How Sacred Cows Ruin Our Lives

We all have beliefs. Some of us believe free markets are the best thing for an economy, while others of us believe regulated markets are better for an economy; some of us believe religion is better for society, while others of us believe atheism bears better societies. We all have beliefs. And, at times, our beliefs are in common with others, but at other times we have seldom in common with others.

We commonly debate our beliefs with those around us; we hold onto our beliefs and passionately defend them by means of evidence and reason. Amid a discourse, we provide premises and justifications as to why our beliefs be the most correct or reasonable. Free market economists suppose the rationality of the market leads to market efficiency, and will show evidence of unregulated markets performing well; comparatively, regulatory economists suppose free markets allow for crony capitalism and unacceptable levels of wealth ineqaulity, and will also show examples. We commonly debate our beliefs with others; and as a result, we either come to change our own beliefs or the beliefs of another person.

But at other times, our beliefs develop a kind of immunity to change. They become untouchable, unchangeable, incapable of being criticized: they become sacred cows.

Many things come from cows, such as food and income. We milk cows, we use their hide, we sell them for money, and we eat them for meat. They are an important animal for human survival. And many religions have come to revere them precisely because of that. Cows come to represent the bounties given to us by a higher being. In short, the cows become sacred.

That is where the expression “sacred cow” originates from. When someone or something is dubbed a “sacred cow,” it suggests they are above critique or infallibility; they cannot be criticized or corrected because they are revered.

Traditionally, the notion of a sacred cow has been reserved for some belief within a worldview. For example, when conservatives who support free market economics believe the free market to be an intrinsic good, they often avoid anyone placing blame on free markets: i.e., “wealth inequality cannot be caused by free trade,” or, “pollution cannot be caused by free markets, because free markets are inherently rational”. Herein, the free market is a sacred cow, because it is effectively immune from criticism.

But the underlying idea of a sacred cow is applicable to more areas of life than just argumentation and belief. The idea that something is immune from criticism can be applied, more specifically, to our interpersonal lives as well.

Consider, when we form in-groups and out-groups, we are more than likely to treat criticism towards our in-groups, especially from out-group members, with hostility. It as though the in-group itself has become a sacred cow, which none can critique. That is a common occurrence in our daily lives. Mothers and fathers feel as though none can justifiably critique their children, relationship partners feel as though none can justifiably critique their romance, and writers feel as though none can justifiably criticize their books, essays, or papers. Evidently, we have sacred cows in our interpersonal lives.

And not only can the underlying idea of a sacred cow be applied to our interpersonal lives, but it can likewise be applied tour intrapersonal lives.

We have all had some part of who we are shielded from the world at some point or another. Those of us with troubled pasts would avoid criticisms of our bad behaviour, using the excuse of, “you don’t know anything about me”; those of us with difficult emotions might say, “you don’t know what I’m feeling right now,” as a means to avoid critique; and those of us who carry a sense of abandonment might say, “the world is just an uncaring place,” to avoid any critiques about their isolating behaviour.

So, sacred cows are in both our inter and intra personal lives. We all have had moments where either someone around us, or something about us, have been immune from critique. We have all had sacred cows that we vehemently defended from criticism.

How Sacred Cows Ruin Our Lives

Since many of us have all had sacred cows at sometime or another, it is of great importance that we have some understanding about just precisely how sacred cows can impede upon our well-being.

I have in mind two methods, one for interpersonal and one for intrapersonal, by which  sacred cows can ruin our lives. One has todo with the standards we demand of those who interact with us, directly; the other has todo with the standards we hold to others, more generally.

In a relationship, both partners have a reasonable expectation to be able to visit their friends, family, and colleagues without their significant other. And when they do indeed visit others, they also have the reasonable expectation that their partner will trust them to obey the rules of the relationship while their significant other is absent.

But if one of the partners inside the relationship has pathological jealousy, then those reasonable expectations become problematic. A pathologically jealous person would be entirely uncomfortable with their partner being around members of the opposite sex, or even being out at social event with only same sex participants.

And what makes the situation even more difficult is when the partner who suffers from pathological jealously proceeds to treat their jealously like a sacred cow. When they take the most dysfunctional part of their personality and shield it from criticism. Such an intrapersonal sacred cow has the potential, above all else, to destroy the relationship.

Juxtaposed to intrapersonal sacred cows, we also have to consider the specifics of a sacred cow in interpersonal lives; that is, how interpersonal sacred cows ruin lives.

It should come to no surprise that when we demand of our friends some ethical standard of behaviour, that they then demand of us that same standard. For example, when we demand that our friends be honest and speak no lies, they can reasonably demand of us the same standards.

However, we can at times feel justified in our lying, which then leads us to unfairly apply the ethical standard of non-lying to our friends. That can cause a tear in the relationships between us and our friends; only because our friends will have solid ground to hold us accountable for the violation of the rule.

So, we have a problem. On the one hand, we feel justified in our lying, and, on the other hand, our friends feel justified in holding us accountable for the violation. But what amplifies the problem is when we insist that our behaviour is justified and therefore immune from critique.

If we suppose our immunity rather than saying, “well, maybe I should have clarified acceptable violations to the rule before hand,” or something similar, then the relationship will fall apart; because one party will feel unfairly treated and morally justified in the termination of the relationship.

So, when our behaviour amongst our friends becomes immune from critique, or when features of our personality become immune from critique, bad things happen. When we become sacred cows, our lives begin to smell like smoke.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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