Re: Ethics in a void (Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) ))

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2001 - 11:43:45 MST

On Thu, Jan 25, 2001 at 11:41:11AM -0500, Michael Lorrey wrote:
> These are very good sources. Look, its rather simple, there are things
> that if you ask people they want to be able to do in their lives, they
> will generally agree on if not put in political terms. They generally
> involve being left alone to run their lives as they wish. There are also
> taboos, like incest, murder, rape, theft, etc that are universal to all
> cultures. These taboos wouldn't be universal if there were not some
> objective basis for them.

I'd like to agree with you, but I can't. (Again.) Human cultures are
nasty, brutal, and put up with practices that I (and you) find
abhorrent. For example ...

Incest is _not_ a universal taboo. It was historically practiced for
many centuries by the Egyptian upper classes -- at the time, the most
successful civilization on the planet -- and is practiced today by a
number of cultures. It has been argued (seen it in Sci. Am., past
couple of years -- can't be any more specific than that, sorry) that
incest is *good* for a civilization: bad recessives tend to get
weeded out efficiently in the form of a slightly elevated level of
still-births, but the Victorian stereotype of the drooling subnormal
product of the incestuous family is largely a fantasy.

In fact, the incest taboo in western (read: European-descended) societies
is largely a by-product of the early-mediaeval Church, which cooperated
with feudal monarchs to prevent the great families from concentrating too
much power (by forcing them to inter-marry).

Again, rape: it has been practiced for many centuries (millennia, even)
in warfare against conquered populations. Arranged marriages frequently
amounted to rape. Indeed, under English law (until startlingly recently)
it was not legally possible for a husband to be charged with rape of his
wife. The criminal charge in your law and mine was originally treated
as a crime against property -- the male custodian of a woman could be
damaged financially if her virginity was called into question prior to

Murder ... yes, it's a universal taboo -- but only when killing is so
defined. Many societies have situations (such as a blood feud) under which
killing of another person is socially sanctioned, if not approved of. Your
own country abolished duelling some time ago, and would now consider it
to be murder -- but I'd like to point to it as an example of legal
premeditated homicide.

Theft ... okay, I'll grant you that one. Humans are territorial, and we
extend our sense of personal territory to our posessions. But the
taboo applies to being on the receiving end of theft -- there's no
shortage of would-be thieves!

As for "these taboos wouldn't be universal if there were not some
objective basis for them", I strongly suggest you read "Wonderful Life",
then start thinking about the applicability of Gould's argument about
contingency and randomness in evolution to the developments of societies.

-- Charlie

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:25 MDT