Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries

Sacred Boundaries of Thought

Boundaries are the forms that shape communities and civilizations. Without boundaries, communities cannot come into existence. These social boundaries are even mirrored in our cognition: common thoughts give us access to ordinary, related concepts, including common knowledge, but certain thoughts are relatively fenced off and rarely brought to mind.

Communities of all sizes are bound by their notions of the sacred. A violation of community sacredness – from casting aspersions on the rite of voting to mocking a family tradition – is experienced by community members as a kind of pain. This is one mechanism by which communities and their sacredness are maintained. People hurt each other, if “only” psychologically, when they violate each other’s sacredness.

A Christian who has a lot of social contact with non-Christians must build up a tough shell in order to withstand the (often accidental) violations to his sacredness that others are bound to make. It is much less painful for him to mainly interact with others who share his notions of the sacred. When a Christian and an atheist are good friends, however, each undertakes to feel the sacredness of the other, gaining the ability to be (vicariously) pained by its violation. They can speak easily on all topics without hurting each other, because each has learned to feel the other’s sacredness on his behalf. This is a precondition for intimacy.

Every community is defined in part by its set of mandatory, sacred beliefs (maintained by ritual and behavior). These are often invisible to members; they might not be able to even articulate the sacredness they protect. When people are asked about why they perform rituals,

Some described feeling an undefined ‘urge’ to participate, while others said: ‘We don’t think about our rituals, we just do them,’ or simply: ‘It’s always been done that way.’ (Xygalatas)

This is no fault, or cause for ridicule. We get our community notions of sacredness from behavior, toward which we often adopt the “ritual stance” and respectfully imitate behaviors, rather than inquiring into the behavior’s purpose. A group learns its core sacredness by practicing its behaviors, whether the painful ritual is a religious fast or getting up early to go to work.

What is this sacredness that we all share? Graham & Haidt define it as follows, distinguishing it from morality:

Sacredness refers to the human tendency to invest people, places, times, and ideas with importance far beyond the utility they possess. Tradeoffs or compromises involving what is sacralized are resisted or refused. In prototypical cases these investments tie individuals to larger groups with shared identities and ennobling projects, and so tradeoffs or compromises are felt to be acts of betrayal, even in non-prototypical cases in which no group is implicated. (Graham & Haidt)

Ideal and Non-Ideal Boundaries

Given that communities need some sacred beliefs to survive, the ideal content of mandatory sacred beliefs would be small, unchanging, and relatively unconnected to areas of life in which discussion and experimentation are important. The state belief system must be particularly small and unchanging, as it is imposed on all communities within its borders in their interactions with the state. On smaller scales, as within social groups, the core sacredness cannot be imposed from above, but must arise within the context of the community. But ultimately, each community, in order to survive, must have a core sacredness that it enforces, for which each member feels pain from its violation. The Confucian ideal is that enforcement by the government is minimal, because its rules are close to what citizens naturally do anyway – that is, the top levels respect and defer to the sacrednesses generated at lower levels. These smaller communities, from cities to families, are the foundation upon which the state stands, and interfering too much with them will result in chaos.

During the Restoration, for example, the English monarchs imposed the 39 Articles and the Second Book of Homilies (sacredness violation warning: contains Jim) as the core of the sacred official belief system. The content of the mandatory sacred beliefs did not change from year to year, decade to decade. These items touched on social and religious matters, but mostly left personal matters, as well as those of science, alone. (Both science and pagan rituals flourished during this time.) A king is endowed with absolute power not so that he may use it, but so that he may keep anyone else from exercising it. Similarly, a minimal state sacredness core might exist mostly to block competing sacrednesses from metastasizing and dominating all spheres of life.

For this must be the worst of all – a sacredness core that it is imposed on all (like that of a state), and that is large and invasive into all areas of life, whose prescriptive content is very different from natural human institutions, and that rapidly changes. Worst of all, a single “universal community” could forbid all its subsets – smaller, foundational, overlapping communities – from expressing their own sacredness and enforcing their sacredness to preserve themselves, while itself using all these methods and more itself in order to destroy them.

Those communities that are particularly concerned with epistemology and correct belief (science, philosophy) must adopt for themselves the most minimal sacredness core of all, and must be relatively walled off from sacredness requirements imposed from outside, in order to work.

Cruel and Severe Methods for the Enforcement of Sacredness

Severe methods, methods that may even appear cruel, are sometimes necessary to enforce the sacredness of the community. Members may be punished and even exiled for violations of the essential sacredness (including justice) beliefs of the community. Randal Munroe advocates the use of such methods in his famous comic about free speech: yelling, exiling from communities, threats to economic safety. In other contexts, however, these methods are seen as troublesome.

A religious community that shuns and boycotts a person for believing in evolution is often regarded as cruel and backwards. Religious communities are described as “cults” when they use these methods, or even more subtle emotional manipulation, to maintain their community. Imagine a cult that withholds intimacy and affection from members expressing independent thoughts or challenging doctrine. Imagine it demands of its members that they not talk to people who have unclean beliefs. Imagine that it deprives its members of their livelihood if they challenge its sacredness. As a member of such a community, you know, just by expressing your perhaps-heretical suspicion, that you risk losing intimacy with your friends and community, or worse; so you don’t express it. (Both Amish and Hassidic sects employ shunning for extreme sacredness violations, in order to maintain their communities; one wonders if cultures so different from the surrounding culture would be able to continue to exist without employing this tactic.)

Demonizing the out-group is a particularly important natural tactic for maintaining communities and their sacredness. Rather than merely scoff at the tactic, we must recognize why it is useful and analyze when it is appropriate to use, and when cruel and dangerous.

Many of these tactics are also commonly referred to as “signs of an abusive relationship.” Withholding affection, yelling, belittling, ignoring, economic abuse, tabooing topics, and exercising thought control are commonly cited as warning signs of abuse.

Freedom of Expression and Sacredness in Conflict

These tactics, then, are not universally allowable to maintain community sacredness. Under what conditions are they allowable? John Stuart Mill takes the view that the expression of thought and speech is so valuable that these methods should be reined in regarding them in many spheres. In Mill’s view, when a person expresses a “right” idea, we all benefit; and if he expresses a “wrong” idea, both he and we benefit, for his wrong idea may be corrected. If he feels afraid to express it because he risks his entire social belonging and security, he will not express it, and hence cannot be corrected. Plus, we are deprived of hearing his correct but unusual (and therefore possibly shun-worthy) ideas.

It is not governmental regulation that is the biggest threat to free expression, says Mill; the good opinion of one’s neighbors, and their economic cooperation, are far more important than most legal threats short of prison. We all have the power to keep many thoughts – right or wrong – from being expressed by our friends and neighbors. When is it good to exercise such power, and when is it cruel and dangerous? The answer as lived under our current regime has often been more dependent on the content of the beliefs expressed than on any notion of coherence. Economic methods of enforcing the right kind of sacredness are cheered by Munroe; but economic activity (e.g., the decision not to making a cake for a gay wedding, by a random baker so religious he refuses to make Halloween cakes) is classified as “not speech” and hence not worthy of protection.

Protecting a limited subset of free speech scrupulously, and only against government intrusion, ignores the much greater effect on expression of social and economic control. In fact, it can be used an an excuse (as by Munroe) for aggressive methods of controlling speech by non-governmental actors. The question of free speech is a complex inquiry into the structure of communities and the mechanisms they use to maintain their sacredness, as well as an inquiry into free speech’s own value. If it is coherent, then the value of free speech and the reasons it is to be protected will match up with the methods permissible to control speech.


What are good core sacrednesses? An analytic feature-based attempt is made above; the consequentialist answer is that core sacrednesses and their enforcement methods are good to the extent that they maintain order, flourishing, and intimacy (or other values) within their communities. In accordance with Goodhart’s Law, large, quickly changing sacredness cores are eager to redefine these very things by which they might be measured. Human flourishing resists attempts at rendering it legible; perhaps this is part of its nature. Human groups discover their values more in action and ritual than in arm’s-length analysis, and their group beliefs affect how they perceive the world, including their own suffering and pleasure. Core sacrednesses similarly resist analysis at the merely textual level, at arm’s length. Understanding flourishing is a hermeneutic process of observing people (etic) and listening to them (emic). This does not make it unknowable, but it implies that we should have a great deal of humility in approaching the problem. Munroe’s comic is a thought stopper that discourages us from thinking further about the problem, assuring us that we already know the answer to these questions we needn’t think too hard about anyway.


12 thoughts on “Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries

  1. Given that communities need some sacred beliefs to survive, the ideal content of mandatory sacred beliefs would be small, unchanging, and relatively unconnected to areas of life in which discussion and experimentation are important.

    In other words, things chosen as totems for sacred utility are best when they don’t overlap with or negate/preclude any other utility? Finding these might be compared to finding a substance that makes a good currency — hardy, persistent, non-reactive, and low in competing utility.

    Those communities that are particularly concerned with epistemology and correct belief (science, philosophy) must adopt for themselves the most minimal sacredness core of all, and must be relatively walled off from sacredness requirements imposed from outside, in order to work.

    So if science must minimize the sacred, and if sacredness is necessary for cohesive community, does that mean the best science is done in the absence of community?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think science can be done in the absence of a community. Rituals and behaviors motivate truth seeking and truth orientation; Bruce Charlton makes the case (search “atheist” in that link) that science has gotten worse at truth orientation since it ceased being practiced by religious people. A few supermen like Feynman can still have transactions with Absolute Truth despite atheism, but according to Charlton it is a rare quality, and all the rituals and behaviors of modern science point away from it, rather than supporting truth as a sacred value.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Can non-aggression itself be a totem of sacredness? as sortof an endrun around Mill’s concerns? (I am not sure what he qualifies as “right” or “wrong” ideas, but if the concern is that their expression would be discouraged, it seems like one possible strategy would be to make anti-coercion sacred.


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  4. wysinwyg says:

    Seems to me that if Munroe’s “argument” is a thought stopper than essentially any moral claim is likewise a thought stopper. I’d be interested in hearing any examples of moral claims that aren’t at any rate.

    Could it be that the entire purpose of morality is to stop thought? And, if that’s the case, are we better off without thought or without morality? (That’s humanity as a whole; obviously individual sociopaths can do quite well for themselves but a society composed entirely of sociopaths might not work out so well.)

    Although I think I interpret the comic somewhat differently than you do.

    Liked by 1 person

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