Repugnance, outrage, and other moral excuses

Michael Giberson

Bryan Caplan, in How Wise is Repugnance?,  questions Leon Kass’s argument that “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom.” (From Kass’s essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”)

Kass runs through a list of things that he thinks the reader will accept as obviously repugnant (incest, bestiality, mutilating corpses, cannibalism, and so on) and wants to use the reader’s reaction to establish the principle that repugnance is a good guide to morality.  For Kass it seems a short step to assert the cloning and cloning-like activities are also repugnant, and having concluded that repugnance is a good guide to morality, he offers that cloning must be immoral.

Caplan identifies a hedging statement made by Kass which, if considered at all, serves to unravel the Kass position: “Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though, one must add, not always for the better.”

Caplan writes:

It’s quite an admission.  Even if his last clause is dramatic understatement, Kass still acknowledges that calm acceptance of yesterday’s repugnances is sometimes for the better.  And on reflection, that list is very long: vaccination, girls, dissection, religious toleration, kissing, C-sections, inter-racial marriage, paying for parking, colonoscopies, amputation of gangrenous tissue (double yuck), sex, Indian food, male nurses…  Some of these continue to disgust me – I feel faint if I even look at a syringe.  Still, if I think I need a shot, I try to calm down and do what I think – not feel – is the right thing.

My point is not that repugnance is less than 100% reliable.  100% reliability is a silly standard.  My point is that repugnance is habitually unreliable.

The Kass rhetorical approach reminded me of Michael Sandel’s argument in the opening chapter of his book Justice.  Sandel wants to pick out particular emotional responses and privilege them as of moral significance, but he doesn’t explain why some emotional responses point to “a moral argument worth taking seriously” (in his example: outrage at price gougers), while other emotional responses don’t (like anger at a referee that missed a call during your child’s soccer match).

In effect, for Kass and for Sandel, they want to let emotions be a guide to morality.  Realizing, of course, that not every feeling of repugnance or outrage is worthy of moral endorsement, they are left with no more than a claim that at least their own emotions are reliable in this regard.

As I said earlier in a comment on Sandel’s point, “the list of things causing outrage is long and various: alphabetically – alcohol, bigamy, cannibalism, … , same sex marriage, taxation, usury, vivisection, X-rated movies, Yankee imperialists, and zone pricing. In each case I suspect a moral sentiment is involved, at least for the outraged persons, but we need not rush to the conclusion that society should affirm the associated (claim of) civic virtue.”


3 thoughts on “Repugnance, outrage, and other moral excuses

  1. Awesome post. I’d love to see your take on aesthetics as ethics. Example: It’s a given in food circles that some kinds (local/organic/heirloom/etc) of foods “just taste better.” But can this be generalized to society? Who gets to judge? Is aesthetic preference a good basis for moral action?

    Maybe it is. But I’ve rarely seen someone actually make that argument.

  2. Indeed, one of the things that mathematical models — or just clear thinking — are good for is finding logical contradictions between knee-jerk emotional reactions. Once you’ve proved that one goal is in conflict with another, people may still make their choices, but they must make their choices; “everything I feel is wrong should be abolished” just isn’t coherent.

  3. Excellent post.

    I have read (and believe) that repugnace may be an evolutionary adaptation. If this is true it does not ensure that repugnance is still useful, as our culture, society, knowledge, and human condition evolve far more rapidly than our genes.

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