Taboos: Cultural Conventions?

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.
Dr Shmuel (Sam) Vaknin

Been thinking about this a lot of late. Perhaps a product of my aging perspectives – that every generation bemoans the disintegration of the culture by the next. Dr. V seems to lay out the arguments well. Any discussion?

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