A taboo (or tabu) is a deeply felt social prohibition against specific words or actions, usually shared by a particular culture or community. The sheer diversity of beliefs that come into collision in the modern world inevitably create social and political battlegrounds over subjects that some people consider taboo, that others do not. Consider the following diverse examples of taboo subjects or behaviours, and worldviews that may generate them:
- Abortion for an individual with “pro-life” metaphysics
- Testing of medicines on rats for animal rights activists
- Declawing of cats for a cat lover
- The display of the image of Muhammad for a traditionally-minded Muslim
- The burning of a the flag of the United States for a patriotic citizen of that nation
- Gay marriage for an individual for whom “marriage” expressly implies a partnership between a man and a woman
- Female circumcision for individuals with no such tradition
(Note that the examples of worldview are by no means exhaustive: others may also be offended by the taboo in question, but the examples serve to emphasise the relevant point).
Anyone looking at this list is likely to find something in it which causes offence, and perhaps also angry cognitive dissonance – the blind rage we experience when confronting something that should not be, and yet is. But how do we untangle the web of moral complexity that surrounds issues about which opposing sides square off with little or no common ground?
In the global village of the internet world, the barriers between cultures have fallen to an extent previously unthinkable. Furthermore, the diversification of subcultures within the wealthier cultures (such as the United States and Europe) as a result of what philosopher Charles Taylor has dubbed the Nova Effect has increased the social pressure between people of different beliefs in some areas, while eliminating it in others. The result is a patchwork quilt of different beliefs, sharing common resources and spaces (both physical and virtual) within which disputes about ethics become essentially inevitable. Against this backdrop, I have proposed that relative ethics – the accepting of the variation in beliefs as valid, even though the plurality may deny consensus – is the only viable manner to approach the modern ethical dilemma, a view in common with Kwame Anthony Appiah's principles of cosmopolitanism.
The seven examples above were chosen because nearly everyone takes offence at something in this list. In many cases, individuals would like to impose their moral values on others (to reduce their cognitive dissonance by imagining they can eliminate the offending behaviour) and when forced to accept that they cannot they instead experience extreme agitation and demonise those who conduct such practices. One only has to think of the bombing of abortion clinics to see the worst excesses of this process. But in each of the seven cases, there is a conflict of rights concerned, as we can see if we examine the counter-positions in each case:
- The right of a woman to control her own body (for an individual with “pro-choice” metaphysics)
- The right of an individual to take any and all steps to pursue medical treatments that could save or prolong their life (even if that means testing on animals)
- The right of property in respects of animals and livestock (i.e. if you can kill an animal for meat, since it is legally property, you can surgically alter it provided the operation is deemed sufficiently humane)
- The right of free speech (versus display of the image of Muhammad)
- The right of free expression (versus burning of a flag)
- The right of equality (versus opposition to gay marriage)
- The right to assert tribal or cultural tradition (versus opposition to female circumcision)
(Note that I am not expressly endorsing any of these counter-positions, nor the original taboos – I am merely observing that each taboo in effect infringes on someone else's perceived right).
At this point, it is likely everyone has specific objections relating to their own preferred cause. The “pro-lifer” objects that the woman's right to control her own body doesn't extend to the “murder” of foetuses (say); the cat lover objects that onychectomy is inhumane; the opponent of female circumcision objects that tradition cannot be invoked to endorse “cruelty” and so on. In each case, these objections are essentially irrelevant because the cultures and subcultures that one is in conflict with on the relevant point do not share this value judgement. The “pro-choice” individual does not believe that termination of a foetus is murder; the person with declawed cats considers their quality of life to be only marginally reduced; the member of a tribe that practices female circumcision denies that a right of passage should be deemed cruel and so forth.
This, indeed, is the problem with attempting to enforce one's taboos upon other people: it is simply not reasonable to do so if we accept relative ethics, since we cannot force our values upon others. (And if we do not accept relative ethics, we must be prepared for other people to enforce their values upon us!) We can argue our position and attempt to sway other people's opinions, of course, although in practice when one is under the influence of cognitive dissonance on such matters what seems like a convincing argument to the objector often emerges as blathering nonsense to the target of the outrage, and is far more likely to entrench them in their opposing stance. Thus “pro-life” bumper stickers (“Smile! Your mom choose life!”) do not sway people towards this metaphysical stance – they simply anger people with “pro-choice” metaphysics and make them even less open to the arguments of their opponents on this issue.
You can object to other people's behaviours, and you can attempt to argue against them (although to do so while angry is to invite ridicule and thus to be ignored) but you can only decree acceptable behaviour within your own community, and even then only when your objection accords with the other members of your community. (It is worth mentioning at this point the question of where the boundaries of the notion of “taboo” should be placed, and the answer as usual is far from clear. But regardless, we only control and influence the laws of our own communities – outside this, we have no direct jurisdiction).
Often, cognitive dissonance occurs in respect of taboos because humans have a natural tendency to take a general situation and instantiate themselves into it. Thus, parents with the relevant metaphysics are especially vulnerable to cognitive dissonance in respect of abortion because the thought of their own children having been terminated as a foetus is wildly distressing (the declawing of cats trips the same kind of upsetting connections in the cat owner, and the animal rights activist equivalentlyidentifies with those creatures being effectively sacrificed to research). Similarly, for someone who was not raised in a culture with a tribal right of passage, the details of the procedures conducted horrify because one projects oneself into that situation – despite the fact the member of the tribe comes to the ritual with a wildly different cultural background, and thus has a radically different experience to the one we imagine.
Cognitive dissonance is also triggered in the case of both the display of the image of Muhammad and the burning of a flag, and in both cases it is the intensity of respect the individual has for the founder of their religion or for their nation that leads to the offensive event being interpreted as a personal insult. Once again, the individual instantiates themselves into the general.
Opposition to gay marriage appears to run in a similar vein: the institution of marriage is intrepreted as being a sacred union between a man and a woman, and thus attempts to redefine marriage as a union of souls irrespective of gender seems a violation of tradition. It is the individual's respect for a traditional interpretation of marriage which can become the root of offense, although generally this is felt to a far lesser degree than those other instances mentioned, and this taboo may yet cease to be a major cultural battlefield in Western sociery within our lifetimes.
These kinds of situation can become further complicated by the problems of the global village, which can make the world seem like a single community, rather than myriad diverse communities. Take the case of the reprinting of the Danish Muhammad cartoons in the French newspaper France Soir (which I have discussed previously as an issue of prejudice): yes, free speech may allow you to reprint what you wish, but this freedom exercised without sufficient cause becomes simple rudeness. Part of the result of this debacle was a reinforcement of the stereotypical view that the French are arrogant and insensitive; what, if anything, was gained by the actions of France Soir?
Many serious issues will remain unaddressed until greater respect for the rights and beliefs of others become an accepted part of the background of ethical disputes. The animal rights activist, believing that their “cause is just”, feels justified in violating the rights of other members of their communities in the pursuit of their own moral goals, up to and including systematic persecution of employees of companies they find offensive. Sometimes there may indeed be justification (the Huntingdon Life Sciences scandal, in which an animal testing company was shown by activists to be violating animal protection laws, for instance), but one's own sense of moral outrage is never sufficient in and of itself to justify any action, except in the mind of an extremist. Protesting an abortion clinic is fair game in most nations, but the bombing of such an establishment – especially by someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus – can never be adequately justified.
Perhaps the most civilised way forward on these kinds of issues is to attempt to move to a place whereby we can respect the rights of others, even when we do not agree with how those rights are exercised. This is no small thing to ask! Yet an insistence on characterising the opposing viewpoint as the enemy guarantees a lengthy and intractable conflict. Conversely, if we can learn to respect other people's right to have taboos, even when we disagree with them, we will be better positioned to understand the complex social and moral currents that provide the undertow to numerous political battlegrounds. This understanding may not ultimately result in one's own moral argument winning out, but by permitting dialogue between differing camps it greatly increases the chances of working towards some kind of tenable resolution to what would otherwise remain a Gordian knot.