Ethical Relativism and Absolute Taboos

Incest, Suicide, and Race

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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Table of Contents:

I. Taboos

II. Incest

III. Suicide

IV. Race

V. Moral Relativism

VI. The Negative Survival Value of Taboos


I. Taboos

Taboos regulate our sexual conduct, race relations, political institutions, and economic mechanisms - virtually every realm of our life. According to the 2002 edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica", taboos are "the prohibition of an action or the use of an object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred and consecrated or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed".

Jews are instructed to ritually cleanse themselves after having been in contact with a Torah scroll - or a corpse. This association of the sacred with the accursed and the holy with the depraved is the key to the guilt and sense of danger which accompany the violation of a taboo.

In Polynesia, where the term originated, says the Britannica, "taboos could include prohibitions on fishing or picking fruit at certain seasons; food taboos that restrict the diet of pregnant women; prohibitions on talking to or touching chiefs or members of other high social classes; taboos on walking or traveling in certain areas, such as forests; and various taboos that function during important life events such as birth, marriage, and death".

Political correctness in all its manifestations – in academe, the media, and in politics - is a particularly pernicious kind of taboo enforcement. It entails an all-pervasive self-censorship coupled with social sanctions. Consider the treatment of the right to life, incest, suicide, and race.

II. Incest

In contemporary thought, incest is invariably associated with child abuse and its horrific, long-lasting, and often irreversible consequences. But incest is far from being the clear-cut or monolithic issue that millennia of taboo imply. Incest with minors is a private - and particularly egregious - case of pedophilia or statutory rape. It should be dealt with forcefully. But incest covers much more besides these criminal acts.

Incest is the ethical and legal prohibition to have sex with a related person or to marry him or her - even if the people involved are consenting and fully informed adults. Contrary to popular mythology, banning incest has little to do with the fear of genetic diseases. Even genetically unrelated parties (a stepfather and a stepdaughter, for example) can commit incest.

Incest is also forbidden between fictive kin or classificatory kin (that belong to the same matriline or patriline). In certain societies (such as certain Native American tribes and the Chinese) it is sufficient to carry the same family name (i.e., to belong to the same clan) to render a relationship incestuous. Clearly, in these instances, eugenic considerations have little to do with incest.

Moreover, the use of contraceptives means that incest does not need to result in pregnancy and the transmission of genetic material. Inbreeding (endogamous) or straightforward incest is the norm in many life forms, even among primates (e.g., chimpanzees). It was also quite common until recently in certain human societies - the Hindus, for instance, or many Native American tribes, and royal families everywhere. In the Ptolemaic dynasty, blood relatives married routinely. Cleopatra’s first husband was her 13 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII.

Nor is the taboo universal. In some societies, incest is mandatory or prohibited, according to the social class (Bali, Papua New Guinea, Polynesian and Melanesian islands). In others, the Royal House started a tradition of incestuous marriages, which was later imitated by lower classes (Ancient Egypt, Hawaii, Pre-Columbian Mixtec). Some societies are more tolerant of consensual incest than others (Japan, India until the 1930's, Australia). The list is long and it serves to demonstrate the diversity of attitudes towards this most universal practice.

The more primitive and aggressive the society, the more strict and elaborate the set of incest prohibitions and the fiercer the penalties for their violation. The reason may be economic. Incest interferes with rigid algorithms of inheritance in conditions of extreme scarcity (for instance, of land and water) and consequently leads to survival-threatening internecine disputes. Most of humanity is still subject to such a predicament.

Freud said that incest provokes horror because it touches upon our forbidden, ambivalent emotions towards members of our close family. This ambivalence covers both aggression towards other members (forbidden and punishable) and (sexual) attraction to them (doubly forbidden and punishable).

Edward Westermarck proffered an opposite view that the domestic proximity of the members of the family breeds sexual repulsion (the epigenetic rule known as the Westermarck effect) to counter naturally occurring genetic sexual attraction. The incest taboo simply reflects emotional and biological realities within the family rather than aiming to restrain the inbred instincts of its members, claimed Westermarck.

Both ignored the fact that the incest taboo is learned - not inherent.

We can easily imagine a society where incest is extolled, taught, and practiced - and out-breeding is regarded with horror and revulsion. The incestuous marriages among members of the royal households of Europe were intended to preserve the familial property and expand the clan's territory. They were normative, not aberrant. Marrying an outsider was considered abhorrent.

III. Suicide

Self-sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing, and self-destruction that is the result of coercion - are all closely related to suicide. They all involve a deliberately self-inflicted death.

But while suicide is chiefly intended to terminate a life – the other acts are aimed at perpetuating, strengthening, and defending values or other people. Many - not only religious people - are appalled by the choice implied in suicide - of death over life. They feel that it demeans life and abnegates its meaning.

Life's meaning - the outcome of active selection by the individual - is either external (such as God's plan) or internal, the outcome of an arbitrary frame of reference, such as having a career goal. Our life is rendered meaningful only by integrating into an eternal thing, process, design, or being. Suicide makes life trivial because the act is not natural - not part of the eternal framework, the undying process, the timeless cycle of birth and death. Suicide is a break with eternity.

Henry Sidgwick said that only conscious (i.e., intelligent) beings can appreciate values and meanings. So, life is significant to conscious, intelligent, though finite, beings - because it is a part of some eternal goal, plan, process, thing, design, or being. Suicide flies in the face of Sidgwick's dictum. It is a statement by an intelligent and conscious being about the meaninglessness of life.

If suicide is a statement, than society, in this case, is against the freedom of expression. In the case of suicide, free speech dissonantly clashes with the sanctity of a meaningful life. To rid itself of the anxiety brought on by this conflict, society cast suicide as a depraved or even criminal act and its perpetrators are much castigated.

The suicide violates not only the social contract - but, many will add, covenants with God or nature. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the "Summa Theologiae" that - since organisms strive to survive - suicide is an unnatural act. Moreover, it adversely affects the community and violates the property rights of God, the imputed owner of one's spirit. Christianity regards the immortal soul as a gift and, in Jewish writings, it is a deposit. Suicide amounts to the abuse or misuse of God's possessions, temporarily lodged in a corporeal mansion.

This paternalism was propagated, centuries later, by Sir William Blackstone, the codifier of British Law. Suicide - being self-murder - is a grave felony, which the state has a right to prevent and to punish for. In certain countries this still is the case. In Israel, for instance, a soldier is considered to be "military property" and an attempted suicide is severely punished as "a corruption of an army chattel".

Paternalism, a malignant mutation of benevolence, is about objectifying people and treating them as possessions. Even fully-informed and consenting adults are not granted full, unmitigated autonomy, freedom, and privacy. This tends to breed "victimless crimes". The "culprits" - gamblers, homosexuals, communists, suicides, drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes – are "protected from themselves" by an intrusive nanny state.

The possession of a right by a person imposes on others a corresponding obligation not to act to frustrate its exercise. Suicide is often the choice of a mentally and legally competent adult. Life is such a basic and deep set phenomenon that even the incompetents - the mentally retarded or mentally insane or minors - can fully gauge its significance and make "informed" decisions, in my view.

The paternalists claim counterfactually that no competent adult "in his right mind" will ever decide to commit suicide. They cite the cases of suicides who survived and felt very happy that they have - as a compelling reason to intervene. But we all make irreversible decisions for which, sometimes, we are sorry. It gives no one the right to interfere.

Paternalism is a slippery slope. Should the state be allowed to prevent the birth of a genetically defective child or forbid his parents to marry in the first place? Should unhealthy adults be forced to abstain from smoking, or steer clear from alcohol? Should they be coerced to exercise?

Suicide is subject to a double moral standard. People are permitted - nay, encouraged - to sacrifice their life only in certain, socially sanctioned, ways. To die on the battlefield or in defense of one's religion is commendable. This hypocrisy reveals how power structures - the state, institutional religion, political parties, national movements - aim to monopolize the lives of citizens and adherents to do with as they see fit. Suicide threatens this monopoly. Hence the taboo.

IV. Race

Social Darwinism, sociobiology, and, nowadays, evolutionary psychology are all derided and disparaged because they try to prove that nature - more specifically, our genes - determine our traits, our accomplishments, our behavior patterns, our social status, and, in many ways, our destiny. Our upbringing and our environment change little. They simply select from ingrained libraries embedded in our brain.

Moreover, the discussion of race and race relations is tainted by a history of recurrent ethnocide and genocide and thwarted by the dogma of egalitarianism. The (legitimate) question "are all races equal" thus becomes a private case of the (no less legitimate) "are all men equal". To ask "can races co-exist peacefully" is thus to embark on the slippery slope to slavery and Auschwitz. These historical echoes and the overweening imposition of political correctness prevent any meaningful - let alone scientific - discourse.

The irony is that "race" - or at least race as determined by skin color - is a distinctly unscientific concept, concerned more with appearances (i.e., the color of one's skin, the shape of one's head or hair), common history, and social politics - than strictly with heredity. Dr. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, noted in his work in the 1970s that the popularity of the idea of race is an "indication of the power of socioeconomically based ideology over the supposed objectivity of knowledge."

Still, many human classificatory traits are concordant. Different taxonomic criteria conjure up different "races" - but also real races. As Cambridge University statistician, A. W. F. Edwards, observed in 2003, certain traits and features do tend to cluster and positively correlate (dark skinned people do tend to have specific shapes of noses, skulls, eyes, bodies, and hair, for instance). IQ is a similarly contentious construct, but it is stable and does predict academic achievement effectively.

Granted, racist-sounding claims may be as unfounded as claims about racial equality. Still, while the former are treated as an abomination - the latter are accorded academic respectability and scientific scrutiny.

Consider these two hypotheses:

  1. That the IQ (or any other measurable trait) of a given race or ethnic group is hereditarily determined (i.e., that skin color and IQ - or another measurable trait - are concordant) and is strongly correlated with certain types of behavior, life accomplishments, and social status.
  1. That the IQ (or any other quantifiable trait) of a given race or "ethnic group" is the outcome of social and economic circumstances and even if strongly correlated with behavior patterns, academic or other achievements, and social status - which is disputable - is amenable to "social engineering".

Both theories are falsifiable and both deserve serious, unbiased, study. That we choose to ignore the first and substantiate the second demonstrates the pernicious and corrupting effect of political correctness.

Claims of the type "trait A and trait B are concordant" should be investigated by scientists, regardless of how politically incorrect they are. Not so claims of the type "people with trait A are..." or "people with trait A do...". These should be decried as racist tripe.

Thus, medical research shows the statement "The traits of being an Ashkenazi Jew (A) and suffering from Tay-Sachs induced idiocy (B) are concordant in 1 of every 2500 cases" is true.

The statements "people who are Jews (i.e., with trait A) are (narcissists)", or "people who are Jews (i.e., with trait A) do this: they drink the blood of innocent Christian children during the Passover rites" - are vile racist and paranoid statements.

People are not created equal. Human diversity - a taboo topic - is a cause for celebration. It is important to study and ascertain what are the respective contributions of nature and nurture to the way people - individuals and groups - grow, develop, and mature. In the pursuit of this invaluable and essential knowledge, taboos are dangerously counter-productive.

V. Moral Relativism

Protagoras, the Greek Sophist, was the first to notice that ethical codes are culture-dependent and vary in different societies, economies, and geographies. The pragmatist believe that what is right is merely what society thinks is right at any given moment. Good and evil are not immutable. No moral principle - and taboos are moral principles - is universally and eternally true and valid. Morality applies within cultures but not across them.

But ethical or cultural relativism and the various schools of pragmatism ignore the fact that certain ethical percepts - probably grounded in human nature - do appear to be universal and ancient. Fairness, veracity, keeping promises, moral hierarchy - permeate all the cultures we have come to know. Nor can certain moral tenets be explained away as mere expressions of emotions or behavioral prescriptions - devoid of cognitive content, logic, and a relatedness to certain facts.

Still, it is easy to prove that most taboos are, indeed, relative. Incest, suicide, feticide, infanticide, parricide, ethnocide, genocide, genital mutilation, social castes, and adultery are normative in certain cultures - and strictly proscribed in others. Taboos are pragmatic moral principles. They derive their validity from their efficacy. They are observed because they work, because they yield solutions and provide results. They disappear or are transformed when no longer useful.

Incest is likely to be tolerated in a world with limited possibilities for procreation. Suicide is bound to be encouraged in a society suffering from extreme scarcity of resources and over-population. Ethnocentrism, racism and xenophobia will inevitably rear their ugly heads again in anomic circumstances. None of these taboos is unassailable.

None of them reflects some objective truth, independent of culture and circumstances. They are convenient conventions, workable principles, and regulatory mechanisms - nothing more. That scholars are frantically trying to convince us otherwise - or to exclude such a discussion altogether - is a sign of the growing disintegration of our weakening society.

VI. The Negative Survival Value of Taboos

Most taboos – especially those appertaining to sex and food – have clear survival value: coprophagia and cannibalism may be fatal and pedophilia and incest can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the gene pool. But taboos are creatures of their time. Their longevity and resistance to rational reappraisal are counter-productive as far as the human species and individuals are concerned.

As circumstances change and our knowledge of Nature expands, all taboos should be subjected to revision and rigorous scientific perusal: does urine-drinking have medical benefits? Are suicide and murder permissible in certain situations and among well-defined populations? Is organ harvesting to be allowed if it alleviates other forms of misery (such as extreme poverty or child labor)? Where lies the line between pedophilia (and hebephilia) and the inevitable erotic tension between adult and nubile youth (an important conduit of psychosexual socialization)? If we destigmatize incest, will its victims be less traumatized? Excluding these questions from the scientific agenda is harmful: such instinctive and self-righteous recoil retards progress and dims the prospects of successful adaptation.

Taboos are distinct from social mores, although the two categories are often confused. Forms of sexual behaviour – such as homosexuality and bondage – have been in and out of fashion throughout history. They have been frowned upon or tolerated (or even, in some cultures, exalted), but they have never been considered taboo. The same goes for conduct such as rabid materialism, substance abuse, and idleness. It is time to regard taboos the same way we do social norms: as resilient, long-term fads, based upon superstition, prejudice, misinformation and outdated coping skills and strategies. It is high time to unflinchingly shine the light of rationality and science on them.


Also Read:

Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice

On Incest - The Off-spring of Aeolus

Euthanasia and the Right to Die

The Roots of Pedophilia

The Pathology of Love

The Natural Roots of Sexuality

The Myth of the Right to Life

Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species


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