The Mentality of Taboo

Stephen Pinker, writing about the Larry Summers controversy for TNR [registration required; use bugmenot], engages in some fascinating (and discouraging) psychologizing about the source of moral outrage:

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo--the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them--is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense. In 2000, he reported asking university students their opinions of unpopular but defensible proposals, such as allowing people to buy and sell organs or auctioning adoption licenses to the highest-bidding parents. He found that most of his respondents did not even try to refute the proposals but expressed shock and outrage at having been asked to entertain them. They refused to consider positive arguments for the proposals and sought to cleanse themselves by volunteering for campaigns to oppose them. Sound familiar?

The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. We have to show that our heart is in the right place and that we don't weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. The appropriate response is to refuse even to consider the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don't understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen. (The logic of taboo underlies the horrific fascination of plots whose protagonists are agonized by unthinkable thoughts, such as Indecent Proposal and Sophie's Choice.) Sacred and tabooed beliefs also work as membership badges in coalitions. To believe something with a perfect faith, to be incapable of apostasy, is a sign of fidelity to the group and loyalty to the cause. Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong.

For an extended essay on this same topic, see "What You Can't Say," by Paul Graham.

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Insightful. I have spent a

Insightful. I have spent a lot of time with Libertarian activists who focus on whether or not their policies are rationally, logically best, and then seem puzzled when those policies are not embraced by voters.
Who is doing the work to reframe libertarian policy proposals in ways that are consistent with, instead of opposed to, these psychological reactions to policy proposals? Alternatively, how can these emotional preferences for bad ideas be reprogrammed?
I was reading about a study of consumer preferences between coke and pepsi. Measured brain activity was different when test subject were told
"this is coke" instead of just handed brown carbonated fluid.
I don't know whether measuring brain activity as somebody reads a set of libertarian policy proposals to test subjects, is useful, but at least more could be done with focus groups to measure emotional responses.
Before a voter/consumer decides to buy a product/cast a vote, they generally hear the product mentioned in a positive context three times.
Libertarian candidates were gradually learning how to get the word out three times, but had no clue about positive context. (I say were because in 2004 there was a sharp drop off in number of Libertarian candidates.)

The thing is, Pinker seems

The thing is, Pinker seems to be tolerant of (or at least more tolerant of than average) markets in organs and adoption rights. So although he is putting the vote-selling taboo on the same level as these other taboos, he is doing so in such a way that implies some personal skepticism that these taboos protect against actual harm, rather than being expressive signals of value and group membership.

Micha, I think you're just

Micha, I think you're just being charitable to Pinker here. My guess is that he has just internalised civics 101 and it doesn't occur to him that the taboo on selling one's vote - even to "most people"* - differs by category, not just degree, from the taboo on selling one's child or spouse. Otherwise why mention one's vote at all? the point is just as strong (actually significantly stronger) if you just omit the "citizen" reference.

* surely you don't suggest that this reverence for the vote is shared by more than just people of similar education and politically "liberal" [sic] background as Pinker? One would think that if the vote was genuinely prized by "most people" the turnout would be significantly higher.

I don't think Pinker

I don't think Pinker necessarily disagrees with you. He is just reporting what most people think.

If someone offers to buy

If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. [...] Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don’t understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen.

"..or citizen" ???

Nice bit of statist conflation here. You'd have to be crazy to turn down a genuine offer of payment for your vote* which is worth approximately $0.00, never mind turn it down without any consideration at all. I'd like to inform Mr Pinker that I don't consider my duties as a "citizen" in any way equivalent to my duties as a spouse and parent.

* assuming of course that you were safe from criminal prosecution.

[...] 05 Feb 2005

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