Civil Liberties

Soundbite: Discussing Disgust


Many conservative scholars argue that shame and disgust should play central roles in public life. But in her new book Hiding From Humanity (Princeton University Press), Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that these sentiments tend to distort public discussion in highly illiberal ways. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez interviewed Nussbaum in April.

Q: What's wrong with appeals to disgust in public debate?

A: 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. Such irrational projections have been involved in anti-Semitism, misogyny, traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, and discrimination against homosexuals.

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 nonharmful conduct. Recently [University of Chicago bioethicist] Leon Kass has argued that our disgust at the thought of cloning is a good reason to make that practice illegal. Anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in law and public policy.

Q: Can a religious believer accept the argument that rejection of our "animality" is irrational?

A: The major religious 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. Judaism, my own religion, has never been anti-body; nor, to my knowledge, has Islam. Hinduism has traditionally held a very positive attitude about sexuality and the body. Buddhism does appear to teach a detachment from the things of this world, but at the same time it emphasizes an active compassion for this-worldly suffering. I think that in every doctrine where tendencies to asceticism occur, one can also point to other features that would enable it to accept my views.

Q: What about the role of shame in criminal rehabilitation?

A: I think the late prison reformer Norval Morris—and [philosopher Michel] Foucault—are right that rehabilitation that aims to reform the whole person is too intrusive. 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.