Archive for May, 2007

Taboo: Nature vs. Nurture, Part 2.

Posted in In the news, Taboo Subjects on May 6th, 2007

Earlier, I discussed incest as a moral value that stems from instinct. One might think that it springs, as many of our moral values do, from a societal and intellectual analysis of the risks involved, namely in the form of genetic disease and birth defects. Pinker demonstrated the difference by discussing the various cultures that have shared this disgust , which predates our knowledge of genetics. It has also been seen in the animal kingdom, which could not spring from scientific knowledge. Yet could it spring from a mere observation of the harms of incest, spread from one generation to the next?

And what about the isolated Japanese cultures who seem to have little taboo around this, even in the fact of laws prohibiting it?

He also demonstrated its innateness by posing a hypothetical where there is no harm. Our disgust still remains. Yet could it be that once we tie the act to disgust, removing the cause is insufficient to eradicate what we have set in our minds? Besides, when it comes to cousins (admittedly less of an instictive taboo) there is not that significant of an increased risk.

A study conducted in the United States found that 1.69 percent of the offspring of marriages between cousins showed genetic-related disorders, compared to a rate of 1.02 percent for offspring of ordinary marriages.

Statistically significant? Sure. But to the average person, these numbers would not indicate a compelling reason for such a strong taboo. And yet we have such a taboo against relationships with cousins, a taboo that has lead to legislation here in the US as well.

I think I have discovered somewhat compelling evidence that it derives strongly from an instinctual component. We have no taboo against exposing children to genetic risks. I’ll demonstrate that with an excerpt from a listserv I belong to:

Remember the case of David Vetter, a/k/a the Boy in a
Bubble? His two fucking worthless idiot parents, David Joseph Vetter
Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter, were desperate to have a boy to “carry on
the family name.” Never mind the fact that a minor affliction called
Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID) ran in the family and that
each boy therefore had a 50% chance of being born without an immune
system. Never mind the fact that they already had a daughter and
already had one boy born sans immune system who died. (What was that
boy’s name? David Joseph Vedder III. Big shock there. Utterly barf-
inducing. Talk about selfish!)

Because they were devout Catholics, they believed it was their God-
ordained duty to shit out a boy named David III and “carry on the
family name.” Any sane person would have opted for a vasectomy and
an adoption to do that, but noooooo. Ancient fairy tales perpetuated
by impotent Italian aristocratic men in dresses once again won out
over common sense. But Wait, There’s More!

Their doctor, also a Catholic, in fact a Holy Cross brother, had a
brilliant idea. If their son was born with SCID, he would be
isolated in a sterile environment until a cure (which, of course, was
“right around the corner”) could be found. No thought was apparently
given to how a complete lack of human contact would affect their
little trophy’s psychological development, no no no, they had God on
their side!

At the age of three, the kid was asking his (!) personal psychologist
why he was angry all the time. At seven, he was smearing his own
shit all over the inside of the enclosure. When he finally became
unmanageable, they attempted a bone marrow transplant using marrow
from his sister, but she had the Epstein-Barr virus. The kid died a
horrible death two weeks later, his body riddled with tumors.

Just as you are thinking that the presence of such a rant on a listserv may be indication that there is a taboo for such actions, consider that this group exists to circumvent taboos; as a safe haven for things you cannot say elsewhere. This is why I had to get this information off of an e-mail. There is not much presence for derisions of this sort on the internet, let alone in our society. We do not have a general taboo against getting pregnant when you have an increased risk of disease. Indeed – we have a whole industry based around it!

Many types of fertility treatments result in disproportionate amounts of birth defects. When implanting extra embryos to increase the odds of conception, we know we are taking the risk of creating twins, triplets, or far worse. These multiple births represent extreme risk to the children, even to the point where doctors often recommend aborting one to save the other/s. Yet many parents refuse. A minority criticize that choice, but there is not the widespread condemnation of risking those lives that one would expect to see. If you cause risk to a fetus by punching a pregnant woman or committing incest, there is a taboo. But an act that creates a much greater risk to the fetus is essentially given a pass!

The first week of class, fertility treatments were mentioned as something that has lost its taboo or its moralization. The original aversion to artificial creation of life, as against “god’s design” or in violation of Catholic doctrine against destruction of sperm/eggs has indeed faded. But where is the new taboo – the one that springs not from abstract religious values, but from the actual harm being caused?

This is not the only context in which people playing god while risking harm to their children gets a free pass. Situations as above, when people have diseased children but create more, go on all the time without the slightest peep from society. Fertility treatments are given to women with multiple miscarriages, creating an increased risk that whatever was causing them to miscarry will damage the child (often the body knows what it is doing). But we blindly and thoughtlessly defend such actions, then coo with sympathy at the poor parents who care for a disabled or sick child.

But this is aside from my point. I will say “enough is enough!” and move on. More relevantly, the lack of taboo attached to this relatively greater risk of harm disabuses us of the notion that the taboo against incest springs only from the risk. There is something more to it. Perhaps it is that the act is more direct, less subtle. That may make it easier for us to condemn. But it also may be that there is an instinctive drive there, something that is more compelling than a rational assessment of the risks. Some inborn aversion to it combines with the knowledge we have (be it “this person is my sister” or “this risks birth defects” to create a moralization. As time goes on, perhaps greater knowledge will attach to other instincts, like the drive to protect a helpless child. Perhaps then we will see a new moralization to overcome the weakness of will we seem to be suffering.

Taboo: Nature vs. Nurture, Part 1.

Posted in Taboo Subjects on May 6th, 2007

One of the first subjects tackled in our taboo subjects class was whether there is such a thing as a ‘moral instinct’.  Are all of the taboos that we have the result of purely external societal constructs?  Or are some things hard-wired onto us?

This was a point of disagreement between the professors.  Dersh pointed out that those things we may point to as innate, such as the right of all not to be enslaved, were not always accepted. If these were instinctive, there  would have always been such a taboo. It has been too short a time for a biological evolution to alter any innate moral sense.

Pinker pointed out some things that have been constant – the taboo against incest, even between willing siblings.  Such instinct probably evolved to protect us from the dangers of inbreeding, since the odds of genetic diseases is higher when the parents are related.  Likewise, we have an instinct of disgust surrounding food, which probably began to keep us from eating things that may have been tainted or otherwise unsafe.  This emotion of disgust is closely tied with moralization.  Ergo, the idea of incest disgusts us, and many have tied moral values to food proscriptions, such as ones against pork.

My own working theory is that there was not really much disagreement between the two.  Rather, it hinges on what exactly is instinctive, and what we are defining as morality. There is some instinctive sense against killing another unnecessarily, just as there is against incest.  But the instincts we have cannot really become moral until they are placed into the setting of our surroundings.  Ergo, morals that derive from instincts can change over time, not just because our setting changes, but largely because our knowledge does.
Hundreds of years ago there was no general moral sense that slavery was wrong, but many would have been aghast at treating a white person this way.  But that belief was based on an assumption that there were inherent differences between the races; that blacks were somehow inferior or somehow sub-human and thus it was not wrong to mistreat them.  As we as a society learned this was simply not true, this knowledge combined with our instincts to create a moral sense.

This really leads to them both being wrong.  Our morality is not entirely cerebral and derived from experiences, nor is it something that springs whole cloth from our genetic cloth.

The belief that blacks were inferior often came out in comparison to animals. They were seen as ‘savage’ and uncivilized.  If one has any doubt that this pseudo-knowledge could justify enslavement, one only need to look to how we currently treat those we regard as savages – animals.  Our belief that they are disposable and can be killed or tortured for pleasure – be it food, clothing, entertainment or cosmetics – stems from our assumptions about their worth.  If we come to a point where we recognize they are sentient being who can suffer, and who are self aware, uses for our pleasure will seem nearly as inhumane as mistreatment of other races.  Both professors acknowledged this when they stated that future generations will probably see this as this era’s barbarism.

Yes, there are differences.  Animals do have different cognitive abilities.  We will probably never come to the point which we have with blacks, where we admit full equality.  That just changes the degree of the comparison, not its relevance.  It only means that the abuses we consider barbaric will be relevant to the comparable abilities of animals, and will be related to just how frivolous our needs were.