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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Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement.