Home > Uncategorized > Breaking Taboos – A Knowledge Problem

Breaking Taboos – A Knowledge Problem

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the comments to and essay by Paul Graham that I read some time ago, called “Lies we tell Kids” there was an interesting exchange about taboos. One person opined that “if you suspect a taboo is no longer culturally relevant you should probably consider yourself to have a duty to break it to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.”

I imagine they have the idea that cultural progress, (change toward betterment, perhaps even perfection) would be served by bravely discarding an impediment. Someone else, thinking a little deeper on the question responded that that might be so if your goal is to change society. Living successfully within society might require a different strategy. They then suggested that, “Some taboos begin for good reason and just because you suspect that they’re not relevant doesn’t mean that they’re not.

I would suggest that if you suspect that a taboo is no longer relevant, you have a duty find out for sure and learn why it ever was in the first place.”

My take on this is that neither of these suggestions work. Having a duty to find out implies that you are held responsible for being some kind of anthropological savant, a social scientist within your own culture, and that you are expected to get the right answer. This is an impossible demand for anyone.

It is difficult to come up with an analogy, because anything that might have once been simple enough for someone of reasonable intelligence to examine and at once see and be able to fix a problem with, has since become so complicated that only specialists with computer diagnostic equipment are expected to be able to make head or tails out of. And if today’s cars, for example, are that much more complex than the model T, then how much more complex might the expectations and restrictions of human society be? Unlike the model T they were never designed to be understandable to a technician. F. A. Hayek described culture as a thing not even designed, but evolved piecemeal throughout human history and prehistory. A taboo isn’t like some rule your father made up to keep you from spilling something at the table, it’s more like your amygdala. And if it took physicians thousands of years just to come the the conclusion that the head was the seat of intelligence, rather than the heart, and the brain more than just a gland for producing phlegm, shouldn’t you bring a bit more humility to deciding which customs can just be dispensed with?

But that isn’t a pleasant thought, is it? Hacking away at restrictions under the license of the world-spirit gives one the chance to participate in the gratification of our inner wish for more freedom. And it doesn’t sit very well with the rationalist program of 20’th century liberalism either. (It is too early to say what 21st century liberalism will be, isn’t it?)

It doesn’t sit that well with me either, but I’ll know better than to suggest people are able to tell at a glance which of the facets of civilization they are not content with keep the extended order in harmony and which are just atavistic pains in the neck.

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