Culling the Herd

In simple societies with small, easily manageable populations (like hunter-gatherer groups or those that practice simple horticulture and animal husbandry), social control is a relatively simple thing to maintain. There are no written laws, no formal judiciary, and no law enforcement bureaucracy. Instead, there is gossip, shame, fear of the supernatural (e.g. gods, spirits, dead ancestors, witchcraft, or magic), and finally, ostracism, banishment, or death. The ways in which these social controls are applied varies from culture to culture, but the basic idea is the same: motivate people to follow the rules of the group. This is for the good of the individual as well as the good of the group, because when you are dealing with small populations, individual survival depends on group survival and vice versa. As populations get larger (as occurred inexorably with the advent and spread of intensive agriculture) social control becomes much more difficult. The same simple methods that work in small populations will often still work on a limited scale, e.g. within a family, neighborhood, church, or other small sub-group. But when it comes to the really big issues, bureaucracy becomes necessary. Rules must be codified into laws. Punishments must be defined, as well as the ways in which they are carried out. This is the system we are dealing with today.

This system is not as well adapted to meeting our society’s needs, I think, as the ways of the hunters and gatherers were adapted to meeting their society’s needs. It is the best we can do when dealing with enormous groups of people and the myriad laws we are all tasked with obeying, but sometimes I think it would be simpler if we could just cull the herd. What I mean by this is, when a person’s guilt is without question, and the crime committed is one of violence against the group (and violence against an individual is also violence against the group), then we cull that person from the herd for everybody’s protection – not by locking them away, but by taking their life. The problem, morally, is that culling the herd requires absolute certainty of guilt. This was not a big problem in small groups – there was no need to convince a jury of peers, there was simply the evidence of that person’s behavior as witnessed by other members of the group, or even just the victim. The needs of the group outweighed the needs of the individual, and dangerous people were banished or killed outright.

We are so disconnected from the lives of those around us, even though we are surrounded by other members of our group every day. They are in the cars on the freeway, in the checkout line, in the other houses on our block, but we have no idea what they are doing. This is not the way human beings have evolved to live, and so far we are not adapting very well to the needs of being members of enormous groups. Yet, we still feel the shock and outrage when a stranger in our community – someone we would never otherwise have met or even heard of – becomes a victim of one of those who should be culled from the herd. This, I think, is because we are still adapted to the belief that individual survival and group survival are linked. We still feel threatened in the same way that the members of a small group feel threatened when one of their own becomes dangerous. We feel the need to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and even other strangers from suffering the same horrible fate. How can we take that instinct, that adaptation, and use it to devise a better way of protecting the members of the group? How can we find better ways to recognize the individuals who must be culled? I’m not sure there is a way, but in the meantime, when we know with certainty that someone is dangerous, then I am all for culling the herd.

2 Comments Culling the Herd

  1. Shasta

    Philosophically, yes, I support capital punishment for certain crimes. Realistically, I can’t support it, because except in some very rare cases, we do not have 100% certainty of guilt. The flip side to culling the herd is that if you allow it as a punishment in huge, bureaucracy-controlled groups, you run an enormous risk of the option to cull being abused by those in power. It can only really work in those small groups, where the decision to take someone’s life is made by the entire group and is intimately linked to the entire group’s welfare. We don’t have that situation any more. I guess what I’m trying to say in this post is that I wish we had some simple, effective, guaranteed way to deal with crime in big groups. Until we can 100% guarantee objectivity, I can’t in good conscience support capital punishment.

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