and take their stuff. So they're destroying part of their value to preserve the remaining part of it.

So contrast what you're able to account for versus behavioral economists.

The behavioral response is to say, "Hey look people are doing crazy stuff, they must be crazy." That's sort of a caricature of the response, but that's roughly the way in my view that behavioralism response to or has the potential to respond to things that don't immediately fit into our conventional way of thinking economically.

My purpose is to say that we need to look at little deeper. It might not be an obvious reason, but what you need to do is to try to put yourself in the shoes of one of the people whose practice it is that you're studying, and assume for moment that they're not crazy or stupid or primitive or barbaric, and assume that they're rational people just like you and I who are facing different constraints than you or I do. How would we act if we were in their situation and faced their constraints? From that perspective I try to reconstruct using historical evidence that's available. A theory of how it is that these seemingly bizarre practices are actually quite sensible.

In a way what you're doing is sort of the intersection anthropology and economics almost.

To an extent yes. Even more so I would say it's the intersection of history and economics. My work has a very interdisciplinary flavor to it, because a lot of these bizarro things that people have done were historical things. Of course they're only bizarre from our contemporary perspective but that's part of the point that I want to make. We shouldn't be so quick to see people doing things in the past who are doing things that don't make sense to us to presume that they were simply stupid or that they were primitive or barbaric ...

There is a rational choice and explanation for all forms of human sacrifice. That said this is a particular explanation based on the purchase and destruction of an innocent person. Typically people think of something like the Aztec model. The Aztecs weren't buying people and throwing them off the sides of pyramids. What they were doing, might make a lot more sense to people today: they were sacrificing prisoners of war, so defeated other guys and criminals. It's not that hard to imagine why it is, in a society where warfare is endemic, why you'd want to have capital punishment for your enemies and where you're trying to control crime why you'd capitally punish criminals.

The Kond case interested me because it's harder to explain. It's not so immediately obvious why someone would spend money just to destroy what they've bought.

What're you up to next?

Right now I'm working on a paper on the practice of wife selling. In Industrial Revolution-era England, it was common, particularly among poor people, if you wanted a divorce to go a market where cows and horses were auctioned off and to auction off the wife to the highest bidder. So I'm looking to economics to explain that practice.

Wife swapping you say? Be sure to send that over.