Good afternoon, Agnes.
Today, I'd like us to talk about sacrifice. And it's driven by the biggest
historical puzzle I know. So, of all the things I've ever heard about in
history, all the strange things ever– people ever did. The thing that just
stands out as the weirdest to get my head around is human sacrifice. So there
was what was called the Axial Age or a period a few thousand years ago when
most of the major religions in the world today formed. And most of those
religions have a moralizing God who tells us to do good not to do bad, but who
loves us in some ways.
But apparently before then, the major kind of religion for human history, like
I think 10,000 years ago until 3000 or 4000 years ago, was a different kind of
religion centered around sacrifice, a communal sacrifice, where we all needed
to placate angry gods, and angry gods who needed to be fed something to be
placated, and often human lives were the thing fed. And this tended to go
along with big communal meetings.
So in the movie Apocalypto, you see the people sacrifice to the top of the
pyramid in South America and huge crowds around. And apparently, these were a
big deal and we see the evidence of this all around the world, large,
monumental architecture, big crowds, human sacrifices, and the story of people
being killed for that. And that's just so hard to understand in a sense almost
every time I see it in a movie, it's presented as this weird thing. It's not
like the characters are – they're enjoying it, and getting into it, and then
the viewers aren't expected to get into it.
It's presented as a strange, alien thing even if it apparently was so common,
but we have to believe that most people that back then were kind of into it.
And it wasn't just hostility or war. I mean, war was a big deal and war was
common, but it wasn't just killing captives from the other side of a war, a
lot of people from your own society were sacrificed and supposedly was even a
matter of honor to be sacrificed. Just– so starting right there, that's the
presenting puzzle. It just feels like we don't really understand human nature
or humanity until we can get our head around how that could have been such a
natural standard thing for so many thousands of years.
So can I first sort of say why– I'm going to make you try to make me feel the
force of the puzzle a little more, like, it doesn't seem that puzzling to me.
That is once I accept some other things. So like, I think sacrifice, in
general, not human sacrifice, or just sacrifice, you could say, is already
very puzzling. Like, you know, in the Iliad, they're constantly burning bits
of meat. And OK, people say it's the fatty part of the meat that maybe it
wasn't as good to eat or whatever, but they're wasting valuable food, right?
That's what sacrifice is generally, is like waste, you know, you're living in
a group of people where food is survival, and you're just going to trash some
of that food, right? That’s sacrifice. And that's already... and now... so my
question is, like, Are you puzzled by that? And you're and – or you find that
to be sort of easy to understand why someone would sacrifice a cow to the
gods, but not why they would sacrifice a human being?
It's a graded thing. But I mean as you know I have this book The Elephant in
the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life with my co-author, Kevin Simler,
and one of the main kinds of hidden motives we find in there are signaling
waste, a ways that we're wasting a lot of resources in order to show things
off, which includes most of what's spent on school and medicine. And so in
some sense, most of what we spend on school and medicine and in many other
areas of life, are sacrifice, basically burning up lots of resources in order
to show some sort of commitment or dedication to something.
So, right there, that was surprising when I learned those things. So I have to
say, you know, once I've learned those things, then I should be less
surprised. But even then, sort of human sacrifice does stand out a bit farther
beyond the rest.
And like what about like just large scale being completely OK with infanticide
like in most of the ancient world, you got an extra baby just kill it.
So that seems to be more in line with sort of dehumanization. I mean you could
kill animals as long as you can think of animals as less than or not
important. So once you thought of human babies as not human yet or not worth
the rest of us yet, but the standard story in human sacrifice it was, you
know, our children even and adult and people who are of high status.
Fair enough. I think that's a good point. So I think we go back to the other
kind of case. So I mean, think about like, people, like religious people who
in some sense sacrifice their life to God, right? Like to live as a priest,
there have been forms like religious sects, where you live a life of extreme
privation, right? Where, like, in some sense, your– I feel like it's almost
more, it's a bigger human sacrifice, right? To sacrifice you're living life.
As you live it, you're sacrificing it.
And also, I just think most parents like, OK, maybe my parents are more in the
extreme of this for modern sensibilities. No, maybe not. I mean, like, a lot
of parents just see themselves as sacrificing themselves for their kids and
engaged in sacrifices for their kids, and are willing to do that. Of course,
that's different from sacrificing their kids. Right?
But in a way, like, in order for it to be– to have to have signaling value,
it's got to be something important to you. So, you know, why not just think,
yeah, before they had a kind of pretty commonly universally shared moral code
against killing, which, arguably we have today, that is, there was a much more
sophisticated moral code that made room for lots of killing, and like, people
in– like, I don't know, in Athens or something like adult man will have
probably killed someone, right? So killing is just like more part of your
life, then the thought is like, sacrificing a human being, which I mean, they
weren't doing in ancient Athens. I mean, not in like, fifth century Athens.
But anyway, sacrificing human being that just the bar will go down. And that
would just be an example of a really valuable sacrifice. And maybe we have
ways to sacrifice billions of dollars of worth, right, through health care and
education. But they were not as sophisticated as us so they didn't have all
that worth. So how else are they going to do these giant sacrifices?
Right. So one difference is that we usually sort of have an excuse for our
sacrifices. That is, the social function of many of our behaviors may be the
sacrifice, but it's not the main thing we consciously think of when we're
doing it. We tend to have other justifications. So we cover up our sacrifice
with higher sounding stories. So that's it. And so, there's– it's being more
stark if you actually sacrificed it. So you know, I think if today we just
said, "I'm going to send you the doctor just to show you, I'm willing to spend
money on you, and it's not going to do you any good. But this is the way I'm
going to sacrifice." That would be kind of stark and strange.
No, but they didn't do that. That is, they had probably some very complicated
narrative, many of which we've lost, right? By which they justified to
themselves that this is how our society is going to get to continue. Because
we have these angry gods, because whatever they had some story like this is
extremely a valuable thing to do.
Right. So the standard story, as I understand it is that there's an angry god,
who demands regular sacrifices. And like the story in the Aztecs was that
there's this god who moves the sun around the Earth, and he needs fuel and
without these sacrifices, this sun won't move around the earth and, you know,
we'll no longer have day and night. And that was a story apparently told.
There you go. So there's a story.
But it's still very starkly, you know, everybody gets together and sacrifices
together. And the other big difference is, you know, from the axial religions
on, religious sacrifice and many kinds of sacrifice are personal choices. That
is, if you're a monk, whatever, then you've chosen to be a monk. And you're
sacrificing as a way to show your personal commitment to something. And
similarly, even with education and medicine today, there's some degree of
collective sacrifice, but also mixed in with a lot of personal sacrifice. And
apparently, these older style religions, it was much more about a collective
duty. So it was less that each one of us needed to sacrifice or the gods would
be mad at us personally. It was that the society needed a certain total amount
of sacrifice. And if we would all need to arrange for it, but it didn't have
to be me or you. As long as somebody got sacrificed. That was good enough.
So can I give you René Girard's answer to this question as I remember it...
...from Violence and the Sacred? I don't know whether his answer is intended
to apply in full generality to like all cultures. He's discussing specific
cultures. But his ideas of the basic social problem is reciprocal violence.
So, suppose I injure you, kill you under some circumstances. Now, we're living
in a world where that sort of, it's sort of easy for that to happen. And the
idea that I do it intentionally or not, and it may not be totally clear, but I
like I– you know, I, somehow my movements might end up with you getting hurt.
And now, there's a sense like your people are like, need to treat this as
important. That it's almost like the basic thing in a human community than
when one of your people is hurt that matters in some way. And the way we show
that it matters is that your people will try to hurt me. But now, my people
are going to get upset about that, right? And they're going to be like, "OK,
right now we..." And then there we go, OK. And the whole society implodes in a
kind of death spiral of reciprocal violence.
And so, Girard is like, you know, the only way we get societies is that we
find some way to solve that problem. And his thought is that the sacred, OK?
The idea of the sacred, kind of the idea of religion, is an idea that is
brought– wheeled in to solve that problem. And it involves ways of taking
control of violence and segregating it and being like, you know, here's the
move by which we recognize the significance of human life, et cetera. We're
going to do it like this. And then we don't have to do it by way of this
infinite chain of reciprocal violence.
And so, one of those is the scapegoat, right. So there's like someone that you
take, and sometimes it's the King who serves as scapegoat, who will get either
tortured, enslaved, or killed. And often this person is cherished in some of
the cultures that he talks about, and I can't remember who they are now. It's
been like four or five years since I read it, but that person is seen as very
valuable, like is in a way, it's an honor to be in his position. But his
thought is that...
And then there are other things like a lot of like ritual purity stuff, right,
of like how you have to deal with a woman who's menstruating or et cetera,
that those are– that a lot of the norms of ritual purity, sacredness, norms of
ritual purity, are really about controlling the violence, and controlling
violence over women, which is another source of– a big source of violence,
competition over women.
And so his thought would be, look, I mean, you killed one person, but that's
pretty good if you could kill only one person a year to stave off this thing.
And so then the thought that the narrative that the society tells itself,
which is like the angry gods will come and get us, right? That actually
represents a kind of truth, which is that we will eat each other alive. And
this is the mechanism that we have developed to not eat, by way of which we
cannot eat each other alive.
So I have not read him.
That's why I summarized it.
And so, I can't know the details. But the question that stands out in my mind
is, if somebody starts what would have otherwise become a back and forth
ritual violence that ends up in disaster, how does that path change if
somebody else had done a sacrifice, right? So if in the last year, we had the
big sacrifice ceremony, and then you break my leg, am I going to treat you
differently now, because we had the sacrifice ceremony? Otherwise, it doesn't
work, right? Somehow, something will have to cut off this path because of this
other thing. And so that would be the thing I'm missing here. Because as far
as I can tell, these societies with ritual sacrifice also had a lot of revenge
killing, and rich, you know, back and forth violence as a result of things. So
it's less clear that it actually prevented that.
I actually can't remember Girard's answer to this. It's a very good question.
Let me make one up on his behalf. This might be his actual answer. I don't
know. I think you're right, there was a hole right there in my story. So, the
answer would be that in virtue of the fact that the priests preside over these
ritual sacrifices, they in effect are authorities over violence. And so, the
priest is allowed to tell you, like, "What are you allowed to do to me when I
break your leg?" And the priest has this authority as the... yeah.
OK. So that it makes more sense than I mean, it's related to other sorts of
stories here. The idea would be, apparently, ritual sacrifice went along very
closely with social stratification, including with the creation of our
priestly cast. So, you might say when you just have stratification, you need a
justification to convince people to accept the upper class people in their
upper class role, especially to accept the priests in their role, especially
if they are telling you not to break the other guy's leg in response to them
breaking yours. And that, once we all accept the authority of the priest for
making human sacrifices, that would be a pretty clear signal we have accepted
their authority for a lot of pretty big things.
Yeah, but that's a little weaker of a connection than I think Girard would
want. I think the thought is that, no, we're going to accept that they are the
people who understand violence, right? That is it's an internal justification,
the thought is...
They can go together. I mean, these aren't mutually exclusive, right? They can
support each other.
Right. But the point is that, like, here's, I think Girard's insight is that
the reason why there's violence is because violence really matters. I think
it's really bad. The reason why it exists is because it's bad. That is, that
like, if I hurt you or break your leg, you know, if we were a lower kind of
animal, like, you might just not care, maybe nobody would care, right? And the
impulse to do violence against me comes from the fact that like human life
So violence is a way of recognizing and acknowledging that human life matters.
That was Girard's thought, right? And so, in effect, if you want to know who
in your society is in charge of knowing human life matters, it's who is in
charge of producing violence, right? And, is that person that you're then
going to turn to just say, "What do I do to him now that, you know, he broke
So this is where I think we can just make the puzzle more vivid, because we
can listen to your argument and sort of imagine some strange other society
where what you said is true. But if we go to our society, and we ask, "Who
would we most accept as an authority to tell us not to retaliate against
someone else?" It wouldn't be the executioner. You know, if we look at the
people in our society, who would be most authorized...
But the executioner is not in charge of killing people. The judge is in charge
of killing people. The executioner just acts out. He's like a servant of the
judge. And we do actually respect judges.
But we put judges at quite a distance from the execution. And so, you know,
the actual physical...
And even when people deliberately choose to kill more people, we don't respect
them more as authorities on morality, we tend to respect them less. So it is
quite a striking contrast. So in our world, priests say, or even politicians,
right, you know, they try to be at some substantial distance from being
responsible for violence.
Right. And I think that, you know, one kind of– I, by the way, I'm not sure I
buy Girard's story.
But one, you know, one thing he is going to want to explain is how this basic
move of acknowledging the sacred, by means of acts of violence gets
complexified through civilization, right? And so, we're going to, like,
increasingly create these safety barriers, which are already a part of even
the primitive one. All these ritual purity stuff is about creating, like
distance from even the image of blood, right? But, you know, then you're going
to have a more sophisticated society, there is going to be even more distance.
So I don't think you'd have trouble explaining that.
But I mean, in a way, I think it sort of avoids– the deepest question for me
is a question that applies just as well to the case of animal sacrifice and to
the case of health care sacrifice, which is that people seem to really like
sacrifice, right? They said as they seem to like deliberately giving up good
things. And that seems to be like a really– a kind of signal, right? That's
really powerful. And the question is, why is that such a powerful signal?
And I'd like to come back to the point that we are used to sacrifice when we
choose it, because we see it as saying something about us to choose sacrifice.
But this older style of sacrifice was more a communal thing where somebody
needed to sacrifice where we're each trying to avoid it being us. And that's a
very different sort of attitudes toward sacrifice. And I realized thinking
about it a few hours ago that we do have a very similar common scenario in our
world today that's a lot like this old sacrifice scenario.
So in most organizations, like a company, periodically, there'll be a problem,
something will go wrong. And then people will say, “Heads will roll.” And
there will be a search for people responsible, people to hold responsible,
somebody may get fired, somebody may get demoted, at least reprimanded. And in
that sort of a scenario, we all feel a collective sense that some– that needs
to happen to somebody. That is because of what went wrong in the organization.
It's appropriate that some sacrifices are made, budgets get cut, people get
But then we're also in the mode of trying to point the finger at somebody
else, so that we aren't personally going to bear the brunt of the sacrifice.
So it's a lot like this ancient world of the gods needed to be placated,
somebody's blood must flow, but let's not let it be me. Let's find somebody
And that happens in organizations quite commonly. That is we have the shared
sense that like heads must roll. It's like that you must be held possible.
Yeah, that's very Girardian. Yeah, I mean, John Stuart Mill thought that the
following was like a really worrisome objection to utilitarianism. Like what
if, you know, you're in a situation and this is not that uncommon, when
there's been some horrific crime that's been committed, right? And the police
can't find out who did it. And there's a civil unrest. And you could just take
someone and kill him and be like, "Here, he did it." You know, kill him and
quell the unrest. Right?
The civil unrest will lead to tons of death, right? It's just one death. So
utilitarianism clearly tells you, "Kill the guy." And Mill is like, "But
that's evil." So, uh-oh, right? And you get like a lot of theory coming out of
this like rule utilitarianism, and we got to follow rules, et cetera. But the
point is, like, the problem in a way is, it's like the problem of sacrifice,
right? And it sort of shows you why– it's like, why the heads are going to
roll? Well, because otherwise, we end up with some kind of Girardian massacre,
right, situation where everybody's blaming everyone one else and there's no
kind of limit to it. And so we can limit it. We can limit the violence of
being like, "It was just this guy, all the pollution is on him. We kill him,
we destroy the pollution. No more need for any responses."
There's this TV series called To the Ends of the Earth, a BBC series, it's a
couple of episodes long about this voyage around the world on this boat. And
in this voyage, this one character who's a priest, does something to shame him
and people are less respectful. And then the boat gets stuck in the doldrums
where there's no wind. And people are saying, "Somebody must have done
something morally wrong to put us in the doldrums." And basically blaming him
and he basically commits suicide, and then immediately after the winds come.
And that's how the story plays out.
You know, that's just a retelling of Iphigenia at Aulis. So this is like in
the Trojan War, the Greeks get stuck at Atlas, and there are no winds. And
it's clear that the only way for them to move forward is to sacrifice
Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. And then there's this near civil unrest,
because Agamemnon does not want to sacrifice his daughter. But his brother
Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, is the reason why they're all going to this war
to fight. He's like, "No, you have to do it." And there's like this weird part
where they're the two brothers are actually end up convincing each other where
Menelaus is like, "No, let's not sacrifice her." And Agamemnon said, "Yes, we
should." Right? And eventually, she goes willingly to her death, to the great
admiration of Achilles, who was going to be like her savior earlier and be
like, "No, you can't sacrifice Iphigenia."
And then that causes the whole giant cycle of revenge, where then
Clytemnestra, Iphigenia's mom, is super angry at Agamemnon. And so she kills
him and then her kids kill her. And then it's after that, that you get the
Athenian court system is established, because it's like, this has to end,
right? We need like something like a trial, you know, like, are we going to
now kill arrestees because he killed his mother for killing his father for
killing his sister? Like, maybe we should have trial instead, so that we don't
just resist and just keep going, right? And the whole idea there is like the
judicial system is coming into being, it's very Girardian, like, just stop
this cycle of revenge.
Like, the judicial system does the kinds of killings, the magical kind of
killing that stops the other killing, right? That's the thought. It's like, we
do human sacrifice. We do human sacrifice of like, you know, people who've
committed crimes. And we're like, by killing this person now, magically, you
know, so you could think of that of the Agamemnon story, you know, Aeschylus
has series of plays, as a story about how we have continued human sacrifice in
the judicial system. We just don't call it that.
But again, there's a difference of sort of collective or personal
responsibility as a key difference here, right? So we switch from a previous
thing, somebody must die in order to placate the gods to the criminal must
die, because that will solve things and that becomes a big switch.
Yeah, we feel like that's a really persuasive story. You know, if a criminal
dies and that's, that's good. It's not like those weird ancient societies
where they just picked some person, how would that help? Right? You might
think, "Well, how does the criminal dying help with like the crime that's
already been committed?” right?
But we have a story at least there for this deterrent at lease, right? And
it's not a crazy story.
Right. But if the deterrent story is your story, then Jon Stewart Mill's worry
is a real worry, right? Like, maybe we could just deter crime by just randomly
killing some people too. I mean we could do research and like, what are all
the bad things we can do to people to deter crime? Right?
And there might be many of them, but we wouldn't think they're OK. I think we
think of the punishment as sacred. And so you're not allowed to just do what's
efficient, you have to do what's holy.
So another one of the distinctions here between this old style religion and a
more recent religion is, these more really strict religion appeared, all
right, soon after writing appeared. And they all seem to rely heavily on
writing that is they have sacred texts, which tell of, you know, sacred
stories from the very beginning. And in some sense, that allows the sacrifice
to be moved in time. So certainly, in Christianity, right, the central
sacrifice in Christianity is of God giving his son to be sacrificed for all of
Right. Very important moment for Girard.
Right. And then we can put that in the past. We don't have to now be
constantly sacrificing as much if the sacrifice happened back then, according
to the sacred text. But before you had the sacred text, then you had to sort
of be continually reaffirming the sacrifices around everyone, because it was
only what they saw in front of them that would be the key things that move
Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. I wonder if Iphigenia at Aulis, I mean, it's a
later– it's a Euripides play but if that story is almost like a transitional
story in the sense that in that story, like there's going to be this
large-scale social thing. But it's clear that the consent of her– like, it's
partly a personal thing about her father sort of showing that he's willing to
take one for the team. And then Iphigenia herself, like her willingness to be
sacrificed is irrelevant to the story, right? So there, it's not just like the
society acting, it's actually like the...
And it's a similar fate for the US Founding Fathers, right? So you can tell
the story that like, we have this legal system, say, in this freedom, and we
should follow that. Why? In part, because the Founding Fathers sacrificed for
us to have it. And there's a standard military story, all of those soldiers
all through history who sacrificed so that we could have our current system,
then it gives you the sacrifice. But it again, puts it in the past. It allows
you to not have the – to feel the sacrifice has been paid. And that lets you
go ahead with the things you're allowed to do once a sacrifice has been paid.
But you don't have to be paying it right now.
Right. So, I want to get back to the general question of sacrifice, because I
think that that's a good point of like, my parents, like would always talk
about how they sacrificed for us. And that was supposed to make us feel guilty
and then do things that they wanted us to do. And so that seems like an
important function of sacrifice. That is, women make, especially women, make
sacrifices for men and then they're like, "Now, I have expectations, right?"
Parents make sacrifices for their children. They're like, now, “You have to,
like, be a lawyer” or whatever. And so, so it seems like part of the function
of sacrifice is that you make a big deal of giving up some good thing or
destroying some good thing. But then, that's a way of getting something else
in the future. Right?
Right. An investment of sorts.
Yeah. And so the question is, like, why is destruction such a good investment?
That's– it's sort of, that's something that's puzzling. It's like my parents
are like, "We sacrificed so much. So now you have to do this." And it's like,
"Why? I mean, you just did– you just did a bad thing. Like, you just destroyed
some value. And now I have to do stuff, right? Like, you were miserable." And
they're thought is "Well, we did it for you." It's somehow this bad thing is
like, it's like tied to you in some way.
So that seems related to the concept of debt. That's an example of debt.
Right. And a striking fact about debt is that say, many political commenters
say including, say David Graeber, with his book Debt, want to tell people, you
know, you don't–you supposedly owe this money to rich people. They're rich,
you're poor, stop thinking you owe them money. You know, just stop paying. And
that will be better for you. Maybe it's worse for them, but who cares? They're
rich. And people have tried to make that argument for a long time, even say
with respect to national debt, right?
Let's just borrow more money if that means that you know, we inflate the
currency and some debts are no longer paid as much, well, fine, those people
knew there was a risk so let's borrow some more money, right? And that goes
against sort of a strong ingrained attitude in a lot of people that, "No, but
you have this obligation to pay back a debt. And a debt is kind of a sacred
thing even when it goes against your interests. You might not want to inflate
the currency or you know, cancel the debts, if debts are something you owe."
Yeah, I mean, So I guess like, look, there's two questions here. One is like,
why pay back a debt or something? But I guess I want to stick on the question
of sacrifice, which is how does sacrifice generate debt? That is, suppose I
give you a bunch of money. And I'm like, "OK, you owe this back to me later."
And it seems like pretty clear case, you owe me that money. The reason that
you owe me a good thing, namely the money, is because I gave you a good thing.
But now, suppose I don't have any money, right, to give you. So I'm like, I'm
just going to, like, I'm just going to, like, wear too little clothing when
it's cold out and like, get sick, and not eat enough food intentionally, and
like not doing anything that's fun. So there, I'm losing a bunch of stuff. But
I'm doing it for you, right? And so now you owe me.
It's almost like there's a mimicking of like, in the case where I gave you the
money, I suffered a loss, right? The loss of the money for your game. And so,
it's almost like in a situation where I don't have anything to give, you can
just incur losses. And those losses do a similar work to, if I had given you
anything, and now you owe me. But the logic of that is that's closer to
getting the logic of it, but it's just very obscure, why should you owe me
anything, just because I inflicted the suffering on myself, actually you
didn't get the money.
I mean, notice that we almost always have excuses why my sacrifice is in fact
helping you. So, on closer examination, a lot of those excuses don't actually
hold up. But they are there. So that, you know, parents– if parents took you
to church every Sunday and you didn't want to be there and they didn't want to
be there. But dang, if they took you to church every Sunday. They're going to
hold that over you later as them having sacrificed for you. And you're going
to say, "I didn't want it. You didn't want it. What was the point?" But
they're going to have a story about that was supposedly good for you and
that's why they did it.
Right. The parent– I mean, the odd thing is parents sort of want to sacrifice
for their kids.
Right. Well, they want to have a thing like that but they also want to have an
excuse about why it was a good thing. But because they want it so much, they
may well make up a bunch of things. So I have a new grandchild. And I can see
new parents are just really eager to do everything, right. So they probably
make up a bunch of extra rules about things they need to do, they don't
actually need to do, because they're so eager to make sure they did everything
right, and to do as much as possible. And that's a problem with over-parenting
or putting too much effort into parenting. My colleague, Bryan Caplan has a
book, you know, the Selfish Reason to Have Kids about why you should just do
less parenting, just stop it, don't put so much effort in it.
I don't know anyone who puts more effort into parenting than Bryan.
I feel the need to make an observation every time someone summarizes his...
Nevertheless, I mean, his argument could still be valid but it's...
It's true. But it's just, I feel it's worth pointing out.
And it is worth pointing out. I'm happy to have that pointed out. But
nevertheless, so, but as you point out, right, we both want to sacrifice in
order to inquire the debt and we want the excuse that it was for their own
good, because otherwise, as you note, it might not seem very persuasive that
they should owe you anything if you sacrificed without any benefit to them.
But they may make up a lot of stories and be willing to accept pretty weak
evidence in order to do something that plausibly, you know, helps you.
I still, am not sure I see why the sacrifice part is important. So, let's say
I took you to church every week, right? And I'm like, "Look at this thing I
did for you. That was good for you." Right? You didn't think it's good for
you. But I think it's good for you. I took you to church. Why do I have to
say, and I hated it so much, and I sacrificed so much. Like that is why isn't
what you owe me just measured by what I actually give you? Why is it measured
by how much I suffered?
So, the signaling theory seems to make more sense of that part of the story.
But it's not the whole story. That's clearly true. So, the signaling story is
that I lose and sacrifice in order to show you my commitment to something, to
show you that I have certain preferences and certain intentions, and the
sacrifices in part a way of showing you that. And that's certainly true in a
lot of signaling context, you know, so that standard romantic story, I would
go to the end of the years for you.
And people often even put their partners in their romantic tests, right? Will
you show up for me in the middle of the night if my car breaks down? And will
you jump up at a moment's notice to do things for me? And people, like, test
other people to see just how far are they willing to go to... for a cause. Or
even a teacher, like you or I might test a student by seeing how dedicated are
they? How much work are they willing to put into an assignment? And we might
somehow give them credit for the effort they put in, in addition to how much
Yeah, good. I mean, I never thought of credit for effort as credit for
sacrifice. That's interesting. So I mean, I guess... I mean, it's that really
puts a dark spin on the idea of effort, right? Like, we just want students to
show their commitment to the class. We don't care how much they learn, they
just need to prove they love us. I never thought of that as a way of thinking
about like, giving people credit for effort. OK, so...
We do it for employees too sometimes I mean, an employee who's trying hard,
but somehow he doesn't accomplish things we might have– other people think,
yeah, but they should get paid because they tried.
Right. But I guess it hadn't occurred to me to connect trying hard with being
willing to suffer. But I think that's right. I think that's sort of what
It's like, you know, spending hours on something, even when it's very boring
to you. So that... so OK, so but now, like, the idea is that suffering somehow
proves commitment. It shows you– my suffering shows you, my suffering for you
shows you that I'm committed to you. And that's why even the question of "did
I benefit you?" maybe is even secondary to the question of "how much did I
suffer in taking you to church?" And so then the question is why? Why is that
a way that you show your commitment to someone by suffering?
Well, so say, the health care story, I spend a lot on your medicine to show
you that I really care a lot about you. And if I didn't care as much, I
wouldn't be willing to spend as much. And that's sort of a direct spending way
of showing that you care.
But why does that show that you care about me if, in fact, you don't believe
that spending that money is going to preserve my life? Right? Suppose you
don't believe it, in this case.
If you believe it then fine, right? Then that would actually...
OK. But say I'm taking you on a date.
And I dress up in a nice suit, and I get a haircut, and I bring a flower, and
I take you to a fancy restaurant and I listened carefully. I could do all
those things exactly to show you I was willing to do those things.
Those things, yes. But whipping yourself to give yourself pain while we're on
the date. I would be like, "No, I don't get this. How does this show your
commitment to me? Look at how I'm willing to endure this pain for you? But I
don't see that.
But you don't understand. For me, it might be that putting on the suit and
doing the flowers and being really nice and going to the fancy restaurant that
is pain for me. That's what I would ordinarily do that night.
Yeah. But you wouldn't show me that or like, you wouldn't be like, "I just
want you to know how much I hate every aspect of this date." You would not.
But that is what parents do with children. They're like, "I sacrificed for
you. I sat miserably through church. I did all this stuff for you." So there
is a difference there of whether it's important to actually show the suffering
as part of the proof of commitment, right? And the date case, it's not. And
what I'm saying is why would the suffering be a proof a commitment?
I think it's interesting that we have different contexts when it's OK to admit
that you're suffering or not. So, but I think...
Not just OK. It's actually necessary for in a positive good.
What?! I think that that's in fewer cases. But I think, in general, when we
sacrifice, it's just true that we're doing something we wouldn't otherwise do
in order to show somebody that we were willing to do it. So in some abstract
sense, that is a sacrifice. But we may not emphasize our pain in it.
And so, think about somebody going to a job, right? So if you're trying to
show your boss and your company that you're committed to them, you'll show up
early, you'll wear a suit, you'll be polite, you'll be diligent, you'll take a
short lunch break, right? And when you're going home, you'll tell your family
how onerous all that was. But you might not say that directly to your boss,
but he might kind of know it. And so there's this whole, you know, theater of,
to whom are you allowed to admit that things are onerous and costly?
Yeah, I mean, it's weird, because it's like, like with the, with the human
sacrifice case, it's like if it weren't, like, visible publicly that you've
sacrificed a human life, it would not do that work, right? So there, like, the
sacrifice has to be visible. Right? And then your thought is like, but with
work, like you– like suppose he's just a guy who loves doing all those things.
He loves being on time, he loves wearing, he loves taking a short lunch break,
right? It's no sacrifice for him. He just genuinely enjoys this thing.
He wouldn't like... he wouldn't need to cover that up. Whereas like, suppose
they were going to human sacrifice you but you were going to commit suicide on
that very day. Like this is actually extremely convenient, right? You would –
you'd want to cover that up because it would mess up the whole ethos of the
sacrifice, right? But the guy who loves working, like, all the better. And so
I don't actually think that the element of sacrifice is essential.
Think of a soldier because I think it's an interesting intermediate case,
right? You could have the soldier who just really loves being a soldier. And
he's out there just you know, having the time of his life and running up the
hill and shooting and smiling. We think that's a pretty weird, scary guy.
And that's not the kind of soldier we want. We want a soldier who, you know,
as they're on the ship waiting to come to shore, they're stressed and they're
not too happy, but they're determined that they're going to do it anyway.
And you know, at the end of it, they won't say it was fun. But they did it.
Yeah, you want the one for whom it's a sacrifice. Who experienced it as a
And, and then I mean, but see, like, I guess in that case, it's not that I
think the soldier... it's like we actually just want the soldier to fight in
the war. There's something we want to get done, which is the battle, right?
And it's not just we want people to be proving their commitment to their
country or something. You do prove it that way but we don't have wars in order
for people to prove their commitment. At least that's not what we usually
think of it.
Right. But think of police as even more dramatic example, right? Think of the
sort of stance that a police person is supposed to take toward their job and
toward each interaction they have. Right? So often, we have movies about
corrupt police or whatever, and we show them as like really happy and enjoying
their job. They want to go knock some heads. They want to go, you know, chase
somebody, knock them down and put the cuffs on them. And they really love
that, and that's, you know, on the borderline of being repulsive and a little
And so, you know, you'll think of Adam-12, or whatever, the famous TV show,
which had this very flat emotional affect of the police people, and they just
were doing, "Just doing my job, ma'am." And they didn't enjoy it, they didn't
disenjoy it. They had to sit right in the middle of being very professional
and maybe this will be an insight into what it is to be professional, where,
you know, too much enthusiasm would look a little off and be suspicious and
problematic. And too much reluctance is also problematic. And we've kind of
asked a lot of police to sort of sit right on that line.
OK. So, here's a new idea. Suppose you have this, let's call it the Girardian
problem of there's going to be violence in your society, and you're going to
manage it by doing violence, but having the kind of controlled violence. The
person who does the controlled violence, like, in a way, it's all concentrated
on them or on that group, to be like, kind of serious about it, right? Like,
you don't want them to be like, "I love killing people." Because you want them
to somehow, that whole solemnity that was characterizing the original
reciprocal murder of like we care about our friend who died is why we have to
That solemnity has to get carried over to the priest who's like, does the
human sacrifice in a very, like serious way. And that serious way is in some
way, it's going to be the sort of acknowledgment of the sort of, I don't know,
something like confrontation or something, or acknowledgement of the violence
that shows you that you have– you've done this substitution in the right way.
Whereas if you just like hired a psychopath to be your priest, and he does the
killings, and he just enjoys it, you would feel like "Uh-oh, we didn't really
purify ourselves, like, those killings didn't count." Right? So that that
special attitude, that special sacrificial attitude is actually part – it's
almost like the sacrificing the soul. The... yeah.
Right. So, right. So in some sense, we want the people who represent us and
sacrifice in our name or help through us, to have an attitude of sacrifice,
sort of a sacrificial stance. Just like maybe a parent's sacrificial stance or
a soldier's sacrificial stance, right? They can't be enjoying it too much. And
they need to be– looks like they're suffering a bit, but they're holding it
in, and they're not letting us see it very much. Because they are, you know,
being a serious person.
And if you think about it, this is kind of the stance we ask of professionals,
like think of your airplane pilot, right? If your airplane pilot, like it was
sort of skipped down the runway and was like singing at the top of his lungs
and having a grand old time as he walked into the cockpit, you'd be a little
disturbed by that maybe. He wouldn't be taking his job seriously. And of
course, if he was crying as he went in and is suffering really badly, you
wouldn't want that either.
And for most of our professionals, we ask this sort of professional demeanor,
which can't be too enthusiastic but also not too suffering, where somehow they
are sacrificing to the proper degree to be in this role for us and that's true
of a lot of different people even the waiter at the restaurant or something.
Yeah, that's really interesting. I mean that in some way this problem of
almost, I guess, keeping something in check or keeping the kind of balance,
right? That's what the Girardian problem is, it's like having, not going
overboard, but not caring, not at all about the violence. That's like, in a
way you could think of it as like, the problem of violence is the first
problem of sort of meaning or something that human society faces.
That is the most– the first thing that can have meaning for human beings
before we have art or culture, whatever is a human life. That's like step one,
to learning how to have meaning was like learning how to see human lives as
having meaning. And step one to learning how to see human lives as having
meaning is like killing people, when there's killing. That's like, that look,
it's not– can't be sophisticated, right? But it was like, our original
language of meaning was violence.
And then, the point is that in all these professions, what we see is that
language of meaning in a way, showing up again, now not with respect to maybe
violence, right, but basically, with respect to anything where we want to say
there's meaning, there's going to be this balanced, sort of something like the
sacrificial attitude. It's connected to meaning, maybe not only to violence.
So I noticed an interesting parallel. I'm reluctant to go– to take it too
seriously. But it just seems worth mentioning that we have this sort of new
semi-ideological religious movement, say in our world. And it's interesting
that it's not like sort of the traditional religions of the last few thousand
years. It doesn't have a sacred text, it doesn't invoke a lot of supernatural,
but it involves a lot of sacrifice and collective guilt. And an urge, often to
find scapegoats to make suffer for the collective guilt.
So you know, think of racism or sexism, right? There's this story that, well,
you know, we have a society polluted with it, and it just infuses everything,
and it's structural. And that's a collective guilt. That is something we're
all sharing, we all need to do something about. But then we find– we look for
particular scapegoats that we can make suffer, especially as a way to show our
commitment to this collective guilt. It's a sacrifice...
Sorry, can I pause right there?
If Girard is right, the point of those is to have less violence. Right? That
It's like, let's find some people that we can, you know, some heads to roll so
that all the rest of the heads don't have to roll.
And that may well be, but it's just interesting to think of it as sort of,
we're moving back to this older style of spirituality or religion, of a
collective guilt and collective sacrifice via individual people sacrificed,
who didn't volunteer for that sacrifice, but are still going to represent us
as the sacrifice.
And even, you know, creating a priestly class as a result of that, and
emphasizing differences in types of people. But interesting thing, like
religion has been declining, at least the major religions in the last few
decades, even centuries have been declining relative to prior strength. And
people wonder, is that just going to go to atheism, or will it just be at a
weak level, but an interesting third possibility is we will return more to
more ancient kinds of religions of this sort of collective sacrifice kind.
I mean, I think that, you know, Girard's thought is that this is the basic
social problem, and it doesn't go away to any society. And so...
...we're all ancient in that way. And...
But we've had more modern solutions. But if those modern solutions no longer
work for us, as well, we may go back to older solutions.
Right. It's interesting how, like, a lot of people find the group sacrifice
thing very objectionable. The idea that the group could choose you as being
the person whose head has to roll, right? People like– I don't mean everybody.
I mean, many people find this very objectionable, who don't find the idea of
doing individual performative signaling sacrifices to be so objectionable.
As though if you get to choose whether you do the pointless signaling move
that destroys value for no reason, it's OK as long as you chose it, right? In
a way, that's to me a weird position.
What– but it's the difference between again, this older style and the newer
style religion. Certainly, modern religions are more focused on you and your
personal choice and your personal responsibility. So you choose to become a
Christian and you choose how to show God that you want to sacrifice for Him
and what you want to do for Him and that's your choice. But you don't, you
know, other people can't be forced to join the religion and forced to
sacrifice for it if they don't feel so inclined.
Whereas this ancient style, it was a collective responsibility. The gods
needed to be placated. They needed so much blood. It didn't matter who it came
from, or what their beliefs or attitudes were, there just needed to be
sacrifice. And even in the Roman world, right, they were just rituals, and it
needed to happen. And you needed to go to the rituals, but it didn't really
matter what you believed. What matters is that the rituals happened and that
you were supporting them.
Yeah, I mean, I see that shift. I guess I'm just saying once you see them both
as symbolic gestures of suffering.
But the question is, who is doing the symbol? Is it a group symbol or a
Right. Like, I don't see why the personal one is so much more enlightened.
It might not be enlightened, but it's something we've gotten used to as a
moral norm. And we may be getting unused to it now. And that's an interesting
thing to notice, right? We spent thousands of years getting used to this new
concept of morality and religion as a personal choice and a personal
responsibility. And maybe that won't last.
I mean, maybe... One way to think about it is maybe we're at like a choice
point. You could think the move in the direction of personal sacrifice from
group sacrifice, could be progress if the personal sacrifice then moves
towards non-sacrifice? That is, moves towards like doing things where you
understand why you're doing them, and there's a good reason for doing them.
And but maybe it's like, it's not so stable, if you don't try to make keep
making progress. And so, if you just try to sit with doing pointless
sacrifices individually, instead of doing them as a group, like that's –
there's nothing that stabilizes the individual unless it's kind of supposed to
So if you think about war in our world today, we do think of war as a
collective responsibility. And a collective sacrifice needs to happen for a
war, right? And then what we do is we ask individuals, are you patriotic
enough to help us in our collective sacrifice? And somebody who, like wants
other people to make the national sacrifice, but not them, we might look badly
on them and basically disapprove of them.
But then if say, Germany loses World War II, and Germany has a collective
guilt, are we allowed to go take that out on each German? That's something
we're less sure we are OK with, even today with Russia, right? You know, they
are sort of basically taking the yachts of Russians and telling Russians, they
can't go abroad. But of course, are all Russians responsible for what the
Russian government is doing? I think we're actually confused about the degree
to which we want to allow collective responsibility or not. And whether
collective sacrifice is a concept we want to impose. I think sometimes we do
and sometimes we don't.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I wonder what principles... Can you think of a clear, like
a clear case where we all do want to impose collective sacrifice these days?
Well, I mean, many people want to do a collective sacrifice, say of, you know,
non-people-of-color for past collective actions there.
Yeah, but that's not everything. That's not, I mean a consensus. I mean, like,
there's many moral consensus in our side, there's many controversies, but
there's many consensus.
OK. So humanity, right? So I think many people might want humanity to take
collective responsibility, for what we've done to animals say, or what we've
done to the planet. And just because you said, "Well, I didn't go pollute... I
didn't run a factory, don't blame me for the pollution humanity has done. I
don't know that many people let them off from that. I think people are willing
to basically hold all humans responsible for what humans have done.
That doesn't seem intuitive to me. I think many people think we should try to,
like, improve the situation. But many people, like my view would be we should
improve it for the sake of future human beings. Not because we're guilty, but
because it will be bad for them if we don't improve it. So to me that, like, I
want a case where I myself, I'm going to be like, "Oh, yeah, in that case, I
recognize collective guilt."
In some way, Russia at the moment is one of the closest examples.
Yeah, I mean, like, I– like I sort of get like, if you're a Ukrainian, maybe
feeling like, you ought to fight. Maybe that's an example and maybe I can work
my way into that point of view.
What... so, an example is that the Ukrainian government forbade all adult men
to leave the country.
Insisting that they all stay and be soldiers. So that's a collective
responsibility. And we saw very little criticism of that. So it seems like the
rest of the world is willing to allow Ukraine to hold its males, adult males,
collectively responsible for its defense.
Right. That's the case I was thinking of. Yes, exactly. Right. So that's,
that's the closest I can think of to a case where I think most people would
think that that's fine.
There's funny stories about transgender Ukrainians, and whether they should be
able to slip out from under that requirement based on which gender they
started from, or went to.
Right. Or maybe not based on that, right? Maybe either way. But, right– but
the question is, yeah, do we all just find that... I think we do find the
idea. So here's why I think that that's fine. I don't think it's fine because
all of those Ukrainians are guilty or something, I think that it's fine
because, look, a nation has to defend itself sometimes and what else you're
going to do, but make a draft, at least some of the time, something like that.
And so, you know, now the government has made a law, and then the citizens
should follow the law. And so, it's not a direct case of collective
responsibility. Any more than we say, you know, I have a responsibility to pay
my taxes or something like, yeah, but I do it because it's the law. That
doesn't feel to me like a case of collective responsibility.
So there are different kinds of responsibility, but I mean, different
obligations, you might say, Sure, I guess you're thinking of some sort of
guilt or blame worthiness, that's...
...what you're looking for. But you know, in the ancient human sacrifice, it
wasn't necessarily about blame worthiness, right?
The gods just needed some blood so that they could move the sun around the
Earth, and somebody needed to be that blood, it didn't so much matter what
they had done wrong. The sacrifices needed to be made. Even today, I guess
it's– some people frame sort of fertility this way. I don't quite but it's–
that is we say, "Well, look, the species needed to continue. So somebody needs
to be a parent. And you're healthy and young, maybe you should be a parent."
And they're thinking, "Well, no, I don't want to do that. Somebody else do
that not my responsibility." And that's the question of, are we trying to hold
people responsible for perpetuating the species?
Right. And I could imagine like, if we got to a point of, uh-oh, we can
calculate that well, like I don't know, fall off some kind of population
cliff, if we don't start reproducing that there would be more pressure on
people. But see, I guess, I think that there's a difference between the kind
of... sometimes there's like a group project that's important to the group as
a whole. And then the responsibility for furthering that project is going to
fall more on some members of the group than others.
So I think in our discussion, the key emotional point of noticing that people
just really seem to like sacrifice in a certain sort of ironic or
contradictory sense, right? That is the you know, the sense that you are
apparently sacrificing in a literal sense, you know, they're losing sleep,
they aren't getting to do other things they want. But there's a deep
satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have sacrificed.
And they get credit for the sacrifice. And then they'll get to hold it over
the kids later on, or brag about it to other people. And even sort of that...
Or just take pleasure in it themselves. Yeah.
Right. Or even though, you know, when people watch a war movie, I think part
of the emotional enjoyment of watching a war movie is imagining that you're
the soldier, they're suffering through the battle, but then getting this
emotional credit for having done that, and then being celebrated or accepted
as a valid person who had sacrificed appropriately. And could be, you know,
Right. And so the Girardian theory, which I think is so far, the best we've
put forward on this, is just that that, that what that is, is the very
experience of the sacred. That is the experience of meaning is that
experience. And so that's what like the parents feel, hey, having a child is
really meaningful. It's really significant. And I want to be in touch with
that meaningfulness, right? And the way – the main way we figured out how to
do that is sacrifice. That's how we– and same with a professional.
Having this right demeanor and this restraint and whatever it is just like,
that's our contact with meaning, which is a little depressing if you think
about it, why is it our contact with meaning, like joy and pleasure and
Apparently it's like, you know, how do we celebrate the value of human life?
Well, by killing in a sacrifice. That's how we show we care about human life.
I agree it's disturbing and plausible. And there are many other hints that
what people most find meaningful and celebrate our times when there was
substantial pain and suffering and sacrifice.
That would partly explain, you did a poll a while ago on, like, is meaning
more work? Or, is happiness, more work?
Right? And it's like, well, meaning involves suffering. If meaning essentially
involves suffering, if in fact, suffering is how we experience meaning, then,
you know, basically, a lot of negative stuff is going to go along with, with
meaning. And it's also going– that's going to explain why as certain human
activities acquire meaning, like, I see parenting is increasingly acquiring
meaning, the more meaning it acquires, the less people want to do it.
Although I haven't yet seen people sort of take the direct stance of "I just
want happiness, I don't want meaning." I don't... few people say it directly,
but it's almost the– you know, what's the word for someone who's just in the
Hedonist, right. But in some sense, even the hedonist claims to be getting
meaning of some sort.
Yeah. Yeah. If somebody respect...
But somebody could just say, "I don't want meeting, I just want happiness. I
don't want all this sacrifice, suffering thing. I don't need to connect to a
higher power or higher– thing larger than myself. I just want to enjoy my
little life in my little place right now."
I actually think that there are many characters like that in movies like the
Han Solo character, right?
Right. Well, of course, that's the whole point, like, we don't believe him.
And of course, in the end, he was... it’s a front he's putting on and we
think, "No, he's actually a good person. A real good person couldn't think
Well, it's probably like love transforms people from that state to the meaning
state, right? That's one of the narratives we like is that somebody can be
disaffected and have no interest in meeting until they fall in love. And now
all of a sudden, they care a lot about meaning and that just shows how much to
love means to them.
Right? But that whole transformation wouldn't make any sense if there weren't
people at least kind of putting themselves forward as...
You know, the nihilists really of a certain kind, right? That's... a nihilist
might believe in happiness I think, but they might not believe in meaning.
Or not want it even if they believe it exists. They don't want it. They don't–
aren't willing to sacrifice for it.
Right. Right. OK, I think that's about enough.
I think we've done about an hour. There we go. But nice chatting and we'll
talk again soon. OK.