Archive for the 'Taboo Subjects' Category

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.


Posted in Taboo Subjects, The Law on April 25th, 2007

As I write this, I can just hear my grade falling. In an attempt to (over)compensate for the professorial tendency to give higher marks to those who agree with them, Dersh admits that disagreeing with him might garner higher marks. However, try as I might, I still find his arguments largely compelling

Torture – does it work?
This is a great avoidance doctrine. If those claiming it does not were judges, they would be citing political questions and non-justiciability. If torture did not work, we would have no need to grapple with the tough questions we now face. Instead, like the question of pushing a fat man on train tracks to stop it from hitting people, the matter of torture would be relegated to the halls of academia – more specifically, the Philosophy Hall.

Instead, we do have to grapple with these issues. Torture sometimes works. if it did not, it would not be so widely (but secretly practiced) It is not a matter, as some protest, of the reliability of the information given. The 5th Amendment’s prohibitions are well placed, since a confession would be much less reliable if physically, or even psychologically, coerced. Instead we are dealing with the matter of prospective information, information that can be verified if before the person in question is released.

Confining ourselves to the category of torture that deals with information about impending acts may eliminate some real-life instances (such as sadistic guards, confessions and show trials, and Posner points out) but since those are easy questions, I will put them aside for now. In this restricted case, there is not incentive on the part of the torturer to obtain false information. The practice will continue until the information is verified. False information will still be obtained, but in that case it will be revealed by someone who is accepting the future repercussions, and is making that sacrifice for his cause. Misleading information is part of their strategy, and will have to be part of the calculus. But it is not a constant, and so we are dealing with the fact that sometimes, torture works.

Is Torture Ever Right?

Again I will cite Posner. No, torture is never right. However, sometimes we are faced with the choice of two wrongs. The wrong of causing a human being pain against the wrong his allies will cause to innocents, perhaps many. It is a terrible balancing test to have to do, and I can therefore understand the drive to find avoidance doctrines.

Just how to balance these wrongs is a widely disputed question. I do not think there is a right answer. Some say that to sacrifice the kidnapped child, the anthrax-poisoned city might be worthwhile. That what we give up when we lower ourselves to torture is too great a cost, no matter what is on the other side. There is validity in this argument, but few espouse it.

More common is a wavering in the so-called “ticking bomb” scenario, when the torture of one will save millions. Once we accept this as an example of one time torture may be allowable, we change the calculus. The question is not if, but when. We enter into a realm of myriad scenarios, countless combinations of factors on either side of the scale. Is it right when thousands are at risk? Hundreds? Just one innocent? Does it matter if that person at risk is a high school dropout or a Pulitzer Prise winning scientist? A seven year old with her whole life ahead of her, or a 90 year old man who will die within months? Does it matter if that person is an orphaned infant, with no self awareness, or a brain-dead vegetable, or has an IQ of an ape? If the last is worth torturing for – is an ape?

And how many must we torture? Ten terrorists to save one innocent? Does it matter if that torture is psychological? Sleep deprivation? If all we do is administer truth serum? Water boarding? What if that torture risks their life?

And what if we are not sure there is a bomb? We think the kidnapped child in question is dead, but we are not sure. We think he is lying about having anthrax. What calculus can justify torture then?

I do hate posting more questions than answers. But as you can see, all three of these categories can combine in a thousand ways, and each calculus is different. I am inclined to agree that in the most extraordinary of cases, in which the lives to be saved are numerous and the method of torture non-lethal, torture is the right thing to do. I am not quite sure where I draw my line, but it is somewhere before torturing ten people who may be innocent on the slight chance one may be harmed.

How Should We Do It?

As Dersh points out, this question can be unrelated to the last. It is possible to take th absolutist position advocating an all-out ban on torture, and still advocate for legal mechanisms. This is possible because torture is going on, whether legal or not. If it is possible to force it through review and make sure that an objective person is doing the balancing above, that is an improvement on the current situation in which the choice is left to an individual agent with no oversight.

While an articulable argument can be made on the other side – that it is better to keep it in secret, that legitimating it is too high a cost to control it – I do not find these arguments convincing. Nor are they novel – they are the reason for the current drug war, when legalization would decrease organized crime and the hazards of drug use. Our society has come out the other side, too, at least on the surface – better to legalize abortions than to subject women to the hazards of back-alley ones, since they will get them anyway. However, as I have never heard someone who is actually opposed to abortion make that argument, it has little force here. It appears that our country prefers the hazards of illegality to the governmental imprimatur of legality.  In this sense, I will remain with the minority, as I do on the drug issue.  The costs we are paying are too great for the slight benefit of clean hands. I think we exaggerate how much approval of a practice legitimizes it (see SCOTUS’s approval of Japanese internment in Koramatsu, which did not translate to or affect popular opinion)

One Caveat

I’m not so sure the torture warrant would work.  The scheme assumes that just because there is a legal channel, people with take it.  The scheme, however, is pitted against a longstanding tradition of practice which it needs to alter. Dersh seems to address this point when he argues that the necessity defense would be unavailable, and that absolute  liability would attach when someone could have obtained a warrant but didn’t.  But in a setting where there is an all-out ban and people are not prosecuted, this is a leap of logic.  Would prosecutions and reportings of these instances increase just because a warrant mechanism is put into place?  Against the reality of military culture, I find this doubtful.

He also cites the fact that the higher-ups give a ‘wink and a nod’ to those below them when telling them not to torture.  I think in this lies the spark of possibility that warrants will change things.  Higher ups might exist in a culture that wants to reduce liability.  It is possible that when a mechanism is available, the calculus of our leaders will change, and they will seek the protection and lack of liability that most do. This would depend either on them considering the costs of obtaining a warrant low, or on the possibility of discovery of their covert approval. In the wake of Abu Ghraib, this is possible.  But I don’t think it is probable.

And thus, the warrants work only if used.  If, as with gun control, this means only law-abiding citizens will now be subject to judicial oversight, we have a problem.  They will then have more of a likelihood of torturing; those that would have  aided by the prohibition merely because it was the law will now add to the amount of torture going on.  If the amount of covert torture continues under the radar, this means that the effect of the warrant procedure will be more torture.

Which gets us back to the question of whether it is ever justified.  Assuming that the law-abiding, warrant-approved torture that will be added to the mix saves lives, the torture warrants may be an improvement. It doesn’t quite work the way Dersh wants and relies, as he does not want to, in the justification of some torture (indeed the assumption it can be a good thing).

So we have two possibilities for improvement. Either the judges will act responsibly, torture is sometimes a good thing to do, and there will be  an overall benefit.  Or, I am underestimating military culture and the warrants will decrease the amount of unjustified torture.  Both possibilities turn on tough moral issues and moreover they turn on basic human nature, and the behavior of two sets of people.  In this sense, they are unanswerable.  I cannot get into the mind of a military commander or that of a judge.  They are not uniform actors, and the effect will depend on which leaders and judges end up with these questions at their feet.  These are unknowable, and so, therefore, are the effects of a torture warrant.

To Parent or Not to Parent: Is a Cost-Benefit Analysis Reprehensible?

Posted in Taboo Subjects, The Law on February 15th, 2007

I am enrolled in a course entitled Thinking About Taboo Subjects:

This course will consider how to think, write and speak about issues that tend to be taboo on university campuses. These include gender, racial, ethnic, cultural and religious differences; rape and child molestation, torture; eugenics; abortion; capital punishment; race specific affirmative action; misuses of the holocaust and holocaust denial; colonialism; cultural relativity; religious sensitivities; and other subjects to be directed by the class. The object of the class will be to consider how to do scholarship on such subjects. Experts and advocates will appear periodically as guests.

The reading this week includes an article entitled “Thinking the unthinkable, sacred values and taboo cognitions”. In essentally says that we have sacred values – such as family and loyalty, and secular values, such as money, entertainment, etc. One forced to make a trade-off between two sacred values (a tragic trade-off) is judged far less harshly than those who deliberate for a long time when deciding between a secular and a sacred value (a taboo trade-off) So, for example, a hospital administrator who ponders over saving a boy’s life to save his hospital $1M is causes moral outrage, while people look more sympathetically at the administrator forced to decide between two boys. It matters not that the money could save lives, the immediate two values cannot be mismatched and still be acceptable.

This reminded me of a the outrage that some people have over some people choosing not to have children, and even over those who weigh out the pros and cons of parenting.

Indeed, one who makes a decision between so-called “selfish” values and childbearing might be inclined not to have children. A while back I posted an article on my childfree news blog; a statistical study had found that parents are more depressed than those without children.

‘‘We believe the costs associated with the role overshadow those benefits,’’ said Robin Simon, co-author of the study published in December in the journal published by the American Sociological Association. ‘‘We romanticize parenthood. It’s difficult and it is expensive.’’

This is in addition to findings that parents die sooner, eat more, and earn less, have smaller brains (during pregnancy) have less money. Add to that the fact that the above was just the latest in a long line of studies showing that the childless are happier [1] [2] [3] , and the childless may indeed feel quite smug about the superiority of their choice. Parents are quick to respond, horrified that concerns over happiness [4] and money should ever enter into the equation. Indeed, we have elevated the question of parenting to sacred status such that questioning whether it is “worth it” is taboo.

Quite illustrative is the fury sparked by the article Kids: Bad investments, big returns. As is made obvious by the title, the ultimate conclusion is that it is still “worth it” for many people because “it’s like an ongoing, lifelong investment in happiness,” and humans are not “economic creatures.” Of course, this is necessary way to wrap up an article that could otherwise be offensive to many, and its very conclusion is belied by the many studies that show children do not make people happier.

And yet the taboo is so strong, even this treacly, lets-all-have-kids article provoked a number of harsh responses. The readers stated that the author did not deserve to have kids because “I cannot believe in this day and age that people actually sit down and figure how much it’s going to cost them to have a family.” But even while readers stated “If you need to do a cost-benefit analysis on having children, then you shouldn’t be having them” they missed the irony of their own cost-benefit calculations. One states that her “13-year-old son who has given me endless hours of joy and is a constant source of pride”, another that in twenty years “I will be receiving kisses from my future grandchildren, which my dear, are priceless.”

To be fair, a few do seem to criticize cost-benefit analysis without this hypocritical bent. But they are in the minority; most extoll the rewards of parenting in the same breath. And it may well be that a ‘happiness’ cost-benefit calculus is somehow less offensive than a monetary one. After all, no sacred value is being traded in for it, at least according to most assumptions.

People who spend money on plasma TVs and gambling are all buying their own kind of enjoyment; indeed one would imagine that those who would like to save money by not having children are spending it instead on other things that make them happy. If that is the case, are we judging not the calculus itself but what makes you happy? Is someone who is made happy by traveling “bad” and someone made happy by their children “good”? Is someone who is made happy by children as a “status enhancing social resource,” somehow superior to someone who is made happy by her three dogs rescued from a pound? Is why children make you happy, or the kind of alternative you choose then dispositive, and if so, are these judges on the right track, but oversimplifying the choices people make?

The argument must depend, then, on the establishment of the choice to have children as a sacred value. Is this assigning the status of potential family such weight? Is it because it is seen as biological destiny? It could well be that childfreedom is not seen as a negative choice – to not choose to do something, but instead as a positive step to prevent something that would otherwise naturally occur. Without these perspectives, it would be difficult to see why the choice not to work in a soup kitchen or adopt a homeless pet would be given such comparable deference. Assuming for the sake of this argument that having children is always a positive good for the world, the choice not to have them is only one of many positive steps that people avoid every day, without criticism.

The taboo must lie in seeing childrearing as an obligation each and every one of us has, and the choice not to have them as shunning potential family. Only then can we explain why the readers reacted with such furor over the mere deliberation in the author’s choice.