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On the origin of morality

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Christopher Boehm proposes that morality began when a society of hunter-gatherers punished a member for violating its rules. He claims social control of this kind is universal, and that apes have related tendencies. Emile Durkheim had a similar conception of social control in the simplest and earliest societies. But both are wrong: Hunter-gatherers rarely, if ever, handle conflict in a law-like and penal fashion, and the society as a whole rarely if ever is the agent of social control. Individuals typically handle their own conflicts, and avoidance is more common than punishment. Pure sociology predicts and explains the handling of conflict with its location and direction in social space -- its social structure. The nature of morality depends, for example, on the social distance and degree of inequality between the parties, whether humans or nonhumans. Morality varies from case to case. It is relative rather than universal. Boehm therefore describes the origin of something that has never existed. All that is universal are the principles of structural relativity.
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Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Sociology, 539 Cabell Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA.

Publication date: 2000-01-01

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