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Harmless Taboos 
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Post Harmless Taboos
Jonathan Haidt uses these two "harmless taboo" vignettes in The Righteous Mind as examples of problems that cause people to react in a way he calls "moral dumbfounding." How do you judge the people in these stories?

1." Julie and mark, who are brother and sister, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them."

2. "Jennifer works in a hospital pathology lab. She's a vegetarian for moral reasons--she thinks it's wrong to kill animals. but one night she has to incinerate a fresh human cadaver, and she thinks it's a waste to throw away perfectly edible flesh. So she cuts off a piece of flesh and takes it home. Then she cooks and eats it."



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Sat Jul 07, 2012 6:46 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DWill wrote:
Jonathan Haidt uses these two "harmless taboo" vignettes in The Righteous Mind as examples of problems that cause people to react in a way he calls "moral dumbfounding." How do you judge the people in these stories?

1." Julie and mark, who are brother and sister, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them."

2. "Jennifer works in a hospital pathology lab. She's a vegetarian for moral reasons--she thinks it's wrong to kill animals. but one night she has to incinerate a fresh human cadaver, and she thinks it's a waste to throw away perfectly edible flesh. So she cuts off a piece of flesh and takes it home. Then she cooks and eats it."


Here's my take on both of these. I actually think as a single act they are both harmless. The first one I would say is not immoral. For me, the second one tips a bit in the direction of being immoral because the lab worker has mutilated/consumed someone else's loved one (how will the family feel?). I think that we humans have a negative emotional reaction to both of these scenarios because they are culturally and/or biologically problematic and we have evolved to avoid (due to the strong negative emotions we feel) both practices. We can't live in groups if we are afraid our neighbor is going to eat us for supper (not to mention Mad Cow disease and how that might be an indication of what might be out there for humans if we practiced wide spread cannibalism) and we know the problems of interbreeding (European royalty).



Sat Jul 07, 2012 7:05 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Saffron wrote:
Here's my take on both of these. I actually think as a single act they are both harmless. The first one I would say is not immoral. For me, the second one tips a bit in the direction of being immoral because the lab worker has mutilated/consumed someone else's loved one (how will the family feel?). I think that we humans have a negative emotional reaction to both of these scenarios because they are culturally and/or biologically problematic and we have evolved to avoid (due to the strong negative emotions we feel) both practices. We can't live in groups if we are afraid our neighbor is going to eat us for supper (not to mention Mad Cow disease and how that might be an indication of what might be out there for humans if we practiced wide spread cannibalism) and we know the problems of interbreeding (European royalty).


That's why he specifically said she has to incinerate the body, no one will know so there's no additional harm, it's only supposed to trigger your disgust response.

I tend to take the Western view (as he says later, the "WEIRD" view) that because there's no harm, it's not immoral.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 7:32 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Saffron wrote:
DWill wrote:
Jonathan Haidt uses these two "harmless taboo violation" vignettes in The Righteous Mind as examples of problems that cause people to react in a way he calls "moral dumbfounding." How do you judge the people in these stories?

1." Julie and mark, who are brother and sister, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them."

2. "Jennifer works in a hospital pathology lab. She's a vegetarian for moral reasons--she thinks it's wrong to kill animals. but one night she has to incinerate a fresh human cadaver, and she thinks it's a waste to throw away perfectly edible flesh. So she cuts off a piece of flesh and takes it home. Then she cooks and eats it."


Here's my take on both of these. I actually think as a single act they are both harmless. The first one I would say is not immoral. For me, the second one tips a bit in the direction of being immoral because the lab worker has mutilated/consumed someone else's loved one (how will the family feel?). I think that we humans have a negative emotional reaction to both of these scenarios because they are culturally and/or biologically problematic and we have evolved to avoid (due to the strong negative emotions we feel) both practices. We can't live in groups if we are afraid our neighbor is going to eat us for supper (not to mention Mad Cow disease and how that might be an indication of what might be out there for humans if practiced wide spread cannibalism) and we know the problems of interbreeding (European royalty).


In Haidt's research, he and his assistant pressed their subjects on their responses when they said that the people in the stories were wrong, challenging them on their reasoning. When the subjects knew that the reasons they offered weren't valid (for example, there isn't a danger of pregnancy in #1), they'd fall back on something else, and so on. They were morally dumbfounded. Haidt points to this as showing the real origin of their reactions in the emotional brain. They didn't have to think in order to respond, but they're conditioned to think they need to offer conscious reasoning to support their judgments.

A tricky part of this testing I think would be to tell the subjects to report their first, unfiltered reactions as accurately as possible. It isn't the reasoning that Haidt is interested in, but the immediate perception, if you will, of each situation. For me, the immediate response is no, neither is right. Whether I would have tried to offer reasons to Haidt, as most people did, or would just admit that I experience a feeling of discomfort or disgust and go with that, I don't know. A further question would be whether I should try to rationalize my reaction. Should I try to overcome my emotions? Can I overcome my emotions? I might say, with what I feel is reason, that what Julie and Mark did is not wrong. What if I were to find that a son and daughter of my own did this or were thinking of doing it? Then I'd really be put to the test and my reasons would be essentially hypocrisy, since I would feel very strongly that it would be wrong for them to have sex.

I'm jumping to the subject of homosexuality. If I think of sex between two men, I'm uncomfortable, I have feelings of aversion. But now it becomes difficult when I'm asked whether it's right or wrong. I don't believe that my disgust should mean that I forbid other men from having sex with each other, and I don't want to call them wrong for doing so. Yet I do have a comfort level in remaining with my discomfort-and disgust-based reactions to the two scenarios we're talking about.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 7:39 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DW: I had an interesting thought pop into my head while reading your post. Is there a difference between wrong and immoral? Off the top of my head, I think so. I'm thinking that immoral means something stronger. I guess I am thinking we can do things that are wrong, but not immoral - like say something hurtful. Looking back over my response to your 2 scenarios (which I have come across before, now that I think of it) I was really thinking my way through my answer. My strongest emotional response it to situations that involve hurting or harm - for me hurting with the intent to hurt always equals wrong. As I am writing (note: I have not gotten past page one of the first chapter of the book) I am thinking that there are two ways to be thinking about moral and immoral - the act itself as moral and immoral and the person as a moral or immoral person. Where does morality lie? Am I getting lost? Maybe.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 7:59 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Dexter wrote:
Saffron wrote:
Here's my take on both of these. I actually think as a single act they are both harmless. The first one I would say is not immoral. For me, the second one tips a bit in the direction of being immoral because the lab worker has mutilated/consumed someone else's loved one (how will the family feel?). I think that we humans have a negative emotional reaction to both of these scenarios because they are culturally and/or biologically problematic and we have evolved to avoid (due to the strong negative emotions we feel) both practices. We can't live in groups if we are afraid our neighbor is going to eat us for supper (not to mention Mad Cow disease and how that might be an indication of what might be out there for humans if we practiced wide spread cannibalism) and we know the problems of interbreeding (European royalty).


That's why he specifically said she has to incinerate the body, no one will know so there's no additional harm, it's only supposed to trigger your disgust response.

I tend to take the Western view (as he says later, the "WEIRD" view) that because there's no harm, it's not immoral.

Just because no one else knows about an act does not make it not immoral. I would say in this case there is a breach of trust. The family entrusted their loved one to the lab, they clearly would not want the lab worker to eat a slab. No one is actually harmed, but the person's and or the families wishes are disregarded.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 8:06 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Saffron wrote:
Just because no one else knows about an act does not make it not immoral. I would say in this case there is a breach of trust. The family entrusted their loved one to the lab, they clearly would not want the lab worker to eat a slab. No one is actually harmed, but the person's and or the families wishes are disregarded.


Good point.

How about this one -- the family didn't want their relative to be an organ donor, but wants them cremated. You take an organ to save a life, the family never knows about it.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 8:11 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DWill wrote:
I'm jumping to the subject of homosexuality. If I think of sex between two men, I'm uncomfortable, I have feelings of aversion. But now it becomes difficult when I'm asked whether it's right or wrong. I don't believe that my disgust should mean that I forbid other men from having sex with each other, and I don't want to call them wrong for doing so. Yet I do have a comfort level in remaining with my discomfort-and disgust-based reactions to the two scenarios we're talking about.


This was an excellent example to help explore the relationship between disgust/emotion and rightness/wrongness and moral/immoral. I can think of lots of examples of things that cause people to feel disgust but are not in anyway wrong or immoral; ex. interracial couples, breastfeeding, watching a woman give birth, whole body tattoos, certain body part piercings, the list could go on and on. There is a cultural learning component to what we feel disgust toward. I went back over my response to the case of incest. I can see that my initial response to the scenario was definitely an emotional response and one based in personal experience. I have 3 brothers and can't even imagine wanting to engage in any sexual behavior with them. My reaction wasn't so much disgust, but a total lack of being able to fathom having any sexual interest. It just felt perplexing that someone would want to - although, it surely does happen. I wonder what is different for individuals who do willing engage in a sexual liaison with a sibling.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 9:02 am
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Saffron wrote:
DWill wrote:
I'm jumping to the subject of homosexuality. If I think of sex between two men, I'm uncomfortable, I have feelings of aversion. But now it becomes difficult when I'm asked whether it's right or wrong. I don't believe that my disgust should mean that I forbid other men from having sex with each other, and I don't want to call them wrong for doing so. Yet I do have a comfort level in remaining with my discomfort-and disgust-based reactions to the two scenarios we're talking about.


This was an excellent example to help explore the relationship between disgust/emotion and rightness/wrongness and moral/immoral. I can think of lots of examples of things that cause people to feel disgust but are not in anyway wrong or immoral; ex. interracial couples, breastfeeding, watching a woman give birth, whole body tattoos, certain body part piercings, the list could go on and on. There is a cultural learning component to what we feel disgust toward. I went back over my response to the case of incest. I can see that my initial response to the scenario was definitely an emotional response and one based in personal experience. I have 3 brothers and can't even imagine wanting to engage in any sexual behavior with them. My reaction wasn't so much disgust, but a total lack of being able to fathom having any sexual interest. It just felt perplexing that someone would want to - although, it surely does happen. I wonder what is different for individuals who do willing engage in a sexual liaison with a sibling.

Yes, when Haidt calls something an instinctual response (I hope that does actually use that phrase), he's not saying that the response is necessarily innate, just that it comes from our emotional centers, which have been strongly influenced by our culture and family. The delicate part of morality is that many aspects of culture do become moralized, regardless of the fact that we (Western, educated, liberal people) would say they have nothing to do with right or wrong. In socio-centric cultures, practices that individualistic people believe have no harm may be seen as harming the collective.

But I had the impression that you didn't find anything immoral about the brother/sister sex thing. Maybe this relates to the difference between "wrong" and "immoral"? There probably is a definite difference in connotation between the two words, as we use them. "Immoral" has the heavier sense of condemnation or of a problem with character. Yet Haidt appears to use them interchangeably, and perhaps for simplicity it's best to do that.



Last edited by DWill on Sat Jul 07, 2012 12:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 12:02 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DWill wrote:
In socio-centric cultures, practices that individualistic people believe have no harm may be seen as harming the collective.

I'd bet that if we really thought hard we find even our individualistically focused culture here in the USA has a few things that we would put into the category of being wrong/immoral because it harms the collective.

DWill wrote:
But I had the impression that you didn't find anything immoral about the brother/sister sex thing. Maybe this relates to the difference between "wrong" and "immoral"? There probably is a definite difference in connotation between the two words, as we use them. "Immoral" has the heavier sense of condemnation or of a problem with character. Yet Haidt appears to use them interchangeably, and perhaps for simplicity it's best to do that.

It is fun to poke at what one thinks or spits out without thinking much, to get to underlying beliefs and feelings. The more I explore this question of sex between sibs the more I realize that I would have to say I must believe that there is something inherently wrong with it despite the fact that no one appears to get hurt. Here is what is going on in my head: If pressed about it, I'd have to say that two grown siblings (over the age of about 16 or so) that agree to have sex together must have some emotional thing wrong with them for them to even think to do it. I don't think that it is a condemnable or damnable act, but I think it would indicate something is off in the two people. Every incident that I can think of from literature where a pair of siblings have sex there is something emotional traumatic that has happened. It seems hard for me to accept that two well adjusted individuals would have sex with a sibling. I could be very misguided. Just an added note about why I qualified the ages. I do think that children and younger adolescents that are not fully sexually mature play around with sex, bodies and what it all means. It is easier for me to imagine that in the normal explorations that happen before our hormones and brains make the jump to adult like thinking that a pair might engage in sexual behavior.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 12:26 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
You sound more together with your moral reasoning than the respondent Haidt quotes in the book, who stammers a lot as he is backed into a corner. I think that Haidt would still want to tell you that you didn't go through any of that reasoning if you had an immediate, intuitive reaction of "not right" when you heard the scenario. And I agree with him that some things just present themselves in our minds as a totality, not as a bunch of logically reasoned arguments. We've been told for years that incest (even the word indicates its forbidden quality) is taboo, and there might even be some innate component to the prohibition. So our beliefs about incest have become part of the elephant that has the actual control of our lives. Those beliefs are there independent of what we present, when we're acting socially, as our reasons for thinking incest is always wrong.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 2:40 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DWill wrote:
You sound more together with your moral reasoning than the respondent Haidt quotes in the book, who stammers a lot as he is backed into a corner. I think that Haidt would still want to tell you that you didn't go through any of that reasoning if you had an immediate, intuitive reaction of "not right" when you heard the scenario. And I agree with him that some things just present themselves in our minds as a totality, not as a bunch of logically reasoned arguments.

I am pretty sure I agree with this, but would add that I do think there are reasons behind the feelings we have. I was working backward from the thoughts to the feelings that lead me to have the thought and I would say there is even another layer the programed in responses (those things that make people regardless of culture feel good (smile) and feel disgust (grimace). I wonder if the the response to incest is more or less "programed" in.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 2:48 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
To DW: This has nothing to do with anything, but have been wanting to point this out for a while. Do you realize that the only person on BT that has more posts than you is Chris O? The only member member that has more posts than you is the banned member Stahrwe. I am #8 on the list with 2685 posts. By member #17 the number of posts falls away pretty dramatically, to 836.



Sat Jul 07, 2012 2:52 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
Saffron wrote:
DWill wrote:
You sound more together with your moral reasoning than the respondent Haidt quotes in the book, who stammers a lot as he is backed into a corner. I think that Haidt would still want to tell you that you didn't go through any of that reasoning if you had an immediate, intuitive reaction of "not right" when you heard the scenario. And I agree with him that some things just present themselves in our minds as a totality, not as a bunch of logically reasoned arguments.

I am pretty sure I agree with this, but would add that I do think there are reasons behind the feelings we have. I was working backward from the thoughts to the feelings that lead me to have the thought and I would say there is even another layer the programed in responses (those things that make people regardless of culture feel good (smile) and feel disgust (grimace). I wonder if the the response to incest is more or less "programed" in.

I don't want to get all dogmatic on this; I'm just trying to give Haidt's view instead of my own. When you've read more of the book, tell me if you think I'm right that he would insist that there are not reasons behind the moral feelings that we have, not if "reasons" mean the mental process of "moral reasoning." Our reasons are sort of "in front of" our moral feelings, where we put a social face on our feelings.

On my post total: god I'm a bigmouth. This also indicates that my thanks-to-posts ratio is relatively low! Currently, it's so hot outside that I have nothing better to do but gab on this forum. But I'm also really interested in Haidt's book. If the temperature goes down to 90 or so before dark, I might go out for a bike ride. the water in the Shenandoah river is so warm that it's barely refreshing at all. I heard that the water in DC public pools was 94 degrees.



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Sat Jul 07, 2012 3:54 pm
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Post Re: Harmless Taboos
DWill wrote:
When you've read more of the book, tell me if you think I'm right that he would insist that there are not reasons behind the moral feelings that we have, not if "reasons" mean the mental process of "moral reasoning." Our reasons are sort of "in front of" our moral feelings, where we put a social face on our feelings.

I sure will!
DWill wrote:
On my post total: god I'm a bigmouth. This also indicates that my thanks-to-posts ratio is relatively low! Currently, it's so hot outside that I have nothing better to do but gab on this forum. But I'm also really interested in Haidt's book. If the temperature goes down to 90 or so before dark, I might go out for a bike ride. the water in the Shenandoah river is so warm that it's barely refreshing at all. I heard that the water in DC public pools was 94 degrees.

Well, I wouldn't say bigmouth...not to mention IMHO you are in good company: Interbane, Penelope & me. As for thanks we all have about the same ration. As for the temp - I think Washington DC hit 104 this afternoon! I will be chasing down some ice cream once I get off the computer.



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