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Scab, Snitch, Slut

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On the use of aesthetic “moral” taboos to enforce compliance in large coordination problems

Part One: An Introduction to Coordinaton Problems

  • A scab is someone who works for an employer despite an ongoing strike by a union.
  • A snitch is someone who testifies against a criminal – sometimes for personal gain.
  • A slut is a female who has sex (or gives the appearance of being willing to do so) without demanding marriage, monogamy, or other social concessions in return.

These fun but ugly Germanic words have something in common: their aesthetic power enforces taboos that are perceived by users of the words to be ethical, but are, in reality, only solutions to large coordination problems. Enforcing these taboos is not morally justified – it only feels that way because a large group of people benefits from enforcement of the taboos. In fact, enforcing the taboos harms large groups of people at the expense of the benefiting group, and in these cases, there is no base-level ethical justification for that harm.

Intro to Coordination Problems: Shit

People are social animals. They live in large groups. In any particular instance, what is best for the group is not what is best for a particular individual. Paradoxically, if everyone in the group does what’s best for the group, then each individual in the group is better off than if each individual maximized her own utility separately.

It’s best for us all if we do what’s best for the group. But each one of us has an incentive to cheat in particular situations.

Take defecation. It’s annoying to have to only crap in certain places – an individual might be better off crapping wherever he felt like it, as opposed to only in designated latrines. But if everyone crapped wherever he felt like it, there would be shit everywhere, and everyone would be worse off. Society asks us to make a trade-off between our individual desire to shit freely on the one hand, and our mutual need for clean water (and sidewalks) on the other.

We spend a large amount of time alone, though, and so we may occasionally be tempted to violate this scatological provision of the “social contract.” That is where taboos come in: (1) they facilitate the emotion of shame on the part of would-be taboo violators, enough to offset a minor expected individual gain from a taboo violation; and (2) they turn the entire society into “taboo enforcers” by giving moral color to the situation, thereby enabling the enforcers to punish the taboo violator (i.e., inflict retribution out of proportion to the harm the violation actually causes).

The no-shitting-in-the-spring taboo is a pretty good one, I think; it may even deserve its moral color. However, the taboos represented by my titular words merely represent a certain group in society claiming that moral power for themselves, at great cost to other groups. It is my position that these taboos have no genuine ethical power, because (1) they do not protect universal human needs (like clean water and freedom from torture), and (2) the harm occasioned to the “out-group” is unjustifiably great.

Enforcement of these taboos isn’t altruistic, though it is often felt to be so by taboo enforcers. Following the taboo may be altruistic, in that it trades one’s own happiness for the happiness of the group. Enforcing the taboo is more complicated: while taking on the cost of enforcement oneself for the benefit of the group may be altruistic, at the heart of enforcing a taboo like this is placing the needs of one’s own group above those of another group – just like nepotism, racial discrimination, and genocide. Hardly altruistic, in the philosophical sense.

End of Part One.

Memento mori.

It is interesting to me that the people who tend to violate the “no shitting outside designated latrines” rule are homeless people – people (1) for whom the cost of following the taboo is great, and (2) who do not particularly benefit from enforcement of the taboo. It’s good for everybody to have clean sidewalks, but the cost is greater for some than for others.


Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2010 at 7:48 pm