Friday, May 09, 2008

Repugnance: Wise or Dumber Than a Bag of Hammers?

Nothing's more uncool than outrage at insensitive (or "insensitive") comments, so I'm going to try to get to a bigger point about Reagan's statement about digestive diseases. One of the more admirable liberal/progressive impulses is suspcion of disgust as a basis for moral sentiments. Martha Nussbaum recently wrote a book on the subject, although it clearly goes back at least to Mill and probably to the New Testament's solicitude for lepers, prostitutes and agents of the Roman imperial fisc. Here at least is a meta-ethcial idea that has had real impact: we shouldn't confuse moral reactions with aesthetic ones, and we should realize that those who disgust us are just as human as healthy kinfolk. The idea is meta-ethical because it cuts directly against the moral intuitions natural selection in fact endowed us with. In fact, the liberal/progressive tells us we should try to undo our instictive repugnance when it conflicts with a more rational understanding of morality.

Leon Kass is famous for articulating a conservative opposition to this progressive meta-ethical program. Repugnance, he tells us, is wiser than we are. And surely there is at least something to that. Just because we can't give reasons not to do something is not itself a reason to do it, or to make it socially acceptable.

But how do Kassians react to something like digestive disease? Nothing is as ingrained in human nature as that emissions of the digestive tract are simultaenously funny and disgusting. Every parent knows that. You have to train people to take a utilitarian or sceintific view of such things -- fortunately, such training is usually possible. Part of the symbolic role of heads of state is to tell people that they should, in fact, ignore repugnance.

How do Kassites distinguish these cases.

Update: Steven Pinker on Leon Kass and human dignity here. Pinker isn't entirely reliable about people he disagrees with. His key point -- that restrictions on consensual losses of dignity have to be justified by clear empirical proof of tangible harm -- is underargued, while he spends a lot of time making it sound like having Catholic buddies is a bad thing.

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