All posts by Robert Kurzban

Taboos & Moral Waste

The New York Times recently ran a heartbreaking story with the headline, “Where a Taboo Is Leading to the Deaths of Young Girls.” The piece discusses an ancient but ongoing practice in Nepal, called chhaupadi, that makes it taboo for a woman who is menstruating to stay in their home. The women sleep instead in small huts or elsewhere apart from the family home, which brings attendant life-threatening dangers, including falling prey to snakes. The article recounts fatalities that resulted from this practice.

There is certain judgmental tone to the Times piece, which points out that the practice is hundreds of years old, based on superstition, and, of course, fatal to young women. Even the title of the piece conveys the notion that this is a “cultural” phenomenon, the sort of thing that happens elsewhere – Where a Taboo is Leading to Deaths – as if they don’t in America.

Don’t they?

First, it’s important to note that taboos are really just strong moral rules. And a moral rule is roughly just a way of saying that doing such and such is wrong and that if you such and such you are susceptible to punishment by the group. Now, how punishment occurs varies a lot from culture to culture. It can be shunning and shaming in one place, and the police/judicial system in another. But the idea is more or less the same everywhere.

Even more importantly, the link from moral rules to harm is the same everywhere. In the present case, the thread of the story is that this moral rule – this taboo – causes harm, in some cases death. In some sense, this might seem counterintuitive. After all, morality is supposed to prevent or reduce harm. Isn’t it unusual that in this case morality causes harm?

Not at all. The perhaps overused example of the Trolley Problem illustrates the point. It’s immoral to push the fellow off the footbridge, causing five (hypothetical) people to die instead of just one. This intuition, that one ought not to push, is remarkably cross-culturally consistent.

But this pattern is in no way limited to hypothetical vignettes. To take just one example – about which one of us has written extensively – consider the case of the morality surrounding abortion. Until the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade in 1973, states were free to prohibit abortions, a prohibition driven by morality, the idea that terminating a pregnancy was morally wrong.

Now, again, elsewhere we have argued that the moral commitments people claim animate their abortion views might not really be the source of their position on abortion, but there is no doubt that the case for banning and criminalizing abortion has and continues to have a strong moral component, frequently grounded in supernatural beliefs.

This runs parallel to the case in Nepal, but the parallel doesn’t end there. When women were prevented from legal abortions, many women turned to illegal means of doing so. These illegal abortions, having to be done in the shadows of the law, frequently lacked the tools and precautions needed for clean, safe abortions. And, of course, because the procedures were illegal, women could not rely on the courts as a remedy if anything were to go wrong.

And, of course, things did go wrong. Exact statistics regarding how many women were permanently injured or killed as a result of illegal abortions are not available, but estimates place these values in the hundreds or even thousands per year.

These women did not have to die. Of course medical technology has advanced, but there is no doubt that the vastly smaller number of deaths as a result of abortion procedures in modern times is due to the fact that these procedures are done in the light of day, with the protection of the rule of law.

The parallel with the Nepal case should be clear. In both cases, moral beliefs produce moral rules and these moral rules in turn cause young women to suffer and die needlessly.

Examples such as these, in which moral beliefs lead to harm, aren’t very difficult to find. An example I’ve written about previously is the very broadly held belief that it is wrong to pay for organs. [Note: I have archived my prior blog which used to live on the Evolutionary Psychology web site, and the piece on kidneys is here.)

I think that this phenomenon, the causal link between a group’s moral commitments and harm, is sufficiently common that it merits its own term. In the future, I’ll use the phrase “moral waste” to capture this idea. (Hat tip to my former student, Peter DeScioli, who I believe was the first to use the term this way.) Moral waste is the welfare – in lives, suffering, money, or other currencies – lost because of shared beliefs that something, such as selling a kidney, sharing a house during menstruation, etc. – is wrong.

In the future, I’ll argue that an important public policy goal should be to reduce moral waste.

And there’s plenty to clean up.