Taboo: Nature vs. Nurture, Part 1.

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.

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