Experimentation and Taboo

We live in a golden age of experimentation. Experimentation in technology, in business models, in ideas, in lifestyles; the long tail of each has grown very long indeed and continues to grow. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, it was the very fact that we were inspired to tinker, that old taboos were beaten back for a time, which is responsible for our present enrichment.

There is no denying, however, that experimentation has risks. Marie Curie ended up giving her life for the knowledge she was willing to acquire first-hand. The sexual revolution forced many to learn hard lessons about sexually transmitted diseases. The 20th century experiments in vast social engineering projects gave us the greatest mass murderers and mass famines in history.

Nassim Taleb is among those who believes that public morality, especially the very old and institutionalized sort, developed as a kind of risk management mechanism. In a nonlinear system, very small changes can make the difference between stability and catastrophe, just as the one last step over the edge of a cliff results in a sudden and drastic change in velocity. By Taleb’s reckoning, taboos develop to warn people away from the proverbial cliffs—cliffs which, in social and biological areas, are not visible to the naked eye the way actual cliffs are.

Some taboos categorically should not be crossed because there really are cliffs on the other side. Others can be approached, and even crossed somewhat, in exchange for a bit of knowledge—a peek into what makes them wise. Still others deserve the progressive’s scorn as mere superstition, perhaps relevant in some earlier era when the topography was different, but either way best done away with.

Here’s the trillion-dollar question: how do you tell which is which?

Take David’s latest musings for example:

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I see this post as being about the middle scenario—taboos that have to be wrestled with to a certain extent before you can internalize their wisdom.

Virtue itself is like this. All of us have to find it for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent. This unavoidably involves trial and error in the choices we make and the moral frames we operate within. Trial and error within certain parameters is almost guaranteed to be fruitful. Taboo places bounds on that process, or is supposed to. The middle-type taboos are softer bounds than the more categorical ones.

Softer because breaching them involves risk, but not certain catastrophe. Most people do not travel very far into these boundaries. As David says, some fraction of our fellow travelers into the forests of taboo are damaged by it, taking the scars with them for the rest of their lives, their bad luck serving as “teaching moments” for the rest of us.

Some venture too deep into the forest and are much less likely to come back again.

And yet others become prophets for us, blazing a trail towards real moral or material progress.

But since taboo is what provides the boundaries, it is very hard—perhaps impossible—to tell beforehand who is the prophet and who the fool or madman, who is in the funhouse and who is confronting “the historically given moral ideals of your community” in order to “wrestle with them honestly, without selfishness, in the context” of a life and the lives of those around them. Where should we seek to find wisdom and where are we likely to encounter nothing but trash?

Answering those questions, and making the answers your own, is the responsibility that comes with moral adulthood. The great virtue of an open society is that it allows more people to seek moral adulthood in their own way, a discovery process from which all of us can benefit. The great pitfall is that it leaves us vulnerable to far more cliffs.

Which side of that risk-reward equation you focus on, and whether you see both sides at all, goes a long way towards determining your political and moral predilections.

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4 thoughts on “Experimentation and Taboo

  1. pxdelaney

    I find the point about religious injunctions as protections against tail events an interesting one, but not altogether persuasive. Assuming tail events are truly infrequent even on religious time scales, and we are not always capable of determining ex post facto the true causes of such disasters (see the economic literature on, say, depressions and recessions), why assume the religious rules are properly adaptive to those disasters? They are just as likely to be the *wrong* answers as the right ones.

    And all this, by the way, *assumes* that the rules are emergent *because of* a reasoned response to tail events, which is a proposition for which there does not appear to be any particular evidence. (It might be true, but I’m not sure why it must be true.) Rules may develop for a variety of reasons, including ones that can’t properly be described as rational and some which may be wholly or partially the result of chance.

    Taleb straw mans here a bit, as he sometimes does. In order to reject one strong proposition – religion is *always* a valuable store of wisdom – you needn’t commit to the countervailing strong position – religion is *never* a valuable store of wisdom. The trick here is the effort to flip the burden of proof. You may think a religious rule has value, but you cannot assert that it must have value solely by virtue of being a religious rule.

    1. Hmmm I think a lot can be clarified on two fronts:

      1. I don’t think Taleb or Burkeans think that tradition is always a valuable store of wisdom, just that that it’s better to start from that assumption than from the opposite assumption that everything is just arbitrary convention (as many Greek philosophers did, back when they started really developing the idea of human convention vs natural law). I think the famous Chesterton quote is good; it’s not about saying everything is there for a good reason, it’s about taking seriously the idea that a lot of what lasts has lasted for a good reason, and we ought to demonstrate otherwise rather than have it on us to demonstrate that case positively.

      2. I think you’re making too much of the process by which the rules are generated. Taleb in particular is inclined to argue that the generative process is purely random, it’s the after the fact filtering which is not. Thus by definition a 500 year old institution has survived 5 1-in-100-year events on average. And it *could* have just been luck, but to have survived as many 1-in-30-year events as it must have, for instance, it could not have been simply luck. That would be absurdly lucky. And the problem is that it’s extremely hard to identify just what practices made it possible to survive those events, just as the complexity of protein networks in DNA makes it hard to isolate particular traits without risking a bunch of unexpected side-effects.

      1. pxdelaney

        1. Don’t you think there’s something about that burden of proof that requires serious justification? I accept that it’s less strong to say “we should assume that there is a good reason for this tradition” than “there must be a good reason for this tradition”, but that first claim is still a pretty big one!

        2. Eh, yes, I am being very process focused. In my defense though, so is Taleb. His process is just iterative – the rule survives some process over time (exposure to shocks/tail events), so it has “value”. (Scare quotes there are because I doubt that Taleb would put it quite that way, but I can’t think of a better shorthand.) The focus on the process is because it’s the explanatory mechanism – without it, there’s no reason to think you should assume any good reason for a tradition, right?

        Your point here about probability and confounding factors is a fair one. I don’t mean to overstate the case I’m arguing against but I am ignoring a whole bunch of important subtleties to try to get at what I think is the underlying point.

      2. 1. This of this in terms of the principle of charity. Generations of people have been living with tradition X and it doesn’t take much intellectual humility to assume that at least some of them must have been as smart as you are. So one question for instance would be—what are the critiques of the status quo that have been around for a while? Have there been any responses to them? Rather than just saying “this seems arbitrary and horrible, let’s do away with the whole thing.”

        2. To my mind the important points of contention are over whether there really is continuity at all (e.g. is the practice today similar enough to the practice that existed 100 years ago and survived the catastrophe that happened then for us to be confident it’s hedging our bets) and whether there exist events that actually do act as a de facto filter for institutions that cannot respond to them.

        The latter to me seems hard to deny, especially with stuff like the Bali water temples that I described. The extent of it is very open for debate, but it seems to me that it must be true to some non-trivial extent.

        The persistence part is harder to answer, especially given the epistemological point about how hard it is to even tell what it was that enabled an institution to survive in the first place.

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