Tribal societies lived in a world of the sacred and profane, ritual and taboo. Is there anything left of this structure in the modern world?
Today we're asking the question: Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?
Holding something sacred is often associated with religion and God. Some things are held to be sacred because of their relation to God’s wishes and commands. I think our question is in part about contemporary mores. It's also about what sort of convincing rationale there might be for something being sacred, in our more or less secular age.
For example, we might agree that human life is sacred. For some people this is explained by God’s wishes, but others might think there's just something about human life itself. A commandment of God might be one explanation, but not the only one.
And being sacred is connected with taboos. If something is sacred, there are certain things you simply don’t do to it or with it -- such things are taboo. Something taboo is not simply wrong on-balance, it's just out of the question. Not to be considered. Off-limits.
For example, everyone agrees, more or less, in the abstract about freedom of expression. But burning a Koran -- even the most civil libertarian of Muslims might think that's just beyond the pale. Or consider the artwork involving a crucifix in urine. Whatever idea is being expressed, we're inclined to say, find some other way of expressing it.
Given that, I’d say a lot of things are still sacred, some of which aren’t tied to any particular religion.
I think Necrophilia is taboo pretty much everywhere; there is something sacred about human life and death. Pedophilia is taboo; so there's also something sacred about children. We don’t think of these things as unwise life-choices, but as simply out of bounds. Other things ought to be sacred, and there should be taboos about them. The earth should be held sacred, and despoiling it a serious taboo.
But why? If we can’t give a religious explanation for sacredness and taboos, what explanation can we give? Pedophilia is very wrong because of the way it ruins lives.
But what justifies our horror at necrophilia? Presumably it doesn't directly cause any pain. The main ill-effect seem to be disgust, horror, and self-loathing at the act – but aren’t these effects because it is taboo, not explanations for it being taboo?
You know, we're really re-examining one of Plato’s famous problems, in the Euthephro. Are certain acts impious because the gods say they are, or do the gods say those acts are impious because they are so to begin with? If it's the latter, then we have some concept of the sacred and the impious independently of the gods, and we can make secular sense of impiety, and some things can be sacred anymore.
To help examine this old question we'll be joined by Cora Diamond, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Law at the University of Virginia.