Discussing Disgust

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

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Nussbaum: You raise a good question, and one that one of the legal thinkers whom I criticize in the book, Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, raises effectively. I think that even the moralized form of disgust is problematic, for two reasons. First of all, it is frequently a screen for the more primitive kind of disgust. When people express disgust about a group whom they take to be a source of social decay, citing moral grounds, there is often something much uglier going on. Consider one communitarian theorist's statement that first-time drug offenders in the inner city should be sent home with their belts removed and their pants down around their ankles. That parades as a moral response to the evil of drug use, but I bet it has something to do with anxiety about the sexuality of African-American men. Second, even when the moralized disgust is not a screen for something else, it is ultimately an unproductive social attitude, since its direction is anti-social. Anger is constructive: Its content is, "This harm should not have occurred, and the imbalance should be righted." Most philosophical definitions of anger include the thought that the wrong should be punished or somehow made good. Disgust, by contrast, expresses a wish to separate oneself from a source of pollution; its social reflex is to run away. When I am disgusted by certain American politicians, I fantasize moving away to Finland—a country in which I have worked a little, and which I see as a pure blue and green place of unpolluted lakes, peaceful forests, and pristine social-democratic values. And I don't know it enough to know its faults. To fantasize about moving to Finland is not a constructive response to present American problems.

Reason: You write that disgust is problematic because it "embodies a shrinking from contamination that is associated with the human desire to be nonanimal" and that this is "irrational" because it "embod[ies] an aspiration to be a kind of being that one is not." Yet many (presumptively) reasonable comprehensive conceptions of the good make some form of aspiration to "nonanimality" central. Is a categorical rejection of disgust on these grounds then available to a political liberal? Can a fully political principle, in other words, suppose an answer to a contested metaphysical question?

Nussbaum: I think that this is a wonderful question, and I really should have faced it more directly in the book. But I think we can say that the major religious and other comprehensive conceptions at least think that while one is on earth and in a human life, one ought to embrace that life and do well by it. Christianity is at pains to emphasize the full humanity of Christ, precisely to ward off a kind of perverse asceticism that would look straight to the other world, without doing justice to this one. That central doctrine has not prevented many Christians from being anti-body, but I believe that it is alien to the original spirit of Christianity. Judaism, my own religion, has never been anti-body, nor, really, to my knowledge, has Islam. Hinduism has traditionally held a very positive attitude about sexuality and the body, although one cannot deny that some texts, for example the Laws of Manu, do take a misogynistic line. Buddhism does appear to teach a detachment from the things of this world, but at the same time it emphasizes extremely strongly an active compassion for this-worldly suffering. In short, I think that in every doctrine where tendencies to excessive asceticism occur, one can also point to features of that doctrine, usually more central, that would enable it to accept my views as part of the political "overlapping consensus."

Reason: One can imagine a quasi-Hayekian argument that runs something like this: "Even if we cannot see any obvious way in which an object of pervasive disgust is correlated with a real danger, the sentiment is likely to be serving some kind of socially evolved function, whether we can specify it or not. This is a reason to give at least prima facie deference to even apparently irrational such attitudes." Do you think there's anything to that notion?

Nussbaum: In one simple form, I accept that argument. I believe disgust had an evolutionary function, by giving emphasis and force to the sense of danger. Even if disgust doesn't perfectly track danger, it is close enough as a heuristic, when we have no time to perform the needed inquiry, or are unable to perform it. Even today, when we have many ways of finding out about danger, the sense of disgust is a useful heuristic. If the milk smells disgusting, it's a pretty good rule not to drink it. We can't all the time be testing our environment for bacteria, so staying away from what disgusts is good practice. But I think this shows nothing about the utility of the projective form of disgust, in which we deem certain groups of people disgusting and assimilate them to feces, corpses, and disgusting animals. That may be a ubiquitous human activity, but ubiquity doesn't prove value, especially not ethical and political value. The ubiquity of the male domination of women doesn't show that this domination is ethically or politically good.

Reason: You connect the designation of certain disfavored groups as "disgusting" with our need to distance ourselves from our own animality and mortality. To the extent that this is an ineradicable feature of the human condition, is the same likely to be true of the need for a "disgusting" Other?

Nussbaum: The fact that all societies seem to contain such forms of discrimination suggests, at least, that it will be difficult to eradicate it. But with the projective form of disgust social teaching plays a large role. We can and do teach children not to react with disgust to people who are different in race, or sex, or bodily ability. Or rather, we simply do not teach them this disgust in the first place, and then they don't have it.

Reason: Shame is rejected as a legal tool in your book because it targets "the whole person" and not merely bad acts. But isn't it also true of rehabilitation that it aims, not merely at particular criminal acts, but to remedy the broader dispositions and character traits that gave rise to them? Might it be proper for a thief or vandal to feel, not only guilt for the particular acts, but also shame at being the sort of person who lacks appropriate regard for others and their things?

Nussbaum: Like my great colleague, the prison reformer Norval Morris, who died a few months ago, I am skeptical about the kind of rehabilitation that aims to reform the whole person. I think Morris—and [philosopher Michel] Foucault—are right that this sort of reform is too intrusive, too limiting of human freedom. What prisons should do is to offer training and opportunities, and then leave it to people to choose to avail themselves of these. If they want to become different, that is up to them and their loved ones. As to whether it is proper for the criminal to feel shame as well as guilt, perhaps—if the criminal act was really the outgrowth of a blameworthy character trait. (This is certainly not always the case.) But I think it is proper to direct shame at oneself and not at others, because one's own character is one's own responsibility and not that of others. Mill was right: people should not be nosing into the characters of other people; they should limit themselves to acts that cause harm.

Reason: Just for my own curiosity: Is the book's title an oblique nod to Bernard Williams' Making Sense of Humanity?

Nussbaum: You know, you are on to something. Williams was my teacher and friend. I have been extremely sad since his death, and even before, when he was ill for several years. And of course his ideas about shame enter into the book, although we differed considerably about shame and its social role. Perhaps that difference, and the guilt it occasioned in me, led me to want to make reparation to him by paying tribute to him in this way, although I had not noticed it until now.

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