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Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

“Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet … will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.”

Havelock Ellis on the Function of Taboos, Their Vital Role in Community, and How They Bolster the Discipline of Compassion

The English physician, writer, and social reformer Havelock Ellis (February 2, 1859–July 8, 1939) possessed a mind remarkably ahead of its time. A pioneering scholar of creativity and a lifelong influence for Oliver Sacks, he was a maverick psychologist before psychology as such existed. Ellis introduced the notion of narcissism, which was later expanded upon by Freud, and spent a considerable portion of his career studying human sexuality. In 1897, he wrote the first medically objective textbook on homosexuality, treating same-sex love as worthy of sympathetic scientific inquiry rather than as immoral and illegal, as the era’s cultural and legal institutions considered it.

In the 1930s, Ellis wrote a series of trailblazing essays exploring the social implications of sex and the deeper philosophical dimensions surrounding the physical aspect of human intimacy. They were eventually collected, two years before Ellis’s death, in On Life and Sex: Essays of Love and Virtue (public library).

One of the most incisive pieces in the volume, titled “The Function of Taboos,” argues that in an era of cultural upheaval, when the old externally enforced social mores are being demolished, we are called on to develop new, intrinsic, resolutely upheld rules of social conduct — a proposition at least as timely if not timelier today, as we find ourselves amidst a maelstrom of changing norms and expanding possibilities redefining love, sex, community, and civic life.

Havelock Ellis
Havelock Ellis

Ellis begins with a working definition:

A taboo, speaking roughly, simply indicates something that is “not done.” The reason why it is not done may be, and often is, unknown to those who observe the taboo. So that all sorts of reasons — often very unreasonable reasons — are invented to explain the taboo. But below the surface there always are reasons for taboos.

Some of those reasons, Ellis argues, stem from a kind of adaptive evolutionary instinct:

Among wild birds in a special phase of bird-existence it is taboo to remain close to humans. That taboo is strictly analogous to human taboos; it is an adopted custom. It is not found everywhere among birds. When men first visit virgin islands of the southern seas there are birds who do not regard human beings as taboo. The taboo is introduced later when human beings have become destructive to the bird society. It is, of course, completely unnecessary to be aware of the reason for the taboo, and if birds ever acquired speculative minds they would invent reasons. That is, as we know, exactly what human societies do. The distinction of human taboos lies largely in their high imaginativeness, alike as regards their nature and the supposed reasons assigned for them, and in the comparative swiftness with which they may change.


Taboos are constantly liable to shift backwards and forwards over the threshold between prohibition and permission.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from Advice to Little Girls, young Mark Twain’s irreverent children’s book encouraging girls to question social mores

But taboos, Ellis cautions, are essential to human life for reasons that transcend evolutionary instinct and come to inhabit the space between manners and morality, thus preserving our mutual dignity:

Unthinking people sometimes talk as though taboos were effete relics of the past which it is in our power to cast away altogether. A little reflection might serve to show not only that they are far too numerous and too deeply rooted to be torn up at will, but that we should be in a sad case without them; indeed, that human society could not survive without their loss.


Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet will be restrained in their actions towards us by an almost instinctive network of taboos. We know that they will allow us the same or nearly the same degree of freedom and privilege that they claim for themselves.

This humanizing power of such internalized taboos, Ellis argues, is evidenced in everything from our intuitive understanding of property rights, which stops us from barging into a stranger’s house and sprawling on their sofa, to the basic customs of etiquette, which keep us from cutting the TSA line however vexed by the process we may feel. Those devoid of such internal taboos, he points out, are civically undesirable members of a community:

The individual in whom the taboos necessary for such organization are not either automatic or self-imposed is an anti-social individual, and his elimination would be for our benefit.

But the most vital and vitalizing aspect of taboos is their evolving nature — they are in constant dynamic interaction with the changing norms and needs of society, a sort of self-renewal mechanism for the culture they serve. Ellis writes:

The recognition of the permanence of the taboo-observing impulse, and the constant tendency to develop new taboos, may enable us to face with calmness the counterbalancing fact of the falling away of taboos which have served their purpose and are no longer needed under changed social conditions. That is a process always going on.

Some taboos, he notes, are deliberately broken by the evolving standards of newer generations; others fall away imperceptibly, almost automatically, as they gradually cease serving our needs. But in order to be fruitful as humanizing rather than dehumanizing forces, their defining feature must be that they are intrinsically motivated by our moral sense rather than extrinsically enforced by law or authority:

Old taboos can only be replaced by new taboos [and] mere legal enactments enforced, or left unenforced, by paid officials or the police, to be effective must themselves become taboos, printed on the fleshy tablets of the individual citizen’s heart. If they are thus to become of the nature of taboos they must be few in number, indisputable in value, and so urgent that they are felt to be on the way to become instinctive. No society can live wholesomely by any other sort of regulation, and State legislatures stultify themselves when they fail to realize that their part is merely to formalize, and record, and support, the growth and decay of taboos.

Alan Turing and his first love, Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

Writing in an era when homosexuality was so stigmatized and criminalized in England that its callous legal persecution drove computing pioneer Alan Turing to suicide, Ellis adds:

Sex taboos are at the centre of this process, not only because it so happens that sex is a sphere in which change [takes] place with unusual rapidity, but because sex is at once an extremely important region — so that it becomes a training ground for the social activities generally — and yet a region in which most of the essentials do not lend themselves to direct external control, and so its taboos must be both made and maintained, at all events in the first place, privately.

It is the private internalization of taboos, he argues, that makes them essential to the moral scaffolding of society — they become a form of intrinsic discipline by which we uphold our values of right and wrong, rather than relying on external regulations to guide us. In a sentiment that calls to mind Adam Smith’s notion of the “impartial spectator,” Ellis writes:

Life … is always a discipline… It is so dangerous that only by submitting to some sort of discipline can we become equipped to live in any true sense at all. The disappearance of the discipline of the old external taboos thus imposes upon us, inescapably, the creation of a new self-discipline of internal and personal taboos. If we are not responsible to an outside order which we no longer regard as valid, then we are responsible before the inner tribunal of the self, which cannot but be valid for us so long as we are alive.

Echoing Simone Weil’s abiding wisdom on the difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Ellis considers how this discipline shapes the task of each generation and becomes the seedbed of compassion within a community — a sentiment triply timely today, amid our accelerated rate of change that is continually shedding old external taboos and thus calling for the cultivation of new internal moral codes:

That really is the task for all who are young today. And so far from it being an easy and pleasant task, as some may at first have thought when they saw the old taboos melting away, it involves difficulties which their grandparents never knew. If it means the making of new and personal taboos, it involves a slow self-development and self-responsibility, which is not only in itself a continual discipline, but runs the risk of conflict with others engaged in the same task and with the same sincerity. For what we may still term morals, since it has now become an individual outcome, will not be entirely the same for all individuals. All our moralities, indeed, cannot fail to be modifications of a common pattern because we all belong to the same community; but the differences involve a greater degree of mutual understanding and forbearance than when uniform taboos were imposed from outside.

On Life and Sex has stood the test of time admirably and remains a fascinating read both as an anthropological artifact of a bygone era and as a surprisingly prescient perspective on many of the issues we tussle with today. Complement it with André Gide on how to master the vital balance between freedom and restraint and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

Published February 26, 2016




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