Discussing Disgust

On the folly of gross-out public policy. An interview with Martha Nussbaum

Communitarian and conservative scholars believe that shame and disgust have central roles to play in public life. But in her new book Hiding From Humanity (Princeton), University of Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha C. Nussbaum, who has written at length on moral psychology and emotion, argues that these sentiments tend to distort public discourse in highly illiberal ways. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez interviewed Nussbaum in April.

Reason: In which current public policy debates do you see disgust or shame playing an especially pernicious role?

Martha C. Nussbaum: Disgust has traditionally played a large role in debates about the legality of same-sex sexual relations. The most famous appeal to disgust was Lord Devlin's claim, in this connection, that conduct that causes no harm to nonconsenting parties could be regulated by law if the average citizen (the "man on the Clapham omnibus") feels disgust when he thinks of such acts. Today, disgust is not defended as a sufficient ground for sodomy laws, but it does play a prominent role in debates over gay rights. For example, campaign literature on behalf of Colorado's Amendment Two (the law that denied local communities the right to make non-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, overturned in Romer v. Evans) said that gay men eat feces and drink raw blood. There are quite a few cases in which people who kill a gay man have been able to win a reduction from murder to manslaughter on the ground that they were disgusted by the person's (non-violent and non-threatening) sexual overture. Recently, [University of Chicago bioethicist] Leon Kass has argued that because disgust is a reliable piece of evidence that we are about to do something wrong, our disgust at the thought of cloning is a good reason to make that practice illegal.

Disgust also sometimes plays an aggravating role in homicide: The unusually disgusting nature of the murder is taken as a reason to put it in a class of murders with so-called aggravating features, a classification relevant to the applicability of the death penalty in some states.

Shame has been a prominent topic in recent discussions of punishment. Theorists and practitioners have favored bringing back the blush on the face, so to speak, punishing people by some form of public humiliation instead of a fine or community service. Shame punishments have a long history: Consider the "scarlet letter" and the pillory. The recent revival of interest in such punishments is closely connected with a sense (on the part of communitarians) that we have lost our public sense of shame, the collective social boundaries that shame once policed.

On the other side, our society also has been thinking a lot about how to protect citizens from shame. One can see this in particular in recent public debates about citizens with disabilities, where much attention is given to how both employment and education can be non-stigmatizing. One of my questions is whether it is coherent to favor a restoration of shaming in criminal punishment, while seeking to protect all citizens from shame. I hold that there is no surface inconsistency in such a position, but that there is a deeper inconsistency, because an interest in shame in punishment is ultimately inconsistent with respect for the equal dignity of all citizens.

Reason: What, more generally, is your objection to the appeal to disgust in public reasoning?

Nussbaum: I believe that we should not say that no emotions belong in public reason. Emotions aren't just mindless urges; they contain thoughts about matters of importance. Anger, for example, contains a thought about harm or damage; the emotion can't be defined, or distinguished from other negative emotions, without referring to those thoughts. Some emotions are essential to law and to public principles of justice: anger at wrongdoing, fear for our safety, compassion for the pain of others, all these are good reasons to make laws that protect people in their rights. Of course individual instances of anger, fear, and compassion may be misplaced, but in the cases where they stand up to scrutiny, we should go ahead and make law in response to those emotions. John Stuart Mill observed that in this way all of a society's ideas about law and justice might be seen as built on anger and fear.

Disgust, I argue (drawing on recent psychological research), is different. Its cognitive content involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal. That desire, of course, is irrational in the sense that we know we will never succeed in fulfilling it; it is also irrational in another and even more pernicious sense. As psychological research shows, people tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society, who come to figure as surrogates for people's anxieties about their own animality. By branding members of these groups as disgusting, foul, smelly, slimy, the dominant group is able to distance itself even further from its own animality. Such irrational projections have been involved in antisemitism through the ages, and in misogyny in more or less every society. They are also involved in more localized forms of discrimination, such as the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, or American discrimination against homosexuals.

Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion. If my child has been murdered and I am angry at that, I can persuade you that you should share those reasons; if you do, you will come to share my outrage. But if someone happens to feel that gay men are disgusting, that person cannot offer any reasoning that will persuade someone to share that emotion; there is nothing that would make the dialogue a real piece of persuasion.

Reason: As a follow up, can you say something about how that cashes out into a critique of communitarian ideals?

Nussbaum: The prominent defenders of the appeal to disgust and shame in law have all been communitarians of one or another stripe ([Lord] Devlin, [Amitai] Etzioni, Kass), and this, I claim, is no accident. What their thought shares is the idea that society ought to have at its core a homogeneous group of people whose ways of living, of having sex, of looking and being, are defined as "normal." People who deviate from that norm may then be stigmatized, and penalized by law, even if their conduct causes no harm. That was the core of Lord Devlin's idea, and it is endorsed straightforwardly by Etzioni, and, in a rather different way, and in a narrower set of contexts, by Kass. My study of disgust and shame shows that these emotions threaten key values of a liberal society, especially equal respect for people and for their liberty. Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.

Reason: On the other side, you argue that liberal contractarian theories of the sort many libertarians find appealing (David Gauthier, James Buchanan, etc.) tend to give rise to a (paradoxically illiberal) shaming or stigmatization of "abnormal" or dependent citizens; can you sketch that argument briefly?

Nussbaum: Sure. I should also say that this argument is the theme of my Tanner Lectures in Human Values 2003, which will come out as a book eventually, so the very brief allusion to those ideas in the present book is actually a forecast of my next book. To put it very briefly: All theories based on the classical idea of the social contract hypothesize that people are "free, equal, and independent" (to use Locke's phrase) in the state of nature. Their rough equality in power and resources is an important part of such theories, since they hold that people will get together and bargain about the shape of a state only when it is mutually advantageous to do so. That condition would be defeated were the bargain to include people with unusually expensive needs, or people who can be expected to contribute less than most to the overall wellbeing of the group. People with severe mental disabilities are clearly in this class, as are many with physical disabilities. I then argue that the problem of care for and inclusion of people with disabilities (including elderly people who once were "normal") is one of the major problems of justice that any modern society must solve. It is a problem of justice for the person with a disability, since such people need protection for their self-respect and citizenship; it is also a problem for the people, almost always women, who provide the needed care for people in a condition of dependency or disability. This problem cannot be solved if we conceive of society as a bargain for mutual advantage. We need to develop a richer account of the purpose of social cooperation. In my new book I also apply this insight to justice between nations (for nations, obviously, are grossly unequal in power and resources).

Reason: You object even to what you call "moralized disgust", in part because of its putatively irrational connection with the idea of purity and contamination. Mightn't a liberal society want to inculcate in citizens a sense of disgust at certain attitudes—callousness or subtle racism, say—precisely because even generally good people may lapse into or be "contaminated" by these, such that a sense of disgust provides a sort of psychic bulwark?

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