Monday, August 29, 2005

Is and Ought

The last paragraph of the previous post touched on the issue of is and ought, the famous fact/value distinction. It also turned issues such as kinship reckoning that we are accustomed to see as culturally relative into issues where modern science can change our culture.

But neither of these "illicit moves" are really all that illicit. We learn that cigarettes are bad for you, and pretty much all of us draw the conclusion we ought not smoke them. We learn that red wine in moderation is good for you, and I for one have drawn the conclusion I ought to drink red wine moderately. Since food and drink are part of culture, scientific facts play a role in influencing culture. The middle term is the idea that health is good; deny that and the fact/value distinction again walls off the is of smoking's harms from the ought of quitting.

The same can occur in kinship. Before the advent of modern genetics, in societies that allowed divorce, it was common for a man to divorce a wife if she did not bear him a son. But what really put paid to this was the knowledge of the fact that the man determines the sex of the child; divorcing one's wife to secure a son is simply absurd. One might similarly argue that the essential identity in degree of genetic inheritance between a son and a daughter would eventually chip away at the idea that a daughter cannot possibly inherit (i.e. grandsons by a daughter and adopted son-in-law are just as genetically similar as those of a son and a daughter-in-law, so there is no genetic reason to prefer one's farm or business being inherited by the second as opposed to the first.) And as I argued, early genetic theories tended to postulate unbroken continuity between one generation and another in certain elements, such as the bone. A change in the beliefs about conception and heredity will result in a change in the morals of the family.

The middle term here is the idea that turns is into ought, is this:

One ought to reproduce something like one's self, seen a particular assemblage of 1) genes, 2) memes, e.g. cultural ideas, practices, and allegiances, 3) memberships, e.g. citizenship, religion, party affiliation, and 4) attached goods, i.e. things with cultural/emotional value.

Exactly how like? That is the question since identity is impossible; sexual reproduction means you get at most half of your genes in your child. And the process of marriage means that increasing identity in memes, memberships, and attached goods between one parent forces the other parent to lose some identity.

David M. Schneider in his American Kinship: A Cultural Account made exactly this point that since American culture sees kinship as natural and defined as biogenetic, then "If science discovers new facts about biogenetic relationship[s], then that is what kinship is and was all along, although it may not have been known at the time" (p. 23). As he points out, scientific facts may be controversial or denied, but in theory, scientific facts have cultural consequences. Or to put it differently, science and culture are not separate spheres, and Americans grant the science of genetics and sexual reproduction the power to shape their culture. Scientific is's are from the beginning expected to turn into ought's.

Schnieder plays this in a cultural direction; this is the way it is in American culture. His work with the Yap, who culturally assign essentially no role to the male seed in procreation, even in the 1970s when public school education spread the facts of genetics to all pupils, has certainly made him aware that not all cultures grant science this license to alter culture. But I wonder in the long run if any culture can sustain inheritance practices that go head-on against facts taught as scientific. Genetic theories will transform our ideas of family. Given the "fit" between American culture and much of current genetics this may not be disturbing to us, but it is worth noting.